Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Departed

In the Martin Scorsese film, every character is chasing every other character, and lying to them, and living a life based on lies and betrayal and subterfuge. Interestingly, none of this has anything to do with anyone outside of the circle of the police officers overseen by Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen, or the thugs overseen by Jack Nicholson. Matt Damon is a police officer actually working for Nicholson, while Leonardo DiCaprio is a thug working for Nicholson who's actually a police officer working for Sheen. There are only two scenes in the movie of any importance that involve civilians, people who are not thugs or police officers, and nothing about Nicholson's activities, or the work of Sheen or Baldwin, is directed at anyone except the other group. It's cops and robbers with the robbers never really stealing anything from anyone, except each other (the one crime in the story involves Nicholson double-crossing a group of Chinese criminals, probably because, as it turns out, Nicholson is an informer for the FBI.). The one time a store owner is actually threatened by thugs seeking protection money, the store owner is more upset with DiCaprio, who beats up the two thugs and trashes the store in the process, than he is upset by the shakedown. There is a great deal of violence bandied about, a great deal of energy expended on trying to find evidence on which to convict Nicholson of his various crimes, and a number of people dead by the end of the film (including Nicholson, DiCaprio, Sheen, and Damon). But it is all violence directed at the two groups (the cops and robbers), and in the end the one "redemptive" act is itself a crime (when Mark Wahlberg murders Damon). It's an interesting question in morality and "law and order:" the police are the "good guys," the "moral agents" authorized to punish the "bad guys," but what power do they really have to protect society from evil? This is not the "thin blue line" concept of police officers, so popular in the 1970's. The evil they are fighting is a shadow self, a reflection of the police officers themselves (especially in the characters portrayed by Damon and DiCaprio). It is not an evil that threatens society at large, or even in particular. Both the cops and the robbers seem to exist only for each other. Neither is presented as a necessary concomitant to human society.

I raise this because I was traveling through the wilds of northern New Mexico this past weekend (I left my heart in Santa Fe), and heard a part of this story on Democracy Now!. (I regret not buying the Dave Eggers book earlier; as my tribute to New Orleans five years after Katrina, I'm ordering a copy this week). The story is one that presents a very Jeffersonian challenge to our current American weltanschaaung that only when government enforces laws and provides "security" can it do no wrong. "Law and order" is an old concept in American culture, one going back to at least to the mythos of dime novels about "gunslingers" and "peacemakers" (which meant a weapon, not a person). We were supposed to have learned in the jungles of Vietnam the limits of American power. But we never really shook off the atavistic assumption that might=right, that power=ability, that military=societal control.

Which leads us back to New Orleans, and Katrina, and the lessons we should learn from it. Rachel Maddow's guest, Garland Robinette, calls New Orleans (or perhaps all of Louisiana) a "rich Haiti." (I include the clip in lieu of a link).

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It's a fair assessment; one so apt I wish I'd coined it. But what New Orleans was not during Katrina was a stew of violence and anarchy, a "Lord of the Flies" situation, although everyone in authority expected it to be. As this other story Rachel presented that night illustrates, all of the violence in post-Katrina New Orleans appears to have been at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us from violence:

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In that story, not only were the two men beaten, but photographers were assaulted by police, in an attempt to keep pictures just like the two in the story, from being seen. There are stories of violence in post-Katrina New Orleans, but almost all of the verifiable ones, like the story of Zeitoun, turn out to be stories of those with authority using it to impose order where there is no disorder to begin with, except the chaos of nature against the order imposed by houses and streets and electricity and water systems. These stories have a common thread: the most persistent threat to order, indeed to personal security, came from the people who supposedly provide order by their authority, and their weaponry.

But no society functions on that kind of "order," or ever has. Indeed, the ones that do are fictional nightmares, like Orwell's world of 1984, or are what we imagine Stalinist Russia was like. That kind of order is the kind I was raised to abjure, to reject, to state proudly was not the kind of society I lived in. But especially since that demon turned out to be a figment of our imagination, a greater threat to America in our rhetoric than in any reality, we seem determined to recreate that "order" in our own world. SB 1070 in Arizona is only the most recent manifestation of this desire. It is a baseless conviction that might makes right, and authority=control. It is as anti-democratic, indeed as un-American, an idea as any I can conceive of. Yet here we are:

Despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops, violence across Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
Despite the presence? Why not "because of" the presence, which would be more accurate. Whence comes this benighted notion that the only answer to chaos and anarchy is more of the cause of that chaos and anarchy? Violence may be, in a very real sense, the society Afghanis have chosen from themselves, though I don't believe this. My understanding is that, prior to the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was actually a peaceful and ordered place, with many of the comforts and distractions of Western culture readily available. So if we want to start casting about blame for what is happening there now, we can start with the government Vladimir Putin once happily worked for. (His "strong man" photo ops being a bit undermined by such realizations, perhaps.) The Soviets, too, thought (still think!) might=right, and now we tangle with the tar baby they once wrestled. We insist on imposing a society on people from the barrel of a gun, and we wonder that life isn't like the dime novels about the "Old West." What we do not consider is that we cannot undo evil with even more evil. And no matter our intentions, our actions, our violence, our desires and attempts to impose order through military power, are evil.

That's the ironic lesson of "The Departed," one I have no doubt was entirely intentional on the part of Mr. Scorsese: the "good guys," the cops, are no better, morally or in action, than the "bad guys," the robbers. Indeed, they are simply mirror selves grappling with each other, engaged in a macabre game that has almost nothing to do with the citizens of Boston. The only virtue of their game is that it doesn't spill over into the society around it. The damning quality of it, is that it destroys the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, grinds him up like a virtual meat-grinder, to the point that his death at the end is more of a relief than a shame (despite the fact he has uncovered Damon's perfidy, and is about to justify his police career by turning Damon in). DiCaprio's execution at the hands of yet another police detective on Nicholson's payroll is only balanced by Wahlberg's execution of Damon, but it's eye for an eye justice, which is no kind of justice at all (Wahlberg takes great care to leave no clues behind; he knows what he's doing is criminal). Nothing is gained, and everything is lost, but it's in a microcosm, a sealed-off bubble from the world around it (not unlike the bubble universe DiCaprio lives in in his newest film, "Inception."). The movie is a subtle study in the nature and limitation of police power to impose order on society, since society seems to have no real need for the police power overseen by Baldwin and Sheen (and the FBI, who are present only to keep Nicholson in business for their own purposes. Games within games.).

