Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"There is no safety here."

I read too many ignorant comments about how "progressive" Christians let fundamentalists define Christianity in America and yet with all the coverage Ferguson, Missouri has received, I didn't learn about the role of the churches in that story until I went to Religious Dispatches:

The Greater St. Mark Church was raided today as St. Louis County Police thought that protesters were spending the night in the church, which has been used as a staging area for protestors.  Police have since closed the building and stated that if anyone congregates on the premises at night, there would be arrests. One member of the Dream Defenders said “what [the police] did today is tell us, what? There is no safety here.”

The Pastor of the church, Missouri Representative Tommie Pierson (D), said of the police “they don’t like us too much.”

Oh, no, that's the least of it*:

In contrast, clergy in Ferguson and from around the country have come to show their solidarity and to help the citizens of Ferguson in their quest for justice. Early on, the Rev. Renita Lamkin was shot with a rubber bullet while trying to place herself between protesters and the police.

Yup.  A pastor took a bullet, albeit rubber (but do you want to get hit with one of those things?) for her belief.

Heard about that, have you?  Or this?

Other local clergy have met with the governor and state officials, while pastors from all over have been coming to aid in the efforts, including a group from Philadelphia that includes the pastor of Historic Mother Bethel AME church, Mark Tyler, and Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan, Pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church. The presence of clergy members is a helpful counterbalance to local and state law enforcement presenting themselves as both religious and civic authority.
Maybe these clergy need better press agents?  After all, if a person engages in protest, and no news outlet reports on it (don't get me started on the hours and hours of empty coverage cable news has devoted to this story without once mentioning these stories), is the protest really worth it?

“They attend with pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith."

The Pharisees in this situation are not just the authorities using Christianity to justify their violence and suppression; it's also the people insisting that judgment and law are the only values worth upholding, and mercy and faith are too weak and insignificant to pay attention to.

And yes, I realize the "Pharisees" in that statement includes a large number of people; that's a feature, not a bug.

*Yes, because the church might have engaged in a zoning violation by letting people sleep there overnight.  Apparently in Ferguson zoning violations are enforced by police power.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

In God We Trust (all others pay cash)

I'm interested in this not because of some sense of schadenfreude, but because it shows why the "traditional" church may seem to have been passed by, but really isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Following the news that 21 ex-Mars Hill Church pastors asked lead pastor Mark Driscoll to step down, he returned from his planned vacation on August 24, 2014 and announced he will be taking at least six weeks off while the charges are being investigated. Mars Hill has retained evangelical PR strategist Mark DeMoss, son of the religious right funders behind the Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation and former advisor to the Romney campaign, to assist the church during this time.

Earlier this month Driscoll suffered a major career blow when the Acts 29 Network, the all-male coalition of over 500 Reformed evangelical church planters that he co-founded, removed him and his Seattle based Mars Hill Church from the organization’s membership, and asked him to step down as a pastor.

I would also note that there are two scandals that will ruin a ministry faster than anything, and they are the two most often seen when a ministry is in trouble:  money, and sex.  Driscoll isn't accused of any sexual improprieties (aside from harassment, perhaps; which is bad enough), but he has messed with the money:

Mars Hill’s growing controversies remained hidden, due in large part to a drastic change to the church’s bylaws in 2007 that shifted oversight from 24 male elders to a select group of executive elders, with Driscoll as the lead pastor. Those few who protested the change, or any subsequent decisions made by the executive elders, found themselves fired and shunned. Also, many employees are prevented from speaking publicly about Mars Hill due to a non-disclosure agreement they had signed as a condition of their employment.
As the article says, Driscoll was a rising star who, in less than 20 years, seems to have fallen back to earth.  I don't wish that upon him, but simply point out it takes a community to make a church, and no one is above that community.  Driscoll wanted to place himself apart, with his cronies supporting his actions and his hand in the till because, well...that's where the money is.

When I had a church, I left all the money concerns to the church treasurer and the church council.  I knew what the church budget was, and what my compensation was; but who even pledged what amount was something I never paid attention to, and what it took to pay the bills was not something I worried about.  Small churches are achingly transparent anyway; the books are simple, the accounts few, the balances easy to determine by anyone who keeps a checkbook or a savings account.  But I knew pastors who got in trouble, and one of the "go to" charges, even if it was spurious, was about abuse of funds and misuse of church money.  I never let myself get anywhere near that, just to be sure I wouldn't be fighting a charge of misusing church funds.

Whither Mars Hill?  I don't know, but I don't think the prognosis is good.  Every major scandal with a public church figure has effectively ended that ministry and left the church in disarray.  Despite appearances people don't go to church to fight, and they don't give money to the church to see it disappear.   And Mars Hill knows this, and they also fear it:

Now that a former employee has gone public with proof that funds donated to the Mars Hill Global Fund were allocated elsewhere, perhaps others will come forward to unearth documents Mars Hill refuses to release despite repeated requests.

The Vatican Bank may have been corrupt and scandal-ridden, but the church institution protects the local parish from too many repercussions of that kind of problem.  Most Protestant denominations can separate themselves easily from a pastor with sticky fingers, and the institution will survive.

But when one man is effectively the institution, what then?  Mars Hill won't collapse overnight, won't necessarily go the way of Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral or Oral Robert's ministry in Tulsa; but it's best days are behind it now.  It will either settle into being a mini-denomination, with all the institutional trappings thereof; or it will fade away.

And would it surprise you to know that some of the scandal engulfing Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill involves soteriology?  Because apparently all is fair when it comes to saving souls:

"Mars Hill has made marketing investments for book releases and sermon series, along with album releases, events, and church plants, much like many other churches, authors, and publishers who want to reach a large audience. We will explore any opportunity that helps us to get that message out, while striving to remain above reproach in the process. Whether we’re talking about technology, music, marketing, or whatever, we want to tell lots of people about Jesus by every means available."
But apparently "every means available" wasn't limited to technology; it involved marketing as well, such as making a false claim that Driscoll had authored a best selling book.  It's a curious evangelism that says unethical behavior is appropriate when the purpose is to save souls.  It isn't just the urgency there, it's also the question:  save them for what?  Do unethical means achieve ethical ends if the saving of a soul is understood as the greater purpose than all others?  And is that the teaching of Christ and of Christianity:  that salvation is above all and over all and trumps all?

Or is it to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God, and to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself?

Yeah, I'm not a big fan of Driscoll's "evangelical" theology; and that's pretty much why.  I think it puts the emphasis on the wrong person.  If my efforts to save your soul are more important than my efforts to live according to God's ethic, then what am I saving souls for?  In fact, how am I saving them?  By getting people to repeat a simple mantra, but not otherwise changing their lives?  This is the same problem I had with all the fervent Southern Baptists I grew up with, all anxious to  know if I was "saved", if I had "let Jesus into my heart"?  What did that mean, and if it meant only a "Get out of Hell Free" card, what kind of weird moral universe was I being invited to live in?

What is the purpose of this life?  To accumulate souls for some cosmic redemption of mine?  And to accumulate them by whatever means necessary, because it will redeem my evil?

No, thank you.  That theology I need no part of.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Texas: It's like a whole 'nother country

Because when I was a kid, I thought this map was pretty damned accurate....

When the issue is Texas I'm more than a bit of a home-town boy, and I have to admit what I felt about the reaction to the Perry indictment can be fairly described as a mild anger that "Yankees" (all non-Texans who don't hale from Oklahoma, Arkansas, or Louisiana.  We got other names for them.) seem to think they understand the Texas legal system better than Texans do.  To wit (as they say in Harvard Yard):

Jeff Cohen, Chronicle executive editor for opinions & editorials, said the local press cannot just brush off the legal proceeding as political, adding, "we've been following him for a number of years ... we respect what the grand jury has done here, we respect the process, and we believe it ought to run its course."

Keven Ann Willey, Morning News editorial page editor, said journalists may not know all of the evidence, but "we do know that a grand jury who viewed evidence thinks that there's enough there to have a trial and that is not nothing." She later said of the Beltway pundits: "From afar sometimes it's hard to appreciate the background in detail."

Mike Norman, editorial director of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said local media "want to see the case laid out."

