Monday, March 30, 2009

Everything old is new again....and again....

First, here's the clear statement on what "Abu Zabaida" (nee Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein) provided in the way of "intelligence":
When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida -- chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates -- was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as "al-Qaeda's chief of operations," and other top officials called him a "trusted associate" of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.

Abu Zubaida was not even an official member of al-Qaeda, according to a portrait of the man that emerges from court documents and interviews with current and former intelligence, law enforcement and military sources. Rather, he was a "fixer" for radical Muslim ideologues, and he ended up working directly with al-Qaeda only after Sept. 11 -- and that was because the United States stood ready to invade Afghanistan.
That's the nutshell version, the first four paragraphs of the Washington Post story which confirms what Ron Suskind told us two years ago. By the way, the idea that Suskind's reporting couldn't be confirmed, so no one else touched this, is, well, bogus. Barton Gellman interviewed Suskind and reported on his books allegations in the Washington Post in 2006. What has changed is as much the willingness of the press to report as it is, per Suskind last night, the willingness of Administration officials to talk.

We knew torture didn't work. ABC reported it two years ago, independent of Suskind's work.
One argument in favor of their use: time. In the early days of al Qaeda captures, it was hoped that speeding confessions would result in the development of important operational knowledge in a timely fashion.

However, ABC News was told that at least three CIA officers declined to be trained in the techniques before a cadre of 14 were selected to use them on a dozen top al Qaeda suspects in order to obtain critical information. In at least one instance, ABC News was told that the techniques led to questionable information aimed at pleasing the interrogators and that this information had a significant impact on U.S. actions in Iraq.

According to CIA sources, Ibn al Shaykh al Libbi, after two weeks of enhanced interrogation, made statements that were designed to tell the interrogators what they wanted to hear. Sources say Al Libbi had been subjected to each of the progressively harsher techniques in turn and finally broke after being water boarded and then left to stand naked in his cold cell overnight where he was doused with cold water at regular intervals.

His statements became part of the basis for the Bush administration claims that Iraq trained al Qaeda members to use biochemical weapons. Sources tell ABC that it was later established that al Libbi had no knowledge of such training or weapons and fabricated the statements because he was terrified of further harsh treatment.
We knew it and, collectively, we ignored it. Now, Dan Froomkin points out the dead rat in the punch bowl:

Indeed, the Post article raises the even further disquieting possibility that intentional cruelty was part of the White House's motive.
This, of course, shouldn't surprise anyone either. Torture is by definition the intentional infliction of cruelty upon another person. It's hardly an accidental condition of detention or interrogation, an unforeseen by-product that "just happens." Still, like calling a public figure a liar, we can't seem to bring our public discourse to the level of complete honesty.

"And when justice is gone, there's always force/And when force is gone, there's always Mom"--Laurie Anderson

Cheney was convinced justice is gone from the world, which left only force. He's made that point clear since he left the White House: Obama is dangerous for America because Obama won't put all his trust in American force. Except force is no what got us into this mess. And who can hale the US into a court of law? Well, Spain may try. If they succeed, it will be only if the six under investigation travel outside the US and, in an ironic twist on those who depended on "extraordinary rendition," they can be seized and brought to Spain. Again, as Rachel pointed out last night, this is how the same judge obtained jurisdiction over Pinochet. Success in convictions would also mean Cheney and Bush were vulnerable to such arrests; but I'm dubious about any foreign power going up against US Secret Service agents in order to forcibly detain a former US President of Vice President. When justice is gone, there's always force.

And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Jonathan Turley maintained on "Countdown" that it's an "open secret" Obama is protecting Bush and Cheney from prosecution, which means no one in Europe, not even Spain, will attempt to try them as war criminals. I don't know how true that is, but the fact that Obama wants Dawn Johnson in his Office of Legal Counsel would seem to belie Turley's concern. Which, ironically, brings us back to where we started:

Far from firing anyone, President Bush asked for this kind of distorted legal advice. Remember, from day one the President sent his lawyers the express message that they were NOT to interpret the law impartially and straight up. Instead they were to further his and Vice President Cheney's agenda of expanding presidential power, of restoring it to its pre-Watergate condition, and leaving the presidency stronger than when Bush took office. And that was before 9/11. After the terrorist attacks, "Legally, the watchword became "forward-leaning," by which everybody meant: ‘We want to be aggressive. We want to take risks.'" (For support for all this, and more, read the excellent recent books by Jack Goldsmith and Charlie Savage.)
That's Dawn Johnson writing in April, 2008. The immorality, the injustice, the unethical behavior, has been apparent from the beginning. Only now are we apparently willing to look at it. "Intentional cruelty was part of the White House's motive." Well, of course it was. Justice was gone; there was only force. Cruelty is all about force. It's about my ability to inflict suffering on you, because I can, and you can't stop me.

And it's not like there isn't a narrative for this, one grounded in the very roots of Western civilization, one as important to understanding where we are today, and why, as the Theban plays of Sophocles or the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle or the Republic of Plato:

Jump ahead about 400 years, to the impending Babylonian Exile. Now comes Jeremiah, descended from a long line of priests, from that very village where Solomon exiled the priest who had supported his brother. And now Jeremiah tells the reigning king:

Let not the wise boast of their wisdom,
nor the valiant of their valour;
let not the wealthy boast of their wealth;
but if anyone must boast, let him boast of this:
that he understands and acknowledges me.
For I am the LORD, I show unfailing love,
I do justice and right on the earth;
for in these I take pleasure.
This is the word of the LORD.

There is a direct rebuke of the descendants of Solomon there. Solomon who purchased his wisdom and his palace and his power and even the Temple, with his central concern for Solomon, and what Solomon could obtain, and own, and control. Solomon who used his control of horses and chariots to exact tribute (read: taxes) from others; who used the location of Israel along the trade routes to exact a toll for what passed through the land, and made sure the money went to Solomon, not to the community. Solomon cared about Solomon, not about:

How good and pleasant it is to live together as brothers in unity!
It is like fragrant oil poured on the head
and falling over the beard,
Aaron's beard, when the oil runs down
over the collar of his vestments.
Is is as if the dew of Hermon were falling
on the mountains of Zion.
There the LORD bestows his blessing,
life for evermore (Psalm 133)

The LORD bestows the blessing freely. Solomon makes sure the blessing is recovered and rewarded to Solomon. Solomon, like the Pharoah, says there isn't enough to go around: not enough money, not enough power, not enough wisdom, and I, Solomon, must control it all, must deal in it, must buy and sell in all the marketplaces, of arms, of ideas, of palaces, even of religion. Because of this, says Jeremiah, comes the Exile.
It can't be said too often: the Exile that shattered Israeli history like a brick through a window, that set Western civilization on the course to expect an apocalypse and an eschaton and a Messiah (from Christianity to Star Wars to the Matrix), did not come about because of the apostasy of Israel, but because of the injustice of Israel. Solomon wanted to preserve Israel by military force, too. That way, however, is always the path to injustice and failure. Ezekiel gives us the picture of God's spirit leaving the Temple because of the abominations performed there, because it is no longer holy. But Jeremiah speaks for all the prophets when he says to the king:

Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain, set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.

Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB)

Set, need it be emphasized, on injustice. On cruelty simply because we can be cruel. The cure, of course, is not to stop the cruelty. The cure is to enact justice. Justice is not merely the absence of further cruelty. It is the presence of right, and righteousness.

It is worth adding this last grain to the pile of sand on the scales. Jeremiah Wright, speaking of the Bible and who wrote it:

In biblical history, there’s not one word written in the Bible between Genesis and Revelations that was not written under one of six different kinds of oppression, Egyptian oppression, Assyrian oppression, Persian oppression, Greek oppression, Roman oppression, Babylonian oppression.

The Roman oppression is the period in which Jesus is born. And comparing imperialism that was going on in Luke, imperialism was going on when Caesar Augustus sent out a decree that the whole world should be taxed. They weren’t in charge of the world. It sounds like some other governments I know.

That, yes, I can compare that. We have troops stationed all over the world, just like Rome had troops stationed all over the world, because we run the world. That notion of imperialism is not the message of the gospel of the prince of peace, nor of God, who loves the world.
Oppression, of course, is just another kind of injustice.

