Thursday, July 31, 2008

Spot the Praxis!

Pursuant to the post below, start with this definition:

a praxis [is] a decision that exceeds simple conscience or simple theoretical understanding
keeping in mind

it is also true that the same concept requires a decision or responsible action to answer for itself consciously, that is, with knowledge of a thematics of what is done, of what action signifies, its causes, ends, etc.
Now, the question: which of the following is a praxis, i.e., not just a "simple theoretical understanding":

'Churches that are divided and fearful and inward-looking don't easily give that message [that the Church is a gift]; and our Anglican family badly needs to find some ways of resolving its internal tensions that will set it free to be more confidently what GOD wants it to be. ....We'll be praying, then, that GOD will help us sort out some of our tensions as we listen to this good news – so that we can go on saying it with joy and conviction to the world around.'
Bishop David also has an interesting analysis of how many Anglicans the 650 bishops at Lambeth actually represent. About 44 million, he figures, of which nearly 40 million are Global South Anglicans represented equally at Gafcon.

C) The ordination of Bishop Eugene Robinson.

You have one hour. Answer in complete sentences.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Bouncing Ball

Following this, to this, to this, led me back to this.

Now I'll try to explain myself.

Start with the fact that Nigeria is not in such great shape to begin with:

Oil fouls everything in southern Nigeria. It spills from the pipelines, poisoning soil and water. It stains the hands of politicians and generals, who siphon off its profits. It taints the ambitions of the young, who will try anything to scoop up a share of the liquid riches—fire a gun, sabotage a pipeline, kidnap a foreigner.

Nigeria had all the makings of an uplifting tale: poor African nation blessed with enormous sudden wealth. Visions of prosperity rose with the same force as the oil that first gushed from the Niger Delta's marshy ground in 1956. The world market craved delta crude, a "sweet," low-sulfur liquid called Bonny Light, easily refined into gasoline and diesel. By the mid-1970s, Nigeria had joined OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), and the government's budget bulged with petrodollars.

Everything looked possible—but everything went wrong.

Dense, garbage-heaped slums stretch for miles. Choking black smoke from an open-air slaughterhouse rolls over housetops. Streets are cratered with potholes and ruts. Vicious gangs roam school grounds. Peddlers and beggars rush up to vehicles stalled in gas lines. This is Port Harcourt, Nigeria's oil hub, capital of Rivers state, smack-dab in the middle of oil reserves bigger than the United States' and Mexico's combined. Port Harcourt should gleam; instead, it rots.
And what is ++Akinola concerned with? Homosexuals:

Mac-Iyalla, whose offence has been to try and organise a movement for gay Christians in Nigeria, has been regularly smeared and denigrated by the church authorities there and has been threatened and physically assaulted sufficiently often for him to seek sanctuary, first in nearby Togo and now here. The fact that the immigration authorities in Britain believe his story sufficient to give him protection and allow him to stay ought to suggest to the Archbishop of Canterbury and his colleagues that all is not necessarily sweetness and light in the Nigerian Church, whose bishops are boycotting their conference because of their opposition to mingling with "apostate" gay-friendly bishops.
It calls to mind the lesson learned by Candide: "We must all tend our own gardens." Yet Akinola clearly cannot tend his garden, because he can't sleep at night for thinking about homosexuals walking 'round on God's good earth, and, worse yet!, being treated as equals in his church. Well, that much is painfully obvious, isn't it?

The Archishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, preached at St Dunstan's in Canterbury this morning. He said: 'Churches that are divided and fearful and inward-looking don't easily give that message [that the Church is a gift]; and our Anglican family badly needs to find some ways of resolving its internal tensions that will set it free to be more confidently what GOD wants it to be. ....We'll be praying, then, that GOD will help us sort out some of our tensions as we listen to this good news – so that we can go on saying it with joy and conviction to the world around.'
Sorry to be so unkind, but it's funny, isn't it, how often we can't solve a really tough problem we have created, and so we just toss it up in the air and yell at God: "Catch! Hah, you touched it last! Now it's your problem! Solution, please!!!!" And we extend our hand, palm open, fingers flicking, a la Stephen Colbert. And these "internal tensions" are all about that "law" that we so much admire, so much despise, depending always on whose ox is being gored. Law is always more important to us than love, because law keeps us in control, sets boundaries, allows us to choose our enemies. Love is unfocussed, undetermined, forces us to care equally about everyone, but then how do we get along in the world, according to the world's boundaries and preferences? I have no doubt homosexuality is not widely accepted in Nigeria. How dare the Americans accept it, then!

The latest rumours here are that the third and final observations document of the Windsor Continuation Group, to be published tomorrow, Monday, will take a strictly Dar es Salaam line on the issues facing the Communion. So TEC is to be told: 'Fall into line, or else...' Boundary crossing will also be condemned. The formula that will be embraced is that promoted by the likes of Fulcrum and the Bishop of Durham Dr Tom Wright. This is from the Bishop of Durham Dr Tom Wright's mid-term letter to his flock back home: '..this is the first time for nearly a year that I have had more than seven consecutive nights in the same bed, so I am glad of some stability at least!'
Stability, you know, is all; especially when "the peace of God, it is no peace/but strife sown in the sod." Better to seek humankind's peace, then, or at least to impose it, so we can get some stability back. The Son of Man may have had no hole or den or place to lay his head, but the rest of us need seven consecutive nights in the same bed if we're going to get anything done!

You're thinking by now this has descended into snide and obvious observations on a vexed situation which I have turned my professional and ordained back on, so why am I here but to rub salt into wounds? No, I'm not interested in that. This isn't "Pick on the Anglicans Day" at Adventus. I offer no privileged perch from which to carp at others. There is truly a problem here, and it isn't just the problem of power, of institutions and their needs, even of what kind of ecclesiology we are going to uphold. After all, one of the more awkward paradoxes of Christianity is that while we see it, especially after the Reformation, as almost unalterably focussed on the individual, the Anglican Communion especially shows us that all worship is a corporate, and a communal, matter. We do not come to God alone, as existential units, and we do not seek God's presence so we can be alone. But then this brings us to the heart of the matter: if our faith and our belief calls us into communion, if the very basis of our worship is to be together as fellow servants, how do we do that? The simple answer is: we put God at the center, not ourselves. But that only brings us to the deeper problem, which is the one I've been trying to get us to:

In the final analysis [of Christian mystery], the soul is not a relation to an object, however noble (like the Platonic Good) [which implies, therefore, "such as in Platonism where it is the relation to a transcendent Good that also governs the ideal order of the Greek polis of the Roman civitas"], but rather to a Person who sees into the soul without being accessible to view. What a Person is, that really is not adequately thematized in the Christian perspective.
The Person we have not adequately thematized is not merely the homosexual, or Mac-Iyalla; nor is it simply decided by settling on whose image of God is reflected by the greatest number of people:

Bishop David also has an interesting analysis of how many Anglicans the 650 bishops at Lambeth actually represent. About 44 million, he figures, of which nearly 40 million are Global South Anglicans represented equally at Gafcon.
It is settled, not by considering any of these human things, but by considering the most personal and at once most corporate question of all: just how do we understand this "Person who sees into the soul without being accessible to view"? Because until we answer that question, all the rest is bafflegab and foofawrah. And the very fact that we can't answer it is why we either insist we know what the answer is, or toss the whole thing in the air while shouting "Catch! You're it!" at the clouds. Which, of course, brings us directly to this:

