Friday, October 31, 2008

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Six Flags Over Texas

Voted tonight. Longest line I've stood in since waiting for a ride at Six Flags when I was a kid.

I have never waited an hour in order to vote. Never. And the line never diminished. As we moved in along the "snake," the line stayed the same length with people arriving and deciding it was worth it, they would stay the hour it took to spend a minute or so voting (especially if, like me, you voted straight party line).

I have never seen this, in 35 years of voting. I've never seen anything like this. And this in the reddest of red states, in the reddest of red towns in the state. Does this mean McCain is inspiring this much loyalty? That this many people in my county love Sarah Palin?

Or is it something unexpected?

If anybody tells you they know the answer, they don't.

UPDATE: For First Draft visitors (especially), more early voting/poll prön here.

Dreaming of Paradise

The morning started, appropriately enough, with paradox. Arrow's Paradox:

Trouble first surfaced during the Enlightenment, as Jean-Charles de Borda and the Marquis de Condorcet debated the merits of different voting schemes. But it was not until 1951 that Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow fully laid bare a problem that Borda and Condorcet had been struggling with.

Borda advocated letting people rank each candidate with a number, adding the points, and choosing the candidate with the best total score. We could view the method of voting we use today as a special case of Borda's method — where our favorite candidate receives one point and everyone else receives none.

Condorcet, on the other hand, advocated a vote between every pair of candidates. The candidate that wins in every comparison is elected. The practical problem with Condorcet's method is that it may fail to produce a winner. We see this all the time in athletic competitions. The Astros beat the Reds, the Reds beat the Cubs, and the Cubs beat the Astros. Who's the winner? In voting, this is known as Condorcet's Paradox.

But there's a hidden problem with Borda's method of numerical ranking, too. Imagine we can get chocolate or vanilla ice cream for our picnic group. We cast votes, and chocolate wins. Now suppose someone suggests strawberry as an option. We add it to the list and vote again. Even though we all feel the same way about chocolate and vanilla, we may find vanilla now wins. Seems silly. But it’s a very real problem in U.S. elections, and the democratic and republican parties constantly worry about candidates from third parties claiming votes.
That's the context. Now, what is Arrow's Paradox? You are forgiven if, upon hearing of it, you think of Kurt Gödel:

We might ask if there’s a voting system — any system at all — that doesn't threaten to flip-flop two candidates when a third candidate enters the race. Remarkably, Arrow proved that for any system meeting the most basic standards of common sense, the answer is No.

The implications for voting are stunning. But the impact of Arrow's work on economics and social choice goes far deeper. If we can't reasonably combine individual preferences, how can we develop economic or social policies then claim they represent what society prefers? In a real sense, Arrow used mathematics to show that we can’t; that instead, rhetoric, gamesmanship, and back-room deals must necessarily be part of the political process.
It was upon this last sentence that I laughed out loud and said: "Well, duh!" We would, of course, improve everything if we could just squeeze the human element out and reduce it to pure rational decision making. Rather like Business is supposed to have done, according to all the Business advocates like the GOP and Alan Greenspan. Corporate America, as Daniel Gross points out, is scared of a Democratic sweep in Washington. They must be right, because Business is always rational, no?

Big retailers such as Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and Target, the Journal reports, are freaked out that Obama and a Democratic Congress would pass the Employee Free Choice Act, "which would do away with secret balloting and allow unions to form if a majority of employees sign cards favoring unionization." Now, don't get me wrong. EFCA may be a disaster for retailers. But of all the woes facing companies—the credit crunch, crappy growth, a disastrous job market, a lost decade in the stock market—unions are the least of their problems. So far this year, legions of retailers have gone bankrupt—Steve & Barrys, Linens'n'Things, the Ponderosa and Bonanza restaurant chains—victims of excessively optimistic projections, poor expansion choices, mismanagement, and horrific capital structures. Unions had nothing to do with their failure.

Retailers that survive face a bigger challenge. We've just concluded an economic expansion in which median incomes failed to rise. The people who shop at Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target are basically making the same amount of money they were in 1999. There are a host of reasons why wages failed to rise in this expansion, among them: globalization, outsourcing, and a decline in the educational attainment of workers. But unions aren't one of them. What's more, long-term stock charts put the lie to the binary concept—Republican, anti-big-labor good, Democrat, pro-big-labor bad. Check out these charts of Home Depot (up about five fold in the Clinton years, down about 60 percent in the Bush years), or Wal-Mart (boom in the Clinton years and drift in the Bush years, or Target (ditto).

Now, with consumer confidence at a record low, credit difficult to come by, and demand shrinking, retailers are facing a bleak outlook. And they're worried about the prospect of greater unionization at some point in the future?
Mr. Gross goes on to examine the fears of the U.S Chamber of Commerce and the CEO of FedEx, all of whom did better under a Democratic Congress and President than under the GOP reign. In fact, he argues, Washington doesn't really have that much to do with the business climate:

In the past 16 years a bunch of really big picture economic developments have influenced the trajectory of the nation's (and the globe's) economy. These include, but are not limited, to: the Internet, free-trade agreements, the emergence of China and India, the fluctuating price of oil and commodities, and climate change. But the people we've elected to serve in Congress and in the White House haven't had much of an impact on any of those trends. In so many areas—home ownership, the stock market, investor participation rates—the past eight years have been something of a lost decade. We can't blame President Bush and former Republican Congressman Tom DeLay for all of this. But it's pretty clear that the policies promoted by a Republican President and a Republican-controlled Congress didn't do a lot to stimulate broad-based growth. At the very least, recent economic history should cause people to reexamine some of their assumptions about the relation between politics and the private sector. I'm not saying it doesn't matter who sits in the White House or who controls Congress. But it doesn't matter nearly as much as many businesspeople think it does.
Now, of course, the tired-out mantra, which John McCain keeps appealing to, is that government is the problem, not the solution, and that business is not only more efficient than government, but more rational. Business has eliminated the human element, in favor of the profit motive, and the profit motive is the rising tide that lifts all boats. Except, as the current financial crisis shows, we didn't eliminate the human element at all. As This American Life aptly described it, the problem with the financial markets was too much money seeking a place to invest, and too few investments to put it in. So the market created new investments in mortgages, and when that wasn't enough, it created new mortgages, right down to the NINA (No Income No Asset) mortgage. Which is precisely what caused the collapse of the Savings and Loan industry in the 1980's. Surely a wholly rational market would have understood that.


ProfWombat made this interesting observation this a.m. at Eschaton:

Saw a program yesterday on the science channel about a mega-project some are thinking of building in Tokyo Bay--a huge pyramid, maybe 3500 feet high, composed of carbon nanotubes in open structure, containing multiple buildings to house maybe 750,000 people. Integrated buildings, transport, everything. My wife and daughter were watching, and, to my surprise, thought it kind of a neat idea. I was intrigued by the engineering, but appalled at the sociology, that anybody could even consider constructing such a thing. It was quite the opposite of everything such folk as Jane Jacobs have stood for, offered as if we haven't learned anything, at long last, that the dreams of the empowered remain at such odds sometimes with what seem to me self-evident human needs.
Self-evident human needs get in the way of human planning and the desire for a controlled outcome. What is a voting system if not a deliberately controlled outcome? As Andrew Boyd notes without a trace of irony or concern, the Democrats and the Republicans seek an electoral system in which the choice is entirely binary, as any tertiary choice means someone in the previously binary side faces a greater chance of losing. When voting is a zero-sum game, the only rational option is to restrict participation as much as possible, the better to insure the outcome. But when we press the system even further, and insist the results represent the absolute preference of a group, rather than the outcome the system is designed to provide, we are expressing the desire for a human system that will produce a non-human outcome.

