Thursday, September 20, 2012

Of sin and atonement and what we can learn from Yom Kippur

"You can't conceive, my child, nor I nor anyone,
 the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God."
--Graham Greene

I said something below about imposing religious ideas on the non-religious, and the advent of Yom Kippur is my starting point for that observation.  Talk of the Nation devoted some time to the Jewish observance and the ideas of sin and atonement; the guests were a rabbi, an imam, and a Jesuit priest, and the discussion was uniformly excellent between them.  But first I think of the "Christian" holidays of Christmas and Easter, and even of Mardi Gras, which marks the end of Epiphany and beginning of Lent.  Those are widely observed holidays, or at least very widely known, but they commonly have as little to do with Christianity as a fish has to do with a bicycle.  Yom Kippur is distinctly Jewish, and distinctly related to the concepts of sin and atonement, as well as the nature of God.  Lent is similar, but far less widely observed among Christians.  But what was interesting to me was the very idea of "sin" in the first place.

Sin is a concept passed down in America through Puritanical hands and closely associated with an "angry God," thanks to the eloquence of Jonathan Edwards.  I'm hard pressed to condemn the Puritans, in part because they are part of my religious heritage through my ordination into the United Church of Christ.  I have a direct connection to them through the Congregationalist church which is a major historical root of the UCC.  But sin is so often, among Christians and those who know the term only from Christianity, a burden, a malaise, a source of shame and despair.  It doesn't have to be, although Christians since at least Augustine have treated it so.  As Krister Stendahl points out, if sin seems deeply connected to our Western sense of self, it's because the source of our self-consciousness (literally as well as the source of our shame/self-concern) is Augustine and his confessions.  Paul, if you can strip away your anachronistic lens placed over his letters by the saint of Hippo, has a clearly "robust conscience," and defies the sense of shame and despair that haunts more pious Christians nearly 2000 years later.  So if we are going to make sin a universal condition of all humankind, we have to discuss just what we mean by the term.

It isn't that we can't make sin a universal issue; it is more how we do it that concerns me.  To hear the rabbi discuss the tradition of atonement for Yom Kippur, I heard the echoes of a covenant behind it.  If Alberich is good enough to read this, perhaps he can add more information in the comments, because my knowledge here is admittedly fragmentary, and even my memory of what the rabbi outlined is fading away.  The practice, though, involved far more than prayer and confession in corporate worship (as almost every Protestant and Catholic does in weekly worship).  It involved activity, the basic thrust of which was to seek forgiveness and make amends before turning to God to ask for absolution.  This was, basically, the Muslim practice as well, but in the rabbi's description I heard the clear substrate of a covenantal idea, of being bound by the covenant with Abraham to others (perhaps even Gentiles.  Why not?), and owing them as much duty as you owed to God.

It started me thinking that religion today is declared to be a private practice, and that is the problem with it:  we want our religion to be private and personal, when of all things it should be the must public and corporate.  Not corporate in the meaning of a fiction of law, but corporate in the sense of corporeal, of lived in the world, and incorporated into daily life.  How many Christians prefer to leave their religion at the door of the church, to pick it up again like a hymnbook or a church bulletin on Sunday morning?  There is a problem, but I still maintain a slight one, in Christians behaving like Rick Perry:

On Tuesday he spoke on a conference call with fundamentalist Christian activist and former pastor Rick Scarborough as part of Scarborough’s “40 Days to Save America” campaign to inspire and organize religious right voters. Echoing sentiments he expressed in “Fed Up” and remarks he made at the Reliant event, Perry said the separation of church and state was a myth being used to drive “people of faith from the public arena.” Perry said America is engaged in “spiritual warfare” and that Religious Right activists who “truly are Christian warriors, Christian soldiers” need to stand up to “activist courts” and “President Obama and his cronies in Washington.”

“Satan runs across the world with his doubt and with his untruths and what have you,” Perry said, “and one of the untruths out there that is driven — is that people of faith should not be involved in the public arena.”
I think his words are the sheerest nonsense, but if he wants the people in the public arena to be only people of his version of faith, my best response is to show up in the arena with my version of faith; not to set mine aside so I can be a better citizen when I reach the agora.  And if I'm going to live my faith, my confession and repentance and atonement have be something more than what I offer to and ask from God in the privacy of my thoughts or in the repetition of a printed prayer.

Does that mean I should expect this of everyone else?  No, of course not.  But it was the rabbi who spoke of giving forgiveness as well as receiving the confession of sin, and that was the linchpin of the covenant, to me.  Of course, just because it is expected doesn't mean it is given, and just because two Christians, or two atheists for that matter, try to reconcile but one won't and reconciliation takes two, doesn't mean a covenant would fix it, or a covenant is broken.

