Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Yet at the coming of the king of heaven/all's set at six and seven"

Alright, so, I wandered over to Crooked Timber for lack of anything better to do, and found myself in the middle of a conversation apparently concerned with John Rawls' Theory of Justice, a theory I've never found particularly satisfactory anyway. The critique cited is one new to me, but the conclusion reached at the blog was what was interesting:

The difference principle may tell you how not to get either justice or fairness while still doing the right thing. This is so different from what Rawls thinks he is giving us that it is really striking.
I'm not trying to wade too deeply into this discussion, because the last time I bothered to read Rawls was in law school (lo these nearly 25 years ago!), and I understand he has revised some of the Theory since then. But the basic ideas of Rawls' theory are these:
no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance."

This is known as the "original position." From it, Rawls determines the best course for any society is to maximize the position of the least well-off, since that could be you. The principles chose, then:

...are the principles that rational and free persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamentals of the terms of their association.

This leads to the first principle of justice, or the "liberty principle:"

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.
And that, in turn, leads to the "difference principle," where social and economic inequalities are arranged to benefit the least-advantaged members of society. One response to the vision of such a world was Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron"(although, to be fair, that wasn't the society Rawls' envisioned). Another response is the "kidnapping" scenario discussed at Crooked Timber, where it might be prudent to pay off kidnappers, but it's hardly fair or just. As Crooked Timber points out, the same can be said for bailing out Wall Street. It may be doing the right thing; but it hardly seems fair or just.

Why doesn't this critique surprise me? Because Rawls' is working within a constraint that ends his effort before it begins. He begins with the assumption that a utilitarian model is the most ethical social model imaginable; and yet it isn't ethical enough, because it isn't fair enough. So all he's trying to do is to tweak the model until, at least in theory, it is more just. But the central problem is that justice is both ideal and real, both metaphysical and imminent. In fact, this is why Aristotle placed metaphysics as the first subject above the physical, and made it superior. Metaphysics, said Aristotle, is the realm of the cause of the physical. It is, in other words, metaphysics, be it merely the realm of the abstract or the Kantian Ideal, which gives rise to any production or even effort toward, justice in concreto. Rawls' theory, like utilitarianism itself, starts with the concrete and then seeks a justification for it that will suit an ideal. Neither theory pushes society toward an ideal, or even holds out that ideal as a reality to which it should strive even if it can never be achieved. Instead, both theories describe the present situation and propose a few minor adjustments which will inconvienence no one, but can be used to reassure us that we are doing something for someone; or even better, for society at large, maybe even (albeit unintentionally) for ourselves.

And yet we don't have to so much as turn a hair.

The basiliea tou theou sort of resembles the original position, and would seem to reinforce the difference principle, except the basileia tou theou posits a metaphysical cause which provides a living purpose which makes it at the very least a Jamesian "living option," and that turns Rawls' "difference principle" on its ear. Rawls' wants us to act, or better establish a system (which will act for us) that recognizes the reality of the least advantaged. The basiliea tou theou sets before us the telos of being the least advantaged, and tells us not to rely on some system to seek justice for us, but to do justice by living the race to the bottom, to being last of all and servant of all (which will require a constant effort, once you get there, just to stay there). Then justice will be served not because everyone has as equitable a distribution of goods as society will tolerate, but because everyone is taking care of everyone else.

What else, after all, does a servant do, except serve?

And yet what a lot of activity that would incur; and what a lot of effort; and what a lot of doing for others, rather than expecting a society, a system, a government, a set of laws, even a church or a charity, to do it for us. As Crooked Timber puts it:

At best, the difference principle points out a correct (plausibly appealing) policy path in an environment in which you can’t get justice or fairness. More specifically: it points out a correct path in an environment in which securing justice and fairness would be prohibitively costly in terms of other genuine values.
It's very much a question, then, of what other genuine values require Christians (and no one else carries this burden) not to seek the bottom of society, to be last of all and servants of all. Because that's the one genuine value of the basileia tou theou; the one that makes all the others genuine, or not, in relation to is. Which would make the kergyma of the gospels the most prohibitively costly value of all.

But how else do you get justice or fairness at all?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

D.C is a Southern City

When I lived in Chicago (the Coldest Year Of My Life), my daughter was in the 1st grade. Students lined up outside to wait for the doors to open. They were only allowed inside early if the temperature was below -5F. Otherwise, they could wait.

I thought about that when I saw this:

"My children's school was canceled today, because of what? Some ice," Obama said, and all at the table started laughing.

"As my children pointed out, in Chicago school is never canceled," he continued. He said that in their old hometown, "you'd go outside for recess in weather like this. You wouldn't even stay indoors."

The President said he would have to bring "some flinty Chicago toughness" to Washington.

Asked if he was calling Washingtonians wimps, Obama responded: "I'm saying that when it comes to the weather, folks in Washington don't seem to be able to handle things."
I do wonder, however, how low he'll want to set the thermostat in the summer. People in Chicago seemed to think anything above 77 called for refrigeration. They never believed me when I spoke of getting into cars with plastic steering wheels in summer, and burning my hands for 20 minutes until the A/C or the open windows cooled the interior down.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike--27 January 2009

My favorite volume of Updike is The Early Stories. I cherish the Tarbox tales, and still think his best form was in the short story. That, or in "Talk of the Town," of which some are collected in Christmas at The New Yorker. I like Updike for the same reasons I like Cheever, it seems: both are "religious writers," but you don't know that unless you know that; and both excelled at the short story, even though both wrote a number of fine novels.

I had, and read, the Rabbit tetralogy, but if what's kept is any indication of what's favored, I have them no more. Likewise the trilogy based loosely on The Scarlet Letter. I had (and read) S. and "Roger's Version," and particularly liked the latter's discussion of a very technological (and almost quaint already) attempt to establish a mathematical proof of God. This description is pretty much the novel as I remember it:

A born-again computer whiz kid bent on proving the existence of God on his computer meets a middle-aged divinity professor, Roger Lambert, who'd just as soon leave faith a mystery. Soon the computer hacker begins an affair with professor Lambert's wife -- and Roger finds himself experiencing deep longings for a trashy teenage girl.
The utter failure of that attempt, in a conclusion as almost final as Godel's proof of incompleteness, was somehow reassuring to me the first time I read it. But, again, neither volume is on my shelf, and I never tried to read the third leg of the set; so perhaps that is commentary enough on their literary value, at least for me.

I never read all of his more famous novels, including Couples. But sexually explicit Updike sounds not only like a contradiction in terms to me, but also like trying to describe a college text on human sexuality as "titillating." S. convinced me Updike was not a writer who could imagine a woman's point of view, and while almost every novel included lots of philandering (not just by Harry Angstrom), it was never the pornographically engaging kind, but more the flatly descriptive and distinctly unalluring act. No one really wants to be objective about their sexuality, but Updike was too good a writer to make his ordinary characters suddenly into porn stars. It was never what you read him for, and sometimes you wondered if he wouldn't rather leave it out altogether.

My favorite Updike novel remains The Witches of Eastwick, for reasons I can't explain or even remember. Probably for that reason I never thought of reading the sequel; but perhaps, if only for sentimental reasons, I will now. But only perhaps; mostly Updike's novels made me consider that the form was already spent, that by and large it really was just an overlong short story, and unless writers follow the form of a Joyce or a Proust, there really isn't much point in doing one, or in reading one, for that matter. Both Cheever and Updike had that problem, it seems to me, one they never could quite face: where a short story is concise and lucid, a novel soon becomes rambling, windy, and lost on its way to who knew where anyway.

I think I'll have to read a few Tarbox stories tonight, if only to honor his passing.

A change is gonna come...

When I think of John McCain, concerned that detainees at Gitmo might be housed in US prisons, I think of Mr. Arnold's observation. Gitmo and Abu Ghraib and "black prisons" have done more to promote terrorism than perhaps even military bases in Saudi Arabia could do. And to what purpose? And why are we surprised?