Oddly enough, we keep calling that desired outcome "Paradise." Which may be why Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed the kingdom of God, and invited into it everyone from the ditches and the hedgerows and the alleys, all the people who never get invited in the first place. He declared it radically inclusive, while we focus only on exclusion, only on those whose thinking or worship or practice we like. Maybe that's why we keep turning that kingdom into the sweet bye and bye, and go on living out our quotidian days dreaming of perfection. One is oddly human, the other oddly inhuman. And yet which do we really crave?

Power to the People?

My wife told me about this, so I got curious and went looking on the web this morning. Seems this billboard is prominently displayed on I-10 here in Houston. You will note there is no mention of John McCain whatsoever. Apparently, it was put up by the Harris County Republicans. I know that thanks to another Houston blogger.

What's really interesting is that, when I came in to teach this morning, I had to cross a line of people to get in the building. No, not picketers: voters. As I've mentioned, this building is an early voting site. Voting starts at 7 a.m. every morning until tomorrow. Today, the line snaked around the perimeter of the building, at 7:45 a.m.

Maybe all those people are anxious to vote for Sarah Palin. But I don't really think so.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

So priketh hem nature in hir courages

The majority of men are subjective towards themselves and objective towards all others, terribly objective sometimes--but the real task is in fact to be objective towards oneself and subjective towards all others.

Whan that Aprille with his shoores soote
The drought of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every vein in swich liquor
Of which vertu engendred is the flour
When Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes and the yonge sun
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne
And smale fowles maken melodye
That slepen all the night with open eye
So priketh hem nature in hir courages
Thanne longen folke to goon pilgrimages

I'm picking this up from Mimi, and although I fully intended to respond to the comments that are already growing cold and stale below, here I go jackdawing after some other shiny thing. That said, I'm reading this and thinking: "Hmmm, maybe...."

Until we can come to terms with what is means to proclaim tangible good news to the people who live here, literally in the shadow of some of the most luxurious properties and respectable churches, all of our pieties are simply gilded abstractions divorced from the concrete realities that every atheist has an honest right to rage about.
My sympathies are here; but then again, not quite. My first thought is almost wholly uncharitable, and that is to respond to the hyperbole by noting that atheists have an honest right to rage about a lot of things, and Christians finally agreeing on what personal sacrifices are necessary to be a Christian are not going to settle anything for them, or give Christians a justifiably moral stance. Which is straining at gnats and swallowing camels, because Christians do need to come to terms with proclaiming tangible good news. It is not something we do very well, frankly. We've generally strained everything out of the good news except a doctrine of salvation which is almost utterly foreign to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth or Paul of Tarsus or the early church at all, at least until the "early church" starting going through its own kind of hell, thanks to Rome (a hell on earth which prompted the apocalyptic visions of John on Patmos). But bear with me a moment, because substantially, I agree with this:

What does it mean to speak of a homeless God when all of our conceptions of divinity are firmly lodged in heaven? Jesus was rejected, hungry, harassed by the authorities, transiently moved from town to town, called a drunk, glutton, and an associate of prostitutes and sinners. He was both deemed to be mentally ill and derided as being somehow under the influence of the devil. To say that somehow God is intertwined with the real flesh and blood conditions experienced by Jesus of Nazareth, is to break the sacred glass around the term God and allow Jesus to sully it ten times more than I am about to here. To speak of Jesus as God is to speak of a homeless God whose only registration in the system was an arrest and an execution warrant by the State.
But I don't think it means I have to lunge for the Midnight Oil and fret about standing while the world is turning:

These spots are blemishes on our banquet because as long as one person lives like this, we are all diminished as part of the human community. They are ground zero for what the incarnation means in terms of divine solidarity with a world full of pain and suffering . Hopes, dreams and fractured relationships are taken down from the cross and buried here in the cold night long after we are safely tucked away in the warmth of our homes. The men and women who sleep here also know something about being rejected by their own, harassed by authorities, transiently moved from town to town and being diagnosed as under the influence of the devil.
My experience as a pastor taught me, early, that the world turns on without me and that, in fact, I didn't set it spinning, nor am I responsible for how it turns. And if I'm going to make this teaching central to my Christian practice, I'm going to toss out Paul and all the rest of the New Testament, and reduce the Gospels to just the Q source (where Matthew and Luke got this passage about Jesus the Homeless God). I'm not being critical here, though it sounds like it. But I went into seminary with all the passion of a true believer, convinced finally that I'd found my calling and the world would welcome me with open arms, and hear my voice and acknowledge my sincerity.

Didn't quite work out that way. Parish ministry, it turns out, never does. Sometimes it dies on those shoals; sometimes it survives the shipwreck. But the hard reality is, the world is a much more complicated place than living under the overpass, or in the mansion on top of the hill. And when you start making idols of those things, or even of the living God, you start to run into trouble. It is a terrible thing, to fall into the hands of the living God. It can be especially terrible if you are trying as hard as you can to make a fetish, an item of worship, out of your own convictions.

There's a reason the Hebrews banned worship of idols: it's because any image of God you come up with, becomes your god. And it remains nothing more than your image. Jesus was homeless. Jesus also drank wine at wedding parties (I've heard many a good Baptist and other conservative Southern Christian patiently explain to me the wine was non-alcoholic). Jesus enjoyed life. Jesus suffered from life. Jesus was a stern teacher. Jesus was a comforting healer. Jesus was brusque, enigmatic, impatient and in a hurry (Mark's version); Jesus was a reforming Jew (Matthew); Jesus was an itinerant Cynic who reached out to Gentiles (Luke); Jesus was a Gnostic exemplar of ethereal mysteries who spoke only to those who could hear (John). Jesus was the pure servant who because of his faithfulness was resurrected after death as an example to us all (Paul). With which of these images am I authorized to sit in judgment over others?

My sympathies are entirely with the homeless god, although my actions belie my words. I have not sold all I have and given it to the poor, and yet I still call myself a follower of Jesus. I have not devoted my life to charitable works, and yet I still call myself a disciple of Christ. This is perhaps the most blatant kind of hypocrisy. Or perhaps it is the mystery of faith.

I remember hearing a chaplain speak once, and explain his ministry. He related it to the chapel keepers who provided medieval pilgrims with a safe place to stay the night, and to worship, on their pilgrimage to one holy shrine or another. The chapel was the chapel keeper, the person who helped the pilgrim on the journey. A pastor takes on a bit more responsibility, but woe be unto the pastor who identifies the flock as his own, and his alone. I've seen many a retired pastor unable to retire because his identity (always "he;" the female pastors haven't had a chance to retire yet after an adulthood in parish ministry; well, not a majority of the pastors, anyway) was in his congregation, and he couldn't separate himself from them. There is a kind of idolatry there, too.

"What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?"--Micah 6:8 What else does God require of us? Yet what does it mean to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God? The Desert Fathers spent a lifetime pursuing that question, and one of the few clear answers they came to was the lesson Jesus himself taught: Don't judge, so you are not judged. It's one of the hardest lessons of all. Pastors are always tempted to judge: to decry the troublemaker in the congregation, to complain about the hard-heartedness of the flock, to deride everyone within the walls on Sunday morning as "baptized heathens." All of it is true. All of it is beside the point. "Don't pass judgment, so you won't be judged." Matthew 7:1 (that's from "Q" as well, by the way). It's a sort of all-encompassing provision against being a prophet in your own mind.

I like the image of the pilgrimage. It places us all on a journey and, rather like Chaucer's poem, makes us all equal. Not entirely equal, of course: the Knight is still superior to the Miller, the Monk above the Parson. But all are equal as storytellers on the journey. Jesus challenged the hierarchy of the Roman Empire, but never enough to seriously challenge it, despite his divinity (what could the Son of God not accomplish, if he chose to? That is a question we ask about Jesus, now. It was less of a challenge and more of a justification, when it was addressed to the Caesars, themselves divi filius, or "sons of god." It's hard to exaggerate that:

A coin of Julius Caesar shows his spirit descending cometlike to takes it place among the eternal deities. A coin of Augustus Caesar calls him divi filius, son of a divine one, son of a god, son of the aforesaid comet. A coin of Tiberius Caesar hails him as pontifex maximuis, supreme bridge builder between earth and heaven, high priest of an imperial people. A silver denarius was a day's pay for a laborer and, if a day laborer meant somebody who worked every day rather than somebody who looked for work every day, it would have been a very good salary. Imagine this situation: If, after three days of hard work, a day laborer held those silver denarii in his hand, how would he, could he, should he distinguish between politics and religion in the Roman Empire?....