The inadequacy of this thematization comes to rest on the threshold of responsibility. It doesn't thematize what a responsible person is, that is, what it must be, namely this exposing of the soul to the gaze of another person, of a person as transcendent other, as an other who looks at me, but who looks without the-subject-who-says-I being able to reach that other, see her, hold her within the reach of my gaze. And let us not forget that in inadequate thematization of what responsibility is or must be is also an irresponsible thematization: not knowing, having neither sufficient knowledge or consciousness of what being responsible mean, is of itself a lack of responsibility. In order to be responsible it is necessary to respond to or answer to what being responsible means. For it if is true that the concept of responsibility has, throughout a history that is as consistent as it is continuous, always implied involvement in action, doing, a praxis, a decision that exceeds simple conscience or simple theoretical understanding, it is also true that the same concept requires a decision or responsible action to answer for itself consciously, that is, with knowledge of a thematics of what is done, of what action signifies, its causes, ends, etc. In debates concerning responsibiliy one must always take into account this original and irreducible complexity that links theoretical consciousness (which must also be a thetic or thematic consciousness) to 'practical' conscience (ethical, legal, political), if only to avoid the arrogance of so many 'clean consciences.' We must continually remind ourselves that some part of irresponsibility insinuates itself wherever one demands responsibility without sufficiently conceptualizing and thematically thinking what 'responsibility' means; that is to say everywhere.
++Akinola is not responsible for conditions in Nigeria, and everything will be just ducky if he can just rid the world, and his country, of the scourge of homosexuality. ++Williams is not responsible for conditions in the Communion, and everything will be just ducky if he can just rid the TEC of the scourge of ordained homosexual bishops and leave all the rest up to God. God is not responsible, because God is the Person who sees into the soul without being accesible to view, which turns all the responsibility back on us; and we certainly don't want that! How's a person to get seven consecutive nights of sleep in his own bed if these are the conditions that prevail?!

In order to be responsible it is necessary to respond to or answer to what being responsible means. For it if is true that the concept of responsibility has, throughout a history that is as consistent as it is continuous, always implied involvement in action, doing, a praxis, a decision that exceeds simple conscience or simple theoretical understanding, it is also true that the same concept requires a decision or responsible action to answer for itself consciously, that is, with knowledge of a thematics of what is done, of what action signifies, its causes, ends, etc.
A sentence worthy of Proust (Help me! I'm starting to think like a Frenchman!) A praxis, a doing "that exceeds simple conscience or simple theoretical understanding." Derrida is talking in the context of the akedeh, the binding of Isaac atop Moria, the raising of the knife, the beginning of the awful descent of the blade; and of Johannes de Silentio's reaction, and analysis, and consideration, of that seminal story. Simple theoretical understandings won't work on these fundamental issues who "Who is the church?" and "Who is in charge of the church?" Something more fundamental must be called into examination. Something as fundamental as the observation that: "What a Person is, that really is not adequately thematized in the Christian perspective." And here it's "Person" in both senses of the word: as a substitute for a reference to God; and as a reference to the Son of Man, as Jesus originally used it: the human one. People. Us. Individuals. You know, the ones who make up groups, communities, churches, communions, corporate bodies, societies. What is the "theme" of "Person" in a Christian perspective? Obviously it is very different for Akinola than it is for Mac-Iyalla, or Rowan Williams. So that's where we need to start: in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Now, then.....

Monday, July 28, 2008

Thoughts on a Sunday morning

Idle scratchings, really; not quite the sermon it should be.

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?"

He answered, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions."

Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."

Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, "Stand up in front of everyone."

Then Jesus asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent.

He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

Mark 2:23-3:6

Is there a danger in taking the gospels as history, instead of as polemics? If we have to settle for one of those two extremes, then the gospels are clearly polemics. The word sounds harsh, but the gospels are not meant as objective accounts. They weren't written for us. They weren't put down imagining we would still be reading them 2000 years later, in a culture as alien to that of 1st century Palestine as ours is to theirs.

So we read Mark, or listen to it, and we imagine the evil of the Pharisees, the narrow-mindedness. What we don't do is imagine ourselves as the Pharisees. The polemic makes it clear: they are bad, and we are good. But history makes one thing clear, one thing that polemics obscure: we've been through this before. And one more thing: people like us were the problem then, and we are the problem now.

HIstory, you see, is humbling. Polemic is self-justifying. Polemic is an assault, a defense, and argument and you can't make an argument without talking, without opening your mouth. And we all know, when your mouth is working, you ears aren't. "Those who have ears had better listen!," is a favorite phrase of Jesus: History bids you listen; and when you listen to history, you hear something about yourself.

Are the Pharisees, after all, so wrong? If someone came to your church on "Communion Sunday" and, during the communion, took two or three cups from the tray as it went down the pew, or grabbed the chalice and took a big swig, or grabbed a handful of bread from the loaf, and proceeded to make a meal of it, to smack loudly and contentedly and generally show no reverence for it all, would you look kindly on them? If they were a stranger, you might politely look away. But if they were a member, someone who has come to your church for 20 years, someone who should know better? If they were a Sunday school teacher? A visiting pastor? Would you not at least go home and talk among yourselves and say: "Did you see what he did? Did you see that?"

We like to say the Pharisees had "degenerated" into legalism and boundary setting. It's a dangerous view, because the modern rabbis we may at least respect, are descendants of the Pharisees. Our view of the Pharisees is polemical, as is our view of Jews. Before the Holocaust, Jews were little regarded; after the Holocaust, we see the Jews very differently. But both are polemical views, not historical ones. Which is not a criticism of Jews but, you see, our view now is polemical. We aren't objective; we are influenced either before by "Christ killers," or now by "Never forget!" And both have their tilt, their distortions. So, too, we condemn the Pharisees; because of the polemic of the gospels. What we don't see in these stories, is that we are Pharisees ourselves. We prefer law over love, letter over spirit. We don't want to work on our hears, we usually prefer to work on our boundaries. Love, you see, is without limit. Law sets limits; and we like that. Law cuts off our obligations, ends our responsibility, puts us in power over others. Love creates obligation, extends our duties almost infinitely, and makes us powerless before others. That, at least, is how it appears; that love ultimately makes us powerless. And so we shy from love, and turn to law. Then we write our own polemic, our own arguments, and keeping our mouths busy we keep our ears closed. We don't hear Jesus say: Love the Lord your God with all your hear, and all your mind, and all your soul. And love your neighbor as yourself." We don't hear the call to actively love. We don't open our hearts, we open our mouths. We distance ourselves from the Pharisees, so we don't have to see how much like them we are, how easily we take the easy way we condemn them for taking. How much easier is it to say "Thou shalt not!" than to ask "for whom was the Sabbath made?" We argue that their laws are bad, while ours are good, are reasonable, are necessary.

After all, if your church only has communion one Sunday a month, then that for you, is the law. Others may celebrate a eucharist every Sunday, but that is not for you. That is what sets you apart, makes you different, makes you...right, doesn't it? And the Pharisees were set apart, were different, were right, because they followed rules they had divined as most important, because they had laws they were sure made them right. And we are not like them because....? But those laws make us who we are. They tell us how to behave in worship, how to conduct ourselves. Laws are good. They make us who we are. We know how to worship, too. That's a law. It makes us who we are. Laws are good. We need them. But we are just like the Pharisees. We always need to consider that the law is good for, and when it is good for us, and not for them, then we have stopped worshipping God and loving God and neighbor; and we have started worshipping the law. That, says the polemic of the gospels, is the sin of the Pharisees. And it's true: it is a sin; but it is just as easily our sin, as it is the sin of the Pharisees.