No such examination of power is going on now. Andrew Bacevich comes closest to talking about it, but he is a prophet in the wilderness, at best, and no one is going out even to see a reed bending in the wind, much less to listen to him. Notice, too, that this is not a matter of "cowboy" George W. Bush or "malevolent" Dick Cheney. As Bacevich notes:

Nearly 20 years ago, a querulous Madeleine Albright demanded to know: “What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?” Today, an altogether different question deserves our attention: What’s the point of constantly using our superb military if doing so doesn’t actually work?
But I would ask: when do we finally decide it doesn't actually work? 50,000 troops remain in Iraq, and no withdrawal from Afghanistan is in the offing. Sarah Palin wrapped herself in the flag at Glenn Beck's rally, equating support for U.S. soldiers with the moral courage of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a deliberate conflation meant to repel any attempts at criticism, although of her, not of U.S. soldiers. To say our military power doesn't work, of course, is to insult our soldiers; at least, that's the conflation we've all made in our public discourse. The real problem is that to say our military power doesn't work is to question U.S. foreign policy and domestic policy since the end of World War II (when the Pentagon was supposed to be turned into an archive, not continued as a permanent military headquarters). It is to question the major premise taught to my entire generation: that only American military power kept the USSR from invading America, or taking over the world. It is to question the assumption almost everyone trades on: that only power keeps us secure in our homes, and safe in our borders. It is an assumption we have never seen to be true, but one we insist on nonetheless. It may be it is because revenge is the opposite of forgiveness, and that forgiveness takes more courage than we can muster.

I could turn this into a long rant, something very common and apparently popular in left (and right) blogistan; but that outcome bores me. I cannot turn into Professor Pangloss, however, and say this is, after all, the best of all possible worlds. So I turn, for a closing, to a theologian much admired by Andrew Bacevich and by me; a man quite familiar with the nature of power and the nature of societies, as well as with our human understanding of the nature of God. This is practically in the nature of a prayer, but that makes it even more appropriate in this context, especially as it comes from the man who made his earlier fame from arguing that individuals could afford to forgive, but nations could not. The question of limits, is another question.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

“Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

“No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint.

“Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."

--Reinhold Niebuhr

Photo courtesy of Wounded Bird

Where Angels Fear to Tread

Politics, that is. Just noting two things about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., two things far beyond "I have a dream" and that beautiful vision of a non-racially divided America that all white Americans seem to think is all Dr. King ever had to say:

KING believed that it was America’s collective responsibility to provide economic justice for all. In 1961, the civil rights leader addressed the AFL-CIO on his vision of the American Dream. King said that his vision of America’s promise was a country where “equality of opportunity, of privilege and property [are] widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.” King helped launch a Poor People’s Campaign based around demanding that “President Lyndon Johnson and Congress help the poor get jobs, health care and decent homes.” The civil rights legend explained that poverty was a problem that couldn’t be solved without a “the nation spending billions of dollars — and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.” He spent the last days of his life campaigning on behalf of a living wage for striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.
KING believed in loving those who disagreed with him and engaging in thoughtful dialogue. One of the hallmarks of King’s philosophy and what separated him from many other African American leaders was his advocacy for maintaining thoughtful and respectful dialogue with those who disagreed with his goals. In 1957, the civil rights leader gave a sermon titled, “Loving Your Enemies.” King said that a man must “discover the element of good in his enemy, and every time you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad points.” He practiced nonviolence and even asked civil rights demonstrators to not fight back when attacked by white racists. He demanded of his fellow demonstrators a “refusal to hate.”
Frank Rich, among others, continues to criticize Obama for not attacking his political opponents. Perhaps not, like Glenn Beck does, "with vicious and hateful language." But most critics of Obama insist he'd get further with verbal assaults on Republicans, than with trying to work with them. It's worth noting King was being vilified for the same reasons just before he was shot to death, and his moral authority, which has reached sanctified status in the wake of his death, was at a very low ebb at the time.

Today it seems to be based more on what he didn't do, than on what he did. That may, or may not, be a political lesson. But today, nobody remembers King's most famous speech came during the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom."

In the months leading up to the march, Kennedy, Wilkins, and Young did everything they could to ensure that the speeches made at the march would be temperate in tone and moderate in their calls. In the push to make the march “respectable” rather than offensive to the administration and much of white America, the original economic focus of the march was lost.
47 years later, it still is.

Friday, August 20, 2010

One Nation, Under Free Willl....

Franklin Graham explains it all for you:

"Well, you know, you can be born a Muslim, you can be born a Jew, but you can't be born a Christian," said Graham. "The only way you can become a Christian is by confessing your sins to God, asking his forgiveness, and by receiving Jesus Christ by faith into your heart, that Christ died for your sins, shed his blood on Calvary's Cross, and that God raised him to life. If you're willing to accept that and believe that, and let Jesus Christ be the lord of your life, God will forgive your sins, he will heal your heart, and that's the only way you can become a Christian. And so if the President has done that, then I would say he's a Christian, if that's what he has done."
He's on sound theological ground here. You can't be "born" a Christian. That's the basis of Kierkegaard's "Attack upon 'Christendom:'" that the individual must make a choice to be a Christian disciple, that it is not a birthright, or the consequent of being born into the right country or culture. But that means something else, too.

It means Franklin Graham has proven that America is not, and cannot be, a "Christian nation." Because Christianity must always be the choice of the individual. It can never be the inheritance of the group. If there is no "Christian seed," there is no Christian nation. There is simply a nation in which Christians, among others, dwell.


August is the longest month....

Courtesy of TPM, we have this from Byron York:

In 1985, Barack Obama had just arrived in Chicago for his new job as a community organizer when he headed to Smitty’s Barbershop, a tiny storefront on the South Side. As Smitty cut his hair, Obama listened to the men in the shop talk politics and racial grievance. When the barber finished, he handed Obama a mirror and said, “Haircut’s ten dollars. What’s your name, anyway?”


“Barack, huh,” Smitty responded. “You a Muslim?”
And this, about 13 ways of looking like a Muslim. It's a slideshow. It's worth it. Because Byron York, Chief Political Correspondent for the Washington Examiner, is right: it's Barack Obama's fault people think he's a Muslim.

Shoulda stuck with "Barry."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

B'rer Rabbit 'n' me....