Justice is gone; Bush and Cheney dispensed with that. Force is gone: the inauguration of a new President transferred that obligation, and responsibility, and even duty, to another.

Hi, Mom?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

All God's Children Need Each Other....

Yesterday, the President mentioned morality and ethics at his press conference:

No. I think there's, there's always an ethical and a moral element that has to be, be a part of this.
Now, he mentioned that in the context of a question about his moral or ethical concerns with allowing stem-cell research, so it wasn't completely off the wall, and it wasn't an answer pandering to a constituency. But it's a good general statement, one he seems to govern by anyway; and ethics and morality have a way of not staying in one place or limiting themselves to issues that only seem to directly involve ethical questions; into areas like the economy, for instance.

Today, we are being told, there is a "push back" coming from Wall Street. So far it is confined to blogistan, but the discussion started with a particularly self-centered and self-pitying op-ed at the New York Times, which ended:

That is why I have decided to donate 100 percent of the effective after-tax proceeds of my retention payment directly to organizations that are helping people who are suffering from the global downturn. This is not a tax-deduction gimmick; I simply believe that I at least deserve to dictate how my earnings are spent, and do not want to see them disappear back into the obscurity of A.I.G.’s or the federal government’s budget. Our earnings have caused such a distraction for so many from the more pressing issues our country faces, and I would like to see my share of it benefit those truly in need.

On March 16 I received a payment from A.I.G. amounting to $742,006.40, after taxes. In light of the uncertainty over the ultimate taxation and legal status of this payment, the actual amount I donate may be less — in fact, it may end up being far less if the recent House bill raising the tax on the retention payments to 90 percent stands. Once all the money is donated, you will immediately receive a list of all recipients.

This choice is right for me. I wish others at A.I.G.-F.P. luck finding peace with their difficult decision, and only hope their judgment is not clouded by fear.
I suppose rather than pay taxes on my income, I'll give it all away so it isn't spent on armaments and war and other things I'm opposed to. I'm sure the IRS will let me do that, as it will allow Mr. DeSantis to decide how to bestow his charity on the world. But that isn't really the point, is it?

The point is: whose money is it, and whose financial system? Mr. DeSantis contributed to one of the companies most singly responsible for an international collapse in financial markets, one that has nearly ruined the economies of whole countries, put millions out of work, cost over $1 trillion on lost wealth in America alone, and for which, he is eager to point out, he is not at all responsible. Since he isn't directly responsible, he shouldn't be required directly to pay. Money is not fungible, in Mr. DeSantis' world, any more than responsibility is, so he wants to be left alone to enjoy the $742,000+ bonus he richly deserves. After all, he worked more than 40 hours a week for it, and he's sure he did a good job; so he deserves it.

My first thought was of John the Baptist, in Luke, when he warns the people who have come to see him:
"You spawn of Satan! Who warned you to flee from the impending doom? Well, then, start producing fruits suitable for a change of heart, and don't even start saying to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' Let me tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham right out of these rocks. Even now the axe is aimed at the root of the tree. So every tree not producing choice fruit gets cut down and thrown into the fire." Luke 3: 7b-9, SV
Risible stuff, to be sure. But the crowds went out to listen to John; he didn't buttonhole them on the streets. So I don't see Mr. DeSantis and his ilk finding themselves in those words, even though it would be easy enough to substitute "Mammon" for "Abraham," or for Mr. DeSantis and his brethren to see themselves as producing choice fruit and declare: "We're Masters of the Universe! We don't apologize to anybody!" But if it did prick their conscience, at least the one Mr. DeSantis thinks he has, and they asked what they should do, John's answer is practical, if not what they want to hear:

"Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same." Toll collectors also came to be baptized, and they would ask him, "Teacher, what should we do?" He told them, "Charge nothing above the official rates." Soldiers also asked him, "And what about us?" And he said to them: "No more shakedowns! No more frame-ups either! And be satisfied with your pay."Luke 3:11-14, SV
Mr. DeSantis would probably like that part about tax collectors; and if he could see himself as the modern equivalent of a Roman soldier (in many ways, he is), he wouldn't like the implications of the Baptist's command, though he might say that's all he's trying to do by keeping his bonus and, apparently, "going Galt." But he isn't, of course; indeed, self-awareness is the whole problem. For that lesson, we'd need something less specifically religious, and less aimed at those who come to the prophet in the wilderness for guidance, and more aimed at those, like Mr. DeSantis and his disgruntled colleagues, who don't.

Fortunately, we have that:

"The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds--and also big enough to shut out the voices of the poor....There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering."

And more in keeping with the admonition of John:

"What keeps you from giving now? Isn't the poor person there? Aren't your own warehouses full? Isn't the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now-and you want to wait until tomorrow? "I'm not doing any harm," you say. "I just want to keep what I own, that's all." You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone's use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. After all, didn't you come into life naked, and won't you return naked to the earth?

"The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help."

Mr. DeSantis might well argue that he needs to take more, that he works 14 hours a day away from his family; but then we could introduce him to the migrant workers and those in our country who spend years away from their family, working for minimum wage or less, for as many hours a day as they can get paid for. And we can tell him over and over again: "You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help."

And it doesn't even have to be a religious message.

Monday, March 23, 2009

All God's Children Need Cellphones

Just to add an addendum to what was said before, WaPo notes:

To the usual trappings that help many homeless people endure life on the streets -- woolen blankets, shopping carts or cardboard box shelters -- add the humble cellphone.

Today, it's not unusual for the homeless to whip out Nokia 6085 GoPhones (with optional Bluetooth and USB connectivity), stop at a public computer to check e-mail or urge friends to read their blogs.

It's another sign of a society in transition by way of technology, as businesses shed physical addresses for cyberspace and homeless people can establish an online presence and chase opportunities digitally.

"Having a phone isn't even a privilege anymore -- it's a necessity," said Rommel McBride, 50, who spent about six years on the streets before recently being placed in a city housing program. He has had a mobile phone for a year. "A cellphone is the only way you can call to keep up with your food stamps, your housing application, your job. When you're living in a shelter or sleeping on the streets, it's your last line of communication with the world."

Advocates who work with the District's homeless estimate that 30 percent to 45 percent of the people they help have cellphones. A smaller number have e-mail accounts, and some blog to chronicle their lives on the streets.
The hierarchy of needs depends entirely upon what civilization you live in.

Friday, March 20, 2009

All God's Children Need Shoes

Maslow's hierarchy of needs tells us what is basic to human existence, but it also makes us presume civilization as we know it is the foundational human condition, so anything that deviates from that condition is sub-optimal or even sub-human. Thus do we brand "the poor" both within society and outside our social realm. We imagine, for example, that those living without the benefits of "civilization" live in the state of nature described by Hobbes: red in tooth and claw, where life is nasty, brutish, and short. Our shorthand metaphor for this is "The Lord of the Flies." And we don't mean Satan, the Father of Lies, who originally bore that title; we mean the William Golding novel. But then what do we do with the natives who were living in America before the Europeans came? Who built societies as complex as that at Cahokia? Or invented games we play today (lacrosse)? Or lived in the cliffs of the American West? Or what about the Trahamura?

The Trahamura live in Copper Canyon, in Mexico. They are described as "one of the most healthy and most serene people on the planet and perhaps the greatest runners--able to cover hundreds of miles without rest." Of course, health is subject to measurement, but serenity? And is either an absolute state? No; nor does their example put the lie to the achievements and benefits of civilization, nor of modern industrial society. But we know of counter-examples to the generally accepted idea that civilization = "good," and uncivilized life = "bad." It helps, in what follows, to consider the contrasts between the two, and how unclear, in some ways, they are. We may still seek to fulfill Maslow's needs, but how we do it depends as much on what is required of us, as of what is expected.

Homelessness in some cultures might simply be unimaginable. It wasn't for the Anglo-Saxons who imagined the Wife's Lament, or The Wanderer's story. Perhaps the ptochoi of 1st century Palestine had homes; or perhaps part of being ptochoi was to be like Jesus' self description: birds have their nests, foxes their dens, but the Human One had no place to lay his head. No place, and every place. But homelessness: that is rock bottom poor; that is destitute with a capital "D"; that is poverty pure and simple.