"The indictment is not the case and the national analysis is attacking the indictment and they don't seem to see how this can be anything other than politics," Norman said. "He's been our governor for more than 13 years now, we watch him more closely. We want to see the case laid out, there's going to be all sorts of opportunities for his attorneys to go after this."

He also defended the local legal process: "If you're saying that that process which our legal system set up produced only a political result, then you are saying the whole justice system is corrupt and I don't believe that is the case.

Bob Ray Sanders, Star-Telegram associate editor and senior columnist, echoed that view.
"I think the national press took off very early on the idea that this was a vague law or that the governor has a right to do almost anything he wants to do," he said, later adding, "Sadly, the national press has to react so quickly with so little information sometimes and some of them on the liberal side feel some guilt because they have criticized him so much ... they want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and by doing that they left their journalism on the side."

I have absolutely no problem opining that Rick Perry is as crooked as a dog's hind leg.  He has enough money he'll never have to work another day in his life, and he's grown accustomed to a style of living he didn't learn in west Texas.  How that can be when he's never held anything other than a government job in his adult life is a mystery that apparently doesn't bear looking into, especially since only the Governor's job included housing.

I also have no problem pointing out that the national press, much as they did in Whitewater, has no problem assuming they know more about local political and criminal stories than the residents of that area do, and perhaps having been taken in by Whitewater they now all lean the other way to exonerate a public figure like Perry.

And besides, the Texas criminal justice system isn't nearly as screwed up as Rick Perry is.

Read between the lines up there, and you'll find a lot of Texas journalists agreeing with my assessment:  Perry is crooked, and it may have finally caught up with him.  Maybe it's Al Capone going to jail for tax evasion, but you take the charges you can prove in court.  And, of course, executives are supposed to be able to do whatever they want to do, unless it's the Speaker of the House trying to sue the President of the United States, and then no legal opinion is assessed as to what a fool John Boehner is.

So it's not just in Texas that the national press leaves its journalism on the side.  After all, Boehner simply filed a civil suit, something anyone can do simply by paying the filing fee.  Rick Perry was indicted after a complaint was brought which a judge decided merited investigation, and so appointed a special prosecutor, who investigated and then convened a grand jury.  Down here, we call that "due process."

The Engines of our Epistemology

I wonder sometimes if Dr. Lienhardt is trying slip a little subversion past us.

Consider this episode of "Engines of our Ingenuity," which played on the local Houston NPR station twice on Friday.  It argues that the best teachers are not the ones who reduce everything to a thorough and easily digested explanation, but rather the ones who make us see the subject in all its glorious complexity, and struggle ourselves to understand.

Not, in itself, an absolutely challenging idea, but an engaging one, and a method I've used more often than not.  It's an approach guaranteed to annoy the hell out of at least some of your students, especially the ones used to being educated to pass a standardized test.

So think about that in the context of the current debate over education reform and standardized testing and "teaching to the test" and "teacher assessment" based solely on tests which only test retention of data and do nothing to test "ability to think critically" or to reason, because those things don't fit in the bubbles of a scannable answer sheet.

And think about what Dr. Lienhardt is saying about the real value of real teaching.  Well, maybe you just have to think about it to get the point.  Maybe you have to set up his argument against the argument of, say, Michelle Rhee; and then you start thinking.....

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Awesome Power of Technology

Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

So Richard Dawkins tweeted this:
During a discussion with followers over the recent case of a suicidal woman in Ireland who was denied an abortion and forced to undergo a C-section at 25 weeks, Dawkins noted that “screening [for fetal abnormalities] offers a humane moral choice.” But instead of leaving it at that, Dawkins also suggested that only one choice a woman could make in response to a Down syndrome diagnosis would be morally just:

@InYourFaceNYer Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) 
So screening offers a moral, humane choice which, if you don't take it, makes you immoral.  But then he said:  aw, you all just misunderstood me, and I blame Twitter:

Here is what I would have said in my reply to this woman, given more than 140 characters:

“Obviously the choice would be yours. For what it’s worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort. And, indeed, that is what the great majority of women, in America and especially in Europe, actually do.  I personally would go further and say that, if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare. I agree that that personal opinion is contentious and needs to be argued further, possibly to be withdrawn. In any case, you would probably be condemning yourself as a mother (or yourselves as a couple) to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child. Your child would probably have a short life expectancy but, if she did outlive you, you would have the worry of who would care for her after you are gone. No wonder most people choose abortion when offered the choice. Having said that, the choice would be entirely yours and I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else.”

Which gives rise to this hypothetical:  a friend asks you whether she should abort her Down's Syndrome fetus, and you have no objection to abortion generally.  Do you tell her it would be immoral not to, that she's only "condemning [her]self as a mother" if she doesn't, but hey, it's her choice?

Is that moral?  Under what system of morality?

I think Dawkins made his position quite clear in his tweet.

"Everybody look at what's goin' down...."

Part of the conversation on Diane Rehm's show this morning got around to the claim the Obama, being our first African-American President, is our explainer-of-race-in-America-in-Chief.  Obama must address race in America so the rest of us can address race in America.

And absolutely nothing was said about this:

For Obama to aggressively insert himself into the Ferguson story now is to invite a right-wing media hurricane that would likely rage for weeks. How do we know? Because again and again we’ve seen President Obama’s attempts to engage on similar issues act as a lightning rod for these angry voices, quickly making it impossible to focus on the pressing issue at hand.
Eric Boehlert's argument is that Obama can't discuss race precisely because it always engenders "a right-wing media hurricane...making it impossible to focus on the pressing issue at hand."

Right now, this is how we discuss race in America.  Obama can't transcend that discussion; he can only pour kerosene on the fire; and Boehlert makes a solid point:  a part of the problem is the media that won't acknowledge this:

I’m not suggesting right-wing media hate and the fevered, irrational Obama loathing it tries to generate should stop the president from advancing his agenda. But to pretend the dark force doesn’t exist today in American politics is to miss one of the hallmarks of the Obama presidency.
Part of the problem with discussing race in this country is that the discussion involves us, and our attitudes toward race; our tendency to notice the black man on the street, in the store, walking behind us.  Our tendency to overlook black deaths and notice only white deaths, to give the white officer the benefit of the doubt especially when the criminal is a person of color; to deem an assault by a person of color on a white as more serious, an assault by a white person on a person of color as less serious.    What is keeping us from addressing these issues?  The silence of the President?


And if he adds his voice, does the conversation suddenly take on more gravitas?  Or is the subject shifted to what's wrong with talking about race?  Yes, I would rather ignore Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh; in terms of absolute numbers, their audiences are a tiny portion of the U.S. population.  But it's only a tiny portion of the U.S. population that bothers to vote consistently, and there's a lot of overlap between those two groups.  And ignoring racist buffoons like O'Reilly and Limbaugh is why people get to say that if only Obama would address racism in America, the rest of us could, and the conversation would get away from the rantings of FoxNews and other right-wing media outlets.

Except it wouldn't, of course; and that's the point where ignoring them won't make them go away.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tellin' me I got to beware....

Enough of Rick Perry; the weekend is over.  We re-start the week with one of Bill Moyers' favorite stories:

One of my favorite stories is of the fellow who was about to jump off a bridge, when another fellow ran up to him crying, "Stop, stop, don't do it."
The man on the bridge looks down and asks, "Why not?"
"Well, there's much to live for."
"What for?"
"Well, your faith. Your religion."
"Are you religious?"
"Me, too. Christian or Buddhist?"
"Me, too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me, too. Methodist, Baptist or Presbyterian?"
"Me, too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Savior?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me, too. Are you Original Baptist Church of God or Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Me, too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God Reformation of 1917?"
Whereupon, the second fellow turned red in the face and yelled, "Die, you heretic scum," and pushed him off the bridge.
Keep that in mind because we'll come back to it.  I use it to introduce a discussion of a discussion Lawrence linked me to in comments below.  The discussion I mean is here.  Taking bits and pieces of it (you can read the post at the link if you want the context), we start with this:

From what I’ve seen in my own experience, individual evangelical churches that start closely examining and questioning themselves and making attempts at reform tend to either split or come apart entirely. It seems like we evangelicals can make cosmetic alterations (worship music style, incorporating electronic media, etc.) more easily and quickly than more traditional mainliners. But when it comes to making essential adjustments in the way we see and think about things (like the church, scriptural interpretation, the world around us), we have a real hard time going there. Of course, changes of that sort have and continue to occurr within evangelicalism, but, as far as I can see, it’s mostly an unconscious process. What we can’t seem to do is examine ourselves critically in the present tense. And those few churches that do start looking at themselves through a critical lens tend to come apart from the strain and shock — and from the inevitable conflict between those who want to look even deeper and those who want to change the subject, continue with business as usual, and stick their heads back in the sand.
So, the Church of Meaning and Belonging v. the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging; that paradigm crosses all faith traditions.  The problem is not just the reluctance to sacrifice, but who gets to determine what must be sacrificed.  To be honest the usual request is that you give up something dear to you, while I give up something not quite as dear to me.  It's easier for me to point out you are sticking your head in the sand, than it is for me to accept I'm doing that, too.  Those "essential adjustments in the way we see and think about things" aren't essential unless they go to what each one of us thinks is essential.  And that's when the fur flies.