Let me clarify a bit what I said below. This is not a "First Amendment" issue because the Constitution only restricts government action, not private action. What the First Amendment guarantees is that we can worship, or not, as we please, and the government cannot interfere (within limits). It also guarantees we can say what we like, and the government cannot interfere (again, within limits).

That's the "legal" First Amendment. The "cultural" First Amendment is what the President referred to when he said the First Amendment protected the establishment of Park 51 (I refuse to call it even a "mosque," as it isn't). He knew this was not, legally, a First Amendment case, because no government agency has denied permission to build this Islam cultural center. He meant we Americans tolerate various forms of religion, and that tolerance is symbolized by the First Amendment. And that's where he touched get the picture.

I hesitate to name my metaphor because it has become such an obvious metaphor for race, and I don't want to drag that into this discussion (Muslims are not a race, as the majority of the world's Muslims live in Asia, not in the "Middle East."). It is, however, in the original form the perfect metaphor for what's going on here. Still, let us say this is why you don't argue with fools; because people won't be able to tell the difference. When President Obama made this a First Amendment cause celebre (whether he meant to or not), he overlooked the other side of that "cultural amendment:" freedom of speech.

If you have the freedom to worship as you please, free from government interference, I have the right to criticize your worship as I please, also free from government interference. Now, of course, the polite response is to say: just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. So while I have the right to vilify another religion, or its practice, and the government can't stop me, does that mean I should?

And does that line of argument sound familiar? It is precisely there that Obama stepped into the trap, and Palin sprung it on him. She was right: just because they can build a mosque at Ground Zero (although they aren't, of course), should they? Isn't it a question of sensitivity?

No, it isn't; for the reasons I outlined below. But there's the problem, you see. You had to punch the....well, you had to argue with fools. And now you're stuck with 'em.....

I only want to say....

Joan Chittister sums up the current discussion about the "mosque" at "Ground Zero" this way:
The problem Daisy Khan raised for me in her poignant cry for understanding is a current one: should American Muslims be allowed to build an Islamic mosque two blocks away from the site of the bombing of the World Trade Center Towers that killed over 3,000 people in one blow on September 11, 2001?

Or better yet, how could it possibly be a problem that U.S. Muslims want to build a mosque two blocks away from the site of this greatest foreign attack on U.S. soil? Why is there such an outcry against what is designed to be a monument to peace and reconciliation at a place where the terror of a few had set out to destroy both. After all, they are Americans. Can't they build wherever they want?
I respect Joan Chittister; and I expect her to know better. So picking her as an example is perhaps a bit unkind, maybe even unfair: but I've got to start somewhere, and my response to this, to her example which stands for others (who shall be named), is:


Which is why Howard Dean's comments, and his defense of them, are so stupid. Which is why this is not, pace Mr. President, "Constitutional scholar," a First Amendment issue. Which is why we really shouldn't even be talking about this. It's a zoning issue. It's a local issue. And all questions about it's fitness have been resolved by New York City, which is the only governmental entity with an interest in this thing.

What is being proposed is "Park 51," a "Community center." I'm familiar with these. They were all the rage in my East Texas boyhood home, among the Southern Baptists there. One was built explicitly to provide church members with a place to bowl or otherwise gather without having to associate with the "unsaved" (which, in Southern Baptist speak, meant non-Southern Baptists). "Park 51" is going to include a prayer room, which makes sense, since Muslims observe their faith by prayer several times a day (would that more Christians would do so!).* But it is not a mosque, any more than a "Family Life Center" is a house of worship, or a sanctuary, or a cathedral.

Since it is not a mosque, there is no First Amendment issue of free exercise of religion involved. This building will not be an exercise of religion, it will be an exercise in community building. Keith Olbermann pointed out the building that will be refurbished is an abandoned one, left empty by the devastation of 9/11 and it's local economic aftermath. This community center would represent a recovery of the area, and what better tribute to those who died there, both tenants in the building and first responders, than that?

What is wrong with this country is pure, blind, ignorant stupidity, and I'm sick of it. I have never been one to suffer fools gladly (a cross I must bear, and bear better than I often do), but this has gone beyond the pale. Seriously? The entire country has to have an opinion on a zoning issue in lower Manhattan? As Olbermann points out, you can't see "ground zero" from the building site, and you can't see the building from "ground zero." But let us not let ignorance get in the way of a good rant (or even a bad one), and let us all lend our ignorance about what Islam considers a place of worship, and what other good religion can do besides worship, to the cause of talking very loudly about something WE KNOW NOTHING ABOUT!!!!!!!!!!

Unfortunately, that has become the new American way to spend August. I wish I could afford a month's vacation in Europe....

*This space is called, in Arabic, a "masjid," which is distinquished from a "masajid" (if Wiki is to be relied upon). The latter is a "mosque" as non-Muslims understand it, a place dedicated both to the five daily prayers, and to worship on Fridays. A "masjid" conforms more to our sense of "prayer room.")

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

'Nowt so queer as folk

The problem is, you can only speak about the problem generically: if you are too specific or personal, it's not clear how universal your experience is, how applicable it is to others. But if you speak too universally, you end up saying nothing or, worse, just shifting the problem back onto the shoulders of those you mean to help.

Case in point:
There's been quite an interest lately in clergy burnout in the media. The New York Times has published several pieces on the subject: "Taking a Break from the Lord's Work" by Paul Vitello, and "Congregations Gone Wild" by G. Jeffrey MacDonald. The Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School has published a new report on the poor mental and physical health of pastors. NPR has featured interviews on the subject. Remedies range from developing better boundaries to engaging in self-care to putting the brakes on the demands of congregation members.
This would be an ideal point to start talking about my problems as clergy, but, then: is that whining? Or identifying? Each congregation is different enough, and each clergy should be held responsible enough. Anyway:

There certainly is cause for concern. However, my doctoral research on transformational leadership and the spiritual life of pastors, as well as 12 years of consulting in the field, show that the causes of clergy burnout and poor mental and physical health are far deeper than poor boundaries, or the failure to engage in self-care, or the seemingly insatiable desires of congregations. Burnout and poor health are symptoms of a far deeper "dis-ease" of soul that has plagued clergy for nearly 100 years. They are symptoms of starvation. Addressing the symptoms of burnout does not get to the root of this serious matter.
This much I quite agree with. The problem is, these generic discussion too often end here:

The witness of spiritual directors over the centuries is that the leader's need to "make a difference" -- the need to find personal significance through effectiveness -- must be set aside in order to be "made different" -- the deeper need to discover one's renewed identity through relationship with God.