Rome, and Rome alone, had built a kingdom and only it could approve how to build an underkingdom, a minrealm, a subordinate rule.
Jon Dominic Cross and Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus, revised & updated (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 178-79. As Crossan and Reed argue, Paul's challenge to that rule was as direct, and as devious, and as subversive, as the challenge made by Jesus of Nazareth. And yet Paul did not free slaves, or set up churches in opposition to Roman society, or otherwise condemn Roman or even Jewish custom. There are ways of being insubordinate that do not depend on always overturning the tables in the Temple.

To speak of Jesus as God is to speak of a homeless God whose only registration in the system was an arrest and an execution warrant by the State.
We can go lower than that, if we wish. Dom Crossan asserts that Jesus of Nazareth was buried in a shallow grave, not a magnificent tomb (the resting place of the wealthy, not a homeless peasant), and most likely dogs dispoiled the remains. Not a pretty picture for an Easter Sunday service, but if you want "to sully [the term 'God'] ten times more," you could do worse than use history to do it. For me, that raises a pastoral issue, because while it may be accurate, is it appropriate? The answer to that depends upon your pilgrimage, your place along the journey. Which is not to say I should stand guard over you, protect you from those thoughts or ideas I deem heretical or improper (much as the early church concealed, and apparently destroyed, the apocryphal "Secret Mark," a variant gospel which left only a trace behind in the canon). At the same time, we don't try to teach 6th graders calculus and trigonometry. We understand, in matters of education, that even adults can be pilgrims, and they might have to start over with the Freshman year of college, before trying to do the work of a college senior.

In the discussion of the death of Jesus in Crossan's The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant, Crossan is speculating about the burial of Jesus, based on the usual treatment of a powerless political criminal with no real connections. It is useful historical speculation after 2000 years of conjecture and fabulation. But Crossan discounts perhaps too much the human connections such a powerfully spiritual person as Jesus would have made. Is it possible a man like Jesus drew the attention of the wealthy as well as the poor? If we accept that a peasant drew the attention of Rome, at least as high as the Governor of Palestine, and that he made such an impression that generations later disparate people were writing his life story, so much so that the author of Luke addresses Theophilus to say this gospel is meant to set forth the most accurate account possible of this man everyone is talking about; then is it so far-fetched to think someone of means might have sought to provide a more appropriate burial place than a shallow hole? The gospel stories are just as likely true in their record of the burial, just because they are so unusual. Jesus of Nazareth was, clearly and to say the least, unusual. None of which rebuts Crossan's account; but it gives it another perspective. Still, there are those who don't need Crossan's account, who might live their lives just as well without it. The truth will set you free; but not all truths are equal.

So a pastor ends up sitting in judgment over ideas. It is a terrible place to be, and a terrible burden. Welcome to the pilgrimage. We are, none of us, below another, especially the homeless, the powerless, the helpless. Most especially the beggar, the alcoholic, the drug addict, the prostitute, the mentally ill. We are none of us above judgment, either. We are all of us in this together. The gospel that comes to the homeless comes also to the comfortable; the gospel that speaks to the afflicted speaks also to the powerful; the gospel that renders us all equal also doesn't render us all downward. This gospel upends society, but in subtle and potent ways we haven't begun to experience or experiment with yet. This gospel is for everyone. Now, go and preach that message. Go and struggle with that truth. Go and believe, and pray God to help you with your unbelief.

That is the prayer, and the work, of a pilgrim.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Works of Love

People try to persuade us that the objections against Christianity spring from doubt. That is a complete misunderstanding. The objections against Christianity spring from insubordination, the dislike of obedience, rebellion against all authority. As a result people have hitherto been beating the air in their struggle against objections, because they have fought intellectually with doubt instead of fighting morally with rebellion.


The majority of men are subjective towards themselves and objective towards all others, terribly objective sometimes--but the real task is in fact to be objective towards oneself and subjective towards all others.


How could love be rightly discussed if You were forgotten, O God of Love, source of all love in heaven and on earth, You who spared nothing but gave all in love, You who are love, so that one who loves is what he is only by being in You! How could love properly be discussed if You were forgotten, You who made manifest what love is, You, our Savior and Redeemer, who gave Yourself to save all! How could love be rightly discussed if You were forgoteen, O Spirit of Love, You who take nothing for Your own but remind us of that sacrifice of love, remind the believer to love as he is loved, and his neighbor as himself! O Eternal Love, You who are everywhere present and never without witness wherever You are called upon, be not without witness in what is said here about love or about the works of love. There are only a few acts which human language specifically and narrowly calls works of love, but heaven is such that no act can be pleasing there unless it is an act of love--sincere in self-renunciation, impelled by love itself, and for this very reason claiming no compensation.
--Søren Kierkegaard

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Meanwhile, off in the weeds....

Mimi has moved on, but I refuse to be so accomodating.

The question of soteriology ("R U Saved?") is a pastoral question and a theological question. The pastoral question is actually tougher, since it has to be applicable to human life. The theological question is thornier, since it can be attacked, interpreted, ignored, and generally misunderstood with impunity. But one underlies the other, and separating them is sometimes like removing the threads from the tapestry.

If you want the thorny theological approach, I have made a few stabs at soteriology: Part I and Part II. A more tangential, but literary approach, is posited here and here.

And in a comment at Wounded Bird, a contrast in soteriologies was drawn between Anselm's Atonement Doctrine, and the writings of Julian of Norwich. Always a bit tricky to get theological with the work of mystics, but a very good idea to use their work pastorally. Anchorites, after all, were actually treated as a form of pastorate.
But we should start with the question behind the questions Grandmere Mimi asks. And that question is: What is 'salvation'?

Originally, it was a political term; or political as we understand "political" today. There's always a great danger in creating anachronism in such discussions; retrojecting our ideas 2000 years into the past, yanking common sense ideas from 2000 years in the past up by the roots and trying to pretend they grew in the soil of our culture; etc. But "salvation" in 1st century Palestine, the time of Jesus and Paul, meant one thing: Roman power and civilization, which "saved" conquered people ("barbarians") from the horrors of, well...barbarism.

It's worth noting here that "barbarian" was a term the Romans took from the Greeks (as they took most of their philosophy and arts), and meant rather literally "the people who go 'ba-ba-ba,'" that is, the people who engage in meaningless babble. People, in other words, who don't use our language. It is no accident that the British considered Latin the superior tongue and both drilled it into their students for centuries, but modeled their grammar on Latin when they decided English needed formal rules.

But salvation was a particular political term in 1st century Rome: it referred to the saving acts of Caesar, specifically whatever conquests he had made, or whatever rule he imposed on peoples who didn't necessarily consider themselves (nor were they considered) Romans (I make the distinction because Paul was a Roman citizen). Salvation, then, was tied to civic polity: Caesar was divine, and his beneficent rule meant one was saved from darkness and disorder. Such salvation, of course, was meant to be acknowledged with gratitude and obeisance. So any claim in 1st century Palestine that Jesus bar Joseph was a savior, was not only a political claim, it was a treasonous one.

Which is one reason the concept of "Jesus as Savior" seldom appears in the Gospels. We retroject it there, particularly in John 3:16, but the idea of salvation there is "life into the ages," not salvation from damnation. The whole damnation concept came along much later.