Overall, I think the analysis of that long quote is pretty sound, but it fails to take into account the distinction in polity between most Protestant denominations and more "evangelical" churches.  The latter tend to be congregationalist in polity, which means each congregation determines for itself what it's practices and doctrines are.  It's never that loose, of course; the Southern Baptist Convention and the UCC are both congregationalist in polity, but congregations from either polity would hardly be welcome in the other, no matter how fiercely independent those congregations might insist they are.  But polity plays a role here:  if evangelicals can make cosmetic alterations more easily and quickly than "traditional mainliners," it's because the two polities uphold very different traditions.  And the congregational polity is precisely why evangelical churches have trouble making essential adjustments.  The Roman church is probably the best at this, although it still allows a few congregations to hold the Mass in Latin (I attended one such service in St. Louis in my seminary days).  But it is far better at imposing order on its churches than the Episcopal church, or the Presbyterians, or the Methodists, etc., etc.

And frankly, no denomination I know of, certainly no congregation, is any good at examining themselves "critically in the present tense."  You want to get good that that, you need to go to a seminary where they make you do it whether you want to or not.  Self-examination is very, very hard to do, and even those of us who submit to it willingly, sure of the value of the process, find it painful and even impossible to complete.

Put a few of these comments together, and you come up with something really interesting:

I have had a particular conversation with my wife so many times that I tremble to reproduce it here. She grew up Catholic but says “she wasn’t a Christian”. She was converted to Pentecostalism in 1978 by a Puerto Rican evangelist who was basically Oral Roberts in a guayabera, but who thankfully remained particularly free of grandstanding and scandal. At any rate, one of the first questions she asks me when we discuss any historical figure is “was he/she a Christian?” I know what she means by this. In her mind, second-wave Pentecostalism was what Paul and Barnabas were preaching on Cyprus in 55AD, and everyone in Church History who Matters, from Augustine down through Gregory Palamas to Friedrich Schleiermacher “Gave Their Lives To Jesus and Was Born Again”.

When I try to explain to her that that model doesn’t fit Christians very well prior to the Cane Ridge meetings (1802?). Previously, Christians were born and baptized into a communion and remained there their whole lives. This was especially true prior to the Non-Conformist acts in the UK in the 18th Century (?). If they were “born again”, it usually meant that they were a particularly good or pious example of their communion. If not, they were just part of the ur-Christian Blodgettry that existed at that time.

What I also try to explain is that what occurred in Protestantism on the American frontier at the cusp of the 19th Century was a “democraticization” and “Enlightenmentization” of Christianity as significant as its “imperialization” and “Hellenization” under Constantine. The difference is that in the 4th Century you were dealing with a mostly intact Church, so that the developments were digested universally [the whole Church as organ of interpretation], whereas in the 19th Century the innovations were restricted to American Protestantism. As the Enlightenment project and its democratic subproject extended their reach, Americanized Protestantism found itself uniquely poised to take advantage of this.

Hold on to that, because I want to connect it to this:

The US is becoming unchurched. That’s the current trend. If that trend continues, eventually most Americans will no longer identify themselves as Christian. We can leave aside the question of what constitutes a true Christian, or if the nation could ever legitimately have been called a Christian nation, because the answer to those questions will no longer be germane. Christians by any measure will be a minority among a national aggregate no longer Christian, and most likely inoculated by cultural experience and memory against the blandishments that formerly swept their ancestors into the Church, and kept them there.

This is the future of the Church in the US and a few other places, and the present of the Church in western Europe. If trends change, all bets are off and nobody here has any idea what will replace the current landscape. There is nothing in any of this for the churches to be sanguine about. Our hope must be beyond optimism, even if it’s only optimism for only our own branches of the Church, which we fondly believe have special qualities to recommend them to future; if our hope is not beyond even this kind of optimism, then it’s nowhere.

I think that's right, but I think that trend is not due to some recent turn of events, but to the "democraticization" and "Enlightenmentization" coming out of the 19th century.  "Unchurched," though, is a term fraught with meaning.  It partly means never having grown up in a church, and so being unfamiliar with the culture of church (be that "church" a synagogue, a temple, a Catholic sanctuary or a Protestant congregation).    That, in turn, can mean children like I encounter regularly, who have no knowledge of even "basic" Biblical stories like Noah, or Daniel in the lion's den, or Jonah and the whale, even David and Goliath.  But it also means when people do come to church, they don't understand what to expect or how to behave; and I don't mean how they conduct themselves during a worship service.

Being a church member has been as much as part of American culture as being an American has been; and yet that portion of the culture is fading, mostly due to the emphasis on personal experience and the importance of the individual uber alles.  Even the concept of "ur-Christian Blodgettry" is one that comes from the 19th century, from post-Romantic Europe.  Kierkegaard (esp.  The Attack Upon 'Christendom') doesn't champion the individual because he is so righteously opposed to Hegel's philosophy of history; he does it because that is the cri de coeur of 19th century Europe, where Young Werther was the ideal figure of the individual against society, where Byron was lionized for his challenge to social mores (no, that wasn't invented by the Beats, or the Hippies, or Rock 'n' Roll singers).  Kierkegaard has good grounds for his emphasis on the person, not the community; but it is not an idea sui generis with Kierkegaard.  But just as Augustine shifted the way we think of ourselves so that we cannot fully appreciate Paul's "robust conscience" today and too easily misread the few personal statements Paul made, so the Romantic movement shifted our attention to the point it's hard not to be critical of Christian communities before the present, and to see all traditions that emphasize the group over the individual as either oppressive or lax (demanding conformity, or allowing just anybody in).

Admittedly, the bias at the article is toward evangelicals; it is concerned with predicting a collapse in that broad movement.  Such collapses are inevitable:  whatever passions stoke the original impulse don't carry long into the next generation.  William Bradford started his history of Plymouth Plantation in Holland, but it ended in America with the community he envisioned falling apart as people became less and less interested in the founding ideal.  The passion for that vision had run out, and a new one commenced with the Great Awakening, which came along about 80 years later.  Of course, that "awakening" was such a seminal moment there have been efforts to describe three others, the most recent from 1960 to 1980 (although having lived through those decades, I have to say it escaped me altogether.  But then, I'm not so sure there was ever a Second and a Third.).  "Awakenings" and "revivals" are not singular events, then, but almost cyclical, because the fruits of the Spirit are always passion and exuberance.

Except when they aren't.

I mention that to put the quotes above in perspective.  Has America ever truly been a "Christian nation"?  And if so, is that only because of the efforts of evangelicals, a term with two distinctly different, almost opposed, meanings, one of which is almost entirely lost to history?  It is clear the "current landscape" has been disappearing since the early 20th century, but it refuses to be entirely swept away even yet.   Small churches are the same way; they are as resilient as cockroaches, which is a carefully chosen metaphor.  The most interesting thing is that, as I think Evelyn Waugh predicted (I read it somewhere, but finding it now would be impossible), the next wave of Christianity may well come to these shores from Africa.  As America becomes even more "unchurched," we may be seen as a mission field.

And it might take hold, too.  One never know, do one?