John Wesley, the eighteenth-century founder of the Methodists, wrote of his own spiritual disciplines and his daily time of solitude at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m.: "Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone; only God is here, in his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven." In the letter he wrote to a pastor 250 years ago on August 7, 1760, Wesley clearly stated the importance of soul care for pastors: "[This is] what has exceedingly hurt you in times past, nay, and I fear, to this day ... Whether you like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way ... Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer."
In other words, clergy, it's up to you. Take your medicine. Pray your prayers. And then get back to running those church programs! They aren't going to run themselves!

And maybe if you're spiritual enough, your church will follow!

Been there. Done that. Bought the franchise for the t-shirts.

At my last church (and this is the beginning and end of my personal statements on this subject), one complaint brought up to my Conference Minister (kind of a bishop in the UCC, but not quite), was that I was a "spiritual leader." This was said in my presence, not related to me third-hand. What're ya gonna do with folks like that? Ms. Dilenschneider doesn't say. And while her credentials list her as a poet, essayist, spiritual advisor, and leadership consultant, they don't list "Pastor". For that perspective, we turn to Jeffrey McDonald:

In this transformation, clergy have seen their job descriptions rewritten. They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly. A few years ago, thousands of parishioners quit Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., when their respective preachers refused to bless the congregations’ preferred political agendas and consumerist lifestyles.

I have faced similar pressures myself. In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.
In the darkest days of my travails with my last church, a clergy friend of long standing (an old friend before he was clergy) told me the story of a famous Congregational pastor (whose name escapes me now) who was fired by his congregation. When they couldn't get another pastor, they had to ask him to come back; and he did, on his terms.

Those days are over. Long over.

What people want doesn't resemble spiritual leadership at all. Whether it ever did is, so far as I'm concerned, an open question. Anne Dilenschneider traces the problem back to the 1920's. The Rev. McDonald traces it to the 1950's. I'll take either guess as a good one. I prefer, in fact, my own analysis: that Protestantism especially has always been so close to the culture that any barrier between church and culture is not just semi-permeable, but more honored in the breach than in the keeping. Try, for example, to remove an American flag from a Protestant space of worship. I've told the story before of the young German pastor who visited my church and expressed shock and discomfort with the national flag, especially given recent German history. Her chaperon, a man of my father's generation, leaped to the defense of it as a symbol of those who died for freedom (another disturbing modern idea). He couldn't begin to understand our discomfort with the blurring of church and state it represented, nor understand it would never have been allowed in a Protestant place of worship before the 20th century (WWI may have ushered it in; if not, WWII certainly did). I still don't see it in Episcopal churches, where their understanding of church is more of a distinct, almost Roman Catholic, nature.

As the culture has grown more dependent on consumption, more concerned with the needs of the individual, and less with the needs of the community (which the invisible hand of the market is supposed to take care of. To paraphrase Eliot, they are not really familiar with markets, but they think the market is a great green god.), they have come to regard church as their property, the clergy as their employee, and spiritual formation as "whatever makes people leave feeling great about themselves. My daughter and my wife both love me and loved my sermons, fully supported my pastoral dreams and attempts at leadership, but they both say the job requires someone more skilled at making people happy, someone who will simply give the congregations what they want. And what they want, as both columns say, is programs and parties and reasons to come to church and feel better because their ordinary lives leave them feeling pretty lousy. They've done enough work all week, as one church member once told me: they want to come to church and get their batteries recharged.

Which prompted me to ask, in a sermon: what if we did it backwards? What if the work was all done on Sunday morning, in the leitourgia, the liturgy, the work of the people, and the other six days of the week recharged our spiritual batteries? Wouldn't that be better? Wouldn't that be more fulfilling? Wouldn't we come to church seeking the living presence of the Creator of the Universe, of the Saviour or our souls, and spend the week rejoicing because the lives we lived knew that presence? The lives we lived would see our batteries recharging, rather than our batteries running down because the world was so strenuous, so difficult, so hard to live comfortably in, to live spiritually in. Wouldn't that be better?

No one thought so. They thought, in fact, I was too spiritual a leader. So is there something clergy should do about clergy burnout? Or is there something someone else should be doing?

This article tilts toward the standard answer: more vacation, and you'll be fine. But that doesn't address the denominational obsessions with membership numbers and money in the offering plate. I lost my last church when the Conference Minister came to my Church Council meeting and, while I was in the room, told the Council what a poor pastor I had become. It was a planned attack, made in no small part because of the amount of money my congregation traditionally gave to the larger church (paid his salary, in other words). Church hierarchies like growing congregations because that means a pastor is successful. They like full coffers, because that means a church is "healthy." The pastor is not a pastor, a curate of souls: he is an administrator, a director, a CEO and CFO with no authority but very real responsibilities. That's the reason:

Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.
It's not because they care so much they can't take time off. It's because they fear so much the vagaries of a congregation, the whisper campaigns that can begin when they are gone. I took a two week vacation in my church, the first I'd had in years. A local pastor covered my pastoral calls for me. A member died while I was gone. The complaints against me grew louder, aided and abetted by my absence, which was taken as a sign of my lack of care, of my misplaced priorities. It's a commonplace in the life of clergy; but it's small wonder pastors don't take vacations when they should. They don't want to lose their jobs.

I took a shorter vacation, earlier in my three years at that church. I spent the time discovering Harry Potter, and came back and gave a sermon on it, hoping to be "topical." One person who later blossomed into an enemy, reportedly complained that I'd been off on vacation reading kids books, when the work of the church needed to be done. When, toward the end, I pointed out to the congregation that membership had been declining for decades, meaning to say it was a result of demographics (the neighborhood around the church had changed, from German to Mexican immigrants; and Vietnamese, Korean, African-Americans. The most segregated hour in America is still on Sunday morning.) My point was to make them relax, and realize church size was not the only marker for church health. Instead they decried my emphasis, and focused solely on the decline in my three years.

Perhaps I should have taken time to pray more, huh?

You see what I mean: personal stories are personal. But they can also be universal. The problem is, to emphasize them too much is to dwell too much on peculiarities, to raise legitimate questions about my abilities as a pastor, about who should share the blame, etc. But to be too general is to wander into abstraction, and to float generalization about how all congregations are bad, or all seminaries feckless because they don't train in spiritual leadership (the Protestant seminaries are as uncomfortable with it as any engineering school would be), or all pastors poor guardians of their time and personal boundaries. And to top it off, I said at the beginning I wouldn't do this, wouldn't tell personal stories. And I meant it.