A caller to the program said that people can forgive each other and learn to get along with each other without religion; that humankind knew apologies and forgiveness were necessary long before religion came along.  I'm not so sure about his history or his anthropology, but even taking him at face value and accepting the basis of his argument, the fact remains:  how many people will do that without some sense of the metaphysical, or the transcendent, of a covenant or a binding love of God or something beyond the need of two people to cooperate, to make forgiveness finally happen?  It is like the argument that religion is not needed to build hospitals, orphanages, homes for the elderly and the mentally challenged, places of refuge for workers forced to work far from home.  No, it isn't needed, but the German E&R church built all those things in the 19th century for fellow immigrants from what wasn't yet then Germany, for those who were strangers from foreign countries who spoke an almost common language and little more.  How many atheists did that, without first requiring a profit motive or a favorable tax law?

I have a book by a Jesuit priest that describes sin in terms of the American frontier of the 19th century.  Sin, as I recall him putting it, is either violating one of the rules of the town (for which the sheriff will harshly punish you); or sin is being in the wagon train, and wanting to turn back.  I like that second metaphor:  it places us in a journey, among others with a similar purpose, going to a destination that, like Abram in Genesis 12, we can't quite imagine.  And sin is not a rule we break, but a lack of faith in where we are going, and who is leading us there.  In terms of the Hebrew scriptures, it was the land flowing with milk and honey, which would be theirs so long as they were faithful to God; and the Torah gave them guidance (much more than that, but again, I'm no rabbi).  In the Christian scriptures, that destination is the kingdom of God, and the journey is not to a physical locality, but out among people.  People who believe as we do, and people who do not.  According to the letters of Paul, it's the people in the former category who actually give us the most trouble about where we are going, and how to get there, and how to behave along the way.

I'll have to leave it there.  Perhaps I can return when I am more coherent, or more sure of what I want to say.  But I won't get any further just now.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why doth anyone rage?

I heard on the radio today (probably BBC News) that it is recorded (in the Koran?) that the prophet Mohammad himself was attacked and vilified in his life time; his response sounded almost Christian.  He blessed those who persecuted him, and forgave them their treatment of him.

I realized this afternoon this matter of insulting the Prophet touches on an issue central to Niebuhr's thesis in Moral Man and Immoral Society. I can, as a moral matter, accept calumny and even assault, in the name of my religious or ethical beliefs.  But can I, as a moral matter, accept the same on your behalf? 

That is entirely the thesis of Neibuhr's analysis:  an individual can be moral on their own behalf.  But can they be moral on behalf of others?  It may be right for me to accept insult of my Lord by others; indeed, there is nothing you could say to me that would enrage me enough to attack you, if your insults were directed toward Jesus of Nazareth.

But if they were directed toward my wife?  My daughter?  My brother?  My parents?  My friends?  At what point am I immoral, or at least unfeeling, to accept insults on behalf of others?

Let us posit that I should.  Who would blame me if I didn't?  If you felt any sympathy for any of the groups I've named, would you feel sympathy for my plight?  Or would you wonder, instead, about my self-esteem, my courage, my willingness to oppose evil even if it is merely insults to those I love and care about?  Might you even wonder how much I love and care about them?

It is not an unanswerable situation.  It is not a paradox without a resolution.  But the resolution is hard; it is almost superhuman one, it requires almost a saint-like composure and an almost inhuman withdrawal from the affairs of everyday life.  If I did it, who would understand me?  If I fought back, who would blame me?

It is right for Muslims to do as the Prophet taught and did.  It is right for Christians to do as Jesus and Paul taught and did.  But how far can we go in expecting others do to what we would not do?  We might not be as prompt to explode in public anger at insults to Jesus, we Christians.  But is that because we are morally superior to the angry Muslims on our TeeVee screens?  Or is it because we really don't care as much about our religious figures as they do?

Are we more spiritually pure?  Or just less spiritually concerned?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Let me take a moment to upend some of this before it becomes ridiculous (Hah!  As if I had that power!  Nonetheless....).

As the article points out in the middle (rather than at the breathless beginning):

 She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.
And this isn't the first time in human history that anyone has suggested Jesus was married.  There was the old legend of the last temptation of Christ, where Satan returned to Christ on the cross and offered him a vision of a normal life, with a wife and kids.  Nikos Kazantzakis wrote a wonderful novel on that legend.  (Does anybody read Kazantzakis anymore?  They should....).  There was an argument I heard about in seminary, that because Jesus was called "Rabbi," it implied he was married, since rabbis were supposed to be married men. (I have no idea if that is even true, about rabbis and marriage, nor when the term "rabbi" actually became a term associated both with leadership in Jewish communities, and so with marriage as a concomitant of being a community leader.  I'd also note the only consistent reference to Jesus as "Rabbi" is in the gospel of John, which dates to the late 1st century or early 2nd century).  The article mentions a 2nd century controversy about Jesus having a wife, to settle the question of whether Christians should marry (Some of Paul's letters, almost two centuries earlier, reflect similar concerns.  The more things change....)