So when a man shows up in a soup kitchen line with a cell phone, it's hard for some to imagine he is homeless. Surely someone without a home is also without a phone. Surely one of the concomitants of losing your home, is to lose everything else first. Maybe, of course, he wasn't even there to eat, but just to see the First Lady in person. But if he was, how dare he not have lost everything when he lost his home!

Loss is not like that, of course. You aren't stripped of what you own when you lose the single most important marker in industrialized society: a place to live. You lose big things, like the ability to pay rent or a mortgage, but you still have the items you purchased along the way, most of which are virtually worthless except as conveniences or, in a very few cases, necessities for you. Most of what we consider "necessities" are valueless without a home around them: towels; kitchen supplies; bedding; furniture. But those things don't go first: they linger. And there are the homeless who live in tent cities, and the homeless who live on the streets, and the homeless who are on and off the street, depending on their situation at the moment. So there's our root level problem with poverty: we don't understand it; we fear it; and we condemn it. Because poverty, at it's base, means the machine has failed; it means the machine is capable of failure. It means civilization as we know it is not the provider of all that is good and true and pleasurable. It means either that civilization is a capricious god, or that there, but for the grace of God, go I. And we don't much believe in God's grace anymore. We don't put much stock in what grace provides us. We believe in our own efforts. We believe in the treadmill and our ability to keep up with it, and we know secretly that if we don't keep up, the treadmill will be relentless, and will grind us up rather than pay attention to our plight. The poor remind us the machine doesn't care about us, either; that we could be them. So how dare they look too much like us? How dare they seem too close to us for comfort? How dare their poverty be, not a chasm, but a narrow crack we could as easily step across? How dare their condition be separated from ours only by the next paycheck? What has civilization wrought, if this is the only comfort it can give us?

This isn't a recent phenomenon, either, a result of the sudden stock crash or financial industries collapse. Poverty and homelessness are as American as our prosperity. Nor does it respect age. A new study reports 1 in 50 children are ptochoi in America. And the numbers are from 2005-06. How much worse is is now, and into the future? The study also points out what states do the poorest job of helping their poorest and most defenseless citizens. What is the virtue of civilization, if this is as much help as it can offer?

Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί, Jesus said. Congratulations to you poor! Perhaps today if Jesus said "Congratulations to you homeless!" we would better get the message. If you follow this link, and click on the third word (ptochoi), you get this explanation from the Greek Lexicon:

1) reduced to beggary, begging, asking alms 2) destitute of wealth, influence, position, honour 2a) lowly, afflicted, destitute of the Christian virtues and eternal riches 2b) helpless, powerless to accomplish an end 2c) poor, needy 3) lacking in anything 3a) as respects their spirit 3a1) destitute of wealth of learning and intellectual culture which the schools afford (men of this class most readily give themselves up to Christ's teaching and proved them selves fitted to lay hold of the heavenly treasure)
ὅτι ὑμετέρα ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. "Your possession is the kingdom of God."

Not everybody sees it that way, of course. Some can only see their possessions in terms of everyone else's possessions, or lack thereof:

Anyway, so yesterday Dwaine was at Obama's town hall meeting in Costa Mesa, as The Ticket and many others reported. And he was recognized by the president and read off his carefully-prepared index card about being laid off after 13 years of good work with Toyota but now was having trouble finding a new job to support his family because of a past felony conviction. And what could he do?

And the president was very sympathetic and said he was surprised and would have expected the layoff from an American car company because Toyota had done so well.

Well, it turns out the burly, 45-year-old Norwalk resident wasn't exactly laid off. He and Toyota agreed today that he took a voluntary buyout. His choice. He's still looking, if you're hiring. But how he got where he is turns out to be a little different than he first described on national TV.
Mr. Malcolm has already proven he is not comfortable with poor people who don't fit his pre-concieved categories of poverty and need. The irony of this latest observation is profound. Time Magazine recently informed us our job is our asset now (not your possessions). Seems people thought of their job as a way of acquiring more assets, not as an asset in itself, and that led to the enormous debt overload we are now experiencing as a financial crisis. (Have I mentioned lately that personal debt in 2008 was 100% of GDP, and the last time it was that high was 1929?). Mr. Webber may have been "bought out," but that just means he has a diminishing supply of money to live on until he can find another job that pays as well as the Toyota job he had. If, of course, he can. Mr. Malcolm, the man who brought us the "homeless guy cell phone" tempest in a teapot, doesn't have a blessing for Mr. Webber. His response seems to be: "Nuts to you!"*

What is expected, then? Mr. Malcolm makes it clear that no man is an island, least of all the poor among us, and the unemployed; and their fate is so directly connected to Mr. Malcolm that they annoy him mightily. Take this, from another blogger, as an example:

Today's "poor" are the rich Jesus warned you about: fat, slovenly, wasteful of their money and other people's...

He spends all his (our) money on cellphones and, most likely, tattoos and drugs and booze and other crap, and has no money left for a home and food. And why should he bother? We pay for his shelter and food anyhow...

What's really funny in that news story by the way is what they're serving at the soup kitchen: risotto with brocolli. Obviously some rich white liberal did the cooking that day, feeling all proud of herself, and what thanks did she get? Some lowclass loser going, "You expect me to eat this weird crap?!"
There's alot being imagined here, including, as Alex Koppelman points out, the "fact" that the man with the cell phone is "homeless." Notice how much power this poor person has. He has taken "all our money" and spent it on frivolities, much like the woman with multiple children driving her Cadillac to the government office to pick up her welfare check Ronald Reagan used to warn us about. Media Matters points out the soup kitchen where the famous photo was shot is a private affair, so the outrage at who they serve is misplaced. It isn't, though, because the outrage turns on what is "ours." And if "our" culture, our "machine," can result in these kinds of failures, failures for people who can afford cell phones (like me!) or can get bought out of their job and not retire in comfort (that could be me!), then we're back to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and the foundations of that hierarchy seem mighty shaky indeed. If there but for the grace of God go I, what keeps that person from being...well, I? And if the machine is no kinder, no more gracious, no better at providing to him, then it could prove to be no help to me.

And what then?

The issue turns on more than imagined cheats, however. It turns on the issue Frank Rich identified: how much of what is ours, is actually ours?

The true American faith endures in “Our Town.” The key word in its title is the collective “our,” just as “united” is the resonant note hit by the new president when saying the full name of the country. The notion that Americans must all rise and fall together is the ideal we still yearn to reclaim, and that a majority voted for in November. But how we get there from this economic graveyard is a challenge rapidly rivaling the one that faced Wilder’s audience in that dark late winter of 1938.
We rise and fall together; but how easily we forget that. Kings forgot it at their peril (just ask Louis XVI). Democracies are no different. As Rich points out, income disparity was at its greatest in America just before 1929. It was so again between 1970 and 2008. Consumer debt was also 100% of GDP by 1929. It is again, today.

Those who do not learn from history....

The Four Freedoms Norman Rockwell illustrated arose out of the experience of the Great Depression and World War II. That much is obvious from the inclusion of "Freedom from Want" in the pantheon, along with "Freedom from Fear." We are, or should be, back to considering them. We are back to considering what our possessions are, and what they are worth, and what possessions are truly worth having. Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί, ὅτι ὑμετέρα ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ. But is that a possession worth having? And if we have it, what do we do with it?

*I have to note that this, like the scourging of Timothy Geithner, seems to be an entirely blogosphere phenomenon. Keith Olbermann practically runs a video-blog five nights a week, and he never mentioned this story. Rachel Maddow didn't pick up on it, either. Maybe Joe Scarbrough mentioned it, but it never really got beyond a blog story. The failings of Tim Geithner are suffering the same fate. Paul Krugman excoriates Mr. Geithner in his blog; most of left blogistan seems to despise Mr. Geithner. No one, of course, comments on the complexity of the problems he faces; except Pres. Obama, and most of the mainstream media, which may pick up the story du jour out of Washington, but are hardly keeping up the drumbeat of "FAIL FAIL FAIL!!!" that's resonating in the blogs. Once more, blogs are like poetry; they make nothing happen, but survive in the valley of their own making, a way of happening, a mouth.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Lorica

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.