And we have to remember the lesson of Paul, that great Pharisee by his own admission: that the letter of the law kills, but the spirit of the law brings life. So law is good: as long as we worship God, and not the law.

Friday, July 25, 2008

This War's for You

Josh Marshall says:

We need to re-familiarize ourselves with the fact that the point of the constitution's explicitly giving the president the title of commander-in-chief was not to make him into a quasi-military figure. It was precisely the opposite -- to create no doubt that the armed forces answered not to a chief of staff or senior general or even a Secretary of Defense (originally, Secretaries of War and Navy) but to a civilian elected officeholder who operates with the constrained and limited power of that world rather than the unbound authority of military command.

We've gotten the relationship seriously out of whack.
It's not just the Presidency: it's the creeping militarization of American society.

The past, as Faulkner is supposed to have said, isn't over; it isn't even past. We're still living in the aftermath of World War II, which gave us "The Greatest Generation" as well as the concept of a 'Good War' (a concept that astounded my uncle, a WWII veteran). From watching Ken Burns' documentary on that war, I think most of the veterans of it would agree with my uncle. From watching a few of the films made about the war (not the John Wayne-wins-the-war-single-handedly war films, but "From Here to Eternity" and "The Best Years of Our Lives"), I see that veterans didn't come home from that war to ticker tape parades and cheering hometown crowds and employers anxious to return the soldiers to jobs of prominence and importance (the best part about "The Best Years of Our Lives" is watching the characters try to reintegrate into society, the way soldiers have done since time immemorial).

The CW about Vietnam, of course, is that all Vietnam veterans came home in 1975, were spat upon as "baby killers," and ended up as drug addled psycopaths because of the horrors of that "illegal war" and because nobody stood up in an airport and applauded them as they deplaned. Which is what this ad goes for: a little balancing of the scales that were never that unbalanced in the first place.

This is dangerous and stupid revisionist history of the worst kind. Prior to WWII, we had a very small standing army. As I've mentioned before, FDR built the Pentagon as an archive building, not a permanent military headquarters. He didn't figure the country would need a military HQ after the war. Slowly but surely, we've accepted the militarization of American society, and the idea that without the military, our society would collapse. Nobody stares slack jawed with incredulity when Jack Nicholson tells Tom Cruise that he stands on a wall with a gun to protect people like Cruise from bad guys with guns. That part we accept; it's the "You can't handle the truth!" that we find amazing. To a prior generation of Americans, Nicholson's assertion about the wall and the bad guys would be considered as paranoid as the ravings of Gen. Jack D. Ripper's comments about "precious bodily fluids" and our "purity of essence." Funny to reflect those two films are only 28 years apart.

But it's the myth that compels us. We all know the famous picture from VJ day, and there were celebrations in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles on VE day. But many soldiers and sailors were still overseas at that time, and when they came home, they came home quietly, anonymously. They disembarked from troop ships and took trains and buses and went from being citizen-soldiers back to being citizens. Their sacrifice was appreciated, but they weren't lauded, one and all, as the saviors of our nation, as the reason for our freedom.

The other myth, of course, is that Vietnam soldiers came home to curses and spit and revulsion. Well, there were certainly no victory parades for them, but then, there was no "Victory in Vietnam" day, either. No more than there was for the Korean War, which has never officially ended. But as for the spitting stories, the best evidence is that the stories are merely urban legend. In fact, see if this doesn't sound like the scenario behind that Budweiser commercial:

The story told by the man who spat on Jane Fonda at a book signing in Kansas City recently is typical. Michael Smith said he came back through Los Angeles airport where ''people were lined up to spit on us."

Like many stories of the spat-upon veteran genre, Smith's lacks credulity. GIs landed at military airbases, not civilian airports, and protesters could not have gotten onto the bases and anywhere near deplaning troops. There may have been exceptions, of course, but in those cases how would protesters have known in advance that a plane was being diverted to a civilian site? And even then, returnees would have been immediately bused to nearby military installations and processed for reassignment or discharge.
I added the emphasis there to underline the point: at what civilian airport have you ever seen a large number of troops deplaning, complete with uniforms and gear? This isn't a realistic scenario at all: it's a post-Vietnam urban legend scenario, a "Rambo" film in which we win because we are the better people.

Which is what really bugs me about this ad: it's a lie, based on a series of lies, and its real purpose is not only to sell beer, but to sell militarism, to make us accept the military in our everyday lives, and as a necessary component of our national existence. The citizen-soldiers of World War II were ordinary people defending their homes and their communities and their country. The soldier we are being asked to lionize now is a mercenary who fights so we don't have to: so we can sit around airports chatting amiably and maybe buy a beer and be glad somebody is off fighting foreigners so we don't have to think of them as anything but the enemy we can get somebody to keep at bay.

Which brings us back to Josh's observation: the President is being seen, more and more, as a quasi-military figure, which means he is our "protector". In order to establish his bona fides, Barack Obama is promising at least 2 more brigades will be sent into Afghanistan (about 10,000 soldiers, for anyone as non-military as I am). Weren't we told, for awhile at least, that all of our soldiers were exhausted? Where are these 10,000 coming from? Beer commercials?

Feh. This Bud may be for you, but I don't want anything to do with it. Give Caesar what is Caesar's, and I'll give God what is God's.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Rough Draft

I had to write this for purely professional reasons, but I saw no reason not to drop it here. Call it, for want of a better term, a:

Statement on Ministry

“He sat down and called the twelve and says to them, ‘If anyone wants to be ‘number one,’ that person has to be last of all and servant of all.’ ” Last of all and servant of all—an excellent place to start, so long as everyone understands they start there, too. Start there by yourself, and you start as the doormat to everyone else. This is the paradox of ministry; but ministry is service, or it is nothing at all.

I’m fond of quoting a philosopher, a Frenchman, on the subject of religion: “Religion,” he wrote, “is responsibility, or it is nothing at all.” Dreadfully weighty and dour way to put it, don’t you think? Or maybe not. Maybe responsibility isn’t a terrible thing; maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe responsibility isn’t a matter of burdens and duties; maybe responsibility is about where you are needed, and what you can do. Does your family need you? Do your friends? Does your church need you? Aren’t those responsibilities? Yet do you want to give up family, friends, church, just to avoid responsibility? No, surely you don’t. So one way to look at it is not that religion is some extra burden, some imposed duty: religion is simply life. Everything about your life is entwined with responsibilities: to your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, your employers, your co-workers, your neighbors, the other people in the pews, the people on the street, in the stores, on the highways. Isn’t religion a part of that, too? Shouldn’t it be?

So there’s a statement on ministry: ministry is life. Well, perhaps it isn’t all of your life, but it’s certainly as much a part of your life as anything else you do regularly, anything else you choose to include in your life. You decide what jobs you will do, what friends you will have, even whether or not you’ll go to church. Each choice is a responsibility, and each choice creates more responsibilities. Are any of those apart from your religion, from your belief in God? Can you go where God is not? “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?/If I ascend up into heaven, thou art here; if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.” The psalmist certainly didn’t think so. So religion is like responsibility is like God: it is everywhere you are. It is in every part of your life. What could you do to separate yourself from it? And why would you want to?