While we all swear defiance to military invaders and imagine ourselves the "Wolverines" of "Red Dawn," we equally imagine all opposition crumbling before our mighty armaments. Which didn't happen in Korea, which didn't happen in Vietnam, which didn't happen in Iraq or Afghanistan. In fact, it wasn't even the bombing that won World War II (despite the examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which are actually exceptions that prove the rule): it was ground combat. The brutality of "island hopping" in the Pacific, the brutality of slogging across the face of Europe, from the beaches of Normandy and the bootheel of Italy and across the mountains and plains of Russia and Eastern Europe, into Berlin. Later studies would determine the bombing in Europe, just as it did in London, strengthened the resolve of the citizenry, rather than broke it. Funny, we admire the British for their strength of character during the Blitz, while we imagine the Germans in Dresden or Munich (where the rubble remains, piled into grass covered mounds that dot the city) would simply gave into despair before our righteous weapons of death.

We aren't even righteous anymore. We are torturers. We are kidnappers and tormenters and barbarians who abandon even our most cherished legal ideals for the sake of revenge. We created a Hobbesian nightmare, red in tooth and claw, a designed and ordained and organized state of nature, which makes it worse than the anarchy of no-government Hobbes envisioned, and we have called it government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Like it or not, this was done in our name. I try to imagine Abraham Lincoln hallowing this conflict, this "war on terror," in terms that would make it seem noble and sacred. It is impossible to imagine.

We have met the enemy. The enemy is us. We are the cause of our greatest fears and nightmares. But the solution is very, very simple.

The "Golden Rule" is a simple statement that you should consider others as being as important as yourself. It is a simple idea, that your security, your well-being, is founded on a moral principle, not the principle of greatest power. Stated negatively, it is: "Don't do to others what you would not want done to you." A simple enough idea to stop violence and brutality. Then, take it positively: "Do to others what you would want done to you." You want justice? Do justice? You want peace? Offer peace? You want security? Give the "other" security.

It is not a zero sum game, where they have what we need, and the more we take from them, the more we have for us. It is a simple matter of presence: the less security we offer "them," the less we have for ourselves. It is our good fortune that, after 8 years of an administration that didn't understand this simple truth, we now have an administration that does.

Now we will see the difference.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Before the Law

I've mentioned the difficulties inherent in prosecuting a torture case against Administration officials who ordered the torture, and I still stand by that analysis. It isn't that prosecution is impossible, but it faces some daunting obstacles. Still, if the prosecution could manage to get this across to a jury:

The C.I.A.'s interrogation program is remarkable for its mechanistic aura. "It's one of the most sophisticated, refined programs of torture ever," an outside expert familiar with the protocol said. "At every stage, there was a rigid attention to detail. Procedure was adhered to almost to the letter. There was top-down quality control, and such a set routine that you get to the point where you know what each detainee is going to say, because you've heard it before. It was almost automated. People were utterly dehumanized. People fell apart. It was the intentional and systematic infliction of great suffering masquerading as a legal process. It is just chilling."
That's Jane Meyer, from her New Yorker article in 2007. This is what Pres. Obama is going to shut down. Put that description in context, it's even more chillling:

Paul Gimigliano, a spokesman for the C.I.A., denied any legal impropriety, stressing that “the agency’s terrorist-detention program has been implemented lawfully. And torture is illegal under U.S. law. The people who have been part of this important effort are well-trained, seasoned professionals.” This spring, the Associated Press published an article quoting the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Silvestre Reyes, who said that Hayden, the C.I.A. director, “vehemently denied” the Red Cross’s conclusions. A U.S. official dismissed the Red Cross report as a mere compilation of allegations made by terrorists. And Robert Grenier, a former head of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center, said that “the C.I.A.’s interrogations were nothing like Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo. They were very, very regimented. Very meticulous.” He said, “The program is very careful. It’s completely legal.”
Read that last quote again: "They were very, very regimented. Very meticulous.” And recognize what a world of evil can hide in such banal truth.

The horror of this story is how ordinary it is, and how efficient, how well-organized, how managed. The American genius for control has turned from nature (dams, levees, the famous pumps that keep New Orleans dry, or used to) to humans. According to a recent poll, 58% of respondents agreed with the proposition by President Obama that the United States not use torture as part of the U.S. campaign against terrorism, no matter what the circumstances. Now, the question is, will they agree that those who carried out the acts reported by Jane Meyer and others, be prosecuted? Because that's the test; if we only prosecute in order to prove a point, we continue to use the legal system for political, not legal, purposes. Prosecutions for torture or other war crimes, or other crimes at all (such as violation of FISA, like the data-mining of all US communications that Keith Olbermann has been reporting on the last two nights), must be done because there is a basis for criminal convictions, not merely to "send a message." Because if the message is returned to sender by a trial, the message turns into: "You can get away with it. In fact, it will be approved."

And that would be worse than failing to prosecute. I would note, too, as of this writing, the GOP is upset with Eric Holder's nomination because of this issue, and Obama is remaining mum about it. This is a wise course to follow, and may even explain his unwillingness to cut off all discussion of torture as an interrogation option. This is a mine field, still. It is best to proceed cautiously, albeit with determination to get out of it, and clean it up when we can.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

And now that it's all over....

Before the whole thing slips away, a final word on the Inauguration; or rather, the prayers at the Inauguration:

I'm not a fan of "public" prayers, so I tried to ignore Rev. Rick Warren's prayer at the inauguration. But it caught my ear when he ended with The Lord's Prayer; caught my ear, and bothered me. And then I found out that specifically Christian reference was hardly unique in recent history:

the absence of non-Christian religious leaders was felt even more deeply starting in 2001, when Graham's son Franklin ended his invocation with an exclusive statement: "We ... acknowledge you alone as our Lord, our Savior and our Redeemer. We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit." This was not a prayer offered on behalf of all Americans but on behalf of Christians alone. It bookended George W. Bush's Inauguration with a benediction by Kirbyjon Caldwell that declared, "We respectfully submit this humble prayer in the name that's above all other names, Jesus the Christ," and instructed, "Let all who agree say 'Amen.' " If you didn't agree, there was apparently nothing for you to do but shuffle your feet.
I'm not even sure what a religious invocation is doing in a secular ceremony, one the Founding Fathers sought to keep as secular as possible, considering the oath of office they wrote into the Constitution. Per the Time article, this practice started with FDR, who invited a second pastor and prayer as a specifically political act. Apparently nobody else picked up on the politics of the matter until a few decades later, and then it became all evangelical Protestants, all the time.

So I'm more than a little sympathetic to Atrios' response to the Inaugural. And that's why I'm uncomfortable with public prayers: who are they for, anyway? Some Protestants don't recognize the forms used by Catholics and Anglicans, but would consider the source (especially Roman Catholics) as false Christians. Extreme Protestants dno't even recognize other Protestants as "true" Christians. When I offer a prayer as a pastor, I don't do it as a man with a closer connection to God than the audience, but as a minister on behalf of a group of like-minded persons, as a representative, if you will. Whom do I represent, whom do I speak for, in a crowd as diverse as that on the Mall yesterday, or watching around the world? As Atrios says, he's a non-believer, and he exists, and even the slight mention of such persons in the Inaugural Address was significant because of that. But for whom does the religious figure (pastor, priest, rabbi, prelate) speak at a ceremony as deliberately secular as the Presidential Inauguration? (The words "so help me God" are not part of the Constitutional Oath of Office.) If I were to open my prayer with: "The Lord be with you," how many people would know how to respond? But the words present my understanding that prayer is a communal enterprise, that what I offer is a "common prayer." If I offer a pastoral prayer, in the Zwinglian tradition, I offer a prayer on behalf of the congregation, out of a pastoral relationship. What prayer can I offer on behalf of 1.8 million people? If I offer a more personal prayer, aren't I, as a Christian, running afoul of the admonition in Matthew not to pray in public? Besides, if I offer an "invocation" at a non-religious service, which god do I invoke? Or whose?