But I also mention "evangelical" because that word really no longer means what it is supposed to mean:

Her strengths and flaws stemmed from the same evangelical core: she brought conviction and passion and stubbornness and unapologetic focus, all of which worked to build and destroy her public capital.
The "her" there is Michelle Rhee; and the subject is education.  There is nothing in that article that has anything to do with religion or Christianity at all.  And yet "evangelical" has now become a synonym for "zeal."  It no longer refers to the euangelion, the messenger of the good news.  Now it means single-mindedness and solidarity of purpose; now it means determination and conviction and passion and stubbornness.  Which may be good things; but they are not the "good news," and don't have to be the characteristics of the messenger of the good news.

Except when you separate the good news from the messenger, all that's left are the qualities of the messenger; and now any message can make you an evangel.  And make you the problem, as well as the solution.

Is that right?

"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."  That's the point of the Moyers' story:  if your treasure is in your group, your identity, your boundaries, the closer someone gets to you the further away they actually are.  Your "evangelical core," which is supposedly purity of heart (because purity of heart is to will one thing) is the problem, because "evangelical" no longer means "messenger of the good news," it means "messenger of what motivates you."

Which, yes, has always been the problem; but at the same time, "evangelical" has slipped the surly bonds of Christianity, and escaped into the larger culture.*  And to the extent Protestantism continues to take its cues from the larger culture, that is a foundational problem.  What Protestantism really needs to do is to reclaim some concepts for itself, and treat them again as wholly religious ones.  And we might start doing that by reclaiming concepts of "evangelical."  Because it's not a label, or a denomination, or a group identity; it's a claim.

There is something to be said for Christianity making certain claims; but those claims need to be directed toward Christians.   That is one of the hardest claims of Christianity:  that its claims should be directed toward oneself, and not toward others.

*A patch of ice doth not a winter make, but then I come across this example, also from this morning:

They’re evangelizing faith in the political system and encouraging people to act within established political norms.
It's a little closer to the religious roots because the word "faith" is tossed in there, but again the meaning is "zealous advocacy," not euangelion.   I wonder if this usage is about to break out as a secular meme.

It's not about the guns; it's always about the guns

I wasn't going to do this, but:

One of the interesting issues with the Rick Perry indictment is the reaction to it.  There's a remarkable amount of skepticism about the indictment, a lot of condemnation of the special prosecutor which is really interesting because the evidence given to the grand jury is largely unknown at this point.  We know what the Perry camp says; I know what one of Perry's lawyers now says (he's a Houston lawyer, he's been on the local news this morning); but we don't know what the evidence is that the grand jury relied on.

What we do know is that no guns were involved; this is a "white collar" crime, which by it's very nature is harder to prosecute.  There was a political science professor on a local radio program yesterday opining that the criminal statutes Perry has been indicted under are "vague."  Well, of course they are; if they were specific, no one could be charged under them, because the facts of the case would never precisely track the language of a "specific" statute.  There's a lot of complaining that this indictment criminalizes political behavior.  But that's the problem of "white collar" crimes:  they turn less on actions, like armed robbery or a rape by a stranger jumping out of the bushes, and more on how you define behavior, how you decide what is "business as usual" and what is "criminal."

Which brings us to the problems in Ferguson.

It is very likely the officer who shot Michael Brown won't be charged and, if he is, won't be convicted.  This is a shooting, something we think should clearly be a crime.  But when the gunman is a police officer, suddenly the criminality is less clear again.  I mean, do we want to criminalize ordinary police work?  And even if it seems extraordinary, as in the shooting of Michael Brown, do we want to second guess an officer in the field who might have faced physical danger, or who might have "reasonably" thought he did?

Doesn't the police officer deserve the same presumption of innocence as Rick Perry?

This, of course, is not a question the people of Ferguson want to answer.  It is not the question people like Jonathan Chait are asking, curiously enough.  Which is not to say the protestors in Ferguson are a lynch mob; but "justice" to them clearly means an arrest, and preferably a conviction.  Justice for Rick Perry seems to mean dismissing the indictment before any evidence is heard.  On the one hand, we consider the officer guilty; on the other, we want Rick Perry declared innocent.  But these are two sides of the same coin.

Few of us will be police officers, even fewer of us will ever shoot someone; so we're quite comfortable pronouncing who is right and who is wrong in shooting incidents.  But we might find our actions criminalized; and that's what worries us.  I can tell you, as a minister and now a teacher, there are certain innocent actions I might take, such as talking to a female student (or, formerly, a female church member), and that conversation would easily be construed against me.  I have sat through many training sessions on how to conduct myself so as not to be accused of improper conduct, sexual harassment, etc.  I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but the idea that an action you think normal could be construed as improper, or even a violation of law (although not of criminal law) can be daunting.  It's easy to think you'd never do anything wrong with a gun, especially if you don't own one; it's tricker to think you might be accused based on actions you perform every day.

There are actions that are proper, and actions that are improper; it may seem the line is a thin one between them, but there is a line nonetheless.  No one doubts the officer in the Ferguson shooting should be investigated to see if his actions were proper; but many seem to think investigating Rick Perry's actions in a court of law, where the outcome could be conviction or acquittal, is highly improper.  Some even think the investigation by the grand jury was improper, because we all know a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich, which just proves grand juries are worthless; unless they aren't.  Such complaints raise the question:  if a grand jury indicts the Ferguson police officer, will the critics of the Perry indictment equally complain? It's interesting the people saying the Perry indictment is wrong are all, themselves, "white collar" professionals who might see their ordinary actions come under scrutiny.

Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander; and that's what's worrisome.

It is clear Michael Brown was shot to death; and there is a presumption, at the moment, that the motive for that shooting can be clearly and easily established, and justice done.  Is that motive any easier to prove than proving Rick Perry violated Texas criminal law?  Apparently it is, because shooting someone is easier to analyze than considering what someone did that didn't involve shooting someone.

As I say, that's the problem with "white collar" crime; it's almost always about definition, not just about what happened.  But it's also about whose ox is being gored; or is likely to get gored.

Monday, August 18, 2014

What it is, ain't exactly clear....

If you look:

 at the pictures:

what you notice:

is a distinct lack of military equipment:

Dogs, yes; but no camouflage, no high powered automatic weapons:
Just good old fashioned sticks and brute force:

And yet nothing all that different from the scenes in Ferguson:

Pretty much all that has changed is the hardware.

But, to quote Andrea Mitchell, "a lot of people are shocked by the militarization" that they saw in Ferguson; and my question is:  why?

Why aren't we shocked that in nearly 50 years, after we turned Martin Luther King, Jr. into a plaster saint, and put racism behind us by electing a black President, that nothing has changed except the equipment?

One last thing

Because the facts about the Rick Perry indictment matter, and Rick Perry and his supporters/apologists won't mention these facts anytime soon:

First, he used the veto to threaten a public officeholder. This is abuse of the power of his office. Presidents and governors frequently use the possibility of vetoes to change the course of legislation. But that is considerably different than trying to force an elected officeholder to resign. What Perry did, if true, can be politely called blackmail, and, when he sent emissaries to urge Lehmberg to quit even after his veto, he may have indulged in bribery. According to sources close to the grand jury, Perry dispatched two of his staffers and one high-profile Democrat to tell Lehmberg if she left her office the governor would reinstate the PIU budget. One report indicates there may have been a quid pro quo of a new, more lucrative job for the DA, which is why this case has nothing to do with his right to use the veto.

But that's where Perry will focus his public defense.
It's the meeting with Lehmberg by Perry emissaries that's the most interesting part of this.  This case will depend on the facts and legal arguments presented to the jury and the court by the prosecuting attorney.  Many a slip 'twixt cup and lip, and all that.  But the facts are certainly more interesting than Perry wants everyone to think they are.

And please note these facts up the ante on the more serious of the two felony charges; both look far more credible than they did before, although that doesn't mean Perry is already convicted before he's even been brought before a judge.

Like my Torts professor drummed into my head:  "Change the facts, change the outcome."  We're just gonna have to wait for the facts in this case.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Rick Perry--The Run-It-Into-The-Ground

I'm following up on this because it's going to get interesting; and because we should remember that whatever is said in the court of public opinion doesn't matter one whit to the court of law.   Jonathan Chait (via NTodd) and other "humble bloggers" would do well to remember there is a reason we have a legal system, and that reason is because matters upon which we can disagree (were Perry's threats "reasonable," or not?) are questions of fact which we can engage juries to answer.*

And one question is: has Rick Perry been indicted because he vetoed a funding item, or because he tried to coerce a public official and abuse the power of his office?