Can this statement on be ministry be reduced to a few words? Yes; it is responsibility; responsibility and everyday life. Ministry is responsibility, everyday life is responsibility, religion is responsibility. They are woven together like strands of a rope. Ministry is about teaching and seeing that responsibility in everything you do in life. “Pray without ceasing,” Paul tells us. That’s a responsibility; it’s also an act of religion; it’s also perfectly easily a part of everyday life. Ministry is about caring for others, about being least of all and servant of all. But that’s a responsibility, and you can’t be responsible and be a doormat. So ministry is not so much about serving, as it is about making you recognize your service, your responsibility: as a Christian; as a spouse; as a friend; as a member of the body of Christ. And everyday life is all about responsibility; but that means every day of your life, every moment, is suffused and surrounded and upheld and shot through with the glory of the presence of God. Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of all who speak of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me. What could be more wonderfully responsible than that? Or more of a ministry?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Undeliverable Gift

This rant raises some interesting questions about "gifts."

The issue at hand is a proposal by Stuart Taylor in Newsweek to "pardon" all those who committed torture under the guidance and legal assurances of the Office of Legal Counsel. The idea, ostensibly, is to establish a "Truth Commission" (Mr. Taylor carefully elides any reference to "& Reconciliation," presumably because that would be too akin to "accountability"). But this commission would be established by the next President, under Mr. Taylor's proposal, after the current President issues a blanket pardon to all those people who did what this President has said was not done.

Anybody see a problem with this yet?

Now, of course, that would utterly defeat the purpose of any "Truth Commission," because the "stick" of the T&R Commissions in South Africa was that the carrot of amnesty was offered ONLY after full and truthful testimony about crimes committed. In other words, confess your crime, and we will give you amnesty. Lie to us, and you go to jail. Mr. Taylor would obviate all that messy "accountability," and just urge pardons all around, passed out like lollipops to persons unknown. There are more than a few legal problems with this scheme, even if a legally illiterate President like George W. Bush wanted to put it into effect.

First, who committed the torture we don't admit was ever committed, oh, except for a few cases of waterboarding we now admit were committed? You see, a pardon is not a public act, a blanket "amnesty" issued to all and sundry, persons known or unknown, named or unnamed. According to Burdick v. United States:

"A pardon is an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws, which exempts the individual on whom it is bestowed from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed. It is the private [italics ours], though official, act of the executive magistrate, delivered to the individual for whose benefit it is intended."
The court there is quoting, with approval, an earlier ruling on the nature of Presidential pardons; the emphasis on "the individual" is mine.

Now do you see the problem? Without a specific individual to whom a pardon can be delivered, there is no pardon. What Taylor is calling for here are blanket pardons, something the President cannot grant. George W. Bush would have to name each CIA agent, each military officer or soldier, each Administration official, involved in any way in acts of torture, and grant to each of them, individually, a pardon. Which means he would have to admit torture was committed, and by persons in his Administration, all the way down to Lynndie England. And then they would have to accept it. Moreover, under Burdick, they would have to present it in court as a defense against charges of torture. That's the ruling in Burdick, and it is still the law today.

But wait, there's more! Burdick also establishes the principal that acceptance of a pardon is acceptance of guilt. You cannot be pardoned for not committing a crime.

Indeed, the grace of a pardon, though good its intention, may be only in pretense or seeming; in pretense, as having purpose not moving from the individual to whom it is offered; in seeming, as involving consequences of even greater disgrace than those from which it purports to relieve. Circumstances may be made to bring innocence under the penalties of the law. If so brought, escape by confession of guilt implied in the acceptance of a pardon may be rejected, preferring to be the victim of the law rather than its acknowledged transgressor, preferring death even to such certain infamy. This, at least theoretically, is a right, and a right is often best tested in its extreme.
Now, granted, that is not a legal ruling, and it rests on concepts of honor and shame which have been completely eviscerated in public life in these last 8 years, but the basic premise is still sound: accept the pardon, and you are accepting that your acts were criminal. This, too, is contrary to Mr. Taylor's intent:

President George W. Bush ought to pardon any official from cabinet secretary on down who might plausibly face prosecution for interrogation methods approved by administration lawyers.
That "approved by administration lawyers" phrase is what Mr. Taylor imagines is a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. He repeats it more than once, in variations:

The goals should not include wrecking the lives of men and women who made grievous mistakes while doing dirty work—work they had been advised by administration lawyers was legal, and which they believed was necessary to prevent terrorist mass murder.
Pardons would not be favors to criminals. One can argue that officials could have or should have resigned rather than implement questionable legal judgments, but there is no evidence that any high-level official acted with criminal intent.
The officials involved appear to have approved only interrogation methods found legal by administration lawyers, and in particular by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). According to long tradition, the OLC is considered a sort of Supreme Court of the executive branch.
None of which matters a wet snap in a court of law: if you accept a pardon, you are not proving your innocence. You are accepting the fact that you committed a crime, and that while you are guilty, you don't have to face the consequences doled out by the American justice system.

Derrida argues that a gift, to truly be a gift, must be given without knowledge of the giving, or the receiving. Mr. Taylor and Sadly, No, assume pardons work just that way; happily, they don't. Pardons cannot be given in ignorance by the donor, nor received in ignorance by the recipient. As the Court said, a pardon is a "private" act which must be acknowledged publicly, and that acknowledgment means you know you are guilty, and you don't want to face trial. Sadly, No is convinced Mr. Taylor's plan, at least in part, will be implemented. Happily, no, it can't be. Bush cannot issue a blanket pardon, and he won't issue individual pardons because to do so would be to admit that this Administration ignored the clear prohibitions on torture that exist in law in this country, and ran roughshod over our system of government. Besides, there are too many "little people" to pardon. He can't be bothered with such things.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Struggling for good thoughts

What a Person is, that really is not adequately thematized in the Christian perspective.
Kathleen Norris would argue that this is because the Church moved away from the insights of the desert monks. She points out, for example, that they weren't that interested in "sin," but their "eight bad thoughts" devolved into the "seven deadly sins." And, not surprisingly, there is an institutional reason for the change:

...monks such as Evagrius were free of the heavy baggage of Western Christendom's concept of sin. What the Church later defined as sin, desert monks termed 'bad thought,' which to my mind is a much more helpful designation. Given the history of the Church's emphasis on sins of the flesh, contemporary readers may find it odd that the early monks regarded lust as one of the lesser temptations. They identified it as a form of greed, the desire to possess and use another person inappropriately in the pursuit of one's own satisfaction. Anger, pride, and acedia were considered the worst of the "thoughts," with acedia the most harmful of all, for it could inflict a complete loss of hop and capacity for trust in God.

As the "eight bad thoughts" of the desert monks eventually became the Church's "seven deadly sins," acedia was dropped from the list, and the monks' profound understanding of the common temptations that all people suffer lost ground to a concept of sin as an individual's commission of a bad act or commission of a good one. This in turn led to a superficial form of self-justification, for instance: If I don't overeat, then I'm not guilty of gluttony, if don't commit adultery, I am free of lust. The new emphasis on acts also contributed to the Church's power; it alone could identify the acts that it alone had the power to absolve. The monks' subtle comprehension of temptation as thoughts that the individual may identify and resist before they turn into harmful actions was largely submerged. (pp. 29-30)
Why was acedia so important?

Monastic people have always known acedia to be a particularly vile temptation that can inflict great damage on the psyche. Mary Margaret Funk, a contemporary Benedictine, writes that "dejection and anger afflict the mind; food, things, and sex burden the body; but acedia is lodged in the very soul." In the fourth century Evagrius marked acedia as one of the spiritual afflictions, far more deadly than the more physical temptations such as gluttony or lust, or the melancholy arising from depression or anger. Acedia, he insisted, is something more, a weariness of sould that "instills the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, [and] a hatred for manual labor," which in the early monastic world was always linked with prayer.