And that highlights my other problem with such prayers: the pastor/priest/rabbi/what-have-you is too often a servant to Mammon. How can you not be, when you are offering a prayer, not on behalf of your congregation, or your church, but for a politician, for the person who invited you there, and for the secular occasion everyone came for? How do I, as a Protestant, offer a non-Protestant prayer? Would I expect an Orthodox Priest to offer a non-Orthodox prayer, a rabbi to offer a non-Jewish prayer, a Buddhist to offer anything but a Buddhist prayer? If a shaman were to burn sage and wave it around, how should I respond? If a Tibetan Buddhist were to whirl a prayer wheel, what would that mean to me? My religious traditions are not Buddhist, or Hindu, or even Jewish or Orthodox. What might be meaningful words or actions to them, are meaningless phrases to me. And what, then, is the purpose of the prayer? Ritual? Symbolism? An empty gesture of tolerance or, worse, like FDR's original invitation, of politics?

Pastor Dan has an excellent analysis of what he sees as the failings in Rev. Warren's prayer, and essentially he finds that it violates Public Prayers 101. He points out:

Warren...fumbled through a recitation of variations on the name of Jesus, followed by a clumsy transition to the Lord's Prayer. Any pastor worth his salt knows that you only drag that out when:

1. You want to conclude with participation from the congregation, and/or

2. When you don't know what else to say.
In other words, if you can't offer a good ecumenical and universal prayer, don't offer one at all, because what you end up offering is just a mess. And yes, this minefield can be navigated well. PD also points out Rev.Lowery's prayer "worked" because:

His message was delivered on the sly, through the hymn quotes and scriptural references:...the African-American narrative has come to fulfillment in Barack Obama's investiture as president.
And Warren's message was, what? We're all evangelical Protestants now? Bishop Gene Robinson had said he would specifically offer a prayer as non-specifically Christian as he could craft, and he did fairly well at the effort. But then we're back to the question: if that's what you have to do, what kind of prayer is it?

Just what is prayer for?

The one time I gave a prayer at a "public service," it was a Thanksgiving service in a Christian church, but an ecumenical one, as a rabbi and his congregation were invited to participate. The rabbi noted in a planning meeting that any reference to any name or title for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was a violation of the 2nd Commandment, and made he and his congregation uncomfortable. The pastor "in charge" of the service refused to change his language or apologize for a specifically Christian service. But when I offered a prayer just before the rabbi's part in the service, I intentionally made my language as neutral as possible, and removed all references to the Creator of the Universe that might be a stumbling block for any of the rabbi's congregation. As he passed me on the way up as I was stepping down from the pulpit, he whispered: "Thank you."

I've always cherished that memory, but that was in a church, at a religious service. I knew what my prayer was for and, more or less, who was there participating in it. So I more than winced when Rev. Warren ended his prayer with a clear invitation to a unison prayer no one, clearly, was going to engage in with him. For one thing, which words to use? "Forgive us our trespasses," or "Forgive us our debts"? That alone represents a split within the Christian community, and I don't even know what the Orthodox preference is, or if they use a different translation altogether (see how tricksy this is?). Then, of course, there's the problem of all the non-believers, as well as the religious who are not Christian, and pretty soon you're wondering: "Rev. Warren, what were you thinking?"

And why was he asked to offer it in the first place? Dig a little deeper into the problem, and you see a split between the lip-service paid to Judaism in American politics, and it's actual presence in political ceremonies since 1985. As the country's foreign policy becomes more determinedly supportive of Israel (which is synonymous with Judaism only among its more rabid American defenders who accuse any critics of Israel of Antisemitism), the presence of rabbis on the Inaugural dais has disappeared. Curious, no? Politics? Or simply pandering to a voting bloc?

And what, pray tell, is the difference? And what does it say about "religious leaders" that they participate in this practice?

Well, I suppose it says a lot of things, and one can look upon it in either/or fashion: either it's wrong, and you don't do it, or it's okay because you're at least trying to do something good and don't want your religious practice seen as a mystery cult or an exclusive province of initiated believers. But less and less do my sympathies run in the direction of invocations where none is needed, and even "benedictions" where the ceremony is a secular one.

Tonight on Hardball Chris Matthews questioned the National Prayer Service held this morning. He pointed out that he was a "religious person," but he wondered about the purpose of a service where nobody really says what they believe, where nobody really worships in the manner they find most compatible with their spirituality, and which therefore isn't really a worship service at all. What's the point, he wondered.

Yeah. Something like that.

"We Seek A New Way Forward"

I like the direction of things already:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 20, 2009, a National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation, and call upon all of our citizens to serve one another and the common purpose of remaking this Nation for our new century.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twentieth day of January, in the year of our Lord two thousand nine, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-third.
Sounds like the best of the UCC in the world to me.

The Nation

From the E&R Hymnal:

Almighty God, the Father of mankind, who has commanded us to make intercession for all men, hear us while we pray:

That it may please thee to bless the whole family of mankind from one end of the earth to the other; to destroy every form of tyranny and superstition; to give light to those who sit in darkness and in teh shadow of death; to remember for good all rulers, and to bind all nations in unity, peace, and concord,


That it may please thee to look with favor upon our ocuntry; to preserve to us the blessings of an equal and impartial freedom; to bring in upon us the righteousness of the kingdom of God, and so to control us by thy good Spirit that we may use our liberties only for thy glory and the welfare and progress of mankind,


That it may please thee to bless our President and all who bear office; to rule their hearts in they faith, fear, and love, that they may ever seek thy honor and glory, and that their example may be a power for goodness in the life of this nation,


That it may please thee to bless our law-makers in all their deliberations; to give each one a right understanding, a pure purpose and sound speech that cannot be condemned, and to enable them to rise above all self-seeking and party zeal into the larger sentiments of public good and human brotherhood,


That it may please thee to purge our political life of every evil that would keep back the people from the highest measure of virtue and happiness; to subdue in this nation all unhallowed thirst for conquest and love of vainglory; and to inspire us with calmness and self-restraint, and the endeavor to accomplish thy will everywhere upon this earth,


That it may please thee to prosper the community in which we live and all its institutions; to bless every effort made in our midst to remove the causes of ignorance and crime; to raise the general level of comfort, and to give a higher standard to public and private life,


O God of our fathers, who from generation to generation hast watched over us in love, hear us now in hours of perplexity and need. Revive in all hearts a spirit of devotion to the public good, that strife and tumult may cease, and justice and truth be exalted. Enable the people of this nation and evey nation to live in righteousness and good will, so that the coming of the kingdom of brotherhood and peace may be hastened, and thy will be done upon the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Adding: if you haven't gone here today, you'll probably want to.

What I am expecting today

Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day-2009

The Drum Major Instinct

But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. "I must be first." "I must be supreme." "Our nation must rule the world." (Preach it) And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I'm going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

God didn't call America to do what she's doing in the world now. (Preach it, preach it) God didn't call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I'm going to continue to say it. And we won't stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

But God has a way of even putting nations in their place. (Amen) The God that I worship has a way of saying, "Don't play with me." (Yes) He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, "Don’t play with me, Israel. Don't play with me, Babylon. (Yes) Be still and know that I'm God. And if you don't stop your reckless course, I'll rise up and break the backbone of your power." (Yes) And that can happen to America. (Yes) Every now and then I go back and read Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And when I come and look at America, I say to myself, the parallels are frightening. And we have perverted the drum major instinct.

But let me rush on to my conclusion, because I want you to see what Jesus was really saying. What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It's very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, "You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?"

But that isn't what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. (Yes) It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."

And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, "Now brethren, I can't give you greatness. And really, I can't make you first." This is what Jesus said to James and John. "You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared." (Amen)

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. (Amen) That's a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don't have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"We Are One"

Among others who can lay some claim to Barack Obama is the United Church of Christ.

The symbol of the United Church of Christ comprises a crown, cross and orb enclosed within a double oval bearing the name of the church and the prayer of Jesus, "That they may all be one" (John 17:21).