I arise today through the strength of Christ with his Baptism, through the strength of His Crucifixion with His Burial through the strength of His Resurrection with His Ascension, through the strength of His descent for the Judgement of Doom.

I arise today through the strength of the love of Cherubim in obedience of Angels, in the service of the Archangels, in hope of resurrection to meet with reward, in prayers of Patriarchs, in predictions of Prophets, in preachings of Apostles, in faiths of Confessors, in innocence of Holy Virgins, in deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through the strength of Heaven; light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendour of Fire, speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea, stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.

I arise today, through God's strength to pilot me: God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me, God's eye to look before me, God's ear to hear me, God's word to speak for me, God's hand to guard me, God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me, God's host to secure me: against snares of devils, against temptations of vices, against inclinations of nature, against everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in a crowd.

I summon today all these powers between me (and these evils): against every cruel and merciless power that may oppose my body and my soul, against incantations of false prophets, against black laws of heathenry, against false laws of heretics, against craft of idolatry, against spells of witches, smiths and wizards, against every knowledge that endangers man's body and soul.

Christ to protect me today against poisoning, against burning, against drowning, against wounding, so that there may come abundance in reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ in breadth, Christ in length, Christ in height, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Back to Son of Same As It Ever Was

Frank Rich:

Perkins is now praying that economic failure will be a stimulus for his family-values business. “As the economy goes downward,” he has theorized, “I think people are going to be driven to religion.” Wrong again. The latest American Religious Identification Survey, published last week, found that most faiths have lost ground since 1990 and that the fastest-growing religious choice is “None,” up from 8 percent to 15 percent (which makes it larger than all denominations except Roman Catholics and Baptists). Another highly regarded poll, the General Social Survey, had an even more startling finding in its preliminary 2008 data released this month: Twice as many Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in the scientific community as do in organized religion. How the almighty has fallen: organized religion is in a dead heat with banks and financial institutions on the confidence scale.

This, too, is a replay of the Great Depression. “One might have expected that in such a crisis great numbers of these people would have turned to the consolations of and inspirations of religion,” wrote Frederick Lewis Allen in “Since Yesterday,” his history of the 1930s published in 1940. But that did not happen: “The long slow retreat of the churches into less and less significance in the life of the country, and even in the lives of the majority of their members, continued almost unabated.”

The new American faith, Allen wrote, was the “secular religion of social consciousness.” It took the form of campaigns for economic and social justice — as exemplified by the New Deal and those movements that challenged it from both the left and the right. It’s too early in our crisis and too early in the new administration to know whether this decade will so closely replicate the 1930s, but so far Obama has far more moral authority than any religious leader in America with the possible exception of his sometime ally, the Rev. Rick Warren.
I called it "vulture theology:" the idea, prevalent among more than a few clergy, that people would "return to church" as they got older, or faced mortality, or just ran into the trials and tribulations of living. It made us sound like a particularly gruesome set of undertakers, sure that we'd "get you in the end." Nothing succeeds by awaiting failure. This isn't a zero-sum game.

The long slow retreat of the churches into less and less significance in the life of the country, and even in the lives of the majority of their members, continued almost unabated.
There is indeed nothing new under the sun.

The new American faith, Allen wrote, was the "secular religion of social consciousness.”
Moral Man and Immoral Society was published in 1932.

History is cyclical, and it would be foolhardy to assume that the culture wars will never return. But after the humiliations of the Scopes trial and the repeal of Prohibition, it did take a good four decades for the religious right to begin its comeback in the 1970s. In our tough times, when any happy news can be counted as a miracle, a 40-year exodus for these ayatollahs can pass for an answer to America’s prayers.
My one quibble: Rich is thinking of the movie, not the history. I think the exodus of fundamentalism from the halls of power will be at least that long, though it may seem slow in going. But I also know people still fighting the battles to distinguish Protestantism from Roman Catholicism, fights that erupted 500 years ago.

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity and striving after emptiness. Inherit the wind, indeed.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Deep Thought

Where have all the labor journalists, labor newspaper sections, and labor basic cable channels, gone?

Friday, March 13, 2009

"Religion is responsibility....

...or it is nothing at all."--Jacques Derrida

It is tempting, but also tempting misinterpretation, to speak of morality and ethics in terms of religion. But religion is first and foremost about responsibility, not about personal benefit. And responsibilty was exactly what Jon Stewart demanded of Jim Cramer last night.

Mr. Stewart didn't present it as a religious issue, but he challenged the selfishness, the amorality, of business news reporting which Mr. Cramer's show characterizes. As Jim Cramer himself acknowledged, he made money in a hedge fund for years, long before his TV show. The show for him is not a necessity; it's a rich man's hobby. As Stewart said, it's a "game."

Except it isn't. The disconnect between Cramer's bubble and the world the rest of us live in couldn't have been clearer last night. And it's not surprising a comedian, a clown, was the one to show it to us. There is plenty to say about the place of the fool, about the role of the trickster, the joker in the pack, the revealer of the lies we all live by, until they fail us. The jester is the outsider, the one who throws darts at our inflated complacency, who punctures the balloons of our self-righteousness.

But he can also be a moral agent. There is an old Christian tradition regarding Christ the Fool. It is of a piece with the paradox of the power of powerlessness. Mr. Stewart has no power, other than his soapbox. He doesn't direct people in how to live their lives or structure their behavior, either personal or financial. What he does is hold accountable those who do, much like the court jester, or even the trickster. The ancient "Feast of Fools" was a way of doing this. It was a way of recalling us to the real value of morality, even to the kerygma of the basiliea tou theou, where the first are last, and the greatest of all is the servant of all. Consider the value of that, apart from any particular religious claim it might have. Consider the value of humility, the power of a critical moral stance.

Consider what Jon Stewart did last night. His jokes earlier stirred a tempest in the cable TV teapot. Now we'll see whether his serious questions stir any self-reflection in those who consider themselves the ruling class. And whether they stir any consideration of an ethic, a morality, that is more transcendent than the questing after status, the interests of the shareholders, the competition with the other traders and multi-millionaires.

Nothing sweeping, of course, will happen. Even after the emperor was mocked for parading naked, he simply ran inside and put on clothes. He was still emperor; nothing fundamentally changed. But it's good to tell the truth, anyway. Truth is its own reward. Now we'll see how much it changes things; and especially, how much we demand that it change things.

In the final analysis, it's always up to us.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Rorschach's Test

No, not the famous ink blots; the character in the graphic novel, Watchmen.

Rorschach is easily the most interesting character in the novel. He is meant to be the least sympathetic. Anthony Lane calls the character in the movie "a slip of a psychopath." He represents one side of a bifurcated Bruce Wayne. In Watchmen, Nite Owl II is Bruce Wayne: a bored rich man with a cellar full of gadgets and equipment, dressing up like a winged creature of the night, fighting bad guys. Rorschach is the driven Batman; except he's a poor man, practically homeless. No job, no apparent income, his costume simply a mask which has become his true face, an overcoat, a hat. But Rorschach is the true detective of the novel. He knows everyone's secrets, he knows the tiniest infraction of the law, as when he confronts one character who pulls a gun (because Rorschach has broken into his apartment to terrorize him, R's modus operandi in crime fighting, much as Batman does) with the fact the gun owner has no permit for it. If he is not the world's greatest detective, he is it's most obsessive.

Rorschach's mania for justice on the smallest, most insignificant level, masks a truth that is all but lost in the overall story of the novel, and intentionally so. Rorschach understands that every individual matters, that every human life, and every act of that human life, matters. Justice is his irrevocable standard for behavior, but it is because every human life is important. He makes this point at the end of the novel, when he refuses to keep the secret all the other "heroes" accept, because it is an injustice conducted in order to effect what should be a greater justice. Rorschach alone understands that isn't justice at all, but he understands it because every human life matters, even those sacrificed for the greater good. Justice based on such sacrifice is not justice at all. It is in the middle of the novel, however, that he states what should be a banal observation, yet isn't:

"This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical deities. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs.

It's us.