The official Perry stance is:  you can't criminalize the legislative veto of the executive, to wit:

Unfortunately, there has been a sad history of the Travis County District Attorney's Office engaging in politically-motivated prosecutions, and this latest indictment of the governor is extremely questionable.  Rick Perry is a friend, he's a man of integrity - I am proud to stand with Rick Perry.

The Texas Constitution gives the governor the power to veto legislation, and a criminal indictment predicated on the exercise of his constitutional authority is, on its face, highly suspect.

For Liberty,

Ted Cruz

P.S. I'm proud to stand with Governor Rick Perry, and Robert, I hope you are too. Please join in showing your support for him online using the hashtag #StandWithRickPerry.
That's all very clever, but let's be clear:  the indictment speaks in very specific statutory language about Perry's alleged violations of Texas criminal law; but it doesn't provide any specific facts.  This is the way criminal trials operate, and facts will be forthcoming at the trial.  In the absence of a detailed statement of facts, however, the defendant gets to spin his own version of what the facts are, at least outside the courtroom and before the trial.

The indictment fairly closely tracks the language of the statute.  The facts presented at trial would presumably connect the veto to the threat, and argue the veto violates the law because the repeated demands for a quid pro quo (resign or I cut your funding) made the veto itself  a "misuse [of] government property, services, personnel, or any other thing of value belonging to the government that has come into the public servant's custody or possession by virtue of the public servant's office or employment."

And contrary to what I had posted earlier, Abuse of Official Capacity doesn't rest on a benefit to the officeholder, but is broader than that:

A public servant commits an offense if, with intent to obtain a benefit or with intent to harm or defraud another, he intentionally or knowingly:
And one of the things the public servant has to do knowingly is misuse government property, as quoted above.

So, with intent to harm Lehmberg ("quit your job" is a rather serious harm), Perry vetoes her funding.  One wonders if the special prosecutor has testimony indicating Perry hoped this would force Lehmberg to resign, or force Travis County officials to pressure her to resign; if so, the intent to harm is 2/3rds of the way to being established.  The prosecutor has said he took testimony from over 40 witnesses; the real question is, what did they have to say?

If the prosecutor can't establish intent and harm, of course, this count fails; or if the court finds the governor's use of the veto power escapes the "misuse" clause quoted above.  But those are problems for the prosecutor, and problems inherent in trying white collar crimes.  It is why white collar crimes are so much harder to prosecute than regular crimes:  because actions are subject to definition, and pointing a gun at someone or stealing their property is, by comparison, a fairly straight-forward matter.

As to the second count,  the special prosecutor has noted:  "Count two of the indictment charges him with coercion for threatening Rosemary Lehmberg in her capacity as public servant to resign or otherwise he would veto the legislation."  Coercion of a Public Servant is a bit more straightforward:

A person commits an offense if by means of coercion he: (1) influences or attempts to influence a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty or influences or attempts to influence a public servant to violate the public servant's known legal duty; 
As I've said, "Quit your job or lose your funding" sounds pretty damned coercive to me, especially when Perry had no power to force Lehmberg's resignation, and no authority over her other than the funding of the ethics office.  This one has even less to do with Perry's veto, and almost everything to with what he said both before and after the veto (when he made it clear he was trying to push Lehmberg out).

Ted Cruz also fuzzes the issue, because this indictment was issued by a grand jury empaneled by a special prosecutor  who is a former assistant US Attorney, a Republican, and a resident of Bexar County appointed by a Williamson County judge.  Travis County had nothing to do with it.  We can expect more of that, but Twitter and Facebook aren't going to determine the validity of the criminal charges against Perry:  a court of law is.  I don't think this case is a "slam dunk," but then white collar crime cases seldom are.

I don't think it's a gross abuse of power, either.   Prosecutors always bring the most serious charge they think the facts will support.  It may be the abuse of official capacity charge is so tied up with the legislative veto the courts just don't want to touch it.**  That leaves the lesser charge, which is a more straightforward criminal act, and can be decided without even taking the veto into account.  On the second charge it doesn't matter if Perry carried out his threat; the threat itself is the criminal act.

Whatever happens, this matter will play out in two courts:  public opinion, and the law. Ultimately, only one of those really matters, and it will greatly affect the other.

*We also do well to remember the Special Prosecutor has said some 40+ witnesses testified to the grand jury.  None of that testimony is referenced in the indictment, yet surely much of it will be presented at trial.  Change the facts, change the outcome; and at this point, we don't have as many facts as the prosecutor does.  Bloggers like Chait should also be wary of displaying their ignorance so publicly.

**On the other hand, if Perry had kept his mouth shut, there'd be no real issue to raise about the veto of the funds, except a political one.  It's the threat that makes the veto criminal, so the court may find an out in the particular circumstances of this case.  Which may be a lesson to smarter politicians in the future, but most politicians have been smart enough never to do something this dumb.  Perry's stupidity is not likely to be much of a legal defense.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Rick Perry--The Rundown

First, a nice encapsulation from the Dallas Morning News, a paper with an editorial policy that usually makes the WSJ editorial page look liberal:

For a long time, Gov. Rick Perry walked too fine a line between politics and policy. It caught up with him Friday.

For months, a grand jury has investigated charges that Perry abused his power by going too far in trying to get Travis County’s Democratic district attorney removed from office.

The DA, Rosemary Lehmberg, pleaded guilty to drunken driving last year, served 45 days in jail and went into treatment. But she refused to resign.

That wasn’t good enough for the governor. He wanted her out, and when she wouldn’t leave, Perry just couldn’t let it go. Instead, he used his veto power to withhold millions of dollars from the state’s public integrity unit, which Lehmberg oversees and which investigates misdeeds of state agencies and officials. Travis County had to stitch together funds to keep the crucial agency operating on a shoestring.

It was a terrible policy decision on Perry’s part, smelling of pettiness and partisanship. Now a Travis County grand jury has decided his action might be a crime. 
Actually, you could just stop with the first sentence.  When the DMN turns against you in Texas, you are history.

There's a lot of loose talk already floating around.  David Axelrod, a prominent non-lawyer, tweeted: “Unless he was demonstrably trying to scrap the ethics unit for other than his stated reason, Perry indictment seems pretty sketchy.”  There's also a lot of commentary about DA Lehmberg bringing this indictment; she didn't.  As the DMN editorial put it:

As it is, a special prosecutor and former assistant U.S. attorney from San Antonio brought a case strong enough to get an indictment handed up.
But should Lehmberg have resigned?  That's a question for Travis County voters.  The fact is she didn't (when two other DA's were charged with traffic offenses, including DWI, while Perry was governor, he said and did nothing.  Of course, they were both GOP AG's, and Lehman is a Democrat.  Make of that what you will.), and Perry had no grounds to veto funding for the Public Integrity Unit.

If we want to get into the weeds of this, we need to know what Perry has been charged with:

Abuse of Official Capacity can be a crime if a “public servant (such as the governor) intentionally or knowingly violates a law relating to the public servant’s office” with the “intent to obtain a benefit.” In this case, “benefit” appears to refer to something that can be measured in pecuniary terms, that is, as an amount of money. I doubt Perry stood to gain money from Lehmberg’s resignation, but even that is possible.

Coercion of a Public Servant can occur when a person, using coercion (like threatening to withhold nearly $4 million from a public official’s budget), “attempts to influence a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power or a specific performance of his official duty…or attempts to influence a public servant to violate the public servant’s known legal duty.” There is an exception to this conduct if the the person attempting to do the influencing is a member of a governing body. “Governing body” refers to a legislative body, which does not apply to the governor since he is not a member of any governing body.

And why there was an investigation of the fund at all.  The research fund that generated the controversies that led to this indictment has itself been a hot mess.   Bloomberg has one rundown of it at that link, an article written in February of last year.  In December 2013, a former official with the cancer fund was indicted by a Travis County grand jury.  If the Bloomberg article is not enough in the weeds for you, there is this rundown, too.