It is based on an ancient Christian symbol called the "Cross of Victory" or the "Cross Triumphant." The crown symbolizes the sovereignty of Christ. The cross recalls the suffering of Christ—his arms outstretched on the wood of the cross—for the salvation of humanity. The orb, divided into three parts, reminds us of Jesus' command to be his "witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The verse from Scripture reflects our historic commitment to the restoration of unity among the separated churches of Jesus Christ.
There is a phrase, claimed by many churches, used by the E&R church (one of the UCC's predecessors), that Obama also seems to embody:

In esssentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity.
It's fair to say he represents the best of UCC. And that he embodies what the UCC teaches and preaches.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Feast Day of St. Antony of Egypt

Go to Wounded Bird for the whole story. But from her link, I was struck by this from the summary of the saint's life:

They did not simply renounce the world, but were diligent in prayer for their fellow Christians, worked with their hands to earn money that they might distribute it as alms, and preached and gave personal counseling to those who sought them out.

In 321, Christians in Alexandria were being persecuted by the Emperor Maximinus (the rule of Constantine was not yet universal), and Antony visited Alexandria to encourage those facing the possibility of martyrdom. He visited again in 335, when Arianism was strong in the city, and converted many, by his preaching and testimony, and by prayer and the working of miracles. His biography was written by Athanasius, who said of him: "Who ever met him grieving and failed to go away rejoicing?"
An excellent statement on the Desert Fathers. And of what Athanasius said of Anthony: what more could any of us aspire to in this life?

Ascynchronous Synchronicity

Getting at the point I was trying to make below, this excerpt from a book due out in June:

Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle created the most famous detectives in literary history: C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes. As skilled as those two sleuths were, they missed the nineteenth century's most outrageous crime, the death of the human being. People began to lose their essence. Scientists, philosophers, and writers all tried, unsuccessfully, to recalculate what it meant to be human. Ghosts and shades replaced human beings, and they mouthed off, from this side and the beyond.

We in the twenty-first century have paid a steep price for that monumental loss. We have a hard time today, recognizing real people. Instead, we read of enemy combatants, terrorists and extremists, who get blown away, dusted, or eliminated. Iraqi men, women, and children vaporize as euphemisms--collateral damage. When the CIA resorts to extreme interrogation methods, it does not torture fully alive human beings, but suspected Al Qaeda members.

We must once again recognize ourselves as actors and agents in the shaping of both political and social ideals, not just for our own sake, but also to create a much-needed community. I see no other way to put a halt to the growing fascination with the total annihilation of the planet.
Barry Sanders, Unsuspecting Souls: The Disappearance of the Human Being (Counterpoint Press, June, 2009).

I'm not sure this is really any different from when Roman soldiers slaughtered the citizens of Jerusalem with impunity, or when medieval torturers tweaked screams out of prisoners with techniques even Dick Cheney would blanch at employing. So I don't "human" has really disappeared from our vocabulary, so much as it has never been fully realized in human society. We have always too easily drawn a line between "us" and "them," and in tolerating George Bush for 8 years, we have done so again. This description of the "enemy" in our "war on terror" is certainly accurate; and it is that "enemy" which was the subject of our torture.

And that's the problem with prosecuting torture: unless we establish a community that is more concerned with morality than existence, we cannot condemn inhuman acts done in the name of our survival. And oddly, the much-praised analsyes of Reinhold Niebuhr are not much help to us here; indeed, they are a hindrance. To get around his conclusions, we first have to establish that torture makes us more vulnerable, not stronger. The better argument for torture has always been that it is inhumane. But what about modern existence doesn't collide directly with our ideals of humanity? Who among us doesn't think Sanders is partially right, and we've lost the sense of what it means to be human? That such a loss may not be so historically new is beside the point. That such a loss may reflect on the failure of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to save us from ourselves, is almost irrelevant. The quesion is, if it is true, what can we do about it? In terms of the current question of what do to about the soon-to-be last Administration: whom can we prosecute? And will that restore our national soul?

As Sanders indicates, the solution is not governmental, it is societal. "We must...recognize ourselves as actors and agents in the shaping of both political and social ideals, not just for our own sake, but also to create a much-needed community." I would go further, and say the solution is spiritual. Whether a prosecution, any prosecution, would reign in the powers of the Presidency, or establish as a matter of Constitutional law that our system prevents any President from committing illegal acts, the question remains: how do we learn to "recognize ourselves as actors and agents in the shaping of both political and social ideals"?

Because until we do, can we really expect any system, no matter how well designed, no matter how well intended its function, to do it for us?

Friday, January 16, 2009

For no reason other than I can

Let me just say I'm ready to be an agnostic on the question of whether or not Bush & Co. should be prosecuted for various crimes and violations of law.

Even Daniel Schorr thinks something should be done, for the very reason that an inquiry, at least, would set the boundaries of what is acceptable practice by a President. Let me stop right there, because that is the key issue. A guest on Pacifica Radio this week, during the Senate confirmation hearings for Eric Holder, explain the "Office of Legal Counsel" in the White House, the office from which John Yoo issued his infamous legal memos.

The guest pointed out that, rather eerily like Richard Nixon said, when the President does something, it's legal. And it's legal because the Office of Legal Counsel advises the President on what is, and is not, legal (which makes the Office both very powerful and very important when you seek good governance rather than just governmental power). The only check on this establishment of what's legal is the courts. If the President should be taken to court because of his actions (difficult to do for a number of reasons), and lose (think Hamdan v. Rumsfeld), only then is the power of the President limited. Absent that extraordinary situation, basically, it's true: if the President does it, it'e legal.

Frankly, it's the only way the system can work. It depends a great deal on the good will of the President, and the restraint of the Office of Legal Counsel. Now, let's turn our attention to proposals for prosecutions, keeping in mind our sympathies for Daniel Schorr's position.

Obama is so far ambiguous about his plans, which put Paul Krugman in a righteous lather. Krugman argues, quite persuasively, that:

...[I]f we don’t have an inquest into what happened during the Bush years — and nearly everyone has taken Mr. Obama’s remarks to mean that we won’t — this means that those who hold power are indeed above the law because they don’t face any consequences if they abuse their power.
Which sounds pretty reasonable, until you consider that Prof. Krugman is an economist, not a lawyer; and he imagines a legal scenario not that far removed from the "ticking bomb" scenario beloved of torture apologists like Sen. John Cornyn and aficionados of "24". I.e., it's a fictional scenario where you get to write the ending. As Woody Allen said in "Annie Hall": "Don't you wish real life was like this?"

In the "ticking bomb" scenario, you know the torture will cause the terrorist to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Unfortunately, of course, it doesn't work that way in real life. In real life, the torture victim tends to tell you whatever you want to hear, and by the time you find out he was lying, it's too late, and not only have you wasted your time on a useless and indeed damaging interrogation technique (interrogators insist gaining the trust of the prisoner is far more productive than torturing them), but you've sold your soul for a mess of pottage. And in all ways possible, you have failed those you were supposed to protect. So it's a losing proposition that you insist will work only because you insist you can write the outcome; but, of course, you can't.

Enter Alan Dershowitz, a man who has supported torture, so I'm not inclined to accept his arguments at face value. But Mr. Dershowitz is also a lawyer and, alas, he has a point:

There is almost no possibility that such prosecutions could succeed. A fairly selected jury would almost certainly acquit. The defendant would simply present the jury with the classified intelligence that demonstrated the extraordinary threats facing the United States. If the government refused to declassify these threat assessments, the defendant would have a strong case for dismissing the charges against him, because he was being denied his right to present relevant evidence under the Sixth Amendment. Most jurors would be extremely sympathetic to the Jack Bauer, "Do whatever it takes to stop terrorism" argument.
No one can predict the future, or how a jury would rule in a given case. Who could foresee the first O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict? I think Dershowitz raises an excellent legal point: the defense could demand classified documents which, if it couldn't get them, would present a 6th Amendment defense. End of trial, and what have you accomplished?

Or there is a trial, which always introduces the risk the jury will vote to acquit, and not only have you not accomplished your goal, you've set almost in stone, certainly by your own actions, a vindication of that which you sought to declare most foul and unclean. This won't be, after all, a replay of the Nuremberg trials, where the prosecution really held all the cards and the defendants were already seen as the worst criminals imaginable, and evidence against them could only shock the conscience of the entire world. This won't even be South Africa, where truth and reconciliation depended on coming clean about hideous crimes of violence and racism, and where the alternative was to be turned over to a legal system where people would happily convict you, if only as a matter of vengeance (whether this was true or not, it was most certainly the fear of many who had the chance to go before the Commission, or face the courtroom). In short, this will not be a trial about the torture of your fellow citizens, but of foreigners who wanted to kill your fellow citizens.