Only us."
I should point out he's speaking literally there, not metaphorically; describing the horrific outcome of a kidnapping where he finds the criminal after the victim has been disposed of. It is the last traumatic event that pushes Rorschach over the edge into what seems to be madness. Such an experience should lead to despair and resignation, especially as Rorschach's world-view is clearly Hobbesian: civilization is not civilized, as there is no strong leader. Consequently life is red in tooth and claw, nasty, brutish, and short. It's also clearly the view of most comic books: that only strong men (and a few women) can save society from the predators. Rorschach is strong, but only because he is completely outside society, completely beyond the boundaries of even human connection, of social or even personal ties. He's meant to be driven there by his life experiences, by the brutality he has witnessed or has had inflicted on him. But when human life still matters, when every individual's actions form a part of the whole, no sacrifice of even one life is permissible to lay the foundations of a better world order, no compromise can lead to a utopia. Rorschach is unyielding in his determination to hold every human life accountable, but that is the necessary concomitant of believing that every human life counts. And believing that we are responsible, one to another; that we are, indeed, our brother's keeper.*

What prompts this reflection is the interview with Bart Ehrman on Fresh Air. Not the advertised topic of the interview because that's old news to me. What interests me is Ehrman's conversion from Bible-believing fundamentalist to agnostic, via Princeton Seminary and Biblical scholarship since the 19th century. But Ehrman's conversion to agnosticism (I won't say "loss of faith") was, he says, prompted by the problem of evil. That old philosophy of religion chestnut is my real subject; because the more I think on it, the more absurd it becomes. It's not an obvious connection, and Rorschach is hardly a moral or, certainly not, theological, avatar. But his example leads to some very interesting insights.

First, the problem of evil is tied to, indeed arises from, the question of the existence of God. To put it fully in historical context, it is a question arising from Hellenistic reasoning, not from Hebraic thought. This is not to say that Hellenistic reasoning is "stronger" than Hebraic thought, simply that the two proceed from different assumptions about the nature of existence and the cosmos. As Peter Kreeft notes:
The problem of evil is the most serious problem in the world. It is also the one serious objection to the existence of God....

More people have abandoned their faith because of the problem of evil than for any other reason. It is certainly the greatest test of faith, the greatest temptation to unbelief. And it's not just an intellectual objection. We feel it. We live it.That's why the Book of Job is so arresting.
In modern parlance, it is an existential question. And it proves how trenchant Kierkegaard's observation was: truth is subjective.

In it's simplest form, the argument can be traced back to Epicurus:

One example among many of a formulation of the problem of evil is presented by Epicurus and may be schematized as follows (this form of the argument is called 'the inconsistent triad'):

1. If a perfectly good god exists, then there is no evil in the world.
2. There is evil in the world.
3. Therefore, a perfectly good god does not exist.

This argument is of the logically valid form modus tollens (denying the consequent). In this case, P is "God exists" and Q is "there is no evil in the world". Other logical forms of arguments articulating the problem follow. Most philosophical debate has focused on the first premise, questioning the statement that God is unable to coexist with evil.
I told you it was a Greek, not an Hebraic, question. Kreeft mentions the book of Job. What is the first thing Job says to his wife?

2:9 Then said his wife unto him, Dost thou still retain thine integrity? curse God, and die.

2:10 But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips.
Job goes on to complain, of course; but his complaint is about justice, not about the existence of God. It never occurs to Job that his suffering is reason to call God's existence into question. He merely questions the justice of what has happened to him (merely! As if that weren't the more important issue!) There is an even blunter form of the argument:

1. Gratuitous evils exist.
2. The hypothesis of indifference (HI), i.e., that if there are supernatural beings they are indifferent to gratuitous evils, is a better explanation for (1) than theism.
3. Therefore, evidence prefers that no god, as commonly understood by theists, exists.
(this argument is little different in substance from Manichaeism, which Augustine worked so hard to distinguish Christianity from. Everything old is indeed new again.) But they all come down to the same thing: why do bad things happen to good people? The Hellenistic answer is: because there is no benevolent deity in charge, or existent as designer of the universe. We have to digress to the Greek theory of the origin of the universe to understand the latter part of that argument. The Hebraic answer is: what about God's justice? The modern answer is: why me?

Let me stop and note there are two different issues involved here, and they are truly irreconcilable: one is a question of philosophy of religion; the other is a pastoral issue. No one wants a discussion of philosophy when they ask why they have cancer; why a loved one has to suffer the slow decay of Alzheimer's; why a child is born only to die from disease, starvation, neglect, abuse. My concern here is decidedly and pointedly not pastoral. Nor is it meant to be taken as a response to those very real, very important, pastoral issues. One more reason I started with the example of Rorschach. This is a discussion in the abstract, not in the quotidian. First things first.+

There are two different issues extant in the philosophical problem of evil: the definition of "gratuitous evils," and the elements of the "god as commonly understood by theists." There's also the simple fundamental of logic: the form of the syllogism may be valid, but that does not validate the conclusion. The syllogism does not constitute proof of the premises offered. It merely says: given these premises, this conclusion can be validly drawn. But if the premises are questionable, the conclusion cannot be unquestionable. Also, I mean to set aside entirely the question of how this issues impinges on arguments for the existence of God, though the relevance of that issue to modern discourse will be something taken up before we're done. Let's start with "gratuitous evils."

The evils that Rorschach mentions seem gratuitous, and indeed are. Cruely, horror, brutality; where is the need for these things? But he is right: they are our responsibility, at least insofar as human beings are responsible for the actions of others, or for their own actions. The victim of a horrific crime is not responsible for the criminal act, even if she is a rape victim alone at night in provocative clothing. The evil is gratuitous, but it is particularly human. Seeking an explanation for God's indifference in the face of our own indifference to the human condition is a very particular kind of special pleading, and gives force to the Freudian argument that God is a merely a projection of our desire for a father to protect us from the world, or even from the consequences of our own actions. Society is no more responsible for the rapist than the victim of the rape; but society can treat the questions of justice that result in rape, and those issues aren't limited to the punishments meted out by a judiciary. Can society, then, validly look to God and say: why do you let this crime happen? Can't God look back and say: why do you?

Some would even go so far as to say that question is basis of the teaching of the basileia tou theou. Hard to imagine how much crime would occur if everyone were racing to the bottom, to be last of all and servant of all. The argument that such naivete would simply leave society even more vulnerable to the predator, to the criminal, is itself naive. What has striving to be No. 1 done to protect us all?

If this sounds like the "free will" response to the argument, it is; or might as well be. People make choices. People are responsible for their actions. Without the freedom to choose evil, there is no freedom to choose at all, and people become automatons. If we are separated from the animals, it is by this fine line and heavy burden of responsibility. What causes a person to be a rapist? It may be the comic book answer of childhood trauma (i.e., the trigger for Bruce Wayne into Batman, for Walter Kovacs into Rorshach). It may be genetics. It may be a mixture of nature and nurture. But to the extent the individual cannot be held responsible (genetics), society can. We have a hard time foisting the burden of our responsibility onto another, especially if that other stands outside the human realm. It simply won't leave our shoulders, no matter how much effort we put into shifting it.

Again, would I counsel the rape victim as a pastor, telling her society had failed her in this case? No; but neither would I tell her the crime was evidence God was indifferent, or even absent. There are too many people responsible between the victim of crime and the Deity. We push a great deal of trouble off ourselves and put it on God when we go that route. Nice work, if you can get it.

Do I mean, then, to let God off the hook for evil? Again, no. My Old Testament professor pointed out to us the times the prophets, especially, railed at God. Read Jeremiah's Lamentations, or the outrage of the Psalmist (Psalm 22 in particular comes to mind). God is not excused in Hebraic thought; but God's place in the chain of responsibility is understood. It is understood, but it is understood differently. It is the difference that is instructive.

The Greek concept of the gods is of those always interfering in human affairs, either out of lust (Zeus' many metamorphoses) or out of a sense of justice (Oedipua Rex; Antigone). And when the Greek gods punish, they both fail to make clear just what the problem is (the Delphic Oracle was notoriously cryptic), and frequently punish the city-state for the injustice of one person. At least the prophets understood that almost all the children of Abraham had sinned, and they explained that to the people even when the people didn't want to hear it. At least Abraham was able to convince God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if ten righteous people could be found there. Apollo punishes all of Thebes because Oedipus doesn't know who his father is.