And then again, it's an issue only clergy care about, so it isn't one too many people feel too much responsibility for (or, therefor, interest in). So, what are we gonna do with folks like that?

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Because it is bitter, and because it is my heart."

Newt Gingrich:

Newt Gingrich plays the Nazi card: "You know, Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There's no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center."

An American flag waves briskly in the breeze beside a Shinto shrine on the major freeway leading from Honolulu to Pearl Harbor. Just five miles away is the spot where Japanese planes dropped their bombs on the American fleet. Few tourists rushing between Pearl Harbor and Waikiki realize the deep irony that flag symbolizes. But for those who fought in World War II or know the history of that encounter, the sight of an American flag at a shrine so closely associated with the adversary calls forth a whole complex of reactions.
An American flag flying beside a Shinto shrine on the freeway to Pearl Harbor! An incredible sight one can encounter only in America. And only in Hawaii could it happen at such breathtaking speed.

Fox News

Islamic center opponents outnumbered supporters 35 to 11. A Media Matters review of Nexis transcripts of Fox News' evening programming from May 13 to August 12 showed that nearly three times the number of guests who opposed the construction of the center than those who were supportive of such efforts.
A group of 40 prominent religious leaders have expressed their support of the proposed Islamic center near the former World Trade Center while denouncing the “xenophobic and religious bigotry” that has come out over the project.

The leaders, hailing from evangelical, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim backgrounds, said they were “troubled” by remarks from politicians such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, who called the proposed center an “insult” and a “provocation.”

The group also blasted Fox news for airing a “steady stream of irresponsible commentary and biased coverage that reduces what should be a civil debate into starkly combative terms.”
It's August, for at least another two weeks.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Meme Watch

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Gingrich wants to re-label unemployment benefits as "welfare." "Welfare," of course, is what goes to the undeserving and the lazy. As the clip points out, unemployment insurance is something "paid into." I've heard the same argument for Social Security: that it isn't "government money," but money one has "paid into" the system, and so is deserving of.

It's a tax, of course, like any other money collected by any government. Somehow, that label makes a difference. So, a modest proposal: what if we started thinking of government spending for people (as opposed to for corporations or the military-industrial complex) as money we pay into government precisely for those purposes, instead of money siphoned out of our pockets against our will to pay "those people," who are always bums and cheats and, well, "on welfare."

Would it change anything? Would it be that hard to turn the kaleidoscope?

Thursday, August 12, 2010 nowhere....

Been meaning to do this. Kunstler finally persuaded me to:

This failure of credentialed and elected authorities will surely unleash the crazies as we skid toward fall. Legitimacy hates a vacuum. The absence of a reality-based consensus for action will invite a consensus based on other things such as the lust for vengeance, the labeling of scapegoats, patriotic gore, and all the alternate trappings of a politics-gone-mad. Enjoy the heat and the clam rolls wherever you are in the meantime, and when you come home don't be surprised if you no longer recognize the country you're in.
Actually, what started me on this train of thought was something far less apocalyptic; it was a story on NPR about charity.

And speaking of charity, 40 billionaires announced this past week that they'll give at least half their fortunes to charity. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett unveiled the list, which also includes Larry Ellison, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and George Lucas. The total promise so far: $125 billion.

So you might assume that when it comes to giving, the rich are generally better at it than the rest of us. That's what Paul Piff, a psychologist at U.C. Berkeley, also thought. So he carried out a study and just published his findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Paul Piff, welcome to the program.
Not to slight the charity of Bill Gates, et al., but the results of Dr. Piff's study didn't surprise me at all. The lesson of the widow's mite comes to mind here.* Frankly, how much of $125 billion can wealthy individuals not afford to give up without really noticing it? But that's too easy, and it's a distraction from the real point, which is: Why are we so afraid to give things away? Or, to put it in Kunstler's terms, why are we so sure that apocalypse both awaits us, and is hungry for what we have? To put it in more classical terms: when did we become more pessimistic than the Greeks and the ancient Nordic peoples, combined? And does it have anything to do with a spiritual vacuum we are desperately trying to fill with possessions?

First off, let me be fair: this is more likely a very peculiarly American point of view, aided and abetted by generations of literal readings of scripture and the conviction that "apocalypse" is just Greek for "Ragnarok" (when it isn't). The British, for example, who don't seem too consumed with "The End" being writ across the sky by cosmic hands anytime soon (anyone ever seen "Dr. Who"? Got to be the most optimistic take on the human future on television). But they seem to have given up on religion, or at least on Christianity. What they don't seem consumed with, what nobody seems consumed with, except us (and by "us" I mean middle-class Americans with enough money to have internet access and the leisure time to read blog posts like this), is how soon the future is going to end, and turn into nightmare. And our worst nightmare is: they're going to take away all our stuff!

That was the implicit theme of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, and it became the explicit theme of his next book: The Road. It was the setting for "The Book of Eli," or the Mad Max movies: something bad happened (it doesn't even matter what anymore, so taken for granted is the coming disaster), and all that's left is violent crazies hell-bent on taking what you have. It's been more or less a constant theme since Hiroshima, a sort of American realization that we alone might be responsible for the end of what we fought so hard to defend. There were innumerable episodes of "The Twilight Zone," each depicting a world finally gone mad and bent on total annihilation in the name of victory. I remember a movie I saw recently with Ray Milland playing a suburban father who takes his family out camping just as Los Angeles gets nuked in the rear-view mirror, and of course the first thing he encounters is a gang of "juvenile delinquents" who want whatever he has. He spends the movie trying to protect his family (Mom, daughter, son, in descending ages) until, at the end, they find a military camp where the Army is keeping order and allowing them to keep their car (the trailer they'd been hauling gets destroyed at some point, IIRC. Some possessions must be lost in order to make the crisis a real one.) and the daughter her virginity. You know, after all, that when the end comes and we can't own anything, civilization will collapse and we'll all be at the mercy of rapists and thieves.