Still feeling like you are sure the outcome would be what you wanted? We could well end end up with a situation worse than we have now. As Dershowitz says:

A defendant in such a case would also invoke Thomas Jefferson who strongly favored breaking the law in extreme cases of national security, Abraham Lincoln, who repeatedly broke the law, and Franklin Roosevelt, who not only broke the law but ordered the racist detention of more than a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans.

An acquittal in such a case would be seen by many as a vindication of the Bush policies, which is certainly not something those who advocate prosecution would welcome. So be careful what you ask for; you may get it.
Would that defense guarantee an acquittal? No; nothing can do that. But it would make a conviction highly unlikely, and even if one was obtained, the defense would make the conviction a very muddied success, indeed.

So as we imagine a prosecution would vindicate all of our worst suspicions and deepest convictions about the outgoing Administration, stop and consider that we don't get to write the ending to this story, and the world doesn't always see things precisely the way we do.

Given that, what do we demand of the new Administration, with regard to the old Administration, now?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Does this mean we have to be nice to Rick Warren?

More like this please:

The Rev. Rick Warren, the conservative evangelical minister who will deliver the invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration, has extended an olive branch to Bishop V. Gene Robinson.

Robinson, an openly gay Episcopal bishop, had reacted angrily to the selection of Warren, who opposes gay marriage, calling it a "slap in the face." But then Robinson was selected this week to give the invocation at the inaugural opening ceremony at the Sunday afternoon concert on the Mall.

Today, Warren issued a statement praising Obama for selecting Robinson, saying the president-elect "has again demonstrated his genuine commitment to bringing all Americans of goodwill together in search of common ground. I applaud his desire to be the president of every citizen."
I know left blogistan (and probably right, as well) were upset (if only mildly) that Obama had dinner with George Will and Bill Kristol and David Brooks and sundry others, last night. Rachel Maddow was still fuming tonight with +Gene Bishop over Obama's selection of Rick Warren.

But this is something we haven't seen in a public official in so long, we've forgotten what it looks like: the strength of confidence, of belief in people and in ideas, the deep faith that is sure inviting diversity does not diminish the group, but enhances it.

The argument against Rick Warren even giving the invocation always came down to: in the name of tolerance, we must be intolerant of the intolerant. The Christian teaching, of course, is just the opposite. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you. What credit is it to you to be kind to those who are kind to you? I tell you, love your enemies.

I needn't tell you who said that last line. And no, Obama is not "loving his enemies" by meeting with them, or inviting them to be with him. But neither is he practicing acceptable intolerance by refusing to tolerate those who will not tolerate all of us. And every once in awhile, that kind of practice even has a visibly good effect.

Score one for those who light candles, and don't just curse the darkness.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lookin' for love in all the wrong places...

What's interesting here is not only, as Pastor Dan says, that these guys are nuts, but that they think this "ritual" they have invented, will have power.

It seems that Rob Schenck of Faith and Action and Patrick J. Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition took it upon themselves last week to bless the Capitol passageway through which Barack Obama will make his way to be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. Turned back by Capitol police, they happened upon Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.), who shepherded them to the place. There, as you can see, amidst the praying for the president-to-be and his family, Schenck anoints the door posts with holy oil from the Holy Land, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

What's up with this? In the video, Schenck declares that he is consecrating the passageway "as they did the furnishings of the Tabernacle and the Temple to the use of God and to His will and to His Word."
This reminds me of "Crisco" John Ashcroft anointing himself when he was Missouri's governor and Senator, as if that practice had any purpose other than to make him feel special. This is a curious impulse among evangelicals, one as far removed from the roots of Reformed (read "Calvin's Institutes") theology as one can go. It was the Reformers, after all, who removed the figure from the crucifix, concerned, in line with the Hebrew prophets, that any representation of God would lead to idolatry. Evangelical practice was once tied closely to Reformed theology, and where the Roman Catholic church provided the individual believer with the necessary anchor to avoid selfishness and self-reflection ("navel gazing," as we used to say in my feckless youth), Reformed theology replaced that church centered sense of salvation with a personal relationship to God directly. But to avoid the obvious abuses such a self centered theology could have, the theology didn't allow any focus on the self because you were part of, and responsible to, a believing community. Thus do you have such a splintering of Protestantism over the centuries, with each community zealously proclaiming its message and creating identities for its adherents.

Where ritual and liturgical practices created such identities for Roman Catholics and Anglicans, doctrinal distinctions created the identities for other Protestants. So Presbyterians could distinquish themselves from Baptists, who could distinguish themselves from Methodists, who could distinguish themselves from Congregationalists, and so on. Mostly the distinction was on issues of polity, less so on issues of doctrine, although the smallest distinctions in theology would be used to create the largest possible divisions. Still, one thing all Reformed theologies agreed on, and this is what kept them clearly demarcated from the Lutheran branch of Protestantism, was that most ritual practices were unnecessary at best, heathenish superstition at worst. *

And so now evangelicals are mining the Hebrew scriptures for anointing rituals in their homes, and blessing rituals in public places. How do we know they are still evangelicals? Because they don't acknowledge the authority, or the necessity of authority from, a larger ecclesial body. The determination by the individual of the correctness of the act is sufficient unto the task. Which is where things get really weird.

Evangelicals seem to be turning proto-Catholic, seeking meaning and purpose (and power!) in rituals their spiritual ancestors abandoned as the spawn of the Whore of Babylon. But this isn't the triumph of Rome; rather, we seem to be in Gramsci's interregnum, in which a great variety of morbid symptoms appear; and this is one of them. The culture at large having abandoned all but the forms of religious belief (see, e.g., Joel Osteen; and this abandonment and fractioning itself is an inevitable result of Protestantism, although Osteen isn't; well, not necessarily), Protestants are more and more left with either creating their own cultures, or trying desperately to claim control of the culture at large. The latter came a cropper with the descent of George Bush (who never had any interest in the religious except as a voting bloc he could manipulate). The power broker pastors, like Ted Haggard, are done. James Dobson is relegated to his radio show again. Obama is friendly with Rick Warren but also +Gene Robinson and Sharon Watkins. But those are only surface indications; this issue goes much deeper than who is the favored pastor of the power elite today.

The issue is a point I've made before: Protestantism relied on the culture to give it meaning and purpose, and now that the culture no longer does that (perhaps Protestantism succeeded too well, instilling the work ethic and leading to industrialization, which brings us to the market worship of today?), Protestantism is beginning to lose its form, and very possibly, its way. One reason I'm marginally sympathetic to the aims of a Marc Driscoll is that I understand where his critique of at least one strain of Protestantism comes from (though I disagree completely with his solution). There is a serious cultural clash between the people Driscoll knows and appeals to, and the Protestantism presented by most mainline churches or even non-denominational mega-churches (quick: name another "mega-church" that intentionally and relentlessly reaches out to the economically or socially marginalized people Driscoll appeals to.) The serious cultural desire to differentiate Reformed practice from Roman Catholic practice is almost entirely vestigial now (and very likely largely American, to boot). Without that opposition, it's not really surprising to see evangelicals turning to ritual to try to give their teachings meaning. Again, Driscoll picks up on the importance of opposition inherent even in the title "Protestant", though methinks he doth protest against the wrong group. But "Protestant" originally meant "in protest" against the dominant Roman Catholic church. Q: "What are you protesting?" A: "Whaddya got?" When you can't keep that up, you gotta find some other reason to believe. Without Roman Catholics to protest against, and without a culture that clearly supports the benefits of Protestantism, that in fact seems to be suffering from a surfeit of cultural Protestantism, the interregnum interposes, and the question arises: "Whither Protestantism?"