We may not think of prayer or manual labor as essential for our well-being, but "hatred for the place" is a thoroughly modern condition.
Part of the issue here is that: if the Person were adequately thematized, what role, then, would the institutional Church play? Patocka speaks of a God who is in relation to the person, "but...a Person who sees into the soul without being accessible to view." It is language that would resonate with the Romanticism of the melancholy Dane:

The human self is such a derived, established relation, a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another. This is why there can be two forms of despair in the strict sense. If a human self had itself established itself, then there could only be one form: not to will to be oneself, to will to do away with oneself, but there could not be the form: in despair to will to be oneself.

The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be oneself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.
Romanticism taught us to reconsider the self, to see the person as an individual, someone valuable simply in themselves, simply as a being. That assumption is behind the "person" in Patocka's term or the "power" in Anti-Climacus' term. We have to be careful not to commit anachronism to say that this is also what the desert monks understood, and that the "Person" or the "power" is what they were seeking, what they were struggling to know as clearly and as directly as possible. But if they were, then they understood what got in the way, and they understood the struggles it took to overcome those self-inflicted obstacles. And even if they weren't, they still bring us back to this question: what is the Person? How do we properly understand that term? If we move away from the "either/or" of sin, where do we go? Into sin? Or into the mystic, as Van Morrison said? Are we better off struggling with "bad thoughts," than with cosmic evil?

Do you care what it means...?

I set aside my theologist's cap a moment, to don my regionalist's cap. David Kurtz asks;
What is it with the Gulf of Mexico?
So I will answer.

The Gulf Coast is America's back 40. It's the ghetto, the slum, the sewer outfall. Nobody really knows what's going on down there, or cares, so all kinds of stories can be made up about it, and who's gonna argue?

First it was Chinese drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Off the coast of California, or the East Coast, or even Alaska? Off the Atlantic coast of Florida? Ridiculous! But off the Gulf Coast of Florida, manned by Cubans! Of course! They're bound to be there! Why, who in America pays attention to the Gulf Coast?

Hurricane Katrina caused no oil spills? Sure, why not? Except:

Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters unleashed 1 million gallons of oil from one of the massive storage tanks at Murphy Oil's nearby refinery. The spill spread over 1 square mile and stained 1,700 homes, making it one of the largest environmental spills to occur in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

But it was far from the only one.

A Houston Chronicle review of data from the National Response Center shows that the two storms caused at least 595 spills, incidents that released untold amounts of oil, natural gas and other chemicals into the air, onto land and into the water.

The quantity and cumulative magnitude of the 595 spills, which were spread across four states and struck offshore and inland, rank these two hurricanes among the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. Some have even compared the total amount of oil released — estimated at 9 million gallons — to the tragedy of Exxon Valdez.

More than 500 specialists are working to clean up 44 oil spills ranging from several hundred gallons to nearly 4 million gallons, the U.S. Coast Guard said in an assessment that goes far beyond initial reports of just two significant spills.


The Coast Guard estimates more than 7 million gallons of oil were spilled from industrial plants, storage depots and other facilities around southeast Louisiana.

MMS Gulf of Mexico Regional Director Chris Oynes noted that “Today’s assessment of damage updates the assessment MMS released on January 19, 2006. Based on additional industry assessments, investigations, and reports, the number of pipelines damaged has risen to 457 from 183. The number of larger diameter pipelines (10 inches or greater) that were damaged has risen to 101 from 64. Thirty-two have returned to service versus the previous number of 22.” Table 1 and Table 2 list the major pipelines that were damaged.
Hell, we don't even care how Mississippi is doing. Quick, name how much reconstruction has gone on in Mississippi since Katrina. Answer: $600 million went to Gulfport. Them that's got shall get. Hurricane Katrina only hit New Orleans, after all (hint: no, it didn't. Not at all, actually.). Again, why not? It's not like it was the coast of California, or the East Coast, or even Alaska. Who cares about the Gulf Coast?

Kurtz, noted this earlier: John McCain, John Breaux, Trent Lott, all repeating the same lie. What are they thinking, he asks? They're thinking it's the Gulf Coast, America's sewer outfall. They're thinking its the "Deep South," and nobody really cares what goes on down there.

And I'm thinking they're right. The Gulf Coast is the dark underbelly of flyover country. Say what you want about it, because nobody's gonna check up on you. We eat the fish and shrimp from it, burn the oil and gas from it, buy the products from the refineries along it, and no one protests drilling in it, so why should we pay attention to it?

The other answer, of course, is lazy reporters: two of those links are to news outlets, but that "news" is now 2 years old or better. It's old! Why, you can't expect interviewers to know things like that, can you?

I'll retire to Bedlam....

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Acedia & Me

Funny (you should pardon the pun) this should come up:

"The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market," Buckley told me, "is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it's so repetitious. It's like sex."
Funny only because of the synchronicity, because last night I started Kathleen Norris' next book, Acedia and Me. It is a true return to form for her, and a concept that should be familiar to anyone who knows her autobiographical work.

She spends a fair amount of time in the beginning of the book trying to explain what "acedia" is; how it is distinguishable from laziness or ennui or depression; how it is has gone in and out of fashion (it was considered "obsolete" as a word in the 1933 OED, then came back in the 1972 and 1986 supplements); things like that. Perhaps the best way to explain it, is this story from Evagrius Pontikus in the 4th century:

The demon of acedia--also called the noonday demon--is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour [or lunchtime], to look this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren apppears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life's necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind's eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon teh heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.
Acedia, as Norris explains, drains the joy out of living, out of life that God means for us to enjoy; it drains that joy away, and we have no one but ourselves to blame for that loss, yet that is precisely why acedia is so hard to combat: because we are fighting ourselves. And where am I going with this? Where Norris goes, in stories from her own life: the concept, the reality, the tedium of the quotidian, which is one source of acedia: repetition.

I was a bratty kid who didn't want to make her bed.

"Why bother?" I would ask my mother in a witheringly superior tone. "I'll just have to unmake it again at night." To me, the act was stupid repetition; to my mother, it was a meaningful expression of hospitality to oneself, and a humble acknowledgment of our creaturly need to make and remake our daily environments.....

One of the first symptoms of both acedia and depression is the inability to address the body's basic, daily needs. It is also a refusal of repetition. Showering, shampooing, brushing the teeth, takine a multivitamin, going for a daily walk, as unremarkable as they seem are acts of self-respect. But the notion of pleasure is alien to acedia, and one becomes weary thinking about doing anything at all. It is too much to ask, one decides, sinking back on the sofa. This indolence exacts a high price. (pp. 13-14)
One more quote, then:

Repetition is at the heart of monastic life, which is one reason my attraction to it seemed odd at first. Morning, noon, and evening, monks return to church to pray the psalms. When they have gone through the entire cycle of one hundred fifty psalms, a process that takes three or four weeks, they begin again, day after day, year after year. In a similar way, a community reads through major portions of the Bible. Every Advent, on hears Isaiah, and during Easter, the Acts of the Apostles and Revelation. And elderly monk, disparaging the romantic image of monastic life, once said to me, "People don't realize how much of it is just plain tedium."