What about lesser sufferings, such as pain? What about disease, misery, anguish, emotional and physical? Some of that is simply the necessity of existence: without pain, you'd pick up the burning coal and burn your fingers down to the bone, exposing you to all kinds of disease. Without bacteria, nothing would decay, and life would soon come to a halt. Without death, life would be an endless and changeless eternity. Without change, none of us would ever be more than we were at birth; would birth itself even be possible?

Change introduces hope and danger equally. The cells which can grow and recreate themselves so we grow and heal, can age and die, so we decline. They can also turn cancerous, and so we die. But how much of cancer today is the result of either modern medicine (we live long enough to die of cancer because we control infectious diseaeses so well) or simply modern living (how much of cancer is environmental, and that enviroment toxic due to technology?). Did God gives us the blueprints for the internal combustion engine, for the dark, Satanic mills? The common understanding is that technology is the very opposite of religious belief, that it is, according to some, the corrective to a primitive, "medieval" faith. If the "corrective" brings its own unintended consequences, how can we blame that on God, and use it to prove God doesn't exist? If we are successul, haven't we simply put the blame back on ourselves?

The problem of evil is not a new one, but American society has recently given it a few new twists that make the focus on suffering as our main difficulty both narcissistic and pitiful. Walter Brueggeman comes close to examining this when he discusses the power of narrative as a script we all try to follow:

3. The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.

* I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.

* I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved.

* I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that "if you want it, you need it." Thus there is now an advertisement that says: "It is not something you don't need; it is just that you haven't thought of it."

* The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.

It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated.
Sociologists have extended the idea of religion as therapy through the idea of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Basically, God exists and watches over human life, which was created by God. God wants people to be nice, as it says in the bible and in most world religions. God does not have to be involved in our lives except to solve our problems and make us happy. Good people will be even happier in heaven after they die. The religious beliefs of American teens tend to be -- as a whole, across all traditions -- that simple. It’s something Jews and Catholics and Protestants of all stripes seem to have in common. It is instrumentalist. "This God is not demanding," say the authors. "He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good."
And so basically the problem of evil is the problem of inconvenience.

Again, we have to distinguish between the conceptual problem of evil, and the existential problem of evil. Evil experienced is much harder to wrestle with then evil conceptualized. The experience of evil is akin to Jacob's wrestling with an angel, except we don't expect a blessing when the match is over. (Although, according to the Beatitudes, perhaps we should.) The conceptualization of evil, though, is what syllogisms deal with. And so the question, "what is gratuitous evil?", has to be answered before we can establish that it proves the non-existence of God, or the impossibility of faith in God. It may be an experience of evil is so shattering one's hold on faith is destroyed. That is a different question from the intellectual conceit that God is impossible because evil is undeniable.

The problem of evil is the problem of inconvenience because Freud was right, and God exists to make our lives more comfortable, to insure our happiness. But if there is unhappiness God cannot cure, then how can there be God? Or how can God be all powerful? Manicheism or atheism seem the only two possible conclusions. Brueggeman's analysis is a bit more trenchant, but comes to much the same conclusion: we don't confess a belief in God, we confess a belief in ourselves. It is indeed "difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated." So if we think of God at all, we think of God as failing to remove this script from us which we so desperately cling to. And we aren't even as honest about is a Rorschach. It isn't every human life that matters; it is only our human life that matters.

And the problem of evil is that we are evil. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Is God indifferent to gratuitous evils? No; we are. The sentencing of the "shoe thrower" in Iraq today reminds us of the pain and horror of the occupation of Iraq. Part of the defense offered by the defendant was that Bush's grinning in a country destroyed by his actions was provocative, and the defendant could not restrain himself. “'In that moment, I saw nothing but Bush, and I felt the blood of the innocents flowing under his feet while he was smiling that smile,' he said at the hearing." He wanted to wipe that smile off Bush's face. The death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan should make us all ashamed: and yet nobody talks about it, and George Bush is free to move about the country, collecting fees for talking about his 8 years as President. Is God indifferent? Who can say; we are so indifferent to evil ourselves, what do we care what God thinks?

We aren't indifferent when evil strikes us, of course. Then we want to know where God is, why God would allow this. That question can be plaintive and heart-breaking. But it can also be simply bizarre. The problem with evil in the world is not that God allows it; it is that we do. Of all the creatures on the planet, we seem to be the only ones who know evil, or commit evil; which makes us the only ones who allow evil.

Does this mean, then, that God is powerless? Yes. It is the theological mistake of the premise that God cannot do what has been done, that, having power, that power must be exerted qua power.** That is the false key to power. The true key to power is through powerlessness. Which returns us to the relationship between the Creator and Creation. God is Creator, but the Creation is created. It exists as it was created (the question of "design" is another misleading concept. Odd we have discarded "design" as a scientific principle, yet retain it as essential in this argument. If we remove it...?) We can still affirm that God makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike, but that is because God makes the conditions for rain, as God is Creator. God neither causes the rain to fall out of whim, nor withholds the rain out of spite or for the sake of justice (again, contra, say, Apollo, at least as represented in "Oedipus Rex"). None of this removes God from responsibility for the conditions of Creation, but neither does it misplace our responsibilities, either. "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy,and walk humbly with your God?" Except for the confessional portion of that statement, and the place of mercy, that could be the credo of the anonymous Rorschach. He over-emphasizes justice, and under-values mercy (almost); yet who among us comes any closer to living up to that simple standard? And Rorschach never asks why God allows evil, why God doesn't do something about it.

So don't tell me about how God doesn't exist, or how the problem of evil makes it impossible for you to believe, to accept any of the tenets of theology. Get over yourself. Tell me what you are doing to make the world a better place to live. And tell me what it has to do with really improving the world, rather than making you feel better about the place you take up in it. The problem of evil is staring at you in the mirror. Stare back, and then do what you can about it.

What, after all, does the Lord require of you?

*I am aware, as Wikipedia notes and Brian Doherty has argued, that Rorschach is meant to be an Objectivist, an Ayn Rand hero. It's an argument, but it's not definitive. Interesting the different facets one can see in any fictional character, and how far beyond the intentions of their creators they might go.

+The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy tells me that abstract formulations of the problem of evil (which it treats solely as a challenge to the establishment of the existence of God) are generally more favored than more concrete formulations, although the latter would seem to make a stronger case for the theodicial question. I think that's correct, but I don't set it aside because I fear the outcome. I'm not interested in teh question of God's existence. I'm interested in how, theologically, one deals with the problem of evil. In this, you could say that I agree with Alan Plantinga (though just barely): I see the issue as a religious one, and the problem of evil (from one side, at least) as a problem of pastoral care. From the other side, I see it as a problem of how we understand the nature of God.

**The Stanford Encyclopedia has a fuller expression of the syllogism used in the post:
  1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
  3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
  4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn't have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn't know when evil exists, or doesn't have the desire to eliminate all evil.
  7. Therefore, God doesn't exist.
It's stated as a proof of God's existence; but the problem is in the second premise: that God is omnipotent, therefore God must use such power as God has, or God is either evil, or not omnipotent, or (Manichee's answer): both. Not necessarily, however; if one understands the power of powerlessness, the paradox resolves itself, and the premise can be discarded, removing the conclusion with it.

"If you have not life together...."

The ARIS study is being taken, by those who notice it and whom I notice, as news; and that's my first problem with it. It doesn't tell the churches anything they haven't known for decades. If it indicates a sharp increase in the decline in mainline church attendance since 2001 (to mix metaphors, or indicators, or something), I think the churches have noticed that, too. I can see it in my neighborhood, and attribute the decline as much to changing demographics as to huge cultural indicators such as "authoritarian preaching" in "fundamentalist churches." In my immediate neighborhood I can count at least a dozen mainline churches, some across the street from each other, all old and established. The majority are Baptist, but there are also Nazarene, Presbyterian, and UCC in the mix. One relocated recently because it was close to the freeway expansion, and it took the opportunity to move. The rest haven't been so lucky. A large (judging by the size the facility) Baptist church finally gave up the ghost a few years ago. A non-denominational church (which started from my former church, decades before I was ever there. The story is they split with the church over the decision to recarpet the sanctuary. No, I'm not making that up.) down the street from my old church, changed hands and moved away to a new facility. Most of the churches still in the area and still mainline, are suffering declines in membership, all because the demographics of the area have changed.