The mega-churches haven't really brought the Second Reformation some might have expected, or even the third "Great Awakening." What went wrong? Well, perhaps mega-churches aped too much the culture that created it. Which is to say, perhaps it simply didn't create enough of an alternative vision for the people; perhaps it didn't translate abstract Christian doctrines into concrete terms. "Blessing," for example, is a common idea among evangelicals. Outside the "prosperity gospel" that teaches a new house and new care are "blessings," however, the idea of "blessing" is rather unclear. The word is most commonly used in the phrase "God Bless America," but what do we really mean when we say that? Is it a command aimed at God, an imperative invoking a benison? Is it a statement of our national nature? A claim of privilege? A wish for justification? Trying to give these abstractions meaning, evangelicals, like so many before them, have to turn to physical actions. It's a practice as old as humanity. But it's not very Protestant.

Which doesn't make me think religion, or Protestantism, is leaving the culture anytime soon. But I do wonder if Protestantism isn't about to undergo a sea change, in a direction heralded neither by James Dobson nor Marc Driscoll, nor even the mainline denominations.

*It was 500 years before Reformed and Lutheran branches settled the issue of the doctrine of the eucharistic host. Luther was a bit too close to the Roman teachings for the Reformed theologians, and the Reformed theologians were a bit to dismissive of the presence of the Presence for Lutherans. These tiny and almost meaningless distinctions matter. Or, they used to.

George W. Bush, can you please go now?

Admittedly, it's a pointless endeavor, but then, what's a blog for?

"More people need to have their own home there," Bush said. "But the systems are in place to continue the reconstruction in New Orleans. You know, people said, 'Well, the federal response was slow.' Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed."
The now-infamous statement of George W. Bush on Katrina. I'm curious about the number he quoted, but notice what he says here: "But the systems are in place to continue the reconstruction in New Orleans."

Wow. And Katrina was, what, 3+ years ago? Good to know "systems are in place," huh?

But back to that number? Where the heck does it come from? No one seems to know, (see., e.g., here and here) though the consensus (such as it is), is that Bush took it from the number of people reportedly at the Superdome during the flood. Just doing a rough calculation of one helicopter removing one or more persons (don't even know the load limit of the helicopters that were used, but I know they weren't hauling people off by the busloads in one trip) at a time, and figuring 15-30 minutes per rooftop (takes time to get people into the harness, etc., and every rescue is unique), that would be, what, 7500 to 15,000 hours of rescue time? Or about one to two years, working around the clock.

I guess boats helped out a bit, huh?

Even if my rough calculations are wildly off, consider how many days it took to empty out the Superdome and remove those people, by busloads, to shelters. Many of them had to come to Houston; others went even further away. The evacuation took weeks to finish. Removing 30,000 people one at a time from rooftops by helicopter? A moment's consideration indicates the number is so absurd it should be laughed at. And if this number had come from Ron Paul or Ross Perot or even Dennis Kucinich, it would be.

But it came from our President. And nobody at the press conference so much as did the back of the envelope calculatin to say: "Uh, Mr. President, excuse me but.. wtf?"

Of course, this was a press conference that also included this gem:

Responding to a reporter's question about the observation that the presidency has been called "the loneliest job in the world," Mr. Bush insisted the phrase "burdens of the office is overstated." Feigning emotion he asked, " Why me, the burdens? Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch? Its just pathetic; the self pity." In a curious choice of words Mr. Bush recalled, "Even in the darkest moments of Iraq, you know, there was - and every day, when I was reading the reports about soldiers losing their lives, no question there was a lot of emotion, but also there was times where we could be lighthearted and support each other."
So maybe we should just be asking: "Mr. President, can you just go now?"

Monday, January 12, 2009

Knock, knock, knockin' at the deep heart's core

Courtesy of Expat in UK comes this "Hmmm...."

The "modern evangelical machine" is a product of the 1970s and '80s, when a new generation of business-savvy pastors developed strategies to reach unbelievers turned off by traditional worship and evangelization. Their approach was "seeker sensitive": upon learning that many people didn't go in for stained glass and steeples, these pastors made their churches look like shopping malls. Complex theology intimidated the curious, and talk of damnation alienated potential converts — so they played down doctrine in favor of upbeat, practical teachings on the Christian life.

These megachurches, like Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston and Bill Hybels's Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, have come to symbolize American evangelicalism. By any quantitative measure they are wildly successful, and their values and methods have diffused into the evangelical bloodstream. Yet some megachurches have begun to admit what critics maintained all along: numbers are not everything. In the fall of 2007, leaders of Willow Creek sent shockwaves through the evangelical world when they announced the results of a study in which churchgoers reported feeling stagnant in their faith and frustrated with slick, program-driven pastors. "As an evangelical, I would say this tells us something," Stetzer says. "The center is not holding."
First, let me say: "Why am I not surprised?" Second, let me say there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun. Third, let me say: Huh?

But what is new about Driscoll is that he has resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone, one that most Americans assume died out with the Puritans: Calvinism, a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy.
Dude, come to East Texas sometime, where the Presbyterians (who invented Calvinism, or think they did) vie with the Southern Baptists to see how many more they can find to condemn. Growing up in the PCUS of my youth, the only difference between us and the Baptists was, they were more emotional. Reformed theology is dead? Yeah, right; replaced by what? Lutheranism?

But the issue before us is this new kind of mega-church at Mars Hill:

Mars Hill has not entirely dispensed with megachurch marketing tactics. Its success in one of the most liberal and least-churched cities in America depends on being sensitive to the body-pierced and latte-drinking seekers of Seattle. Ultimately, however, Driscoll's theology means that his congregants' salvation is not in his hands. It's not in their own hands, either — this is the heart of Calvinism. Ultimately, however, Driscoll's theology means that his congregants' salvation is not in his hands. It's not in their own hands, either — this is the heart of Calvinism.

Human beings are totally corrupted by original sin and predestined for heaven or hell, no matter their earthly conduct. We all deserve eternal damnation, but God, in his inscrutable mercy, has granted the grace of salvation to an elect few. While John Calvin's 16th-century doctrines have deep roots in Christian tradition, they strike many modern evangelicals as nonsensical and even un-Christian. If predestination is true, they argue, then there is no point in missions to the unsaved or in leading a godly life. And some babies who die in infancy — if God placed them among the reprobate — go straight to hell with the rest of the damned, to "glorify his name by their own destruction," as Calvin wrote. Since the early 19th century, most evangelicals have preferred a theology that stresses the believer's free decision to accept God's grace. To be born again is a choice God wants you to make; if you so choose, Jesus will be your personal friend.
The article goes on to link this to Puritanism, which is pretty much what this sounds like. Puritanism redux, in fact. But set aside the caricatures of Puritanism a moment, because the appeal of this theology is actually quite interesting:

Traditional evangelical theology falls apart in the face of real tragedy, says the 20-year-old Brett Harris, who runs an evangelical teen blog with his twin brother, Alex. Reducing God to a projection of our own wishes trivializes divine sovereignty and fails to explain how both good and evil have a place in the divine plan. "There are plenty of comfortable people who can say, 'God's on my side,' " Harris says. "But they couldn't turn around and say, 'God gave me cancer.' "
Or, as a pastor friend of mine put it once, when a church member told him the member preferred to stay home and watch Roert Schuller on TV: "Yeah, call him when you need someone to do a funeral." When simplistic feel-good theology runs into reality, the only response I've ever encountered is: "God will not give you more than you can handle." But I've never heard the grieving family member say that, or the dying cancer patient.

Every pastor who actually pastors a church, rather than administers a mega-church, has had to face the tough issues. In my first year of ministry, still in seminary, I dealt with a member with severe trauma from childhood; a dying husband confined to his bed; the deaths of two teenagers in a car wreck. In my first year out of seminary, I conducted a funeral for an infant who died in her crib, for a mother who was only tangentially connected to the church; and had to answer the guestion of a wife who's husband had been rushed to the hospital on life support, and just told it should be removed: "What should I do?" These are not questions that have anything to do with "seeker services" or "business-savvy strategies." And people don't cope with them because you've told them repeatedly God wants them to be rich, or simply be middle-class Americans.