And what should not be overlooked is that GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott has touched this tar baby:

For four years, as questionable grant awards [from the cancer fund] were handed out, Attorney General Greg Abbott did not attend a single meeting of the Board of Directors. He instead sent a staff member who missed about a third of the meetings and, as the San Antonio Express News wrote, “was not much of a presence.”
So as questions mount about what Gov. Perry was doing that got an investigation started in the first place, questions also turn to:  why was the Attorney General asleep at the switch?  As AG, Abbott was a member of the board of the cancer fund (CPRIT).  He never attended a meeting, but instead sent somebody in his place.  Howver, that doesn't remove him from responsibility for knowing what was going on.  Then there's this:

Last December, Abbott’s office announced that it would investigate CPRIT. Abbott is therefore in the position of investigating an agency over which his office already had oversight. As part of this inquiry, the attorney general potentially is looking into the behavior of board members from whom he has accepted campaign contributions.

To complicate matters further, Abbott is investigating the agency’s granting of money to a company that had an Abbott campaign donor as an investor. A law firm representing that company also has served as legal counsel for Abbott’s campaign organization. That same law firm has contributed $160,000 to Abbott’s campaigns since 2001.

In addition, Abbott’s office is representing CPRIT, as legal counsel, in its dispute with a foundation created to raise private funds for the public agency. Among the foundation’s donors are people who also have given money to Abbott’s campaigns.

Abbott, who didn’t grant an interview request but answered numerous written questions, said he sees no problems with these arrangements.

“The Attorney General’s broad responsibility is to enforce and apply the laws of Texas,” he wrote.

“The independent authority to accomplish that fundamental and constitutional task cannot be eroded by legislative appointments to committees.”

Abbott said he doesn’t consider himself to be a member of the oversight committee because he picked a staff member. CPRIT, however, lists Abbott as a member on its website, with a picture of him and an extensive biography.
Abbott may already be wishing Perry had kept his mouth shut.  But it is quite clear this whole thing has very long legs, and a criminal indictment of a sitting governor is going to draw a lot of unwanted attention to a lot of people.

Besides, Perry, a GOP nominee wannabe, is going to have to be booked, photographed, and fingerprinted.  Whether he is convicted or not, he's going to have to make an appearance at the Travis County jail.

And Perry still doesn't understand that punishing his enemies is not in his best interests:

"This farce of a prosecution will be revealed for what it is," the governor said, "and those responsible will be held accountable."
Keep pluckin' that chicken, governor!

Update:  Perry's response to these charges is that the Governor can veto what he wants to veto.  But the grand jury indictment doesn't mention the governor's veto, or any facts in this case.  It could well be the criminal case will rest on Perry's public statements about why he vetoed the funding, not the fact that he vetoed it.

If a threat is sufficient act under the statutes, Perry's statements are enough to indict him and possibly to convict him.  The actual veto may be untouchable; the governor's attempts to coerce a public official though, or to force a resignation so he could appoint a successor more to his liking, may well be the crimes here.

Watch the donut, not the hole.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Somethin's happenin' here...

Of the websites I generally follow/look in on (there aren't that many), Huffington Post had reports on Capt. Ronald Johnson and the changes in Ferguson up last night, and headlined new ones this morning (gone already from the headline, so I won't give you a link).  TPM had stories on it (I linked them earlier).  Slate has a story that's mostly a reaction to the release of the officer's name by Ferguson (or St Louis County) PD:

"Today I will meet with the chief of Ferguson and talk about what was released and try to get a copy," he said, emphasizing several times that he will be returning to the protest site today to meet with residents. "This afternoon I will be walking back down to the QuikTrip and I will talk to the people there and explain what I see in the packet and some of the questions that may have been unclear in the presentation this morning, I will try to make those clear."
One questioner asked him a broad question about race relations and justice. "The governor talked about old wounds," Johnson said. "This is an old wound. It's time to stop saying it's an old wound, and close it for good." Later he spoke about the future of the community: "Yesterday we saw what it could be. We saw what it should be. And we saw what it will be."
And Salon?  Salon started the day with a new Digby post that was already retreading ground trampled in the past four days, and further out of step with the news from Ferguson as of last night.  It followed with four new articles about Ferguson, two about the press conference this morning.

Nothing, though, about what changed last night.  Nothing about the reason to feel this situation is getting better, not worse.  Google "Salon" and "Ronald Johnson" and you won't find anything posted today, unless it's in a comment.

Capt. Johnson's remarks today reflect an attitude that could very effectively challenge the militarization of the police.  This could be the change the country desperately needs, the vision that cooperation and compassion work far better than force and wielding authority like a club.

This is the story that needs to be told if we are going to overcome the racism and imperialism that are the twin problems of American society.  I find it disappointing and disturbing that, in some quarters, it is being silenced altogether.

"Peace like a river ran through the city...."

So this morning the hero of Ferguson is Capt. Ronald Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, because he didn't take to the streets in an MRAP or deploy another SWAT team or send everyone out heavily armored and armed in riot gear that made them look like Darth Vader wannabes.

He walked in a protest march in his shirt-sleeves.

If the militarized response of the Ferguson and St. Louis County police was the Dick Cheney response to the situation in Ferguson, this is the Martin Luther King, Jr., response.  This is the response of compassion and humanity, not power and authority.  This, not complaints and acid-tongued articles and screaming internet comments, is how you turn a populace against the militarization of the police which has taken place.  Missouri Governor Jay Nixon this morning is already admitting such 'militarization' made Ferguson less safe; and in a rapid turnaround, the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown is expected to be revealed today.

And all of this is in response to indignant bloggers (yours truly included), and nasty articles all over the internet, and fevered comments on Twitter?

No; it's due to one person finally doing the right thing.  Funny how effective one person can be.

And if we learn a lesson from it, maybe that lesson is that Dick Cheney's response is not the one size that fits all; and some of the simplest lessons of Dr. King, of compassion over power, humanity over demonization, are still valuable.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Nothing to do with Bill Murry or Scarlett Johansson....

The Gift of Scarlett Johansson 
The French title "Donner la mort" plays on the ordinary sense of donner, meaning "to give," and the idiomatic sense of this expression, which is "to put to death," as in se donner la mort, "to commit suicide."  In translating Derrida's title with the noun phrase I seek to have heard in it (or behind it) the English expression "kiss of death."  In the text I have tried to flow the idea of "giving" or "granting" wherever possible, but I have used "to put to death" when comprehensibility so demands, sometimes adding the French for mnemonic purposes.  Whenever "to put to death" is used, however, the reader should also hear the sense of "giving."

--Translator's Preface, The Gift of Death by Jacques Derrida, tr. David Wills, Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

I start there because this is a fascinating problem in translation:

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a well-known Jewish group, has sent a formal requestto France’s interior minister kindly requesting that the country rename a small hamlet south of Paris called La-mort-aux-Juifs, which, of course, translates to Death to Jews. Oh.

The French, however, declined to take up the suggestion:

Marie-Elizabeth Secretand, the deputy mayor of Courtemaux, the village that has jurisdiction over the hamlet, responded in the most blasé way: “It’s ridiculous. This name has always existed … No one has anything against the Jews, of course. It doesn’t surprise me that this is coming up again.

“Why change a name that goes back to the Middle Ages or even further?” she continued. “A previous municipal council, at least 20 years ago, already refused to change the name of this hamlet, which consists of a farm and two houses.”
It turns out the French aren't being insensitive or anti-semitic; the problem is in the translation:

La-mort-aux-Juifs has been thus named since the 16th century (and not the middle ages as Ms Secretand claimed) when Jews rose up against the local lord's excessive taxes and were slaughtered by his troops where the hamlet stands now.

La-mort-aux-Juifs Does Not Translate "Death to Jews": it translates as "Jews died here" or, if you want to be less literal and more accurate "The final resting place of Jews".


As a person born, raised, and educated in France, I can say that the interpretation of the Simon Wiesenthal Center is most erroneous. "Mort aux..." is an injunction to carry "death to...," whereas with the article "la" in front, it becomes a simple statement of fact. 
So, the Simon Wiesentahl Center, back to French 101...
You see something similar in the translator's quote above:  donner le mort is "to give death," but "se donner le mort" is "to put to death."  "Mort aux" is "death to...."; "la mort aux" is "the death of."   As the first commenter above further noted:

By the way, claiming that the historical context is irrelevant is, quite frankly insulting to the people who died here: the toponym is literally the Only thing that publicly reminds people that Jews were slaughtered by a petty lordling: Take that away, and the only remaining references will in dusty old historical chronicles of the Orléanais.
In history especially, ironies abound; and history is always longer, and more complicated, than just the portion you know.