This neighbhorhood was the "new" neighborhood a few decades ago. It suffered badly in the oil shock that nearly wrecked Houston, and recovery came through an influx of Mexicans, Vietnamese, Koreans, and generally poor or lower income folk. It had been a white enclave built by executives and middle management types in large corporations. (Ironically my church in Austin had suffered the same fate in a different decade. It was built in a white, middle to upper middle, "new" neighborhood, and then suffered a decline as the industry built there and providing the people for the houses, moved across town, taking everyone in the houses with it. That church finally relocated, too.) The churches here that couldn't, or wouldn't, relocate, suffered a sharp decline in attendance. Those declines have not abated, despite the fact there are several Korean and Mexican churches in the area, all new (and not included earlier in my counting of churches around me). Most of the Korean churches are Presbyterian, and most of the Mexican (or Hispanic, if you prefer) churches are some brand of Mexican/Central American Pentecostal. There is a thriving one at the end of my street, not 100 yards from where I sit now. But it reflects the neighborhood, not a changing interest in religion.

Of course, a patch of ice doth not a winter make, and the example of a neighborhood here or there is not proof of a theory as to why church membership is declining. Eliot's description, though, of living dispersed on ribbon roads where no one knows their neighbor, seems still to explain more of the loss than anything else. Churches are neighborhood phenomena. I remember attending a Lutheran church (it was an assignment in seminary) in St. Louis, a tiny building occupying one lot at the end of a residential street. It fit into the neighborhood so well you had to know it was there to find it. Anyone who tried to build a church like that today would be doomed to failure, and wouldn't get the backing of any mainline denomination. It was the norm once, though: churches were built for the people around them. They were built by the people around them. Today, however, we expect to drive to church. And we expect some conveniences when we get there:

Daystar was a country church called Glory Hill Church of God when Lawson arrived nearly nine years ago. The church "relaunched" itself in the pattern of an urban megachurch in 2002 _ there's Starbucks coffee in the lobby and video screens everywhere _ and took off.

"In the next seven years 100 people became 2,000 people," said Lawson, who sports the hip, young megachurch look _ short hair, a goatee and dark clothes, minus a tie.

The church has a second-hand clothes shop for needy neighbors, and Lawson said it sends out 100 volunteers at a time for local work days. Members even are trying to raise $10,000 to put new sod on the baseball field at the local high school.
That's a church in rural Alabama. It draws 2000 people a Sunday, has a nearly $6 million building, and draws people from 45 miles away.

The church's attendance is slightly larger than the entire population of Good Hope, which has three other churches in its town limits and five others within a stone's throw. The community is a mix of farm homes, middle-class subdivisions, mobile home parks and a few McMansions.
That is NOT a neighborhood church. And it is following the pattern of megachurches across the country, because it's next goal is to set up "satellite churches." It wants to be its own denomination, in other words.

The temptation with news like this, or the ARIS study, is to jump to conclusions and extrapolate this data in to the future. A little knowledge, however, is a dangerous thing. For one thing, casting mega-churches far into the future is assuming the future will look just like the past; and already, the past ain't what it used to be. The rampant hedonism and consumerism of the past decades may already be fading. That is not to say it is gone and will never return. There are no "sea changes" in American history, no sweeping away of the old in favor of the wholly new. But the peculiar circumstances that promoted the corporate business model as the foundation of all human institutions, may well start crumbling. If people find it harder to pay for Starbucks, whether the one on the way to work or the one in the church lobby, they may also find it hard to pay for multi-million dollar church buildings. It happens to mainline churches all the time; no reason to suppose mega-churches are immune.

Is there a larger picture here? Yes, but I think it's obscuring the reality of the smaller one. Church was once a social obligation. It simply isn't, any more. My experience in community college teaching reveals that, more and more each year, any mention of once familiar Christians stories, from Noah and the Ark and Jonah and the Whale, to the Sermon on the Mount of Paul's experience on the road to Damascus, draw blank stares. Most of my students in the private high school where I've taught for 5 years now, don't even attend church. The Christian stories which were once the foundation of our common cultural heritage, are increasingly as unfamiliar as foreign countries. We have not, in a confessional or a cultural sense, been a Christian country for some time now, and the change is accelerating. Pastor Dan attributes this in part to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, but I think that's being too optimistic by half. MTD is a concept I'd like to explore more carefully later, but my experience is that more and more Americans, especially young Americans, are not deistic in any sense, nor are they necessarily atheistic, because that term has come to imply an antipathy toward religion (Madalyn Murray O'Hare; Richard Dawkins; Sam Harris; Christopher Hitchens, all come to mind as modern exemplars). They are simply a-theistic, as in "non-theistic." They have no real concept of God, and they don't feel the need for one.

Which pretty much models the findings of the ARIS study. Which means Christendom is dead; or at least, it's barely breathing on its own. On the other hand, if MTD is a valid concept, and if its underpinning is being removed, this may not present a crisis to the church, so much as it presents an opportunity.

Monday, March 09, 2009

All the king's horses, and all the king' s men....

If we're going to complain about Obama complaining about blogs, let's be a bit more self-critical, and start with blog posts like this:

What I think is more insidious, though, than wingnut dentists’ cutting back their hours or Mrs. Instapundit cutting back on whatever it is that she normally does, is the widespread belief among elites that they and their colleagues are indispensable men. Like one of JMM’s readers, I fear that Geithner thinks that our economy would be decimated if we forcibly Galted the geniuses who ran our financial industry into the ground. I fear that when Andrew Sullivan and Joe Klein gush about the greatness of David Brooks, it’s because they view themselves and each other as a d’Anconia-Danneskjöld-Galt punditocratic triumvirate that may yet save the world from unseriousness and blogofascism. I even fear that when Villagers praise Obama’s “political gifts”, they’re doing so for the same reason they praised George Bush’s cowboy gut instincts; that is, because they feel that the talents of leaders in Washington reflect upon its scribes.

To put it simply, I fear that we are now ruled by incompetent egomaniacs who will never blow the whistle on each other, no matter how bad things get, because to do so would be to admit that none of them is indispensable or brilliant after all.
First, let me nitpick: we aren't being "ruled" by anyone, except those we put into positions of power. Bush saw that position as one of power wielded for the benefit of the elite, who would then benefit the people in some measure of trickle-down. Obama sees it as a position for the people. But he's no Andrew Jackson populist; he's smarter and better than that. So let's start by shedding all the blogging habits we acquired in the Bush years, and learn to look anew at what our political process has wrought.

The earlier part of the post, before it all goes so awry, makes the salient point about "going Galt:" it's childish, stupid, and absolutely no one, especially the people who make the most money and think they sit atop the society, are indispensable:

Quitting work because of a slight tax increase isn’t akin to anything from any sort of philosophy, not even one as crude and simplistic as Ayn Rand’s; it’s more akin to a child’s decision to take his ball and go home. It’s probably worse, though, since when a typical ten year-old gets home, stops crying, and wipes his nose, he doesn’t then fantasize about how the world will now suffer from the loss of his inestimable brilliance. I don’t know if Vincent Gallo is a Randian or not (it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if he was), but this quote summarizes Galtism in its current form perfectly: “I stopped painting in 1990 at the peak of my success just to deny people my beautiful paintings; and I did it out of spite.”
I honestly imagine the response of society to "going Galt" would be that no one would notice or, at worst, the rest of us would see it as an opportunity for even more wide-spread populism, and an opportunity for those of us shut out from the world of the "elites" precisely because they drew up the ladder and want to keep the boot in our face, and not because their superiority in any measure placed them far above us.

But the silliness of the post is in the argument that Obama is somehow enabling these whiners with his economic policies. I've noticed before that those without responsibility for a situation see it abstractly, a matter of predicting the future and then declaring the present must conform to the expectations of what could, or should, come. I also note that very few people have anything better than a badly cracked crystal ball. Dr. Roubini may have been right that the economic conditions could not sustain forever; that does not mean he's right about what can be done about this situation now.