So, you see, if we are going to talk about salvation and from what we need saving, we first need to talk about what "saving" means. To put it more fully in concept, let's start with a bit of Paul, via Crossan:

That opening [of 1 Thessalonians] "Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church (ekklēsia) of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace," was much more subversive than we imagine. The standard Pauline term for a Christian community is ekklēsia, a Greek word today usually translated "church." But the word originally meant citizens of a free Greek city officially assembled for self-governmental decisions. Maybe that was perfectly innocent, but also maybe not. And anyone familiar with Judaism would have heard in his "peace" the content of the Jewish shalom of justice and not that of the Latin pax of victory.

Next, Paul belives absolutely that "Jesus" or the "Messiah/Christ" or the "Lord" all refer to the same person. Paul can spaek of the Lord Jesus Christ or of the Lord Jesus or, most simply, of the Lord. On the one hand, "lord" was a polite term usable by slave to master or disciple to teacher. On the other, "the Lord" meant the emperor himself. What we see here is what Gustav Adolf Deissmann described, almost a hundred years ago, as "the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, 'lord.'" Or, if you prefer, polemical parallelism as high treason.
In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, (New York: HarperCollins 2004, p. 166.

Take note, first, of the danger of anachronism: "That opening...was much more subversive than we imagine." We do the Scriptures great injustice when we imagine they were written for us by people like us in our world today. But if we are going to place the question of salvation in its historical context, we have to go back into the historical uses of Paul, first.

We imagine Paul's letters have always been read as church tradition has taught us: either Paul was the lawgiver who set down the doctrines of Christianity in the Letter to the Romans, and refined issues of ecclesiology in the letters to the Corinthians, and then issues of pastoral care and minor matters of theology in the other letters; or he was the dictator who ruled women should cover their heads and sit quietly while men ran everything (I've commented on the irony of this misunderstanding before); or that Paul established the Anselmian soteriology which Anselm merely clarified with the tools of Neo-Platonism. and that, of course, is just for starters. There have even been abortive attempts to remove Paul from the canon altogether, labelling him a mythmaker who radically distorted the 'true' message of Christianity. We needn't go there at all. Instead, we can look at Krister Stendahl's landmark reading of Paul's letters, to get a perspective that helps us understand how easily we can misunderstand ancient texts:

For Paul had not arrived at his view of the Law [Stendahl is concerned with Romans 7:19] by testing and pondering its effect upon his conscience; it was his grappling with the question about the place of the Gentiles in the Church and in the plan of God, with the problem Jews/Gentiles or Jewish Christians/Gentile Christians, which had driven him to that interpretation of the Law which was to become his in a unique way.....

Yet it was not until Augustine that the Pauline thought about the Law and Justification was applied in a consistent and grand style to a more general and human problem....His Confessions is the first great document in the history of the introspective conscience. The Augustinian line leads into the Middle Ages and reaches its climax in the penitential struggle of an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, and his interpretation of Paul. (Stendahl, pp. 84-85)
The Pauline effort has to first be put into context, and that context, provided by Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles, was the conflict between Peter, who thought the gospel message should go only to Jews, and Paul, whose Damascene vision convinced him he must carry the gospel to all who would listen. Peter actually had the better argument, since Jesus' message was based in Jewish understandings of divinity and covenant and Torah, things wholly inapplicable, not to mention mysterious, to Gentiles. Paul, however, won the historical battle. But, as Stendahl points out, that's what changed everything in Pauline interpretation. After the first century the battle of Paul v. Peter was over, and Paul won. Paul's importance, then, receded, because he was the partisan of the Gentiles, and that point of view now prevailed. But then, at the collapse of the Roman Empire and in defense of the Church as it then existed (and in creation of both a wholly new theology and, as Stendahl argues, a sea change in human thought), Augustine took up Paul and, through the Confessions, universalized him. Paul's importance was no longer as the champion of the evangel to the Gentiles; now he was the vanguard of the introspective conscience, an introspection essential to Christian soteriology (as Augustine's Confessions became the touchstone for both Christian piety and Christian theology). This introspective consience became Luther's model as he struggled with his own conscience and, after pestering his confessor to the point of exasperation, finally produced Luther's doctrince of justification by faith. Which doctrine means, of course, you just have the proper faith; and that you need to be justified. But how did the idea of justification, i.e., salvation, become universalized?

Well, through Augustine, primarily, but not entirely. But Augustine did universalize Paul, presenting us all with a conscience from which we could be divided:

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Romans 7:18b-24

The interpretation of that passage seems so obvious to us now. But it is an interpretation that would make no sense to Paul's original audience, or to almost any audience prior to Augustine. Which is damned hard to imagine, but there's that problem of anachronism again. Let me just quote from Stendahl again: is exactly at this point that Western interpreters have found the common denominator between Paul and the experience of man, since Paul's statements about 'justification by faith' have been hailed as the answer to the problem which faces the ruthlessly honest man in his practice of introspection. Especially in Protestant Christianity--which, however, at this point has its roots in Augustine and in the piety of the Middle Ages--the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpeted in the light of Luther's struggle with his conscience. But it is exactly at that point that we can discern the most dramatic difference between Luther and Paul, between the 16th and the 1st century....
Now, to put Paul in his proper context, as a 1st century Jew interpreting the law and the gospel for a Gentile audience, what do we need to understand?

It is pointed out that for the Jew the Law did not require a static or pedantic perfectionism but supposed a covenant relationship in which there was room for forgiveness and repentance and where God applied the Measure of Grace. Hence Paul would have been wrong in ruling out the Law on the basis that Israel could not achieve the perfect obedience which the Law required.
Stendahl's interpetation of Paul turns on Phil. 3:6: "I was blameless as to righteousness-of the Law, that is," and he points out that Romans 2-3 "deals with something very different."

The actual transgressions in Israel--as a people, not in each and every individual--show that the Jews are not better than the Gentiles, in spite of circumcision and the proud possession of the Law. The "advantage" of the Jesus is that they have been entrusted with the Words of God and this advantage cannot be revoked by their disobedience (Rom. 3:1ff.), but for the rest they have no edge on salvation. The Law has not helped. They stand before God as guilty as the Gentiles, and even more so (2:9). All this is said in the light of the new avenue of salvation, which has been opened in Christ, an avenue which is equally open to Jews and Gentiles, since it is not based on the Law, in which every distinction between the two rests....The only metanoia (repentance/conversion) and the only grace which counts is the one now available in Messiah Jesus. Once this has been seen, it appears that Paul's references to the impossibility of fulfilling the Law is part of a theological and theoretical scriptural argument about the relation between Jews and Gentiles.
You'll notice, if you're still paying attention, that we are no closer to answering the question "What is 'salvation'?" But to move to an answer, we first have to move away from the concept that sin was universalized by the cross, and that Paul was the theologian who first established that truth for us.

There is a false assumption behind the doctrine of salvation that Christians are compelled to evangelize so as to bring salvation to the damned. It is accepted as the driving force of the gospel, yet it was not Paul's motivation after Damascus (the voice didn't tell him "Get off your ass and save the world!"*), and it seems clear Patrick's evangelization of the Irish, much as the rest of the British Isles were converted, happened more by consideration and cooperation than imposition (the pattern used later, especially as the Church became identified with the State). Indeed, the evangelizing effort of the Church as it became an arm of the European state more and more closely resembled the "salvation" offered by Rome: where Patrick (to pick a point of comparison) integrated into the culture, the Church later vigorously uprooted that culture (and this kind of "salvation" was not limited to the Holy See. The United Church of Christ has confessed its sins in its Congregational ancestors in Hawaii, who did so much to help destroy the indigenous culture there in order to "improve" it, and "save" the natives from their "benighted" state.) All of which is to say: "salvation" has often been many things other than being preserved against damnation and the eternal torments of hell. Which is another concept with almost no support in the scriptures, except in the apocalyptic vision of the Revelation to John (who probably didn't mean it literally enough to have a doctrine of the afterlife built upon it). "Salvation," then, entails being saved from. But from what? Hell? Damnation? Perdition? Eternal torment? Few of these actually have Biblical warrant. Even the "Old Testament" God of wrath and judgment is not portrayed in Scripture as a God of eternal wrath:

Yet even now," declares the LORD,
"return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13and rend your hearts and not(AD) your garments."
Return to the LORD your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster.
14Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the LORD your God?