It is supposedly the lesson of history, but is it? Rome protected those under its rule from "barbarians" (the term was for non-Greeks, originally; and ask Medea how "civilization" took care of her. Only later under the Romans did it come to mean those outside the protection of the Empire's reach. But always, it meant those who were "uncivilized" Again, ask Medea.). But Rome imposed a heavy price for such protection. That "apex of civilization" rested on cruelty and military dominance and rigidly enforced authority. A person as innocuous and powerless as Jesus of Nazareth was put to death in the cruelest method ever devised by man, used purely as a warning to others. Queen Elizabeth would later put the heads of traitors on London Bridge, for the same purpose. But at least their deaths were not an agonizing public torture and humiliation. It was rather hard for the residents of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. to say Roman rule was better than being at the mercy of despots, since the city was sacked and every living creature in it put to the sword. The historian Josephus, undoubtedly exaggerating (and sympathetic to the Romans, lest he wind up crucified on the accusation of sedition), said the streets were knee deep in blood. How's that for "apocalyptic"? Or, for that matter, "Civilized"?

And yet Rome to this day is considered a triumph of order and European civilization. We might be inclined to think that such horrors as the sacking of Jerusalem indicated the end of the empire was at hand; and it was, 400 years later. Acts of Roman savagery didn't doom the empire; they established it. As for "acts of scape-goating," that's what Nero did, blaming the Christians when Rome burned. Problem is, again, Nero was dead before Jerusalem was sacked. So acts of scape-goating are as old as politics itself; and usually as useful. Not to say Nero is my ideal for a ruler; but his reign is no evidence of an imminent fall, either.

But it isn't the historical perspective I'm interested in, it's the psychological one; or perhaps, more accurately, the spiritual one.

So, back to the question of charity and poverty. Who is surprised that the poor are more generous, on the whole, than the wealthy? When you have little, how hard is it to share with someone who has less? The admonition of John in Luke's gospel is a deceptively simple one: if you have two coats, give one to your brother who has not coat at all. If you have food, share it with your sister who is hungry. But if you have 45 coats, or three houses, or a mansion with many rooms? What then? Well, surely, then your charity will wind you up in the soup, as your one act of generosity will bring the vultures down on you, and then you'll have nothing! Besides, you worked hard for what is yours, and your entitled to it! And if you give a little away, how can you not give a lot away? And then where are you?

I may have mentioned before that I live near one of the major dividing lines in Houston. On the south side of this line are some of the wealthiest real-estate in Texas. On the north, some of the poorer (but hardly the poorest) in the city. When a new grocery store opened on my side of the line, it had to employ conspicuous numbers of security guards and cameras, to assure the housewives from the south side of the line that they would be safe in the parking lot between their expensive cars and the store. All we want on this side of the line, after all, is what they have; and only that line (a major freeway) and their local police, stand between them and our rapaciousness. They fear us because we envy what they have. Or so they imagine.

What is the apocalypticism of The Road, except the fear that what we have will finally be taken from us: perhaps because we don't deserve it; perhaps because we have misused it. If there is any superstition we need to give up, it isn't that of Christianity, but of this notion that we are the new Israel and God will, as in the days of Noah or the prophets, take it all away from us once again. That's really the only explanation I have for this rampant fear and anxiety; but it's interesting that it exists so powerfully among the middle class, among the people who enjoy more of the world's wealth and luxuries than over 95% of the rest of the world's population. Maybe there is simply an issue of justice, a nagging feeling that what we enjoy we enjoy unjustly, and the piper must be paid. I'm not sure that notion ever plagued the British in the heyday of their empire. It doesn't make even the ghost of an appearance in "The Heart of Darkness" or Orwell's essays and stories about the imminent failure of the empire, built as he saw it was on cruelty and injustice. No, this strikes me as peculiarly American, as I've said; and more particularly bourgeois. It is a fear of loss that only those who have, who have far more than they need or can use or can justify, and who still want more, can feel. It is a fear that what is most important to us, is also going to be our undoing. Movies about nuclear destruction are our guilt over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, perhaps, our realization, however subconsciously, that we have become Death, the destroyer of worlds. But the fear of losing all we have to total governmental collapse, to social disorder, to pillage and plunder? What is that fear based on?

And it is simply fear: fear defined as an irrational despair with little or no basis in reality. Remember New Orleans after Katrina? Remember the horror stories about the rapes and murders in the SuperDome? The ones that, it turned out, never occurred? Remember the stories of humanity and help the people in the SuperDome offered each other? Those stories finally came out, but by then, no one was listening. Maybe you remember, instead, the stories of the bridges into New Orleans:

In a tape shot by an NBC News crew, police officers were filmed in a chaotic scene on the Danziger Bridge. Unarmed residents were shot. Two died of their wounds. Seven New Orleans officers would be accused in the shootings and a subsequent cover-up. In another case, five more officers were implicated in the death of a man whose burned body was found in an abandoned car near a police station. Both cases were never fully prosecuted by local officials.
And, of course, there were the communities around New Orleans, which shut down the bridges in order to keep the "criminals" in the city, and not let them into their communities. That wasn't the poor, the criminal, the rapists and thieves: that was middle-class police officers and sheriffs, acting to protect their own against...what? People looking for food, water, and shelter? It wasn't the desperately poor in New Orleans who turned violent: it was the police, the ones who presumably had a bit more, lived better than in the public housing that drowned, weren't trapped on rooftops for days because they had no way out of the city, couldn't leave their homes in the sub-sea level bottom lands of the city. Remember the AP picture of "looters," who were all black people taking food from a store because they were hungry, and no aid was coming into the city for them? And the same picture, of white people, doing the same thing, but they were merely getting food? This fear of apocalypse, of lawlessness and riot and loss of property, is a very, very white fear, indeed.

Interesting thing about that NPR story, too. Aside from the specifics of the Danziger Bridge episode, there's nothing specific and concrete mentioned to back up this sentence:

With lawlessness engulfing the city and the cops' leadership absent, individual acts of police heroism were overshadowed by allegations of brutality.
No, not the acts of heroism or brutality, but the "lawlessness" that "engulfed" the city. That's become the standard picture of New Orleans during the flood. But is it true? No. It's not true at all. It is true now, of course, because NPR is mindlessly saying so, repeating a meme of recent history that was debunked within weeks after the storm, while people were still evacuating the city. Still, it persists, because it feeds a narrative we have all adopted. Perhaps we've adopted it because it is just another relic of our Calvinist heritage (Jean Cauvin was, after all, a lawyer and he did run Geneva along the lines he thought best. It would be easy to trace the mythos of "law and order" back to him.) It is a "true narrative" because we all accept it unquestioningly, just as Anderson Cooper did in August of 2005. The rumors of violence and looting, the horror stories of bodies piled in freezers in the SuperDome (to name but one), were themselves scotched by CNN and the Wall Street Journal as early as October, 2005. But the perception persists in news stories 5 years later, because it feeds a narrative we all cling to: that without law, there is no order.

