Sunday, April 09, 2017

The Shield of Achilles

I've been rolling this one around in my head (and I don't mean to pick on Pastor Dan; his stuff is just more amenable to conversation than anything else at RD), and I've come up with a simpler (which is not necessarily better) explanation than Pastor D. did:

Athens v. Sparta.

There's a reason, as Pastor D. says, that the religious left is not going to get organized like the religious right anytime soon.  At first I thought it was, along the lines Pastor D. proposes, a matter of counter-culture leftists (stay with me) v. enculturated right-wingers.  Let's face it, American society favors the right-wing mentality:  take care of yourself first, and everybody else who deserves success will be taken care of in return.  Do unto others before they do unto you, keep your nose to the grindstone, and always remember God helps those who help themselves; so don't look for any help from anybody else.

Yes, I speak harshly, but I'm not trying to be even-handed.  Then it occurred to me the problem is between critical thinkers and accepters of the status quo.  There's a lot to be said for that.  I knew a lot of engineers growing up, men making their money in the oil business, who were well trained in critical thinking when it came to engineering problems and drilling problems and getting oil out of the ground and to the market.  But past that, they were quite willing to accept the world as it was and as it offered comforts to them in return for their labors; as engineers.  Taking care of your fellow humans was  a matter for charity, if you felt so inclined, and questioning the poverty of those around you, well....that was what got Dr. King in trouble, and nobody remembers he died at a march of fair pay for sanitation workers, not at another march demanding equal treatment under the law for all Americans.  We got used to the latter; we still can't stand the former.

I knew a few iconoclasts in my small town; adults, I mean, not people of my generation (we all thought we were iconoclasts.).  They were politely tolerated and they certainly didn't form clubs and have breakfast meetings once a month, or ride tiny cars in the local parades, or anything like that.  How critical their thinking was, I don't know; but I assume they were more critical than most of the adults I knew, for whom "critical" meant criticism of those who would disturb the social order (civil rights activists and "outside agitators" and the like).  I might have thought that had to do with politics and culture and "left" and "right"; now, I'm less sure.

Athens v. Sparta

I'm no expert on Athenian life at the time of Plato, even less do I know about Sparta.  But take the popular images:  the birthplace of democracy, the military dictatorship that wasn't a dictatorship because every Spartan was in the military.  Athens the birthplace of Western thought, Sparta the land of soldiers who stood at the pass at Thermopylae until not one Spartan was left standing.  Athens that tolerated Socrates until they didn't; Sparta where a soldier came home from war carrying his shield, or carried on it.  Which is a society that is a virtual picture of cohesion, and which is the very picture of herding cats?

Not that Athens was that disorderly:  Socrates was not a liberal by our standards, not really in any meaningful way.  He didn't threaten the order of Athens, complain about the neglect of the poor (that came later, and was about as effective on Athenian society as it would be on American society), worry really that much about personal ethics or morality (that was Augustine, centuries later; we tend to compact history too much).  But if you set the stereotype of Athens against the stereotype of Sparta, you get a simple picture about why one society will be cohesive almost to the end, and why the other will always seem on the brink of dissolution and anarchy.

Tragedy, the concern with the errors of a leader responsible for his city-state, and the consequences of those errors, is a peculiarly Athenian art form.  It provides deep insight into human nature, human society, and is a mirror of Athenian culture.  Nobody sees Sparta reflected in that mirror.

I paint with broad strokes, and have in mind at this point Auden's "The Shield of Achilles."  That expresses an Athenian, v. a Spartan, view; at least for purposes of my conversation.  Spartans would see the strength of the shield; Athenians the horrors of war.

Pastor Dan offers a series of examples of why the "left" in America is not going to be guided by religion the way the right is:

In sum, most people on the left aren’t hostile to faith, but they’re only willing to cede it so much authority. That’s not because liberal clergy deal away the moral (or even revealed) content of their faith, as the stereotype often has it. In fact, I and many colleagues across denominations struggle mightily to know God and to understand where our faith is leading us. But we take pluralism seriously, and we are painfully aware of how faith has been used to control, hurt, and oppress the vulnerable.

Perhaps; but I think a better way to put it is that the gospel teachings about power is about the power of powerlessness.  It's a theological matter, in other words, not just a history lesson about how mean people in power can be, and let's avoid that.  It's more fundamental, like the difference between those who think their spiritual salvation rests on saving souls (the "Great Commission" soteriology), and those who think salvation lies in pursuing the vision of the basiliea tou theou.  People who identify with the American right and are also publicly religious, tend to identify with power, especially since it is power:  financial, social, legal, cultural, that puts them in exalted places and keeps them there.  People who identify with the American left either foolishly downplay the importance power of those powers, especially if they are wealthy and well-off and well-placed, and think that not talking about power, or talking about power used to the "right ends," will ameliorate and even control the power.  You have to emulate Dorothy Day and give up all pretense to power, especially to the power to intrude on the lives of the poor you would help, to judge them and determine the causes of their problems in their lives, to really live out a Christian ideal of service and faith; and how many people does that attract into a mass movement?

There is, alternatively, this argument:

But in 1980, 5 million evangelical voters defected to Ronald Reagan, and they’ve never come back. Lots of American Protestants have political concerns associated with the left: poverty, openness to immigrants, environmentalism. A sizable minority of white Protestants and large majorities of non-white Protestants vote Democratic. But repeated attempts to form an organized and vocal religious left have foundered on one prominent problem, which is a sign of more pervasive underlying difficulties.