Joel 2: 13-14

The salvation consistently offered by the God of Abraham is one for this life, not for the sweet bye and bye. It is the peculiar Christian doctrine which emphasizes the life after, even though Matthew's parable of the sheep and the goats re-emphasizes that it is how we live that matters, not what we believe ("Lord, when did we see you?") Which brings around to Dorothy Day:

I am reading (Simone Weil's) essays as a part of my Lenten reading...She says that we "...must experience every day, both in the spirit and the flesh, the pains and humiliations of poverty...and further we must do something which is harder than enduring in poverty, we must renounce all compensations: in our contacts with the people around us we must sincerely practice the humility of a naturalized citizen in the country which has received us."

I keep reminding the young people who come to work with us that they are not naturalized citizens...They are not really poor. We are always foreigners to the poor. So we have to make up for it by "renouncing all compensations..."
Dorothy Day, from The Dorothy Day Book, p. 11.

Such renunciations, of course, involve the gift which can neither be given nor received, else it is not a gift; yet only in this giving "renouncing all compensations" do we truly give at all. Call it the paradox of the gift; and use it to consider the paradox of salvation.

The emphasis of the teachings of Jesus, even in John, is for how we conduct ourselves in this life, not in anticipation of the life beyond but in appreciation of "life into the ages." Dorothy Day's renunciation of compensations is John's "sacrament that wasn't," the foot-washing that Jesus conducts in lieu of the eucharist. In John Jesus establishes the importance of humble service, rather than the central sacrament of thanksgiving. It is all of a piece, and the reason we have four gospels, not just one; but especially when John's gospel is read as the "gnostic" one, the "ethereal" one, the one where Jesus (almost literally) sucks all the air out of the room (the final discourse that replaces a final supper goes on for three chapters), this central almost-sacrament is not to be overlooked lightly. There is no thought of compensation in the selfless act; so much so that it is and will remain the sacrament-that-wasn't. There is no thought of compensation in Matthew's parable of the sheep and the goats. By the time of the revelation, it is far too late to recognize the long-delayed compensation. No coincidence, either, that this parable doesn't play a central role in any dominant Christian theology or soteriology. "Lord, when did we see you?" is to plaintive a cry to build a foundation on. But, as Dorothy Day, and the example of most of the saints show, it is enough to build a life on; if we are willing to live a life renouncing all compensations. And that would include the compensation of salvation.

Which is surely harsher than the threat of hellfire and damnation. Perhaps that is why the latter is still the prefered mode of motivation toward confession, rather than any exhortation as to how we should live. Always the conviction comes first, the confession; and following from that should come the changed life, but, if it doesn't....? Well, what are you gonna do? At least they come to church regularly, and keep up with their pledge.

Terrible when a pastor is so cynical, isn't it? But what is the value of salvation if it cuts you off from the life you are living now? What does it profit you to gain the whole world if you lose your own soul? And how is that soul lost? Through failure to believe the correct doctrines, recite the correct creeds, hold the correct theological opinions? Or is it worn away simply by the way you live? By selfishness and withdrawing from the larger community into smaller and smaller and safer and safer tribes, groups, gatherings who think as you do and act as you do and don't demand any more from you than you demand from them, and who by that service provide you with the compensation you cannot renounce? What is salvation? Is it something that comes to you, or something you have to accept, and in accepting it, live it? Which is more salvific? How you live now? Or how you hope to live in the hereafter?

*Sorry. Really lame joke.

Something's Happening Here...

Just to say...

I am in a "voting location" (at 7:45) this morning, and there is already a line downstairs, of people waiting to vote. There was a line there Tuesday, when I was last here; but I didn't realize why until later. And there were reports Tuesday morning, trickling upstairs to us, that there were long lines downstairs.

This in a building where I have trouble getting students to show up for an 8:00 a.m. class.

And by the way: yes, there are voter registration problems here; but it's not from ACORN.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

R U Saved?

The question of salvation is the question of the Absolute: Must there be a salvation from Sin without which the human is damned? If there must be, then the question of salvation is absolute, and there can be only one source of that salvation (and only one way of accepting it).

If salvation is not an absolute, but merely a way to human wholeness, or some other mechanism or manner of making life more bearable, then the question of damnation is lost and the question of salvation is only one for me, if I choose it.

And what, then, of Jesus' complete lack of language about damnation? Or Paul's, for that matter? What of Jesus' offer of life "into the ages," or "abundant life" (two Greek terms usually translated as "eternal life," which took on uncomfortably Platonic overtones as the message traveled from its Hebraic roots into the Greek-influenced world of the Gentiles)? What of the historical and textual criticism which clearly divines a line between true Pauline documents and the pseudo-Pauline documents, the latter which tend toward judgment and distinction and the burdens of the Law which Paul (in opposition to Peter, in his letters and in Acts) clearly did not carry to the Gentiles? As Paul says, it is the Jews who know sin because they know the Law (the Torah). Gentiles who don't know the Law, and are not obligated to keep it (because they are not members of the Abrahamic covenant) are not subject to sin. This was the heart of Paul's argument as to why Christians did not have to subject themselves to male circumcision in order to be accepted as believers in Christ and the God of Abraham.

So without the Law, how is there sin? And yet without sin, how is there salvation? Or is salvation something other than salvation from sin? If we are apart from our Creator, what would communion with our Creator look like? Keeping the law? Keeping the faith?

Or loving one another, as the Creator loves us?

Don't blame me! Grandmère Mimi started it!

Still Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr

A further consequence of modern optimism is a philosophy of history expressed in the idea of progress. Either by a force immanent in nature itself, or by the gradual extension of rationality, or by the elimination of specific sources of evil, such as priesthoods, tyrannical government and class divisions in society, modern man [sic] expects to move toward some kind of perfect society. The idea of progress is compounded of many elements. It is particularly important to consider one element of which modern culture is itself completely oblivious. The idea of progress is possible only upon the ground of a Christian culture. It is a secularized version of Biblical apocalypse and of the Hebraic sense of a meaningful history, in contrast to the meaningless history of the Greeks. But since the Christian doctrine of the sinfulness of man [sic] is eliminated, a complicating factor in the Christian philosophy is removed and the way is open for simple interpretations of history, which relate historical process as closely as possible to biological process and which fail to do justice either to the unique freedom of man or to the daemonic misuse which he may make of that freedom.

Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Intepretation, Vol. I (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press 1996), p. 24.

The problem with The Best American Spiritual Writing 2008 is that it's neither the best American writing, nor is it very "spiritual." Most of it is articles about religious matters, which means they are somehow "spiritual," which means they can be included. Maybe they just needed to continue the series....

On the plus side, this volume did lead me to an article from "The Atlantic Monthly" from November, 2007, about the resurgence in interest in Reinhold Niebuhr. This was a revival which, aside from the appearance of Andrew Bacevich on Bill Moyers' show, I was wholly unaware of. Apparently, however, he is all the rage among neocons and what Mr. Elie calls "theocons." Not surprisingly, almost no one, including the author of the article, Mr. Elie, comes anywhere close to getting Niebuhr "right."