Or is there?

The stories coming out about New Orleans after Katrina were enough to make us all think we didn't recognize the country we were in. But these were the stories we were told:

By now, more than a week after New Orleans has been destroyed, we have heard the stories of poor, mostly black people who were “out of control.” We were told of “riots” and babies being murdered, of instances of cannibalism. And we were provided an image of authority, of control—of power as a necessary counter not to threats to human life but to unauthorized shopping, as though free TVs were the core of the crisis. “This place is going to look like Little Somalia,” Brigadier General Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard's Joint Task Force told the Army Times. “We're going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”
It's the story NPR is still telling. However, the truth was somewhat different:

As the water subsides and the truth filters out, we may be left with another version of human nature. I have heard innumerable stories of rescue, aid, and care by doctors, neighbors, strangers, and volunteers who arrived on their own boats, and in helicopters, buses, and trucks—stories substantiated by real names and real faces. So far, citizens across the country have offered at least 200,000 beds in their homes to refugees from Katrina's chaos on, and unprecedented amounts have been donated to the Red Cross and other charities for hurricane victims. The greatest looter in this crisis may be twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson, who appropriated a school bus and evacuated about seventy of his New Orleans neighbors to Houston.
And, as Michael Lewis pointed out:

The old houses were also safe. There wasn't a house in the Garden District, or Uptown, that could not have been easily entered; there wasn't a house in either area that didn't have food and water to keep a family of five alive for a week; and there was hardly a house in either place that had been violated in any way. And the grocery stores! I spent some time inside a Whole Foods choosing from the selection of PowerBars. The door was open, the shelves groaned with untouched bottles of water and food. Downtown, 25,000 people spent the previous four days without food and water when a few miles away - and it's a lovely stroll - entire grocery stores, doors ajar, were untouched. From the moment the crisis downtown began, there had been a clear path, requiring maybe an hour's walk, to food, water and shelter. And no one, not a single person, it seemed, took it.
Katrina hit New Orleans on August 23, 2005. By October 9, 2005, this picture of the city was available for anyone to read:

But so far as I can tell - and I covered much of the city, along with every inch of the high ground - very few of the many terrible things that people are reported to have done to one another ever happened. With the brutal exception of the violent young men forcibly detained in the Superdome and the convention center with 25,000 or so potential victims, civilians actually treated one another extremely well. (There's a different story to tell about government officials.) So far as I can tell, no one supposedly defending his property actually fired a shot at anyone else - though there have been a couple of stories, unconfirmed, of warning shots being fired. Yet even as the water flowed back out of the city, my father called to say that a friend in exile had just informed him that "they had to shoot about 500 looters." The only looter admitted to Ochsner, the city's one functioning hospital, was a white guy who was beaten, not shot - though badly enough that a surgeon had to remove his spleen. (Emphasis added.)
Not exactly Cormac McCarthy territory, nor that of James Howard Kunstler. If this is not the country I recognize, it's only because the one I think I recognize, is a figment of my fevered and media-fed imagination. And that's the problem: we're in love with the apocalypse, and we don't even know what the apocalypse is.

Apocalypse, you see, doesn't mean what you think it means. It does not mean the violent end of all things, the Ragnarok that brings an end to Middle Earth (no, not Tolkien's; he took the term from the Nordic tales) and the collapse of the universe. "Apocalypse" is a Greek word, one that entered English via the Greek New Testament, and in English it means: "Revelation." The last book of the New Testament is actually the Apocalypse of John. It is that which was revealed to him; in John's epistemology, a revelation of the truth. That John's revelation is about the end of time is incidental. We took the word into English relating it to John's bizarre and violent vision (although it is not all violence and mayhem) about the end (John meant goal, but we read it as termination) of the universe. But we don't have to continue to use (and misuse) the concept that way.

As I've pointed out before, we seem to almost want to be faced with this strict binary: we can either have, or we can have not. It is what Walt Brueggeman calls the theology of scarcity; and we cling to it like a burr clings to dog fur. As David Brooks, the great middle-brow prophet of the middle class, put it:

Raised in prosperity, favored by genetics, these young meritocrats will have to govern in a period when the demands on the nation’s wealth outstrip the supply. They will grapple with the growing burdens of an aging society, rising health care costs and high energy prices. They will have to make up for the trillion-plus dollars the government will spend to avoid a deep recession. They will have to struggle to keep their promises to cut taxes, create an energy revolution, pass an expensive health care plan and all the rest.
That's the middle-class vision in America: something is terribly, fundamentally wrong, but we can't bring ourselves to do anything about it, because if we do, we'll lose everything. Still, of course, we're doomed to lose everything anyway, because there are evil forces afoot, forces which hate us for our freedom, or for our possessions, or for something we have which the evil forces don't. The Greeks just thought chaos would overwhelm reason and disorder would return to the universe inevitably. The Nordic people who became Anglo-Saxons just thought all things inevitably came to an end. But we've made it personal; the forces of the universe that upend human order and blunt human ambition, actually have it in for us. And if it isn't that, it's that some rough justice demands payment, some cosmic piper is going to present the bill for the dance we've all enjoyed. Even Bob Herbert agrees:

The U.S. cannot thrive with its fabulous wealth concentrated at the top and the middle class on its knees. (No one even bothers to talk about the poor anymore.) How to correct this imbalance is one of the biggest questions facing the country.
A day of reckoning is at hand, and woe be unto him when that time comes! (Notice how Herbert conveniently lets the middle-class off the hook, too. The burden comes from the top down, and when the whole system falls, as fall it must, it will be the middle class who pay the great price!). To take (again!) one quote from McCarthy's novel of apocalypse:

“There is no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who is not honored here today.”
Because that's what the prophets were all about: Cassandras to a man, they predicted the eventual return of chaos, but this time, we'd have to wallow in it. As I said at the beginning, this makes the Greeks and the Vikings, with their weird and their sense that all was doomed (the epic "Beowulf" opens with a description of the building of the mead hall Heorot, and the statement that later, it burned to the ground. Nothing gold can stay, at all.) and that chaos would someday reassert its primacy, look like Pollyannas. At least the Greeks and the Vikings thought when the end came, it would take humanity with it. We've one-upped them: chaos will return, and we'll have to scrounge the ruins for sustenance, and fight of our neighbors for our very lives.