But it is tedium with a purpose. To support themselves, the first Christian monks spent their days weaving palm branches into baskets and ropes they could sell. And as they worked, they prayed....[T]he monks...regarded this repetitive work and prayer as their way to God, hoping that over time the "straw" of mundane tasks could become the "gold" of ceaseless prayer." (p. 18)
Repetition: it is essential to daily life, but it is so tedious and the world offers us so many diversions, so many ways to "pass the time" and "spend" the hours until, to wander into Wordsworth's fuzzy pantheism, "so little we see in nature that is ours."

None of which has anything to do with the prattling nonsense of Buckley and Kristol. Such talk of entitlement is anathema to Christianity (though you'd seldom know that, to hear Catholics like Buckley, or Protestants like James Dobson, talk). But the use of the word, in that context, just struck me as more than coincidental. And acedia is something I've been wrestling with for many years now. I thought I was trying to embrace the tedium of repetition, the security of the humdrum (there is nothing secure nor repetitive in being only partly employed for so many years); now I realize I've been sinking into it, seeking out the repetitive in order to hide in my acedic existence. It isn't quite the joy Evagrius describes, so perhaps the demon is not yet defeated. But as Norris says:

As any reader of fairy tales can tell you, not knowing the true name of your enemy, be it a troll, a demon, or an "issue," puts you at a great disadvantage, and learning the name can help set you free. (p. 4)
Maybe that's only as far as I've gotten; to be able to call the name. Well, good enough, for now.

Holy Moley

The problem with arguments about "religion v. science" on the Intertubes is that you get really stupid comments like this from people who present themselves as knowing better:

There’s a lot of theological hokum that means that they’re not 100% on board, which is to be expected, because religious power-holders realize how big a threat science is to religion, and therefore to their power.
Maybe this was true in the 19th century, or the 17th century, or the 18th century; but in the 21st century? Maybe it was a concern for Descartes, but today? Please. What power, precisely, does "the Church" have? And, since at least the Protestant Reformation, what "church" are we talking about here?

This all got ginned up because PZ Meyers is an idiot with absolutely no understanding of pychology, sociology, or anthropology. Funny that when the question of "holiness" is applied to Native American burial grounds or aboriginal sites, I doubt Mr. Meyers would object to leaving such places alone, or to returning objects taken from them to the people who claim ownership of them. At least I doubt he'd say "They're just bones! Get over it!" And if he did, would Amanda Marcotte defend him?

But the issue, of course, is the response of Bill Donahue. First, though, let's get back to the event that started all of this (long ago lost, now, in the kerfluffle this has become in left blogistan):

A church leader was watching, confronted Cook and tried to recover the sacred bread. Cook said she crossed the line and that's why he brought it home with him.

"She came up behind me, grabbed my wrist with her right hand, with her left hand grabbed my fingers and was trying to pry them open to get the Eucharist out of my hand," Cook said, adding she wouldn't immediately take her hands off him despite several requests.

Diocese of Orlando spokeswoman Carol Brinati said she was not aware of anyone touching Cook. She released a statement Thursday: "... a Catholic Campus Ministry student representative filed a complaint with the Student Union regarding the behavior of the two young men. A Student Government Representative called Catholic Campus Ministry to apologize for this disruption."

Cook filed an official abuse complaint with UCF's student conduct court regarding the alleged physical force. Following that complaint, Brinati said church members filed their own official complaints of disruptive conduct. Punishment for either offense could result in suspension or expulsion.
I'm not even sure what Cook's true motivation is in this matter. He said:

"When I received the Eucharist, my intention was to bring it back to my seat to show him," Cook said. "I took about three steps from the woman distributing the Eucharist and someone grabbed the inside of my elbow and blocked the path in front of me. At that point I put it in my mouth so they'd leave me alone and I went back to my seat and I removed it from my mouth."
But then he is also quoted as saying:

"The church feels that I'm the problem here," Cook said. "The problem is actually that this is a publicly-funded religious institution. Through student government here, we fund them through an activity and service, so they're receiving student money."

Cook is upset more than $40,000 in student fees have been allocated to support religious organizations on campus for the 2008-2009 school year, according to student government records. He denied he is holding the Eucharist hostage to protest that support.
Not sure if the two are even connected, except by the reporter. Anyway, those are the facts of the matter.

Now, turn to PZ Meyers' version of events:

This isn't the stupid part yet. He walked off with a cracker that was put in his mouth, and people in the church fought with him to get it back. It is just a cracker!
I can't verify Meyers's assertions that Cook received death threats over this, because the link Meyers gives no longer has any stories posted to it. But we'll accept that he didn't make up the quotes he puts in his post; I can only say nothing of "death threat" or Catholics worldwide being upset by this, appears in the story I've linked, through Meyers' other link. So maybe there's something in the "missing link" about church officials "fighting" with Mr. Cook; but any assertion of physical contact even appears to be in dispute at this point. Seems like a scientist would want to take that kind of information into account.

Or maybe it's just lawyers who pay attention to such details.

Anyway, we could start with the irony: "It's a goddamned cracker." Get it? "Goddamned," from an atheist? Wit, right? And it's "just a cracker!" Right. That's an understanding opinion. And bones removed from a Native American burial site are just bones, right? Anything that any group considers sacred is just a thing, and should not be respected, right? Do we really want to apply that standard to public conduct?

But he's responding to the death threats, and the howls of anger from Bill Donahue, and Mr. Meyers found out that if you poke a snake with a stick, it will attack you. If you are detecting a lack of sympathy on my part, you are correct.

PZ Meyers and Bill Donahue deserve each other. Each has taken a minor and insignificant incident, a matter of disrespect and violation of something held sacred by a group (and any anthropologist would gladly point out to Mr. Meyers that he has his own "holy," that which must remain unscathed, which he would as vigorously defend; I presume Mr. Meyers would at least respect the opinion of another scientist), and turned it into something of cosmic significance. That's what Bill Donahue does all the time, and it's not a career to aspire to. So they deserve each other. Both seem to think that only their opinions should be allowed, and only their opinions should rule the behavior of others. Both prefer exaggeration and calumny to reasoned discourse and examination of facts.

And all that's been accomplished is that people like Amanda Marcotte are stirred to write stupid and baseless statements about religion v. science. Yes, the church is generally more interested in power than in spirituality; but that battle is seldom carried out on the frontier of science v. religion. That battle might have had some meaning back when the Church actually had power in society, but that power, compared to its power in Europe or even Puritan New England, is today weak tea indeed. Besides, that fight is so old and tired that my theology professors regularly scoffed at the reality of the miracles of Jesus reported in the Gospels, if only because as matters of history they cannot be verified, and so were relegated to the realm of mythology. That is not a battle with science, that is the acceptance of science. Which is another argument entirely, but please: if you don't know what you're talking about, don't assume you do.

Good advice for PZ Meyers and Bill Donahue, too. They should both go away and leave the rest of us alone.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Happy Bastille Day!