I've had more than a little to say about Niebuhr, but I am not uncritical in my interest in his work. Paul Elie's article calls Reinhold Niebuhr "A Man for All Reasons," but then proceeds to boil his thought down to a few insights from Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Irony of American History. Niebuhr's magisterial and important Gifford Lectures (The Nature and Destiny of Man) get a bare mention, and Niebuhr's other works (especially his sermons, as collected in Justice and Mercy) get no mention at all. This is a bit odd, as Mr. Elie clearly understands that Niebuhr's importance is as a Christian thinker (and pace you non-Christians, in Niebuhr and Elie's hands, that is an inclusive, not exclusive, term). (Mr. Elie also mentions that many of Niebuhr's titles are out of print, but the revival in interest seems to have revived his publications; at least I found Irony and Moral Man are still available.) It's not a surprising elision, though, because although Niebuhr did not consider himself a theologian (Mr. Elie gets that biographical detail right), he did consider himself, to the end, a pastor. So, if one wanted to understand Niebuhr fully, and especially as "the supreme American theologian of the 20th century," (Paul Tillich and H. Reinhold, among others, would be surprised by that designation, to say the least), we have to understand Niebuhr as a Christian pastor and a Christian thinker. Not unlike another misunderstood and misused writer: S. Kierkegaard. But I digress....

Mr. Elie fails to recognize the basis of Niebuhr's thought in ways small and yet important. Niebuhr, he says:

...was a restless and paradoxical figure: an evangelical preacher and the author of the Serenity Prayer, a foe of U.S. isolationism in the 1930s and of U.S. intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s.
Rxcept he was neither restless nor paradoxical, except as seen from the point of view of secular thought. First, Niebuhr was not an "evangelical preacher." True, as Mr. Elie says, he was born to a pastor in the Deutsche Evangelische Synode von Nord-Amerika, which in 1934 would merge with the German Reformed Church to form the German Evangelical & Reformed Church, and then in 1957 merge with the Congregational Christian Church to become the United Church of Christ. But being a German evangelical meant only being a messenger of the good news. It did not mean, and never meant for Niebuhr, being a Bible-thumping, altar-calling, preacher of sin and damnation, hell-fire and brimstone, righteousness and salvation. To imagine Niebuhr an "evangelical" in that mold is not paradox, it's an impossibility. There is nothing in Niebuhr's thought, even in his near-Pietistic "Serenity Prayer," that supports such conservative Christian thinking. Niebuhr was a very orthodox Christian thinker, but his orthodoxy grew out of very different traditions.

Mr. Elie mentions that he first learned of Niebuhr by studying Merton, Day, Percy, and O'Connor. Such is the impermanence of fame, that Mr. Elie doesn't previously know about America's "#1 Theologian", as named by no less an eminence than Time Magazine in the early '50's. This is not really that surprising, of course; as Niebuhr's daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, would write 50 years later:

It's easy enough to assert today, as I do, that Tillich and Niebuhr, or Dun and Temple, or Horton and McConnell were vital presences in the modern life of the Gospel. But they weren't acknowledged as such by most American parsons, and I doubt that they would be today.
One could also point out how few Americans remember Martin Luther King, Jr., was The Rev. Dr. King. His Christianity, despite his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," an ecclesiological treatise disguised as a social justice primer, despite the basis for his "dream," is often, and conveniently, overlooked.

Arthur Schlesinger actually understands Niebuhr better:

Niebuhr was a critic of national innocence, which he regarded as a delusion. After all, whites coming to these shores were reared in the Calvinist doctrine of sinful humanity, and they killed red men, enslaved black men and later on imported yellow men for peon labor - not much of a background for national innocence. "Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem," Niebuhr wrote, "are insufferable in their human contacts." The self-righteous delusion of innocence encouraged a kind of Manichaeism dividing the world between good (us) and evil (our critics).
The idea of "national innocence" comes closer to Niebuhr's true subject in Moral Man and straight through to Irony. Innocence is the idea that relives us of responsibility. Innocence relieves us of the consenquences for our actions, because our hearts (we tell ourselves) are pure. Elie writes of the neocons and theocons who rally 'round Niebuhr's flag, all of whom prooftext his writings and ignore statements that Arthur Schlesinger finds:

"A democracy," Niebuhr said, "cannot of course engage in an explicit preventive war," and he lamented the "inability to comprehend the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history."
In fact, to read Niebuhr now is to occassionally wonder at his idealism and naivete, especially with regards to America as a nation unlike any other:

We were, as a matter of fact, always vague, as the whole liberal culture is fortunately vague, about how power is to be related to the allegedly universal values which we hold in trust for mankind... Such Messianic dreams, though fortunately not corrupted by the lust for power, are of course not free of moral pride which creates a hazard to their realization... Only occasionally does an hysterical statesman suggest that we must increase our power and use it in order to gain the ideal ends, of which providence has made us the trustees.
In the post-civil rights world it is hard to see any power that does not produce a lust for power, which lust always creates "a moral hazard." And "only occasionally does an hysterical statesman suggest that we must increase our power"? Since Eisenhower's famous "military-industrial complex" speech, that seems to be all that American statesman have done.

Niebuhr's awareness of evil is one reason he is popular among neocons as well as Democrats like Barack Obama. But this is too easily a distortion of Niebuhr's thinking. As Schlesinger points out:

In these and other works, Niebuhr emphasized the mixed and ambivalent character of human nature - creative impulses matched by destructive impulses, regard for others overruled by excessive self-regard, the will to power, the individual under constant temptation to play God to history. This is what was known in the ancient vocabulary of Christianity as the doctrine of original sin....

The notion of sinful man was uncomfortable for my generation. We had been brought up to believe in human innocence and even in human perfectibility. This was less a liberal delusion than an expression of an all-American DNA. Andrew Carnegie had articulated the national faith when, after acclaiming the rise of man from lower to higher forms, he declared: "Nor is there any conceivable end to his march to perfection." In 1939, Charles E. Merriam of the University of Chicago, the dean of American political scientists, wrote in "The New Democracy and the New Despotism": "There is a constant trend in human affairs toward the perfectibility of mankind. This was plainly stated at the time of the French Revolution and has been reasserted ever since that time, and with increasing plausibility." Human ignorance and unjust institutions remained the only obstacles to a more perfect world. If proper education of individuals and proper reform of institutions did their job, such obstacles would be removed. For the heart of man was O.K. The idea of original sin was a historical, indeed a hysterical, curiosity that should have evaporated with Jonathan Edwards's Calvinism.
It is still an uncomfortable notion, as it should be. It is ignored by Joel Osteen because it gets in the way of feeling good about getting rich. It is wielded as a club by the conservative Christians against those who are considered irredeemably sinful, with seldom so much as a hint of the humility the doctrine actually invokes. But removing it makes Niebuhr, as Stanley Hauerwas has said, “the theologian of a domesticated god capable of doing no more than providing comfort to the anxious conscience of the bourgeoisie.” This, to be fair, is the fate of many a thinker, and whether one has a choice of being a swinherd who is misunderstood by the swine, than a poet who is misunderstood by humans, is not always up to the individual. It's also the ultimate irony, as this divide is the one so carefully analyzed by Reinhold's younger brother, Richard. The play of Christ and culture is always fraught with partisans who line up on opposing sides. Still, Hauerwas' critique of the use of Niebuhr's thought is sound. But Niebuhr's view of history, as Elie points out, is something we very much need.

Niebuhr was certainly a trenchant social critic. One might almost call him a prophet (except the term is a dangerous one for any individual to apply; that appellation should arise from community consensus, as it requires a clear grasp of what has been said. We aren't nearly there yet, with Niebuhr.) Consider this, from an article Niebuhr published in "The Atlantic Monthly" in 1916:

The German-American appears to have failed to meet either side of this obligation. He has been too often not only indifferent to our ideals but untrue to the virtues of his race. This is a charge that can easily be made against any immigrant; but since no immigrant came to our shores more richly endowed with the characteristics of a unique civilization than the German immigrant the charge seems to be particularly applicable to him.