This fragment, then, has about as much historical veracity as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, where Jesus the young child kills the children who irritate him.  The NYT, of course, plays this as if it were something found in the world of The DaVinci Code:

Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple. These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say. But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage.

The discussion is particularly animated in the Roman Catholic Church, where despite calls for change, the Vatican has reiterated the teaching that the priesthood cannot be opened to women and married men because of the model set by Jesus.
Yeah, I don't see much happening on that front because of this fragment of papyrus. It is interesting, though.

Give the king your justice, O Lord!

In the land of mankind, conceived of as a pyramid, there are few at the top, and many at the bottom,” the congregation sang. “In the land of mankind, those at the top crush those at the bottom. Oh, people of the poor, people subjected to domination, what are you doing just standing there? The world of mankind has to be changed, so arise people, don’t stand still.
I think David Frum is absolutely right about the "apocalyptic terror" that grips the 1% in America.  Likely it was triggered by the glimpse of the abyss that opened at their feet back when Bush as still President, and then they heard the faint echoes of tumbrels when the Occupy movement was occupying everyone's attention last year.  They are terrified because, at heart, they realize that what they own is made possible by the 99%, and they own it only because the 99% allows this situation to prevail.

But is that likely to change?  Again, Frum is right:

[A]ll this is occurring at a time when economically disadvantaged Americans have never been so demoralized and passive, never exerted less political clout. No Coxey's army is marching on Washington, no sit-down strikes are paralyzing factories, no squatters are moving onto farmer's fields. Occupy Wall Street immediately fizzled, there is no protest party of the political left.

The only radical mass movement in this country is the Tea Party, a movement to defend the interests of elderly incumbent beneficiaries of the existing welfare state. Against that movement is a government of liberal technocrats dependent on campaign donations from a different faction of the American super-rich than that which backs Mitt Romney himself.

The strongest movement on the political scene (still!) is the one trying to protect what it has; and most of what it has comes from the government.  Were it not for favorable tax and finance laws, Mitt Romney would not only not be a rich man, but he wouldn't pay less in taxes (13.9%) than most Americans pay in payroll taxes (15.3%).  Mitt Romney, never let it be forgotten, is a Harvard lawyer.  He is an expert in manipulating the law to benefit himself and his investors, and that is really all he has ever done.  Yet to hear him speak, he deserves his money, while working class people in the factories he shut down, the factories they made successful by their labor, are mere parasites who feel "entitled" to something.

Mitt Romney is the man who feels "entitled."  And he speaks for an entire class who apparently fears their entitlements are soon going to be taken away, because the government won't protect them.

Ironic, no?  Frum puts it this way:

From the greatest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, the rights and perquisites of wealth have emerged undiminished - and the central issue in this election is whether those rights and perquisites shall be enhanced still more, or whether they should be allowed to slip back to the level that prevailed during the boom.

Yet even so, the rich and the old are scared witless!
 But why are they scared?  I honestly think it is the fear of justice; it is the knowledge, however deeply buried, that they cannot maintain what is their own unless there is justice in the society in which they hold it.  It is the same fear of a brown planet, the same white people's fear of angry black men:  the whites know that what goes around comes around, and the horrors and injustices visited on others will have to be paid for in time.  Their fear is that it must be paid in the same coin.  It's an interesting motivation.  I was watching the first episode of "Battlestar Galactica" recently.  After they Cylons destroy most of humanity, what is left flees and the military, the one battlestar remaining, wants to go back and "finish" the fight.  They have no hope of winning, of course, and until the military commander realizes the civilian leader is right, and humanity has lost the war, everything hangs in the balance.  So the humans flee, looking for a new home.

But the Cylons are convinced the humans will come back, that they will regroup and build up weapons and population, and attack again some day, just as the Cylons did.  Annihilation is the only recourse.  And if you know the story of the whole series, they finally, with the humans, find "Earth," find the '13th colony.'  It was all Cylons:  the centurion robots, and the humanoid Cylons.  And they destroyed each other in a nuclear holocaust.  There is a deep lesson there.

We aren't on the verge of any such holocaust, not even of a French Revolution.  No tumbrels, no guillotines, no people's courts a la "The Dark Knight Rises."  But the fear of it is driving our politics; even when it is exposed, it is not denied.  Mitt Romney braved this release, and some on the far right are saying he should embrace it, that this is a winning strategy.  David Frum says it is all a scam.  I wish he were right.  What this tape has done is turn over the rock, exposing the crawlers and grubs of our national discourse.  What it hasn't done, is make the discourse either immediately illegitimate, nor immediately a pariah.  That may yet happen; but for the moment, all it has done is reinforce the fear some people feel, and perhaps given them more reason to fear that, if they are honest, they will lose their power and position and possessions.