No time today except to rather inappropriately leave this behind:

"Immediately after describing the Christian 'reversal' or 'repression' in the mysterium tremendum, Patocka writes,

In the final analysis [of Christian mystery], the soul is not a relation to an object, however noble (like the Platonic Good) [which implies, therefore, "such as in Platonism where it is the relation to a transcendent Good that also governs the ideal order of the Greek polis of the Roman civitas"], but rather to a Person who sees into the soul without being accessible to view. What a Person is, that really is not adequately thematized in the Christian perspective.
"The inadequacy of this thematization comes to rest on the threshold of responsibility. It doesn't thematize what a responsible person is, that is, what it must be, namely this exposing of the soul to the gaze of another person, of a person as transcendent other, as an other who looks at me, but who looks without the-subject-who-says-I being able to reach that other, see her, hold her within the reach of my gaze. And let us not forget that in inadequate thematization of what responsibility is or must be is also an irresponsible thematization: not knowing, having neither sufficient knowledge or consciousness of what being responsible mean, is of itself a lack of responsibility. In order to be responsible it is necessary to respond to or answer to what being responsible means. For it if is true that the concept of responsibility has, throughout a history that is as consistent as it is continuous, always implied involvement in action, doing, a praxis, a decision that exceeds simple conscience or simple theoretical understanding, it is also true that the same concept requires a decision or responsible action to answer for itself consciously, that is, with knowledge of a thematics of what is done, of what action signifies, its causes, ends, etc. In debates concerning responsibiliy one must always take into account this original and irreducible complexity that links theoretical consciousness (which must also be a thetic or thematic consciousness) to 'practical' conscience (ethical, legal, political), if only to avoid the arrogance of so many 'clean consciences.' We must continually remind ourselves that some part of irresponsibility insinuates itself wherever one demands responsibility without sufficiently conceptualizing and thematically thinking what 'responsibility' means; that is to say everywhere."

Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, tr. David Wills. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. pp. 26-27.

Only one point to draw, among so many:

And let us not forget that in inadequate thematization of what responsibility is or must be is also an irresponsible thematization: not knowing, having neither sufficient knowledge or consciousness of what being responsible mean, is of itself a lack of responsibility. In order to be responsible it is necessary to respond to or answer to what being responsible means.
"And they in their turn will reply: 'Lord, when did we see you....?' "

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The More Things Change.....

I'm just picking this up from Mimi because I'm feeling cranky. This is Christopher Hitchens on "waterboarding":

Here is the most chilling way I can find of stating the matter. Until recently, “waterboarding” was something that Americans did to other Americans. It was inflicted, and endured, by those members of the Special Forces who underwent the advanced form of training known as sere (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). In these harsh exercises, brave men and women were introduced to the sorts of barbarism that they might expect to meet at the hands of a lawless foe who disregarded the Geneva Conventions.
Hmmmm... a lawless foe like the United States? Like the sponsor of the School of the Americas? Like the sponsor of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib? But I digress....

But it was something that Americans were being trained to resist, not to inflict.
Let me stop him right there, and call BS on that. Until "recently," "waterboarding" was called "the ordeal by water." It was a favored technigue of the medieval inquisition, who first figured it out. And American troops were never trained to "resist" torture; that's physically impossible. They were trained to know they had a breaking point, and where it would come. Such training might help them hold out a bit longer than otherwise, but it was never meant to increase their "resistance." That's the same idiotic argument that Bush keeps using, to say that our "enemies" will "adjust" if they know what torture techniques we are using. Hitchens all but admits as much in the article:

This is because I had read that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, invariably referred to as the “mastermind” of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, had impressed his interrogators by holding out for upwards of two minutes before cracking.
I suppose a ticking time bomb could have gone off within those two minutes, but that's a scenario unrealistic even by 24's standards.

The whole purpose of torture is to prove the torturer is in charge, and that resistance is futile. And torture works, everytime, to precisely that degree: resistance is futile. But then, so is torture, as Hitchens, again almost tacitly, acknowledges. First, he says of the experience:

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered.
That's why the euphemism is so Orwellian (odd Hitchens doesn't note that, being such a fan of Orwell as he is). But then he makes the more interesting admission:

The interrogators would hardly have had time to ask me any questions, and I knew that I would quite readily have agreed to supply any answer.
Which is pretty much what every expert on interrogation has said: under torture, you will admit anything, simply in order to stop the torture. It was true during the Inquisition; it is still true today.

The picture, by the way, is from Vietnam, 1968.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


A date some say will live in infamy. And others say the death of habeas corpus was worse. Some hearken back to the AUMF vote; others say this is as bad as it gets, that this is the end, beautiful friend, the end.

Funny how a crisis of confidence turns me back to my Christianity. I'm not bragging; I just started re-reading Bonhoeffer's Christ the Center, how the Gemeinde is in Christ, and the individual is in the Gemeinde, or neither exists at all:

It is the mystery of the community that Christ is in her and, only through her, reaches to men [sic]. Christ exists among us as community, as Church in the hiddenness of history. [And I pause to note this is one of those times when history is has hidden as it can be; the true history we want to believe in, in this country; not the one we actually live] The church is the hidden Christ among us. Now therefore many is never alone, he exists only through the community which brings him Christ, which incorporates him in itself, takes him into its life. Man in Christ is man in community; where he exists is community. But because at the same time as individual he is fully a member of the community, therefore here alone is the continuity of his existence preserved in Christ. Therefore man can no longer understand himself from himself, but only from Christ.
I think this explains why I am neither disappointed nor surprised. Even habeas corpus didn't mean a great deal to people before the Warren Court decisions on the rights of criminal defendants. The 4th Amendment had no real meaning for African Americans in the face of Dred Scott, and neither meant a great deal to the children who joined Mother Jones in the Children's Crusade. It didn't even mean a great deal to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom J. Edgar Hoover spied on, and very little from the Church committee really effected much change in 4th amendment jurisprudence, at least as far as domestic intelligence gathering was concerned. The difference is, this time it affects us: people who can afford telephones and computers and e-mail and internet connections, people who can use this vast telecommunications network we've made for ourselves. We thought it was a joke when the President's analyst learned the greatest conspirator was Ma Bell. Suddenly it's not so funny, but that's only because it's not a joke anymore. Now, instead of the blacks, the immigrants, the natives, the poor, women, children, the labor unions and workers, the powerless of any stripe, it hurts us. Now our ox is being gored.

So welcome to their world, says I. Speaking as a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, I find it's where I am expected to be. I don't find it distressing: I find it to be the status quo. African Americans had to march in the streets, and bear attacks by dogs and water cannons and fear lynch mobs and assassins. All I have to do is make a phone call, complain about a Senate vote, and be annoyed that the Senate doesn't live up to the image I was given of it in high school government classes many decades ago.

Jeremiah Wright was right: Barack Obama is a politician. And much as I rant and rail about politics, on days like this I realize I stopped putting my trust in politics when Richard Nixon won re-election. What I think about on a day like this, is what I am putting my trust in now, and why. I cannot understand myself from myself, but only from Christ. The center of my community is not in what the U.S. Senate does, or fails to do.

Monday, July 07, 2008

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in

Spent the better part of a week replacing the roof on my garage (about 600 square feet, and I don't recommend the process!). Didn't stop my mind from wandering, however, and part of what I heard was an excerpt from this Fresh Air show on the weekend recap that my local NPR station carries. I will say upfront that what I know of Jill Bolte Taylor I know from that excerpt; but what I heard made the think, once again, what complete claptrap is paraded under the name of "science."

It's a bit touchy, this, as Dr. Taylor is one of Time Magazine's "100" for 2008, and she's been on Oprah! And I don't begrudge her whatever insights her experience gave her. But in the interview with Terry Gross, she asserted that her experience with the stroke was a "mystical" experience, and she went on to draw connections between her experience and the religious impulse in general, concluding with the wholly unoriginal and unfounded idea that religion arises from a human need to have a narrative.


First, the experience of her stroke. The excerpt from her book sounds almost like a Robin Williams routine about drug use ("Reality! What a concept!"):

When the shower droplets beat into my chest like little bullets, I was harshly startled back into this reality. As I held my hands up in front of my face and wiggled my fingers, I was simultaneously perplexed and intrigued. Wow, what a strange and amazing thing I am. What a bizarre living being I am. Life! I am life! I am trillions of cells sharing a common mind. I am here, now, thriving as life. Wow! What an unfathomable concept!
But in the interview she said the stroke shut down the left hemisphere of her brain, so she experienced a sense of "oneness" with the universe that she attributed to the functioning of her right hemisphere alone. It was this sense of "oneness" with the universe that she called a "mystical" experience.