The German-American has made contributions to our national life, but they have been economic rather than spiritual. He has served the body of our nation well, but his contribution to its soul-life seems to have been inadequate. In developing our national resources, particularly the agricultural resources of the Middle West, the German-American has had no inconspicuous part. His thrift and industry are proverbial, and these virtues were employed to good advantage upon our countrysides and prairies. The industry of the German immigrant converted our prairies into fruitful fields; his thrift contributed to the prosperity of the nation which established his own. By virtue of his prosperity and affluence, and by virtue also of his well-known qualities of dependability and prudence, he has become a potent influence in the communities in which he had been placed. Where the interests of the nation and his own interest were identical, the German-American can has served the interest of the nation well.

But, unhappily, the interests of the nation are not always identical with those of the individual. They often require sacrifices on the part of the individual, and they always demand large social sympathies. In these qualities the German-American seems to be deficient. His virtues seem to be individualistic rather than social. He has unwittingly served the nation through his qualities of prudence and thrift, but he has been rather indifferent to the problems of the nation that did not directly affect him. He has manifested no great interest in a single one of the great moral, political, or religious questions that have agitated the minds of the American people in late years. His failure to do so is all the more striking because he comes from a country where interest in community welfare on the part of the individual has reached its highest development. This indifference toward our national ideals and problems was vaguely felt by the American people even before the outbreak of this war. Perhaps it is the reason why German-Americanism had only to manifest itself as a definite element, to arouse the resentment of the American people. They had not known it to be hostile to our ideals, but they had felt it to be indifferent to our problems. The German-American had poorly fortified himself by solid achievement against the day when his loyalty would be, justly or unjustly, questioned.
After the Holocaust, and then again after the Civil Rights movement in America, applying cultural characteristics to race is a particularly uncomfortable practice; but this was not so in 1916, so we have to read such anachronisms carefully. Niebuhr is addressing, here, the support of German Americans for Germany in the early days of World War I, and then their shift in support after German U-boats began attacking American ships. Niebuhr writes to critique the German Americans for bringing these problems on themselves; but it is not a condemning attack, a "blame the immigrants first," nor even a self-hatred (Niebuhr himself was still struggling with English when he entered Yale Divinity School in 1913.) His stance is critical, but it is the critique of humility, of recognizing his own complicity in the error, and of pointing out, from the position of a pastor, the presence of sin. Niebuhr's diagnosis is spiritual sloth. That is the critique of a theologian, not a think-tank partisan.

What is too easily overlooked about Niebuhr's Christian Realism is that it was a response, first, to the Social Gospel (Moral Man is largely aimed straight at the heart of this theology), and secondly, to the evils Germany proved capable of in World War II. But Christianity always embraces (or should), humility; which is to say, it requires a recognition that the struggle with evil begins in the human heart, not at the nation's borders (and the struggle with evil is not the same thing as the "battle against evil.") These are subtle and nuanced notions, and they do not serve well the cause of a nation which ever decides it is a moral power in the world. Niebuhr clung to that vision; I cannot. If I could, I would introduce Niebuhr to Howard Zinn, and to the critique and evaluation of power conducted by Michel Foucault, and then engage him on a discussion of the theology of the cross and of the crucified God. Which is pretty much what his brother H. Richard tried to do. Niebuhr's landmark Moral Man is a valid and very Christian critique of the Social Gospel, but it is fundamentally a pastoral work, and its meaning and message are badly distorted when they are applied to American foreign policy outside of that context. The distortion comes, ironically, from the same source as Niebuhr's critique: a failure to recognize the limits and burdens of power. To which I would add: a failure to recognize the limits placed on the Christian as a member of civil society. "Give Caesar the things that are Caesars, and God the things that are God's" is not just a clever retort to get out of a sticky situation but a radical view of the individual's obligations to society. Perhaps that is a much more radical view than Niebuhr would countenance. If we try to understand Niebuhr as a theologian, we run up he against statements like this:

I now realize that I made a mistake in emphasizing [original sin] so much, though I still believe that it might be rescued from its primitive corruptions. But it is a red rag to most moderns. I find that even my realistic friends are inclined to be offended by it, though our interpretations of the human situation are identical.
That's a dangerous theological assertion, but a valid pastoral one. If you recognize Niebuhr as a pastor rather than a theologian, his point is well taken. The problem, of course, is that outside as well as inside the church, for the most part, we don't know what "pastor" means except as a figure like Billy Graham or Joel Osteen; and we don't know what theologians do other than consider matters regarding angels and the head of a pin.

Elie notes the distortions neocons and theocons make of Niebuhr (in this he is more charitable than Hauerwas), distortions created by removing Niebuhr’s thought from its context. When Elie gets around to Bacevich, I find that, despite my admiration for him, I reconsider the wisdom of placing too much trust in too human a vessel:
Bacevich, who teaches at Boston University, characterized Niebuhr as a man like himself: a thinker beyond category who “would likely align himself with those dissidents on the left and the right … who view as profoundly dangerous the claims of both neoliberals and neoconservatives to understand history’s purposes and destination.”
The problem here is the problem of the sympathetic fallacy (how helpful those terms from literary criticism become!): mistaking the words of the person for the person themselves. Niebuhr, as his daughter related in her memoir (something Elie mentions only in passing) was hardly “beyond category”. He told her), on the verge of the Eisenhower administration:
You poor girl, you've never lived under a Republican administration. You don't know how terrible this is going to be.
So I’m less worried with categorizing Niebuhr, than with comprehending his thought. And when that thought is taken out of its pastoral context, it is distorted beyond utility.
Although sometimes, it’s as simple as reading the man’s plain words. Arthur Schlesinger reminds us that sometimes Neibuhr was quite specific:
"A democracy," Niebuhr said, "cannot of course engage in an explicit preventive war," and he lamented the "inability to comprehend the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history."
Elie details well the problems with taking Neibuhr's thought out of its Christian context, and treating Reinhold not as a teacher of Christian ethics, but as a “tall, unaffected Midwesterner.” David Brooks will elide the references to God, and overlook the explicit condemnation of pre-emptive war (we no longer "prevent," interestingly enough. In that semantic difference a French philosopher could make a career.) That thinking, of course, is of a piece with Moral Man; but too many think the second part of that title, "Immoral Society," refers to anyplace but the USA. And so the world sails blithely on.

Here is Niebuhr, for example, on democracy:
Democracy has a more compelling justification and requires a more realistic vindication than is given it by the liberal culture with which it has been associated in modern history. The excessively optimistic estimates of human nature and history with which the democratic credo is linked are a source of peril to democratic society, for our contemporary experience refutes this optimism and there is danger that it will seem to refute the democratic ideal as well. Modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis.
You will search in vain to find such sentiments examined in Elie's article, or in most of the others I've linked to here. The idea of "realism" is now equated with realpolitik, which is equated purely with military power. And when that fails us again, as it did in Vietnam, as it has done in Iraq, indeed as it has done in every conflict since World War II, we always concoct of dolchstosslegende to preserve our integrity in the face of reality. John McCain, before the economy dominated our political discussion, asserted once again that Vietnam was lost because the politicians wouldn't let the military fight, an idea that, during that war, meant using nuclear weapons. McCain asserted he wouldn't let that mistake be made again under his Presidency, an idea that should have sent shudders of fear and revulsion down the national spine. Instead, he was credited as presenting a formidable stance on national security. Mr. Elie is right about that much: Niebuhr's thought bids us look at history from a truly historical perspective, something Americans are truly loathe to do.

Ironically, the problem Niebuhr poses today is one described by his brother Richard. It is the question of Christ and Culture, and whether Christ is against culture, or within culture, or alongside culture. That’s the battle Elias describes between Hauerwas and Neuhaus. Interestingly, Neuhaus is represented in the Best Spiritual Writing 2008, with a very orthodox (which presents itself, in this secular age, as unorthodox) view of the nature of the Christian university. Hauerwas, unfortunately, is not included. Which says something, too about what "spiritual writing" is; at least for the editors of that series.

A small side note

Massive post on the importance of being Reinhold to come, but just looking at the summary of Arianna Huffington's latest post this morning, I realized that almost everyone with an opinion is crediting someone else for whatever turnaround in American politics we may be about to witness.