Which is not to say, however, the only alternative is a throwback to the cruder forms of Calvinism.

I'm not even sure how Calvinistic this "theology" is, if only because Calvin warned against assuming you were among the elect. The central thesis of his teaching was humility, was that "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," and since no one could know who was among the elect, you must live as if your salvation depended on your actions. Indeed, Calvin is as subtle a theologian and compassionate a believer as ever Luther was; but his works, like most of Luther's, are "classics" in Mark Twain's definition of the word: widely praised, but no one reads them. So if this is Calvinism, it's the Calvinism of the Gutres in Jorge Luis Borges' "The Gospel According To Mark:" one that is in the blood, and little resembles the teachings and theology that now bears its name. This is Calvinism Marc Driscoll and his followers have inherited, in other words, not discovered. Everything old is new again. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

There is, for example, something to this:

Marianne Esterly, a women's counselor at Mars Hill, says she tries to help women resist the desperation that can come with forgetting that man's chief end is to glorify God, not to obsess over earthly problems. "They worship the trauma, or the anorexia, and that's not what they're designed to worship," she says. "Christian self-help doesn't work. We can't do anything. It's all the work of Christ."
But then again, the "work of Christ" they advocate is simply what they believe people should do. Do that, and you are letting Christ work through you. Fail to do that, and you are relying on yourself. It's wonderfully simplistic, and horribly misguided. I mean, after all, Driscoll's critique of other evangelicals is that they have "feminized" Christ, and they promote a culture of "chicks and some chickified dudes with limp wrists."

Yeah, that's what Christ taught: how not to be "feminine." Precisely why he had so many women in his entourage, told his disciples to "turn the other cheek," rebuked Peter for taking up the sword when the Romans came to arrest him, and asked the Pharisee "Do you see this woman?".

To be fair, Driscoll's version of Christ is an old one. My first thought on reading this article was of "The Dream of the Rood," an Old English poem.

I saw then the Saviour of
hasten with great zeal, as if he wanted to climb up on me.
There I did not dare, against the word of the Lord,
bow or break, when I saw the
corners of the earth tremble. I might have
felled all the enemies; even so, I stood fast.
He stripped himself then, young hero - that was God almighty -
strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to ransom
I trembled when the warrior embraced me; even then I did not
dare to bow to earth,
fall to the corners of the earth, but I had to stand fast.
I was reared a cross. I raised up the powerful King,
the Lord of heaven; I did not dare to bend.
They pierced me with dark nails; on me are the wounds visible,
the open wounds of malice; I did not dare to injure any of them.
They mocked us both together. I was all drenched with blood
poured out from that man's side after he had sent forth his spirit.
I have experienced on that hillside many
cruelties of fate. I saw the God of hosts
violently stretched out. Darkness had
covered with clouds the Ruler's corpse,
the gleaming light. Shadows went forth
dark under the clouds. All creation wept,
lamented the King's fall. Christ was on the cross.
Yet there eager ones came from afar
to that noble one; I beheld all that.
I was all drenched with sorrow; nevertheless I bowed down to the hands of the men,
humble, with great eagerness. There they took almighty God,
lifted him from that oppressive torment. The warriors forsook me then
standing covered with moisture; I was all wounded with arrows.
They laid the weary-limbed one down there, they stood at the head of his body,
they beheld the Lord of heaven there, and he himself rested there a while,
weary after the great battle.

It's a death worthy of Beowulf, and no surprise coming from a warrior culture. Certainly not a very "feminine" Christ there. And, to be fair, Harvey Cox revolted against the "bourgeois," orderly, "feminized" (it was pre-feminist days for Harvey) Christ of my childhood, in the 1970's. (The picture above, for example; hardly the features of a Semite, much less a peasant; and that ethereal robe, those doe-like eyes. Precisely the imago Dei Cox was reacting to.) I don't go to the conclusion Driscoll reaches, but I sympathize with how he gets there. What I don't sympathize with is his ecclesiology:

Nowhere is the connection between Driscoll's hypermasculinity and his Calvinist theology clearer than in his refusal to tolerate opposition at Mars Hill. The Reformed tradition's resistance to compromise and emphasis on the purity of the worshipping community has always contained the seeds of authoritarianism: John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness. Mars Hill is not 16th-century Geneva, but Driscoll has little patience for dissent. In 2007, two elders protested a plan to reorganize the church that, according to critics, consolidated power in the hands of Driscoll and his closest aides. Driscoll told the congregation that he asked advice on how to handle stubborn subordinates from a "mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighter, good guy" who attends Mars Hill. "His answer was brilliant," Driscoll reported. "He said, 'I break their nose.' " When one of the renegade elders refused to repent, the church leadership ordered members to shun him. One member complained on an online message board and instantly found his membership privileges suspended. "They are sinning through questioning," Driscoll preached. John Calvin couldn't have said it better himself.
I consider the appeal to Reformed theology to be a thin veil of justification for actions like this (and my complaint there is with the journalist. Reformed theology is alive and well and not a fossilized relic unchanged since Calvin was running Geneva.) Calvin was more nearly following the culture of his day than establishing a theological principal. He might well have justified his actions by grounding them in theology, but the kingdom of God, where the first will be last, and the last first, pretty well drains that attitude of any justification. Nor do I see any evidence Driscoll is such a careful student of Calvin's biography; it sounds like he's just a bully who likes being in charge. When the church is yours, rather than part of a denomination, you can pretty much get away with that. See, for example, Rick Warren's since removed web-page statement limiting church membership at Saddleback to non-homosexuals, are at least those who "repent" of their sexual orientation.

One more reason I'm not a big fan of non-denominational churches. And, of course, that's of a piece with this:

Driscoll is still the one who gazes down upon Mars Hill's seven congregations most Sundays, his sermons broadcast from the main campus to jumbo-size projection screens around the city. At one suburban campus that I visited, a huge yellow cross dominated center stage — until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll's face blocked the cross from view. Driscoll's New Calvinism underscores a curious fact: the doctrine of total human depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, its adherents.
Aye, there's the rub. When does the founder of the church that Marc built tell his congregation they can do it without him? When does he step aside and point the way, not to Marc, but to Christ?

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Crime of Violence and War

Co-sponsor and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican said before the vote: "The Israelis ... are responding exactly the same way we would."
Oh, for the power to make him eat those words. Is this, for example, the way we would respond?

The statement [of the ICRC] said a team of four Palestine Red Crescent ambulances accompanied by Red Cross representatives made its way to Zeitoun Wednesday where it “found four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses. They were too weak to stand up on their own. One man was also found alive, too weak to stand up. In all, there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses.”

In another house, the statement said, the rescue team “found 15 other survivors of this attack including several wounded. In yet another house, they found an additional three corpses. Israeli soldiers posted at a military position some 80 meters away from this house ordered the rescue team to leave the area which they refused to do. There were several other positions of the Israeli Defense Forces nearby as well as two tanks.”

Because of berms built by Israeli forces, the ambulances could not enter the area so “the children and the wounded had to be taken to the ambulances on a donkey cart,” the statement said.
Israel, of course, says it does not target citizens. Hmmmm....

Katarina Ritz, the ICRC's head of mission in Jerusalem, said experienced Palestinian emergency workers wept at the scenes they were confronted with.

She said Israeli troops were within about 100m of the houses in question, and that the ICRC believes the soldiers "must have been aware" of the presence of the wounded people, because of repeated requests from aid agencies for access.

Under international law, she said, even if there are security concerns meaning the injured cannot be evacuated, "the minimum is to treat these people, to feed these people, give them water, and keep them in a safe place".
The ICRC is quite critical of Israel's actions:

The statement said the international Red Cross “believes that in this instance the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care for and evacuate the wounded. It considers the delay in allowing rescue services access unacceptable.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was even more critical:

Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, singled out the killing of 30 Palestinian civilians in a home in central Gaza that was shelled by Israeli forces, and their alleged neglect of young, starving children whose mothers died in the attack.