But if all prophets in earth's long chronicle are honored by disaster and despair, what will honor this prophet?
The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he led me out in the spirit of the LORD and set me in the center of the plain, which was now filled with bones.
He made me walk among them in every direction so that I saw how many they were on the surface of the plain. How dry they were!
He asked me: Son of man, can these bones come to life? "Lord GOD," I answered, "you alone know that."
Then he said to me: Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!
Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life.
I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the LORD.
I prophesied as I had been told, and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise; it was a rattling as the bones came together, bone joining bone.
I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them, and the skin cover them, but there was no spirit in them.
Then he said to me: Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, son of man, and say to the spirit: Thus says the Lord GOD: From the four winds come, O spirit, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.
I prophesied as he told me, and the spirit came into them; they came alive and stood upright, a vast army.
Then he said to me: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They have been saying, "Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off."
Therefore, prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus you shall know that I am the LORD. I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.
Or this one?
"Come for water, all who are thirsty;
though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
come, buy wine and milk, not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food
your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
you will enjoy the fat of the land. (Isaiah 55:1-2)
Or this one?

When I would comfort myself against sorrow, my heart is faint in me.

Behold the voice of the cry of the daughter of my people because of them that dwell in a far country: Is not the LORD in Zion? is not her king in her? Why have they provoked me to anger with their graven images, and with strange vanities?

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me.

Is there no balm in Gil'ead? is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!

The prophets were not about despair, they were about justice. Nothing in Jeremiah's cry, either, blames God or expects God to reach down and do the healing. The balm is expected to be found among people; the physician is expected to be a person who can provide healing to other persons. Jeremiah's despair is no despair at all; it is grief for the pain of the people of Israel. Our pain, now, in the apocalypse we imagine, is entirely individual. The doom brought about is societal, but the burden of it falls on each of us alone, divides us each from each, "Parting easily two who were never joined." And just here we wander into a distinction James Barr describes very well for our purposes:
Movement could not be ultimate reality for the Greeks, to whom being must be distinguished from becoming, and the ultimate must be changeless. For the Israelites the true reality was action and movement, and the inactive and motionless was no reality at all."

With this may be associated the Greek contrast of appearance and reality. The world was full of changing phenomena, but since reality must be static the change was unreal appearance. To the Israelites however the appearance of a thing was the manifestation of its being or reality, and a valid and adequate manifestation at that. What did not appear in action and movement would not be real, and what did appear was not a pale or secondary shadow of this reality but the reality itself. There is therefore no contrast of appearance and reality.

This leads to two more important distinctions: one, the distinction of subject and object, which the Greeks recognize, but not the Hebrews. The other is the conception of the human: In Greek thought man is seen as a duality, with an immortal soul imprisoned or confined in a mortal body; the two are only temporarily or accidentally related. In Hebrew thought the 'soul' is the living person in his flesh; 'soul' and 'flesh' are not separable but one is the outward and visible manifestation of the other. There is no thought of the soul living apart from the body.

It is simliarly felt however that Hebrew thought saw man as a person within a totality, while Greek thought tended to see him as an individual, i.e., in essence as one separated from others, and then to form collectivities by grouping individuals together. The conflict of individual and collectivity thus arises from the Greek tradition. But Hebrew life was lived in a social totality of religion and justice.
It is that "social totality of religion and justice" that is precisely missing (and it is precisely here I'm going to annoy many reading this). We see ourselves as individuals, "as one separated from others," and our collectivities are merely groupings of individuals based on mutual interests. When those interests dissolve, so does civilization, and the only option available then is anarchy. This is why the rich imagine the poor have only rape and theft on their minds: they cannot imagine that they have any mutual interests with the poor, any common humanity, at least no bonds that won't be easily overcome by the stress of crisis, by the lack of police or military power to keep the poor in check. To the rich, the poor are all Medeas, simply waiting for a reason to commit regicide and then, if necessary, to murder their own children.

Which would be an overly sweeping statement, a gross generalization, if we didn't have the evidence of New Orleans from just five years ago. There was the perception: “This place is going to look like Little Somalia,” and there was the reality: "The greatest looter in this crisis may be twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson, who appropriated a school bus and evacuated about seventy of his New Orleans neighbors to Houston." And the passion for apocalypse is so strong in our culture we no longer need explanations like "atomic wars" or "environmental disasters" or even computers becoming sentient, to explain the horror of the end times. We take it as being as inevitable as sunrise, and only a matter of time.

But what if we lived in "a social totality of religion and justice" instead? It would hardly be perfection. Israel, after all, needed the prophets to remind it of the demands of justice. Jeremiah railed against greed:

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)

The lesson of "false idols" was not limited to totems designed to be deities, but to any item that came between a person and the Creator, anything that became more important than what came from God. The prophets constantly upbraid the people to take care of the widow and the orphan, and after the Exile, the prophetic visions are all of recovery and return and restoration, of God's justice dealt out to God's people so they will know what justice is. Here, of course, I will lose readers who object to my religion (Christianity) as a vision for the polity, or object to a religious vision at all. But the religious vision of Christianity is the one that has already been hijacked, already tortured into this accepted anxiety that it will all come to smash, and then we will have to live among the ruins. If we are ever going to finally turn our backs on this despair, on this remorse for the future, we are going to have to do it by going forward through that corrupted vision, not by thinking we can go backward and start again with a clean break, that we can return to some juncture in our common cultural history through sheer will or sheer insistence, and branch out in a wholly new direction unhindered by our inheritance. It is not that we need to all become Christians of a certain stripe to set this problem right and release these fears of losing our possessions: it is that we need to see the roots of these fears for what they are, and begin to change our perceptions of what we fear, and why we fear it. We cannot become what we are not; our only hope is to never cease from exploration, so that we return to the place of our common beginning, and know it, finally, for the first time.

*On a thoroughly irascible note, Bill Gates and his other charitable donors might do more good by backing a law to remove the upper limit on how much income is subject to Social Security taxes. But that brings us back to the widow's mite, and the rich man who makes a great display of his charity to the Temple. It is, after all, a press release that lets us know of these rich men's generous plans.