Either Obama is a "movement," not a candidate; or the Intertubes have finally unclogged our democracy and given power to the people; or Americans are finally living up to the "progressive" opinions they supposedly express in polls but never at the polling place. And still nobody gives credit to the people themselves.

There has been a massive turnout in Texas early voting, and even though this is a deeply red state that will probably go for McCain, it's not the energy of the McCain/Palin ticket that's getting people out to vote. As the article says:

The first-day turnout was especially impressive considering that Texas is considered safely in the camp of Republican presidential nominee John McCain and has not been a focus of his opponent, Barack Obama.
And how big is the turnout?

From the blue-blood conservatives of Dallas to the yellow-dog Democrats of the Rio Grande Valley, voters showed up before the polling places opened and were still in line when they closed.

More than 15,000 ballots had been cast in Harris County by noon, a phenomenon repeated in all nearby counties and every major city.

Dallas County surpassed its record of 23,000 voters two hours before the expected end-of-day rush, leading election administrator Bruce Sherbet to say that if the trend keeps up over the course of the 12-day voting period "there's not going to be anything close to compare it to."

In Corpus Christi, the surge of first-day voters briefly overwhelmed a computer system that "wasn't ready to handle the load," election manager Rochelle Limon said, who added that the problem was fixed in 15 minutes.

Even in Galveston, where problems caused by Hurricane Ike give people plenty of other things to worry about, the first-day turnout was heavy, with more than 4,000 ballots cast.
After the Iraq war, followed by Katrina, followed by the meltdown of the financial markets and an Administration that first ran one way, then another way, then still another way (and a Congress which largely followed), I think people realize, once again, that government matters. More than that, they realize that their vote matters; that who is in office is not just a cynical choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledumber. Maybe they're turning out to vote for the new face; maybe they're turning out to vote against the new face. It doesn't matter.

They're turning out. And I think the people deserve the credit. Not some mystical force, new idea, new technology, or even "new politics." Just the people: plain and simple. We've called them "sheeple" long enough. Time to show 'em a little respect.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

I read the news today, oh boy....

Rush Limbaugh:

"Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race... OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed. I'll let you know what I come up with."
George Will:

"And I think this adds to my calculation -- this is very hard to measure -- but it seems to me if we had the tools to measure we'd find that Barack Obama gets two votes because he's black for every one he loses because he's black because so much of this country is so eager, a, to feel good about itself by doing this, but more than that to put paid to the whole Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson game of political rhetoric."
Dusty Rhodes:

Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle.
Aren't you glad racism is now relegated only to people like that? Aren't you glad we've marginalized such ugliness in American society?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

John McCain Speaks: The Joe the Plumber Diaries

In case you missed the Final Presidential Debate last night, I have excerpts from the transcript for your reading pleasure:

But, my friends, will this help Joe the Plumber? That is the new standard for American decision making, my friends.
My friends, I resent the implication that my supporters are not honorable and patriotic Americans who love their country and hate higher taxes and class warfare and don't care about the "health" of pregnant mothers. I just won't stand for it, my friends. It's not fair, and Barack Obama should repudiate any comments that hurt my feelings. 'Cause that's just mean, my friends, and Barack Obama is a big meanie!
John McCain knows how to reprocess nuclear fuel. And it will create millions of jobs! American jobs! He knows how to do it, my friends!
All this talk about the "health" of the economy, my friends, that's such an elastic term, you know. My friends, I know how to make jobs! American jobs, my friends! Millions of American jobs! And no wealth will have to be spread around, because you're rich, my friends, you're rich! And that's why we have to cut the capital gains tax and lower taxes on investors by buying up bad mortgages so house prices will go back up so high people will be have to sell their houses and move into refrigerator boxes because we're going to give you a tax credit that will allow you to have a voucher to pick your child's school in a state with the lowest health insurance coverage and we'll tax the other guy's premiums to pay for it as soon as we freeze government spending after we finish authorizing more money for the war in Iraq which I know how to win, my friends! Because otherwise we'd have class warfare, my friends, and Joe the Plumber doesn't want that.

The Times They Are A Changin'....

I got this via Atrios, who seemed to think it a meaningless shift in emphasis by Mr. Klein.

I leave you to judge for yourself.

My comment on it? It's a refreshing change of countenance. True, Klein is saying (without meaning it) that pundits and journalists are merely courtiers, and Obama is the new Prince Regent so they must now pay him homage, but that's always been true.

Yes, the pendulum is swinging, the tide is turning (all metaphors that mean it's not because of the genius of the individual, but due to the genius of the times,as Hegel would say), and yes, pundits will have to swing along with it (and race ahead and some point, and declare again they are leading the parade).

Still...pass the popcorn. Just, none for John, okay?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Hiddenness of Our Wound

Okay, maybe it's not all McCain's fault:

“He’s neither-nor,” said Ricky Thompson, a pipe fitter who works at a factory north of Mobile, while standing in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store just north of here. “He’s other. It’s in the Bible. Come as one. Don’t create other breeds.”

“I would think of him as I would of another of mixed race,” said Glenn Reynolds, 74, a retired textile worker in Martinsdale, Va., and a former supervisor at a Goodyear plant. “God taught the children of Israel not to intermarry. You should be proud of what you are, and not intermarry.”

“He’s going to tear up the rose bushes and plant a watermelon patch,” said James Halsey, chuckling, while standing in the Wal-Mart parking lot with fellow workers in the environmental cleanup business. “I just don’t think we’ll ever have a black president.”


“He doesn’t come from the African-American perspective — he’s not of that tradition,” said Kimi Oaks, a prominent community volunteer in the Mobile area, with apparent approval. Ms. Oaks, along with about 15 others, had gathered after Sunday services at Mobile’s leading Methodist church to discuss the presidential campaign. “He’s not a product of any ghetto,” Ms. Oaks added.

At the same time, however, she vigorously rejected the idea that race would be important in the election, a question met with general head-shaking from those assembled; Ms. Oaks said she was “terribly offended,” as a Southerner, at even being asked about this.
The quandary of the modern South in a nutshell: we have successfully excluded race from public discourse. We haven't begun to eliminate racism. What we have succeeded in doing is making racism unfashionable, and an offensive inference. But frankly, it was always that. In the South I grew up in "nigger" was an offensive term, and used as such. The only difference now is, people are more cautious about who they use the term around.

These sentiments are a distinct minority, just as it wasn't the entire town of Jasper, Texas, who murdered James Byrd, Jr. I've known some very decent people in East Texas; I still do. I've also known some very scary ones.

But America's hidden wound is only hidden because people insist on hiding from it. On the other hand, before you sink into despair, consider the generations espousing these sentiments, and what a minority they are today. Personal experience changes things, and in that there is always hope. Just consider the final words of the article:

“I’ve always been against the blacks,” said Mr. Rowell, who is in his 70s, recalling how he was arrested for throwing firecrackers in the black section of town. But now that he has three biracial grandchildren — “it was really rough on me” — he said he had “found out they were human beings, too.”

Checkers, Mate

McCain says: "King me!"

Of some of the more offensive things yelled about Obama at his rallies, McCain said he's "heard the same thing at Sen. Obama's rallies said about me." But for anyone to intimate that the majority of people at his rallies are like that, McCain said, "I won't accept that insult."

McCain brought up the harsh charges made by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., about the tenor of McCain-Palin rallies, saying, "a respected member of Congress, John Lewis, who I admire…somehow linked me and Gov. Palin to racism, to segregationism, to some of the worst aspects ever to appear in American politics. And Sen. Obama refuses, or has not yet repudiated those comments…"

"It's unfair and it's outrageous," McCain said. "The accusation that Congressman Lewis made is so far out of bounds and so disturbing, of course it stopped me in my tracks...He even referred to the bombing of a church in Birmingham...”
All that's lacking is a reference to Cindy's plain Republican cloth coat....