"I am concerned with violations of international law. Incidents such as this must be investigated because they display elements of what could constitute war crimes," Pillay told Reuters in an interview.
I can understand Hamas not following the Geneva Convention, frankly. Understand it, which does not excuse but rather condemns Hamas. They were elected to govern Gaza, and they have done a poor job of it simply by attacking Israel, rather than trying to work out a better arrangement for the citizens they are responsible for. But that doesn't excuse Israel one bit. I heard the children in this house interviewed on the BBC. No one listening could not imagine they will grow up happy to join Hamas in their attacks on Israel. Hearing their stories, it's almost hard to blame them.

Sadly, I'm afraid Sen. McConnell is right, and the US would have done exactly what Israel is doing in Gaza. That is not, however, the recommendation he imagines it is.

Still hung up on this....

Mad Priest picked up on the cross controversy I mentioned earlier, and the comments there are so good I decided to steal some of that conversation, because I had further thoughts on the subject anyway.

First, MP tells me:

St John's, Broadbridge Heath, is an "evangelical and charismatic" church (at least, the vicar, his wife and the Parish Council want it to be called that).
Which is a bit of "insider information" to keep in mind while reviewing this topic again. That leads me to KJ's comment on the ecclesiological question, i.e., what if "seekers" were put off by this sculpture:

If passers by are offended and put off by a symbol, regardless of what that symbol is, then I'm not convinced they have any real interest, or leading, at least at that time, to investigate what the church should be on about. My point above is Jesus is a bigger stumbling block than the cross as symbol. Should we jettison him?

In the early 90s at the church in Evangelical Land I attended, and at which I was in a leadership position, a new pastor came in and decided we needed to be "seeker sensitive." Buh bye, long prayers -- You'll put "seekers" to sleep. Buh bye, Advent wreath -- No one knows what "Advent" is -- You'll just confuse the pretty little heads of seekers. Wow! Those hymns are long and boring; they need to go away. We need simple music that "seekers" can understand and remember. Oh, so buh bye fabulous organ (Throne of KJ), because we don't need you in order to be able to sing ditties. And yes, buy bye cross, symbol of death. Ick! Communion seems awkward during a church service, and what a downer with that talk of blood and broken body. Let's schedule it for times when the least amount of people would be offended.

Soon it was clear we were to be about as little as possible so we would be as palatable as possible to the greatest amount of hypothetical "seekers" as possible who would, in my view, have little understanding of the faith into which they were tricked.

We're not selling soap or gym memberships, and I trust we're not relying on branded symbols to fill pews. If our focus is how to fill seats, then I hope we die as a faith. If our focus is being the body of Christ on earth, which is a great deal more about those who have no likelihood of ever taking a seat, and what is that to us, then the pews will take care of themselves.
There's also the simple fact that, while this kind of "evangelism" is appealing to churches who think growth is the reason for their existence, it's been established this kind of evangelism doesn't really "grow" anything except people who fill the pews.

Willow Creek Community Church is another "mega church that has been much studied by students of ecclesiology. G.A. Pritchard, a Ph.D. candidate sympathetic to the aims of Willow Creek's theology, studied it's "seeker services," which were designed to draw in the "unchurched" and convert them to Christians. The process was supposed to be a four-step model that drew the unchurched into a full communion among the community of believers. (An explanation of the process is available in Bill Hybel's book, Rediscovering Church.) The only problem with it was, it didn't work.*

Pritchard's study concluded that "unchurched" members of Willow Creek were certainly drawn to the "contemporary worship, which was an attractice TV variety show format, with up-tempo songs led by a "praise leader," backed by a rock band, and demanding little more than listening skills from the "congregation." The idea was this "seeker service" would be as familiar as possible (and so it was consciously modeled on a TV talk show, with the "preacher" as the "host"), and by constant exposure to a "moral" message embedded in an entertaining package, the unchurched would deepen their commitment to God by furthering their commitment to the church, and become active and engaged church members. Except few did; most, predictably, took the path of least resistance. They came for the cake and coffee, the candy, so to speak, and left. They never asked for more.
(Yes, I have no shame; I quote myself.) So if evangelism is your goal, the first question to be asked is: what's the content of your message, not: what's the success rate of your effort, as measured by filled pews.

Interestingly, the church in question is now trying to defend its position, which may well have been misrepresented by the quotes in the news articles:

Press reports have been very misleading, suggesting that we are somehow dumbing down the message of the cross and undermining the symbol of the cross in an age of political correctness. The reality is, in fact, the complete opposite. It is precisely because we believe passionately in the significance of the crucifixion of Christ that we felt led to have this particular version of the crucifix removed. What will not be clear to readers or radio listeners who have not seen the crucifix in person is the fact that the artist chose to portray Christ's facial expression as one which indicates despair and hopelessness. While this makes it an interesting piece of art, it also means that this artistic choice made by the sculptor makes this particular crucifix a misleading version of the symbol of the cross, failing to communicate the significance of the crucifixion of Christ as an event which brings eternal and undying hope to this world. Christ did not approach the crucifixion with any sense of despair or hopelessness; he did not suffer on the cross in an attitude of hopelessness; and he did not die in an attitude of hopelessness. Quite the contrary: Christ approached the cross with steadfast courage and determination; he suffered in an attitude of knowing what he was achieving through his death; and he finally faced death with certainty about the significance of his death - the steadfast hope of bringing about the redemption of humankind from the power of sin; the hope of demonstrating the full extent of God's gracious love and forgiveness; and hope that looked forward to the promise of the Resurrection on Easter morning, when the power of death, sin and evil would be broken.

The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus must be held together in tension; it is vital that we know that God in Christ experienced and identified with the very worst suffering of this world - past, present and future - and it is vital that we know that God brought about a resounding victory over that suffering and torment two days later on that first Easter Sunday.

In the light of this message of hopefulness, having a crucifix mounted on the outside of our church that declared a message of perpetual despair and hopelessness would not be faithful to the New Testament account of the significance of the crucifixion. As a church, we want to bring a message of hope and welcome to our local community, and not one of despair, hopelessness and rejection.
Fair enough, and not such bad reasoning, all in all. I don't think anyone put words in the Vicar's mouth; but the church is deserving of the benefit of the doubt, and another bite at the apple, having failed so badly to explain themselves the first time around. And I was going to say, on reconsideration, that this situation presents interesting challenges.

I know many of the older cathedrals in Europe include elaborate displays of Biblical narratives, including such frightful and despairing depictions as the Last Judgment. Hardly a cheering or inviting subject but, given the cultural locus of the buildings, not exactly off-putting. I don't know of any church that makes a prominent display of a crucifix, however. So there is an argument to be made that this is a rare situation, and one that doesn't necessarily underline the "message of hope" they taught me in homiletics I should always include in my sermons.

On the other hand: was this sculpture really about "despair and hopelessness?" Again, an aesthetic question. I find it moving and challenging, especially as the figure on the cross, far from looking defeated or even limp (the kind of crucifix I'm more familiar with), actually has its head upright, and seems to be looking at something on its left, and directing our attention there. So perhaps this references the conversation between Jesus and the two criminals, as recorded in Luke? Which would mean this sculpture could be an opening point for discussion, especially about what Jesus said?

"I swear to you, today you'll be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43b, SV)
One of the hardest lessons I learned in seminary, but one of the most important, was the need to include the entire Biblical story in my understanding of God, of humanity, of ecclesiology (the purpose and mission of the church). The more you pick and choose from scripture, the more you shape something that resembles you, and not God. All those prickly passages and challenging demands and downright offensive or irreconcilable bits of Scripture, from Genesis 2 through Deutero Paul and especially the Letter to the Hebrews (well, for me, anyway), have to be included in my preaching and pastoring, or it isn't God's word I proclaim, but my own.

I find it to be the only way to overcome despair and hopelessness. As Genesis (the rock group, not the book of Moses) sang it: "You've gotta get in to get out." And getting in sometimes means you've got to get in despite not being especially drawn to the place. I mean, if that criminal was going to be with Jesus in paradise that day, he wasn't going to escape the cross to do it.

Curious form of evangelism, isn't it?