Not because Dr. Roubini has reached the limits of his knowledge (nor Dr. Krugman, for that matter) but because neither Rubini, or Krugman, nor the bloggers, are responsible for what happens next. It's quite a different matter to offer abstract and theoretical solutions to problems, than to be responsible for what is happening today, and for the consequences of your actions in the future. To make one simple observation: if the Administration decided to take over AIG, which has effectively underwritten the world financial markets and whose collapse would introduce chaos into those markets on a level that would, as Ben Bernanke has told Congress, would mean we'd stop talking about the "Great Depression" and mean 1929, what would happen if it turned out to be too big not only to fail, but to bail out? At the moment, the world markets all happily persist in the illusion that Citi and AIG and other institutions are solvent, when anyone can see they are not. We are all agreeing the emperor has lovely clothes, because we can't risk the catastrophe which might occur if we started acknowledging the emperor is naked. To switch metaphors, if the towering inferno of toxic assets started to fall because of government action, and the government couldn't stop it (if only because the estimates of the value of those assets on the books of these international institutions exceeds the GDP of almost all the countries of the industrialized world, combined): what would happen? If the tower starts toppling, who will stop its fall?

It may be the tower is going to topple anyway, and nothing we can do will stop it. But none of us have a crystal ball that clear and accurate. And is it better to push the tower over and be done with it? Can we really afford that risk?

Let he or she who has returned from the future with perfect knowledge give us the correct answer.

Merrily we roll along...

Courtesy of ex-pat in the UK, something else for our consideration. Part of me wants to drill into these numbers and find understanding:

The percentage of Christians in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent, has now edged down to 76 percent. Ninety percent of the decline comes from the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population, largely from the mainline denominations, including Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians/Anglicans, and the United Church of Christ. These groups, whose proportion of the American population shrank from 18.7 percent in 1990 to 17.2 percent in 2001, all experienced sharp numerical declines this decade and now constitute just 12.9 percent.
But honestly, I'm neither that surprised, nor that interested. Partly because this affirms my analysis that Protestantism, far more than Roman Catholicism, depends on the culture for its identity. Notice that 90% of the decline in those who identify as "Christians" is from "the non-Catholic segment of the Christian population." "Freedom of worship" more and more means freedom not to worship, too.

Most of the growth in the Christian population occurred among those who would identify only as "Christian," "Evangelical/Born Again," or "non-denominational Christian." The last of these, associated with the growth of megachurches, has increased from less than 200,000 in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2001 to over 8 million today. These groups grew from 5 percent of the population in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 2001 to 11.8 percent in 2008. Significantly, 38.6 percent of mainline Protestants now also identify themselves as evangelical or born again.
Mega-churches, of course, thrive on telling you what you want to hear, as most preach some variant on the Gospel of wealth, or promise healing. The few who have turned away from that message, or any message of power, toward a message of service, do so knowing they face an uncertain future. It will be interesting to see how popular the Gospel of Wealth remains in a world economy rapidly retrenching and declining, but interesting only to those who favor abstraction over reality, thought experiments over the real pain this economic "reset" is causing, and is going to cause.

"It looks like the two-party system of American Protestantism--mainline versus evangelical--is collapsing," said Mark Silk, director of the Public Values Program. "A generic form of evangelicalism is emerging as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in the United States."
Well, maybe; but in what form? In the form of Joel Osteen, promising wealth to all who truly believe? In the older American form of Kenneth Copeland, promising healing (Oral Roberts was there first, and before him a long line stretching back through all the inspirations for Elmer Gantry)? In the form of Mars Hill Church, with its almost militant emphasis on badly distorted and poorly understood Calvinism? Or at the other extreme, in the form of Protestant ministers aping Catholic practices for what they imagine to be mystical, or even magical, purposes?

Some, of course, had thought the "more generic form of evangelicalism" was the norm in America, but it wasn't and it never has been. That it may be in the future could indicate an American movement toward the status quo of post-Enlightenment Europe, but more likely what both continents reveal is less as loss of faith than a decline in the social authority of religion. Religion is less and less the controlling factore of public life it once was, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Some pastors will speak of their congregations as "baptized heathens," and there's always been more truth in that than falsehood. One of the critiques of Protestantism against Roman Catholicism was the worldliness of too many Catholic monks and priests. Chaucer's Monk, some two centuries before the Reformation, is a man of wealth and means, despite his vow of poverty. It is the humble parson who is "a good man...of religioun" and "riche...of holy thoght and werk," but not much else. Just by his placement in Chaucer's Prologue, we know the Monk is far more important to society than the Parson, the "village priest," as the notes to my edition identify him. And just as the 14th century monk would defend his ownership of possessions then as necessary to his "ministry," Rod Parsley, who is no mere "village priest" himself, would defend his wealth and property now. What has changed is simply the influence of organized religion in society; not the players.

I realize I've had occasion to say this before. And the survey seems to indicate a gathering toward a normative point of "evangelicalism," even as evangelicalism has been said to be cracking up. It is notable that the "crack-up" of evangelicalism was said to be along lines of social justice:

For the conservative Christian leadership, what is most worrisome about the evangelical disappointment with President Bush is that it coincides with a widening philosophical rift. Ever since they broke with the mainline Protestant churches nearly 100 years ago, the hallmark of evangelicals theology has been a vision of modern society as a sinking ship, sliding toward depravity and sin. For evangelicals, the altar call was the only life raft — a chance to accept Jesus Christ, rebirth and salvation. Falwell, Dobson and their generation saw their political activism as essentially defensive, fighting to keep traditional moral codes in place so their children could have a chance at the raft.

But many younger evangelicals — and some old-timers — take a less fatalistic view. For them, the born-again experience of accepting Jesus is just the beginning. What follows is a long-term process of “spiritual formation” that involves applying his teachings in the here and now. They do not see society as a moribund vessel. They talk more about a biblical imperative to fix up the ship by contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world. They support traditional charities but also public policies that address health care, race, poverty and the environment.
The survey notes among its findings that:

Baptists, who constitute the largest non-Catholic Christian tradition, have increased their numbers by two million since 2001, but continue to decline as a proportion of the population.
Second Baptist Church in Houston, not Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, was the epicenter of volunteer aid for those evacuated from New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina. Maybe there's a connection between there; and yet another critique of the "mega-church" movement. It's certainly safe to say I'm no fan of mega-churches. And these surveys are of dubious value. What they track is less the reality of church attendance, than the reality of social acceptance. It was once necessary to claim membership in a Christian church. But never in my lifetime has membership been equivalent to church attendance; and I don't think that's aberrational in American history. What's happened now is that church membership is no longer a social obligation. As the culture changes, the interest in Protestantism changes, and that change means a decline in members of Protestant churches. This may be news to the laity, but it is hardly news to the clergy. Some argue the "neighborhood church" is coming back, and will "rescue" Christianity. I think if Christianity survives it will be due to the small church, not the mega-church; and I think Christianity will survive. Mega-churches won't, largely because they, too, are a social phenomenon, not a new and better structure. Mega-churches which try to make religious disciples of their attendees fail miserably at the effort. Theirs is a business model, and even now it may be the ax is being laid to the root of that tree. Mega-churches were very much a product of the last few decades. If that culture is going to be radically revised, the religious institution it created may well have to be revised with it. There is a history of such things in Protestantism, after all. Mega-churches are also cults of personality; and if a new personality is not found to replace the old, they falter, and fail. The legacy of Oral Roberts and the PTL Club and Jimmy Swaggart all loom like ghosts behind Joel Osteen and Mars Hill and even Redeemer Presbyterian. There is a history of mega-churches rising and falling, while "neighborhood" churches go on and on.

Why do people go to church? There are as many reasons as there are people to go. Why should people go to church? That's the central question of ecclesiology, and of evangelism. But too far down that road lies madness, as you try either to cajole people into your vision of "church," or castrate your message by equating the greatest good with appealing to the greatest number. What is church is the better question; if only because it is a question without any one answer.