Maybe they should be afraid.  But maybe the real issue is what they are afraid of; and I think they fear justice.  Not punishment, not revenge, not mob violence and chaos:  but justice.

Would that we could have that conversation now.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Watch the doughnut....

The Onion essentially gets this right (click on over there to read it, I won't excerpt from it), and in light of the fact protests have broken out in Southeast Asia this morning (where there are more Muslims than in all of the Middle East, something easily and constantly overlooked in America, if not all of "the West"), it shows that the violent protests are not about offended religious sensibilities.

Indeed, from news reports I gather it's a fair statement that most Muslims, "upon seeing it, ... simply shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and continued on with their day."  What about all those rioters and protesters?   A vocal minority, for the first part, no more representative of the whole of their countries than the US college anti-war protestors represented even the majority sentiment of students on their college campus (all the people killed at Kent State were going to class or doing something other than protesting.  Vietnam ended not because students led marches, but because the nation got tired of the war.  Anyway....).  Why are they angry?  Probably for many reasons.  Richard Engle told Rachel Maddow last night much of it has to do with authoritarian regimes which maintained power for decades by telling the people the world was in a conspiracy against them, a conspiracy of Jews and Americans and Freemasons (yes, his word; I think he was using it for comic exaggeration).  He argued some of the anger is over the idea America would allow a film like "The Innocence of Muslims" to exist, betraying a complete misunderstanding of the concept of "free speech."  But that cultural clash was upheld not by ignorance, but by a conspiracy theory that America decried the film publicly, but privately promoted it.  Hillary Clinton's denunciations of the film, in other words, just prove the US government was behind it.

Which is the way most conspiracy theories work.  But why isn't this sentiment felt as strongly throughout the Muslim world, which would mean throughout Southeast Asia?  Could it had more to do with culture and history than religious sensitivities?  Could it possibly be connected with the unflinching support of Mubarak in Egypt, or Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or the Shah of Iran?  Could it be because America supported Israel despite the fact the country was founded by kicking people out of their houses at gunpoint (I've spoken to people who lived through the establishment of Israel; sooner or later geopolitics lands on the ground and becomes one person telling another person you no longer own that, I do.).  The Palestinians got about as much in reparations as the Native Americans did, but our sympathies and our military power have never been with the Native Americans.  Either.  (Since I started this post, protests and violence have spread across the "Muslim world."  I would still note that these are all countries where the populace is likely to feel as if they have been, and have been, on the short end of the power relationship with Europe and the United States.  It's no accident the embassies being approached now are former colonial powers.  Some of the outrage, too, surely has to do with the content of the "trailer.")

So probably there are reasons people in the Middle East who are Muslims find reasons to be inflamed about depictions of their faith in the West, especially when those depictions are meant to be offensive.  Maybe it has more to do with power and powerlessness than with delicate feelings.  The fact that protests have spread to the German and British embassies today underlines that point:  those countries have no more to do with this "movie" than America does.  Maybe the insult is more grave than we want to realize, because the wounds are deeper than we want to see.  Comments on BBC's "World Have Your Say" today from Muslim countries wondered if the same outrage would be shown by Americans to an anti-Semitic "film," and others wondered by these insults are always aimed at Muslims.  It doesn't really matter that they aren't; it's the sense of insult, of being on the short end of a big stick for too long, that is being aroused.

Too much of what I already hear exists in an ahistorical vacuum where the "Muslim world" is the Middle East and not Asia or Africa, and the reactions of this "Muslim world" have no connection whatsoever to US involvement in the Middle East since at least the discovery of oil there.  This anger has roots that are not religious, but may use religion; and are not irrational, though it may lead to irrational acts.

Is it too much to ask that we watch the doughnut, not the hole?

No more pencils, no more books....

I want to say something about the Chicago teachers.  I want to express my solidarity with them by saying something pithy and insightful about their struggle, about their problems, about what they are on strike for (even as NPR tells me they're about to settle.  Better late than never, huh?).

And I don't know enough about it to do that.

Digby has a post about it which starts off excoriating people who aren't teachers, people whose ignorance makes them experts on problems, and I don't want to be one of them nor to trash all of them; but the addendum at the end of the post is something I can respond to.  It's the story of her brother-in-law nearly losing his job because he assigned a book which offended some parents.  That's a story I can relate to.