That problem is, of course, abortion. Before Roe v. Wade, abortion had traditionally been a Catholic issue, but with the surge in abortions following its legalization, Protestants of all political persuasions discovered in themselves an apparently instinctive moral revulsion. It came to seem self-evident to most serious believers that abortion was murder: an epiphany which, like the nineteenth-century Protestant discovery that slavery was inherently wrong, was a matter of moral intuition rather than Biblical prooftexting. The realization energized the religious right, but it paralyzed the religious left. The Democratic party was committed to feminism for reasons of politics and of principle. So left-leaning Protestants were torn between pro-feminist and anti-abortion impulses, none more so than Carter himself. He personally disagreed with Roe and appointed an anti-abortion Catholic as health secretary. Yet he refused to campaign on the subject. The bulk of his staff were pro-choice, a position which was becoming Democratic party orthodoxy. Ted Kennedy, challenging Carter’s renomination in 1980, was a late but loud convert to the pro-choice cause. Carter was caught in the crossfire: both feminists and evangelicals felt betrayed.
But that's entirely too shallow and superficial, if only because it ignores the Christian elephant in America's historical living room, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  King spoke out against the Vietnam War from his Christian convictions.  He led the charge for social justice (what the March on Washington was actually about) from his Christian convictions.  But either nobody liked what he had to say about the war, or they ignored what he had to say about social justice.  There was "an apparently instinctive moral revulsion" to being against an unjust war, or to caring about an economic system that so systematically exploited the many for the benefit of the few.  It was, as King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" indicates, a chary thing to even stand up for basic civil rights in the churches, a stance we now take for granted (at least we still pay lip service to it).  On the other hand, Alex Ryrie agrees with Dan Schultz:

The real problem is more deep-seated. What has muzzled liberal Protestants is their own commitment to inclusion and opposition to discrimination. Their aim is to serve society as a whole, rather than their own narrow confessional self-interest. The legacy of the civil-rights era and of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call for a “religionless Christianity” is a conviction that Christianity ought to be about self-sacrificial service. The legacy of America’s deep Protestant roots is a lingering assumption that white Protestant America cannot abandon its universal responsibilities by claiming a particular identity for itself. So although non-white Protestant churches might be politically active, they are seen as ethnic rather than religious institutions. And white Protestant America has been subsumed first into “Judeo-Christian” America, then into multi- and non-faith America, making it very hard for those on the left to unapologetically put their faith at the heart of their politics.

Which is off the mark for another reason:  Protestant institutions, even more than Roman Catholic ones, are creatures of culture.  The reason there are so many Protestant denominations in the world and in the U.S., is because each one is a product of its particular culture.  Luther founded a church much like the Catholic one he knew; Calvin founded one according to his own lights, a Reformed tradition so different from Lutheranism the two couldn't reconcile on theological and ecclesiological issues for centuries (a forced reconciliation occurred in Prussia in the 19th century, creating the German Evangelical Church, which later became the United Church of Christ.  Reconciliation across most denominations only came about a century later.).  Presbyterianism split north and south in the American Civil War, with another church, the Cumberland Presbyterians, formed out of the westward movement through the Cumberland Gap.  There are all varieties of Baptists, Pentecostals, fundamentalists, and denominations formed out of disparate social and cultural circumstances, some of which don't consider themselves associated with either of the historical denominations (the Church of Rome or the churches of the Reformation), but rather think they are sui generis and stand on their own understanding of Christianity.  MO Synod Lutherans won't talk to other Christians at all, consider the Church of Rome the Whore of Babylon, and WI Synod Lutherans think the MO Synod Lutherans are apostates.  There's the old joke about the man about to jump off the bridge, and the man who tries to save him until he finds out the jumper belongs to the wrong branch of the same denomination.  My last church lost members, the story went, over a decision to carpet the worship space.  The members went down the road and set up their own non-denominationnal church.

So yes, the problem is deep-seated; but it's far more deep seated than Roe v. Wade or "universal responsibilities."  The latter usually means the responsibility of one group is to damn another group for their theological errors.  Having grown up in Baptist East Texas a non-Baptist, I'm quite familiar with that subtle form of condescension.  Add to that a general cultural lack of interest in social justice issues and anti-war ideas, both central to my reading of the gospels, and it's no surprise Protestantism can't organize a two-car funeral procession.  When, since Calvin ran Zurich as a company town, has it ever been able to?  Protestantism wasn't subsumed into "Judeo-Christian" America, it created "Judeo-Christian" America thanks to Thomas Jefferson and the 1st Amendment.  And frankly, Jefferson and the Constitution saved Protestantism.  But is it lost in "multi-and non-faith America"?  No more than it was when it was arguing over Southern Baptist v. Presbyterian v. German Evangelical v. Congregationalist soteriology and ecclesiology.

That division continues today, as Christians who don't align themselves with fundamentalist evangelical politically and socially convervative Christians either argue with them, declare them "false Christians" (as they themselves are declared false), or ignore them.  There's also the central problem of the teachings of Jesus:  "Don't judge, and you won't be judged."  That doesn't leave a lot of room for arguing about who's right and who's wrong; and frankly, non-Christians and a lot of us who are Christians, aren't interested in that argument at all.

Not to mention the question of power, and what it has to do with God's power in powerlessness.

So if it is Athens v. Sparta, it's also Protestant v. Protestant, Christian v. Christian.  Am I motivated because God said I should care for the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the destitute, the prisoner, the sick?  Or am I motivated because God said I should make disciples of all nations, that implicitly my salvation depends on trying to "save" you?  These are fundamental questions, not idle ones.  From them spring my understanding of what God wants, of how God is still speaking, of what God's word says.  Interpretation, and can there be only one interpretation?  But interpretation, and my interpretation?

Hang it all, Robert Browning!

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