We are one in disagreement, we are one in discord

Where's all the doctrinal unity? 

I am intrigued by this discussion, though like most internet comments, it's not nearly as thoughtful as it wants to be.  Most of the discussion, for example, just reduces the issues to one of power:

The deeper you probe on these issues, the deeper the split grows. That is the lesson of the last couple decades in this nation. The progressive agenda has been to try to ignore the conservative problem, but they did that for too long, and now bridging the divide is probably impossible. They need to face the fact that Christianity is now two totally separate religions with two very different Gods. Ignoring this just means all the progressive denominations will continue to be lost.

Which prompted this response:

You make an interesting point - "two totally separate religions with two very different Gods." I'm not sure I'm ready to go that far, but I would agree that progressive denominations have expended (wasted?) a tremendous amount of time, money and energy on trying to accommodate other perspectives where accommodation was basically impossible. We would do well to examine why such reconciliation couldn't happen. I believe it points to a fundamental disagreement about the nature of our mission, because widely divergent groups can work together if they can at least agree on the overarching mission.
What's being described there is nothing less than what has happened in Christianity since Peter and Paul argued over whether to take the gospel of Jesus to Gentiles, or to confine it only to the children of Abraham (who were, in their lifetimes anyway, not yet the "Jews").  How much accommodation, in other words, is too much?  Who to take the gospel to is as bedrock a question as Christianity faces, and yet Paul didn't tell Peter to break the church over it, and Peter never went so far as to break with Paul.  Why can't reconciliation happen?  It's a good question, but you aren't going to find the answer in the last decade or so of American political or social life.  You have to go back to the Industrial Revolution, the Romantic movement, the rise of folklore studies prompted by the Romantics which gave rise to what can be grouped together as German Biblical studies; that will get you started on the "progressive" v. "conservative" split.

As for the "accept" or "reject," that has become the position of those rejecting; why should the rest of us adopt it?  Modern Biblical Scholarship is so widely accepted even Fr. Raymond Brown, a conservative Biblical scholar by most standards, used it and came off as a radical anti-fundamentalist to those who adhere to the Scofield Bible and even the Biblical studies series I grew up with in my church library (the author of the series escapes me, but it took seminary to show me they were hardly the series Biblical studies I thought they were).  Biblical scholars don't insist there must be an "either/or," that one must either be a fundamentalist and at least quasi-literalist, or one must be an atheist.  Rudolf Bultmann's adherence to Christianity and love for the gospel message shines through his work on the Gospel of John, is present in his study of the synoptics, and is the force that drives him to write his late popular works on "demythologizing" Christianity.  He isn't trying to convert believers to atheism, he's trying to make it possible for believers to hold on to their faith in a post-Enlightenment world.  It is the fundamentalists who want to reject such thinking out of hand and insist no reconciliation is possible.  And yet there is still no reason to tell the fundamentalists, or the people who refuse to accept change, to get lost.  The church should never be about power, but only about the power of powerlessness.

But still you have to analyze that split in terms of power, of who gets to decide what is "Christian," of who gets to determine what is doctrine, even on who gets to decide what the 'overarching mission' is.  I grew up in the PCUS, and the dominant mission I remember was helping people; it was not saving souls by bringing them to accept Jesus.  We were actually pretty good about accommodating other points of view, even if that only meant not grumbling too much about the Baptists who dominated the population of the town.  We did, I recall, accommodate individuals from those who seemed more concerned with sin (most of us were agin it) to those who seemed a bit more lax on the subject (we had few Scottish elders of the type P.G. Wodehouse referenced).  That distinction on salvation became an important issue over time.  I grew up with Southern Baptist friends asking me if I was "saved," a question no one in my own church ever asked (nor did we ask others outside out church).  That concern with salvation eventually became almost universal, as American Christianity turned into a religion primarily concerned with individuals and salvation, which became more and more merely "pie in the sky bye and bye."  That movement, too, has its roots in Romanticism.  But watch closely as that argument appears again in this very contemporary discussion:

The differences between orthodox christian belief and progressive christian belief are myriad. Here are some of them:

1. Orthodoxy is a theology of divine redemption. Progressives believe in a theology of divine acceptance.

2. Orthodox: Jesus is the only way to salvation. Progressive: Jesus is one of the ways to salvation.

3. Orthodox-man is basically sinful. Progressive-man is basically good.

4. Orthodox-Core biblical claims are absolute; social and political movements are debatable. Progressives are ambiguous about core biblical claims but express confidence in social and political movements.

5 Orthodox-Abortion is always wrong. Progressives-abortion is sometimes a moral choice.

6. Orthodox-tolerance, diversity and acceptance are means to an end. Progressive-tolerance, diversity and acceptance are ends in and of themselves.
Three of those six are explicitly about soteriology, and the soteriology is very basic:  one must be saved from damnation.   The other three rest on the importance of the first three.  Most are problematic because they are matters of definition:  what, for example, are "core biblical claims" in No. 4?  Like as not many Christian denominations would, officially, disagree; and then there is the matter of what individual church members think.  Abortion doesn't even get in there except as a political concern, a cultural marker for what you think government should, or should not, do.  The last is most interesting:  tolerance, diversity, and acceptance set up as means to an end (getting everyone to be like me), v. ends in themselves (allowing everyone to be who they are).

My reading of the Prophets, especially, is that the latter ("ends in themselves") is the proper Biblical claim.  Isaiah's vision of the nations drawn to the light of Israel as the people blessed by God is not a vision of the world subjugated to the will of God, or even subject to the Torah; it is a world recognizing the wisdom and beneficence of the Creator, but not a world where everyone becomes tolerant, diverse, and accepting as a way of finally becoming the world wide nation of Israel.  Or even the world wide Kingdom of God, for that matter.  And the salvation will come, not from becoming acceptable to God, but from learning the way of living found on God's holy mountain.

As I say, I consider that a "core Biblical claim."  But it's hardly in keeping with what most people would identify as "orthodox" Christianity, and certainly not what commonly passes as salvation.  Indeed, it may be more in line with the Orthodox church than it is with American Protestant orthodoxy; and therein lies another problem:  whose Christianity are we talking about?

I guess it gets back to what is Christianity? My answer would have to be I see two different Christianities, conservative and progressive. Conservative Christianity believes all the beliefs, the Bible is true, evolution is not because it goes against the Bible, and Jesus is coming any time now to rapture believers and fight non-believers. Conservative Christians became far more dangerous when they linked up with the fiscal conservatives (Republicans) because the Republicans tell them what they want to hear, and Christians reward them with the votes to win elections, and Republicans use that power to make themselves more rich.

Progressive Christians are the opposite, although they seem to have a hard time understanding just what that means. The beliefs become optional. Adam and Eve is a story and not actual people, evolution might be true, heaven and hell might not actually exist. If you push the point, even the stories about Jesus might be metaphor and allegory, and the miracles didn't necessarily happen. So what is the basic truth of Christianity?
Maybe there is none, and everyone is responsible for their own relationship to the religion. This is a slow process. You can't just make the leap to having no beliefs, so progressive Christianity has to find a winding path that may take generations to get there.
Given that, evangelism becomes a problem. You certainly don't want the conservatives to recruit more people because that way is insanity. Progressive evangelism is needed to keep the church going and growing, but what is it recruiting for? Why is progressive Christianity better than something like secular humanism? Is it just humanism with an option of believing you will go to heaven with your loved ones? I think progressive Christianity is lost, and with no possiblility of finding themselves, because there is nothing to find, other than to find a gentle way to end the religion.
Conservative Christianity will continue to bleed off people, and skew more insane in the process, and hopefully eventually grow too small to do any more political damage to the nation.
Of course this is just a milder variant of what I call the Sam Harris definition of Christianity:  that the true believers are the ones who think Noah actually built an Ark and Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale and Jesus was really visited by magi and shepherds and angels sang for his birth, and anyone who says otherwise is just an atheist afraid to admit they are an atheist.  It's a ridiculous position which ignores about 2000 years of Christian teaching, thought, and doctrine in favor of a handful of fundamentalists from the early 20th century who wrote, interestingly enough, directly in response to those German Biblical scholars I mentioned above.  Everything is connected if you just pay enough attention; but this description of Christianity isn't really connected to anything except ignorance.