Not because it has ever happened to me, or ever will.  My books are chosen for me by the community college where I teach, and my students are adults:  I am insulated from the complaints of parents because, by law, I can't even tell the parents what their children's grades are.  I'm certainly not worried about offending some mother's delicate sensibilities over what idea I've exposed her precious child to.  But I've been a pastor, and it's safe to say I'm a pastor in official concept only now because I lost my job due to ideas that offended some people.  Parents, most of them, but that had little or nothing to do with it.  Or maybe it did, since I was the age of most of their children.

Anyway, I have been in that position where your every utterance, your every action, your every deed, where ever you are, is subject to scrutiny, and where people are sharpening their long knives just waiting for the opportunity to do you in.  It's not a pretty place to be, especially because, as a pastor, just as a public school teacher, you have more responsibility than you do authority.  Administrators and principals and state legislatures and parents are all convinced you need to be told how to do your job, and all want to see the paperwork to be sure you are doing your job (I've skirted the edge of public-school type teaching, and it is definitely not for me), and then want to sit in the classroom and "evaluate" you based on whether you make them happy or not (the students are not a fit judge of that!  And sometimes they are; more often, actually, they're not.).  I've sat and stood and walked through rooms where I knew everything I did was being weighed and found wanting, was being weighed and measured and criticized and decided against me, no matter what I did.  I've been focused solely on my job, only to have hundreds of bosses who all wanted me to know they knew what my job was, and it wasn't what I was doing, or what the rest of my "bosses" thought I should be doing.

I've seen teaching from that side:  you stand before the classroom and take command, but your power is limited and your responsibilities are great, and if the students don't learn because it's like trying to educate bricks, it's your fault.   And if a classroom should learn, should actually respond to what you say, should actually take something from what you did and keep it for their own,, then it's only what you are supposed to do.  I've been in the position where everyone says it's the children who are most important, or the church, or God, and yet you knew better than to believe any of that; or you should have.

I agree with Digby:  I can remember when teachers were the backbone of society, when the teacher's word was law, even unto my parents.  Even when my father disagreed with a teacher (and he did, strongly, once, in all my memory of public school) he would not let me think of her as anyone but my teacher, and I had to respect that.  I grew up the same way in church:  respect the pastor, even if you disagree with him.

I feel like an old man, an old conservative man, when I say I've seen all of that eroded.  I'd like to get mad at the MSNBC panel, as Digby does.  But they aren't even representative of the derision of teaching in America today.  They are just one more spit in the ocean.

I don't know what happened.  Corey Robin says it's because upper class families hate teachers,  Maybe so; my father was a white collar professional, but he came from working class roots.  He only went to college because of FDR's GI bill, not because he came from a long line of Ivy Leaguers.  I do know people who spend A LOT of money sending their kids to private schools, and they want to be assured their kids have the best teachers possible (and the toughest.  In matters of pedagogy, Dewey still hasn't had much impact beyond The New School).  But perhaps those aren't the upper class families Robin means.  The people I know still work for a living, despite the massive remunerations they receive; and they know their kids won't live like that without hard work and an excellent education and a driving ambition, and private schools are bought as incubators of personal ambition.

On the other hand, I've never really seen the American upper class as arbiters of public taste in much of anything, so Robin's thesis leaves me a bit flummoxed.  Maybe Rick Perlstein is right, and the main problem here is Rahm Emanuel's personality.  And maybe this is the lesson:

The teachers’ response to this abuse is something all of us should be paying attention to. If Chapter 1 of the American people’s modern grass-roots fight against the plutocracy was the demonstrations at the Wisconsin State Capitol in the spring of 2011, and Chapter 2 was the Occupy encampments of that summer, the Chicago Teachers Union’s stand against Emanuel should go down as Chapter 3. It’s been inspiration to anyone frustrated that people have forgotten how good it feels to stand up to bullies — and how effective it can be.
 I'm with Digby:  the idea that 1/3rd of the teachers (per Nicholas Kristof, who really ought to know better than to quote Professor Otto Yerass) are "bad"  is not only vague and amorphous (is a teacher who assigns Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" to high school seniors "bad"?  Discuss.), it's a ludicrous swipe from a comfortable distance.  Far too easy to stand off and identify "failure" in generic terms to people you don't really know.  Corey Robin hits that nail on the head:

But like most people I’ve also had some terrible friends, some terrible co-workers, some terrible neighbors, some terrible doctors, some terrible editors, and some terrible professors. Mediocrity, I’d venture, is a more or less universal feature of the human condition.
 It's a condition we live with, until "they" are taking "our" money, and then we are easily convinced "they" are not giving "us" our money's worth.  Although I think Matt Yglesias is only half-right:  we may resent unions which drive up taxes with their salary demands, but what we really resent is teachers demanding a living wage.  It wasn't that long ago that public school teachers were mostly women (probably still are, come to think of it), and they were expected to a) live off their husband's salaries, or b) not be so greedy, after all, they had two incomes, or c), not be married; the "spinster;"  the "old maid."  Well, she didn't need much money to live in rented housing, brew tea, and feed a cat, now, did she?