And I almost stopped listening right there. Undoubtedly her description of the experience was accurate, but it sounded more like the bad joke about the Buddhist who asks the hot dog vendor to "Make me one with everything." That experience may (or may not, I'm not a Buddhist scholar) be the goal of Buddhism, but her "Mystical" experience sounds nothing like the experiences recorded in The Cloud of Unknowing, or by St. Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, St. John the Divine, Paul of Tarsus, or even Doris Grumbach, much less the decidedly non-Christian visions of Black Elk. There's a long history of mystical writings in Christianty alone, and I know of no experiences that sound even vaguely like Dr. Taylor's; and that doesn't even consider the mystical experiences of other cultures and religions, or the fact that there's little recorded evidence of any other well-known or little-known mystics apparently taking years to recover from a physical problem that prompted a seemingly mystical insight.

So if this was a "mystical experience," it was one only because Dr. Taylor doesn't understand what "mysticism" means to almost any metaphysical system of thought or in almost any human culture. I've no doubt Dr. Taylor is reporting her experiences accurately: what I question is how those experiences can be accorded any label that could validly be regarded as "religious."

And then there's that whole "narrative" bit, as in "religion is a narrative we seem to need.". Well, alright, narrative seems to be a common thread of human cultures, and much can be made of that with regard to religion. But the narrative of the Hellenistic Greeks is radically different from the narrative of the Assyrian culture of the Gilgamesh Epic, or the narrative of the Egyptian culture of the Pharoahs, or the narrative of the Native Amerian cultures behind Black Elk and the Ghost Dancers, or the Aztecs, the Incas, the song lines of Australian aborigines.... And if you really want to talk about the subject, you have to consider and take into account the work of Paul Ricouer (at least), not to mention Saussure and Levi-Strauss (at least), and the 19th and 20th century German Biblical scholars (and philologists, like Neitzsche), at least, and...

Well, you get the idea. Any casual idea that religion is just the product of our brain chemistry or our brain structure still runs into at least, on the empirical side, the same objection Hume raised to the concept of a self: when I look for it, Hume said, I can't find it. All I find instead are a number of impressions, but no "self" observing, recording, and interpreting those impressions. (Which, yes, raises Yeats' question: how can we know the dancer from the dance? Or the existential question Kierkegaard raised: how can we stand at a point outside ourselves and have an objective view of ourselves? How can the knower know all about itself, without being involved in the observation?). Whenever I go looking for this common denominator that supposedly explains the persistence of religion in human culture, I find many more denominators than I do commonalities, except that we lump certain practices, behaviors, and ideas, under a rather broad umbrella labeled "religion."

What I object to, though, is the idea that religious belief is so casual, or so simplistic. The experience of a stroke is the same experience as a mystical vision? And Dr. Taylor knows this, how, precisely? Because she's also had mystical visions? Because she's a student of mysticism, or mystical literature, or comparative anthropology?

I'm not even saying she's wrong. But she's presented absolutely no basis for saying she's right, except that she's a scientist, and she's experienced these sensations, and explained them from the point of view of her discipline. Which is actually no more insightful than the visions of Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila, and her explanation is no less culturally determined, than theirs were. Besides, we can't even say their experiences were the same as hers. Which is, finally, the problem, isn't it? And puts us back where all the ladders start; in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Now, if I can just get that hole fixed....

Friday, July 04, 2008

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

One of the hallmarks of the Roman Empire was Roman citizenship. Citizens of Rome had certain legal rights, were entitled to a certain amount of respect, if only in the manner of their execution. Non-citizens were non-persons, and could be extinguished as casually as one would kill a cockroach. The most famous case in human history is the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, an execution probably ordered by Pilate with as little consideration or afterthought as today we would give to stepping on a roach on the kitchen floor.

I mention this because we are, today, Rome; or at least we act like it. It has been mentioned often enough to have taken on the cast of the commonplace that people around the world are very interested in who the next President of the United States will be. They don't have a vote, but they very much have an interest. The British had colonies that spanned the globe in the 19th century; today America has military bases. And based on the idea of jurisdiction and where it extends, we decide whether or not the laws of our land extend to non-American citizens. And if they don't, then what constrains the President? What ban is there on extraordinary rendition, "black" prisons, even prison ships? But if they do, on what basis do we make such an extraordinary assertion? The limitations on government power have always been understood to be recognized when they are raised by persons with standing to make a complaint. But such persons have always been American citizens. If they are not American citizens, should they have standing to complain of U.S. actions in foreign countries? Should not only those who are victims of "black ops" get to complain, but those who are victims of the invasion of Iraq? What of the citizens of Iran, where covert US operations are already underway? What of the citizens of Central America, who suffered under the students of the School of the Americas, in Georgia?

But if they can't, are they non-persons? Are they simply, by dint of citizenship in another country, "out-law" in the old British legal sense of the word: persons outside the protection of the law, and so subject to whatever anyone does to them, if that "anyone" is working on behalf of the US government? Is this what our standing armies, our national security apparatus, is for? Is this the true legacy of the "Greatest Generation"?

God shed His Grace on Thee.....

Starting a new book, The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God, by Jonathan Kirsch (available in September). See if this doesn't sound shockingly contemporary:

The accused are not condemned according to ordinary laws, as in other crimes, but according to the private laws or privileges conceded to the inquisitors by the Holy See, for there is much tha tis peculiar to the Inquisition.
Bernard Gui, c. 1261-1311

One need only substitue "War on Terror" or "Inquisition," and "President" for "Holy See," and this could be from a memo by John Yoo. Kirsch's thesis is that:

...we shall see an unbroken thread links the friar-inquisitors who set up the rack and the pyre in southern France in the early thirteenth century to the torturers and executioners of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia in the mid-twentieth century. Nor does the thread stop at Auschwitz or the Gulag; it can be traced through the Salem witch trials in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Hollywood blacklists of the McCarthy era, and even the interrogation cells at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
To which I would only add: the black prisons and prison ships that still hold "enemy combatants" far from the reach of the Supreme Court, to this day.

The great chronicler of the Inquisition, Henry Charles Lea, sought to explain the forces behind it:

Fanatic zeal, arbitrary cruelty, and insatiable cupidity rivaled each other in building up a system unspeakably atrocious....a standing mockery of justice--perhaps the most iniquitous that the arbitrary cruelty of man has ever devised.
Per Kirsch's argument, the last victim of the Roman and Universal Inquisition died in 1826, so it's hard to credit the entire escapade as one of emotions run riot. Zeal need not be fanaticaly, cruelty never quite seems arbitrary, and insatiable cupidity is always with us. Perhaps the mockery of justice is even more the rule than the exception. Most interesting about those words, though: Mr. Lea was a Quaker, from a Philadelphia family.

Home of the Liberty Bell; the city where bells rang out on this day in 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, wherein we held these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, and that their Creator has endowed them with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Too bad we weren't clearer about defining what pursuits of happiness were good, and which bad.

Fourth of Jooly

The smell of cooking flesh will blanket the land.

Appropriate for a country still dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equally: as cannon fodder.

And now women, too!

(Mine has been roasting on a rooftop all this week, and still not finished. So I've been in better moods.)