Is the basic truth of Christianity, for example, a set of historical events which must have happened as they are set down in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament?  Why?  Medieval Europe largely took those stories as Platonic allegories, windows like the stained glass of their cathedrals that opened on a truer world, signs (as John called the miracles, which the synoptic writers actually called "acts of power", which is a rather different take than "suspension of natural law (another concept we owe to Christianity; see, Aquinas)) of a truer, better world.  Or what Jesus in the gospels kept pointing to:  the basiliea tou theou, the "empire of God."

Were they right to do so?  Well, the medievalists didn't argue like Bultmann and the Jesus Seminar that the miracles were largely matters of human psychology rather than alterations of reality, or that the resurrection was mere mythology; but they understood reality far differently than we do in this post-Enlightenment age.  Which is not to say we are right and they are wrong, but it is to say that unless we are now bound to a sort of hollowed out logical positivism, we are not advancing our understanding of complexity and reality beyond the realm of medieval Europe, we are collapsing it, to argue that religious belief either must involve acceptance of fairies and magic, or it must disappear altogether.

The irony is that this argument:

I think things are starting to change. There is a new book out on the historicity of Jesus showing none of the books of the New Testament are actually about a human Jesus of Nazareth. They are either about a heavenly Christ, or a collection of myths written for political and ecclesiastical reasons. I am sure it will take a while, but that is where we will end up because you can't fight the actual history with apologetics.

is the argument of the fundamentalists against modern Biblical scholars.  There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.  Even the extremism, that "none of the books of the New Testament are actually about a human Jesus of Nazareth" is of apiece with fundamentalist Christian critiques of modern Biblical scholarship.  The only difference is, the fundamentalists use it to claim it is the scholars who are undermining Christian faith.  The argument above takes that as a good thing; but it can't even be accepted as a true statement.

Oddly, given that the critiques of Christianity quoted above come from the same person, a persistent critic of religious belief at RD (not that there's anything wrong with that!), I agree with this statement, which could well be understood as the soteriology of much of Christianity:

There may be no salvation, other than to make things work here and save the earth.
Francis of Assisi is reported to have said:  "Preach the gospel constantly.  Use words, if necessary."  St. Patrick brought the gospel to Ireland through example and action, not through preaching hellfire and damnation.  The German Evangelical Church built a hospital, a mental care facility, an orphanage, and even a facility for sailors on the Mississippi, all to provide temporal, physical care to people in 19th century St. Louis and Back Bay, Mississippi.  They were much more concerned with this life than the next.  The idea that salvation is all and only about where you will spend eternity is not the only idea of salvation available to Christianity, and pointing that out is not tantamount to announcing one's atheism.

Thanks for taking time to answer these. Very interesting. I've been reading recently about three different kinds of Christianity, each of which has profound mission implications. They are Christianity as Orthodox/Conservative/Lawbringers (Type A), Christianity as Seekers of the Truth/Liberal (Type B) and Christianity as Path to Liberation and Wholeness/Liberation (Type C). I think most of the denominations you'd call conservative would be A and progressive B and/or C.
I agree with you that the alliance between conservative/right-wing politicians and Type A denominations/megachurches is an unholy one at best. It's terrifying, and utterly out of touch with the spirit of Jesus' life and teachings. I believe that these kinds of churches will decline in the next decades.

I don't quite agree with the divisions here, but that's a pedantic point.  Taking that last sentence as the point for comment: yes, that already seems to be happening.  Megachurches are largely the creations of personalities, and they last as long as the personality heading them lasts.  Robert Schuller's church disintegrated after he retired (as did Oral Roberts' ministry; Joel Osteen's success after his father's death is the exception that proves the rule, the rule being that megachurches stumble on by trying to return to the genes of the man (usually) who made them successful); Mars Hill is facing strife over it's pastor (a subject for another post).  Even Community Church of Joy gave up on the mission of being the biggest set of ecclesiastical buildings in town.  Small churches, even small denominations, last; megachurches collapse under their own weight.  That reality doesn't signal a major shift in Christianity, or even the death of religion in America.

I'd also agree that many/most of the progressive/Type B denominations are weak, uninteresting, boring, irrelevant and unable to find a kind of robust confidence (probably just in their nature) to offer anything that is, in itself, superior to secular humanism. In fact, in my preaching, I've often said, "if you just want to do good stuff, join the Sierra Club. They do it better than we do and they don't ask you to love your enemies."
I dunno; the impression I get of studying the historical Paul is that he was very earnest, but he really wasn't much of a speaker.  Rather than a charismatic preacher who took the agora by storm, he mostly sat and mended fishing nets and talked to people, got invited to their homes, and turned those families (extended households, by our modern understanding) into "churches." (Not unlike, on a larger scale and several centuries later, the conversion of Constantine; as went the paterfamilias, so went the family.)  He certainly didn't build a giant congregation that took over the local abandoned Roman stadium.  But what he offered was clearly superior to the "secular humanism" of his day; or at least proved to be.

I agree congregations can seem to be boring, uninteresting, irrelevant, and unenthused.  But are they called to worship and know God; or to go out and re-write the world in their image?  To preach and live the basiliea tou theou, or to impose it by sheer strength of passion?*  Besides, passions always cool (ask the Congregationalists and their "Great Awakening," the Methodists and the Southern Baptists, the Pentacostalists, all of whom heated up and eventually cooled down.).

However, I'm not quite yet willing to write off the possibilities of a healthy 21st Christianity, and I am drawn to the Type C approach. It values humanity while recognizing the reality of human brokenness, values a personal experience of transformation through a relationship with Jesus Christ while emphasizing the importance of actively confronting corrupt systems that perpetuate suffering.
This whole idea of "a personal experience of transformation through a relationship with Jesus Christ" is still hanging on to the soteriology that Jesus must be "let into" your heart (will is a powerful player here; God's grace is effective only if you will it to be) so that you can be "saved," always an inward experience that manifests itself in the kind of "robust confidence" that, frankly, I've always found arrogant and off-putting.  It doesn't have to be that, of course, but I think we can abandon even that vocabulary and still be "one in the spirit, one in the Lord."  In fact, maybe that emphasis on commonality is more important than the emphasis on the personal experience, and is a much more Presbyterian ideal, or at least was when I grew up in the PCUS.  Besides, the tribes of Israel didn't so much agree as agree to disagree.  Solid unity is a chimerical ideal.

In other words, I'd call myself a progressive evangelical. I don't hold that Jesus is the only route to salvation (understood as a process of liberation and growth to wholeness and healing), but I do hold that putting our trust in him can offer such a change in ways that are beyond our limited, and likely universally corrupted, reason to achieve. I have experienced those myself, and have found wholeness and, I believe, some clarity, in sharing those experiences with others inside and outside the church.
There, of course, is the rub;  I call myself a "progressive evangelical," too, but I mean the older European version of that term, not the more modern American one.  The distinction is not an unimportant one, especially since my understanding of "evangelical" wouldn't allow the soteriology or some of the other theologies of this commenter.  Would that be enough to cause us to form two different churches, to refuse to worship together under the same denomination's banner?

Well, maybe.  I've seen congregations split over the choice of carpet for the sanctuary, as I've said many times; splitting over vague unease with poorly understood points of theology, or even discomfort with changing cultural mores (which Protestants far more than Catholics have always been vulnerable too, though no Christian church still treats the world as if the society of 1st century Rome was extant) doesn't seem that radical or new a step to me.  Is it the death of something, or just the snake shedding its skin?  There are many branches of Presbyterianism and many denominations in Protestantism, even two great traditions of Reformed and Lutheran that haven't always spoken to each other.  The departure of a congregation isn't radical change; it's "same as it ever was."

As for mission, I believe the church exists to continue to witness courageously and creatively to that reality, the reality of justice, beyond the distorted one that pervades our media and culture, and to provide a way, through a variety of practices, to reinforce an entirely different reality which we would call the Reign of God.

*To be fair, this is a very old argument.  Somehow we remain one in the Spirit, one in the Lord; even when we never quite do.