And private school teachers, by the way, make less than public school teachers; at least on average.  They teach private school because the parents are more supportive, by and large,  and because the kids are the product of selection, not just of the neighborhood.  These things make a difference, over the years.  But private schools tend to hold onto the money as tightly as public schools do.

I still don't know what to tell you.  Don't get me started on "teacher evaluations."  Let Diane Ravitch tell you about them.  I have nothing interesting to say about charter schools except what I know about how disastrous they were in Texas.  Diane Ravitch is a better resource on that, too.  School reform through free enterprise?  Ms. Ravitch has that also (and not for the first time do I remember what an idiot Stephen Brill is.  These things that pass for knowledge I don't understand.)  She can even give you helpful suggestions on what we should do.

I got all of those from Corey Robin, at the end of that post I linked.  There is much out there, and I suppose if you can read it you should thank a teacher.  But if you can think about it, you should really thank a teacher.

Maybe we need a new narrative.  I'm sure the internet is not wanting for explanations and solutions to thise problems.  A new narrative is an attractive place to start.  But new narratives require "new styles of architecture, a change of heart."  Getting that, I'm not so sure about.  Because more and more I am convinced the greatest conspiracy extant in the world today is the one against thinking.  It is easier to be sure your knowledge is right, than to be sure your thinking is sound.

Jesus teaches us that the first among us shall be last of all and servant of all.  The Didache teaches us that the labourer is worthy of his hire.  But the irony is that a culture which calls itself Christian so soon forgets another title for Jesus was "Teacher."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Departed

The Scorsese film fascinated me, not least for the reason that the entire film seemed to involve two groups playing cops 'n' robbers as a role-playing game with virtually no intrusion from the "outside" world.  The cops pursue the crooks, who in turn mislead the cops, and in the end the only people hurt are:  the cops and the robbers.  All the deaths are either of criminals or of police, and the whole story is so insular that no character in it isn't in one group or the other.  The only victims of the crimes are from these two groups, in the entire movie.

Would that real life were like this; because we're getting a clearer picture of who is involved in this "Innocence of the Muslims" "film" (I'm still not convinced it exists except on YouTube).  But the people involved in this story aren't all in America. They all are, however, extremists nuts who hate other religions:

Jones and Mr. Bacile cannot be blamed for the violence and death of the ambassador. That blame goes to the perpetrators. Who whipped them up? Ground zero for bringing attention to the movie in Egypt appears to be Al-Nas TV, a religious channel owned by Saudi Arabian businessman Mansour bin Kadsa. A TV show presented by anti-Christian, anti-Semitic host Khaled Abdullah before the violence showed what he said were clips from the film, which he insisted was being produced by the United States and Coptic (Egyptian) Christians.
This fits with what NPR reported this morning, about Libyans upset by the film, but also wondering why America would allow this film to be made.  When I heard that I figured the average Libyan just didn't understand the 1st Amendment, and that they just assumed anything made in America was made with the approval of the American government.  Turns out I should have given them more credit, and should have considered there was a reason they thought the American government was involved.

We've had people in this country moved to demonstrate, if not moved to mob violence, by similar attempts to whip up fervor.  It isn't really that they are all that different from us.  And somebody is trying to use all of us for their own ends.

What do we do about that?

Houston, we have a problem

Deep in the heart of Texas, Austin wants Houston (and the rest of the state)  to comply with a new state law.  Problem is, Austin is demanding Houston (and the rest of the state, not that anyone else is complaining)  violate Federal law.

The Texas Secretary of State's office, in a strongly worded letter Wednesday, said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners likely is violating the law and jeopardizing the integrity of the Nov. 6 election in deciding not to purge presumed-dead voters from the rolls before the vote.
The number of voters affected is 9000 in Harris County, almost 73,000 statewide (or 77,000, depending on who you ask.  See the link further below).  The practice of sending out notices about voter eligibility is known as "caging," and it's not necessarily illegal or improper; except when it is:

 a) In general
In the administration of voter registration for elections for Federal office, each State shall -
(1) ensure that any eligible applicant is registered to vote in an election -
(3) provide that the name of a registrant may not be removed from the official list of eligible voters except -
(A) at the request of the registrant;
(B) as provided by State law, by reason of criminal conviction or mental incapacity; or
(C) as provided under paragraph (4);
(4) conduct a general program that makes a reasonable effort to remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters by reason of -
(A) the death of the registrant....
(b) Confirmation of voter registration Any State program or activity to protect the integrity of the electoral process by ensuring the maintenance of an accurate and current voter registration roll for elections for Federal office- (1) shall be uniform, nondiscriminatory, and in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C. 1973 et seq.); and
(2) shall not result in the removal of the name of any person from the official list of voters registered to vote in an election for Federal office by reason of the person's failure to vote, except that nothing in this paragraph may be construed to prohibit a State from using the procedures described in subsections (c) and (d) of this section to remove an individual from the official list of eligible voters if the individual - (A) has not either notified the applicable registrar (in person or in writing) or responded during the period described in subparagraph (B) to the notice sent by the applicable registrar; and then (B) has not voted or appeared to vote in 2 or more consecutive general elections for Federal office.
(c) Voter removal programs
....(2)(A) A State shall complete, not later than 90 days prior to the date of a primary or general election for Federal office, any program the purpose of which is to systematically remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.
(B) Subparagraph (A) shall not be construed to preclude -
(i) the removal of names from official lists of voters on a basis described in paragraph (3)(A) or (B) or (4)(A) of subsection (a) of this section....

Emphasis added.

That can be a bit much to deciper (Federal law is not written to be easily deciphered!), but the upshot is this:  Texas cannot remove voters from the rolls on the grounds the voter is dead without sending out a notice to said voter, getting no response, and then waiting to see if the voter has failed to vote in 2 or more consecutive general Federal Elections.

In other words, Texas can't purge the rolls on these notices until after November, 2014, at the earliest. But it is clear the State of Texas isn't going to wait that long:

A match is strong if the last name, date of birth and all nine Social Security numbers are identical. A weak match occurs when two records have either the same nine digit Social Security number and same date of birth, or the last four Social Security numbers, the same birth date and one matching name component. A voter's registration will be canceled automatically if the match is strong, but not if the match is weak, according to the Travis County voter registrar.
 An automatic purge of voters that prevented them from voting in the November Federal Election would be a violation of Federal law.  All I'm wondering now is whether anybody is going to muster a suit over this before November.  Granted, the story only hit the press yesterday.  But this has been going on long enough that Harris County has already tried it, declined to continue it, and received a warning from the Texas Secretary of State about it.

Time's a wastin'.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Perils of the Unreliable Narrator

Yesterday, as I heard about the US Embassy in Egypt (long before the assault on the consulate in Libya), the media reported protestors were upset by a film nobody could identify.

This morning, I learn not only about the film, but that it was produced by "Sam Bacile," who talked to the AP and otherwise was in hiding.

Now, there are legitimate questions as to whether "Sam Bacile" exists.  Huffington Post says the film exists, if not Bacile, but the only evidence they cite is the clips on YouTube.  What if the YouTube video is all there is?

Every year I teach my students about point of view in literature, and the problems and pitfalls of narrators and why we believe them, and when we shouldn't.  This entire problem may be based on a pastiche which has been taken seriously by "Egypt's sometimes-raucous, often rumor-heavy media" (Atlantic) and by Egyptians, Libyans, and (most recently, as I write) Tunisians.

It may, in other words, be outraged focused on US embassies by a lens that doesn't exist and for which we cannot find the lenscrafters.

Welcome to the interconnected world.  O, what a paradise it seems!

Update: the timeline at TPM makes the whole thing even more suspicious.  I don't know who's behind it, but you can't blame it on "zealots" and "crazies."  Not just yet.

And, in the spirit of the post (that too much too soon is too unknown), there is this:
Initial accounts of the assault in Benghazi were attributed to popular anger over what was described as an American-made video that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad, which had been publicized by Egyptian media and led to a mob protest at the United States Embassy protest in Cairo on Tuesday. But administration officials in Washington said the attack in Libya may have been plotted in advance.

While the protesters in Cairo appeared to be genuinely outraged over the anti-Islam video, the attackers in Benghazi were armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Officials said it was possible that an organized group had either been waiting for an opportunity to exploit like the protests over the video or perhaps even generated the protests as a cover for their attack.
 Buzzfeed, btw, is thinking the way I am.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

In Memoriam

The fortunes of war favored Hrothgar.
Friends and kinsmen flocked to his ranks,
young followers, a force that grew
to be a mighty army.  So his mind turned
to hall-building; he handed down orders
for men to work on a great mead-hall
meant to be a wonder of the world forever;
it would be his throne-room and there he would dispense
his God-given goods to young and old---
but not the common land or people's lives.
Far and wide through the world, I have heard,
orders for work to adorn that wallstead
were sent to many peoples.  And soon it stood there
finished and ready, in full view,
the hall of halls.  Heorot was the name
he had settled on it, whose utterance was law.
Nor did he renege, but doled out rings
and torques at the table.  The hall towered
its gables wide and high and awaiting
a barbarous burning.  That doom abided,
but in time it would come:  the killer instinct
unleashed among in-laws, the blood-lust rampant.

from Beowulf, tr. Seamus Heaney

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Hello darkness my old friend....

For my money the better speech last night was delivered by Elizabeth Warren.  Bill Clinton did what Bill Clinton does:  he eloquently defended the status quo.  Elizabeth Warren delivered the truly radical concept that whatever you do for the least, you do for all.  She noted that things weren't always like "this," that the game is, in fact, rigged.  She never mentioned Jeremiah, but she did mention Matthew.  And her thesis was rooted in the words of the prophet(s), which are still written on the subway walls and tenement halls.  And still whispered in the sounds of silence, because none dare speak of what is right, without speaking of what is possible through power.

It could be that Ms. Warren's argument is too religious, even with that one bare mention of a Sunday school lesson explicitly stated.  We are still  surprised that the religious can be interested in others. Maybe that's because politics is only about power, not about morality.  Concern for others is the foundation of morality.  How to wield power, is the foundation of politics.  Politics can be shaped toward moral ends, but most of us aren't really interested in that; we are interested in what's in it for us, as Tom Junod illustrates in that linked post.  Mr. Junod makes two fatal mistakes there:  1)  he assumes religion, especially orthodox varieties, are always about exclusion; and 2) he assumes that politics is about what is right, rather than about power.  Elizabeth Warren came closer than anyone at the DNC to talking about what is right; Bill Clinton talked about power.

And Bill Clinton is who everybody is talking about this morning.

Charlie Pierce said Elizabeth Warren finally became a politician last night. Ms. Warren is not a completely religious figure, but I hope Mr. Pierce is not completely right.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Still running on empty....

Right after this, the Dems do this:

Democrats voted to update their party's platform Wednesday evening at their convention to include a reference to Jerusalem being the capital of Israel, as well as the insertion of the word "God," neither of which was included in their platform this year but was in previous platforms.

President Barack Obama himself intervened regarding the Jerusalem language, a senior Democratic source told CNN, adding, that he thought the original draft was "a strong statement and he didn't want there to be any confusion about his unshakeable commitment to the security of state israel. The issue of the day is Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah."

The change, proposed by former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland immediately after the convention was gaveled into order on Wednesday, required a two-thirds voice vote, but was declared as adopted after three voice votes which brought delegates to their feet, shouting their yeas and nays. Democratic sources told CNN prior to the vote that it was to take place by acclamation.

"I am here to attest and affirm that our faith and belief in God is central to the American story and informs the values we've expressed in our party's platform," Strickland, who chaired the party's platform committee, read. "In addition, President Obama recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and our party's platform should as well. "
Yeah, whatta loada crap.  But what you don't hear President Obama reaffirming his "unshakeable commitment" to, or the party attesting and affirming is, any concern for the poor in America.

 The number of U.S. families struggling to put enough food on the table remains at record-high levels, according to new figures out today from the government. Last year, 1 in almost 7 households were what the government calls "food insecure." That's about the same level as in 2010, but still far higher than before the recession. The problem finding enough food is especially severe among households headed by single mothers with children.
That's how the article starts; this is how it ends:

The program is facing steep budget cuts in Congress, mostly from Republicans who think the economy would be better off with smaller government. Nelson says he also went to the Republican National Convention to make the case that childhood hunger has to be addressed.

"We're finding that both parties are really, to a large extent, particularly at the federal level, way too quiet on this issue," [Tom] Nelson [president of Share Our Strength]  says.

In fact, neither President Obama nor his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, had any comment today about the new numbers.

Lt. Gen. Russel HonorĂ© (Ret.) was right:  we are scared of the poor.  Which bothers me a helluva lot more than what words are, or are not, in a party platform.

Why I am a Democrat

Faith. Faith has always been a central part of the American story, and it has been a driving force of progress and justice throughout our history. We know that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith and the countless acts of justice and mercy it inspires. Faith-based organizations will always be critical allies in meeting the challenges that face our nation and our world - from domestic and global poverty, to climate change and human trafficking. People of faith and religious organizations do amazing work in communities across this country and the world, and we believe in lifting up and valuing that good work, and finding ways to support it where possible. We believe in constitutionally sound, evidence-based partnerships with faith-based and other non-profit organizations to serve those in need and advance our shared interests. There is no conflict between supporting faith-based institutions and respecting our Constitution, and a full commitment to both principles is essential for the continued flourishing of both faith and country.

From the Democratic Party Platform. The fact that three letters in a particular order are not to be found in that document matters not a whit to me.  What matters more is what you mean, than how you say it.  Matthew 7:21, and all that.