Monday, August 28, 2006

How I Feel About Gay Rights (I'm gonna offend some folks)

In 1993, I participated in the big spring March on Washington. There were close to half a million of us - gay, lesbain, TV, TS, and straights - demanding justice and equal rights for sexual minorities. As we walked to the Mall to find our spot in the line up, we passed a street person, sleeping it off over a grate. The others in our groups either stepped over or around him. None but me, as far as I know, even acknowledged his presence.
That sleeping street person gnawed at me as I listened to speaker after speaker rouse the crows with the list of "demands", a list inspired by the fact the recently elected Pres. Clinton had reneged on his promise to allow gays to serve openly in the military. As I listened what I heard, over and over again, was the demand that the federal government do something to stop gay bashing. Not necessarily limited to actual physical violence, the demand was an end to "verbal hate crimes". As the afternoon progressed, I couldn't help thinking about that sleeping homeless man, and here I was marching with hundreds of thousands of other, mostly white, overwhelmingly middle and upper-middle class people, demanding the federal government protect them from people who call them names.
Of course, there was more - discrimination in housing, in adoption and other parental rights, in employment - but I couldn't keep my mind off the homeless man. Who was marching for him? Who was demanding solutions to the problems that led him to sleep on the street? Why weren't we - well-to-do, employed, educated - demanding the government do something to give this man a helping hand? Why were we demanding something for us, when we had resources to demand something for others?
Gay rights are, to me, the product of prosperity. When bellies are full, when economic progress is available, when there is a lull in racial tensions, then we can move on to something else. In the '90's it was gay rights. I do not disagree that there is justice in many GLBT demands - including equal rights for state recognition of same-sex unions - but I would also submit that, at present, with our current social and political system in the shambles it is in thanks to our current Republican government, we need to rebuild from the bottom up. Of course, sexual minorities need the same protections all people have from discrimination in the job and housing market; gay and lesbian parents need their rights protected for equal access to their children; the state should grant the same privileges to same-sex unions that it grants to married couples. As we mourn the anniversary of Katrina, and its aftermath, though, and as we consider the federal governments willful policy of stripping a southern city of half its population because that portion was poor and minority, we need to ask ourselves what our priorities should be. To me preventing some uncouth person from yelling "Faggot!" when he sees two men holding hands as gthey walk down the street is not, nor should it be, at the top of the list.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Death of a Great American City

New Orelans - birthplace of jazz, home of the French Quarter, a city where the most popular tourist attraction is a street with strip joints and sex clubs - was severely wounded by flodding last year. Katrina hit. The levees broke. They are still finding the bodies. The federal government congratulates itself for its great job. The city is dying, and we are a lesser people because New Orleans, with its history, its culture, its diversity, and its passion for naked women will no longer be with us. Mourn.

(Confidential to CV and Sis - how's this?)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Can we bury the Now-Defunct Secularization Thesis, Please?

The folks over at Faith in Public Life reprint an article by Timothy Shah and Monica Toft telling a story that should be obvious to anyone paying attention for the past fifteen to twenty years - against all the predictions of proponents of what was called the "secularization thesis" (as education, economic growth, and increased contact with other societies, cultures and religions spread, adherence to any one particular religious belief would shrink as secular beliefs became the lingua franca of international cultural life), religion and its influence upon cultural, social, and political life is still strong, and growing. I suppose Mr. Shah and Ms. Toft can be forgiven for their astonishment at the way reality has silenced a thesis that should have been ignored when it was proposed. It is still, however, a powerful force in the academic world, and even though reality has eroded its foundation, dulled its never-very-fine points, and run holes through it beg enough to push multiple Ph.D. dissertations, still it lives on.
Secularization was the agonizingly slow process that went on in a few countries in northern and western Europe, from around the end of 18th century until the present day. Disengaging often state-supported churches from a dominant role in public life was seen as an essential part of modernizing, especially after the French Revolution. The path was never easy, and will never be complete; even in a country such as Sweden (officially Lutheran), where church attendance is close to the single digits percetnage-wise, the royal family are still the heads of the national church, and the state supports churches with money.
Oddly, officially secular America has the liveliest and most variegated religious life of western-style nations, and most analysts put this down to our history of freedom from state interference in religion. Yet, many in academia still hold out hope that the US, too, will follow the lead of Norway, France, Germany, and Britain, and reduce its religious adherence to what is effectively nil. Of course, it won't happen, and adherents to the secularization thesis should know that by now.
Religion is, arguably, the dominant social, cultural, and political force of the past quarter century. Whether it is the rise of Hindu nationalism in India; the increasing agitation of Christians, Muslims, and the Falun Gong in China; Muslim radicalism; messianic Jewish Zionism dictating policy in the occupied territories (with help from evangelical and dispensationalist Christians in America); or the bourgening pentecostal movement in Latin America - these are the forces that are shoaping, or have shaped, our world, and this shape will dictate where we go for the rest of this century, for good or ill. Secularism and atheism (not exactly the same thing, but many who adhere to the former profess the latter) are the children of a false sense of intellectual maturity, an Enlightenment gone horribly awry. Religion has always been a presence in human social life; to suppose that we could eliminate it, even in a few hundred years, is incredibly naive, not to say stupid.
It is time to say goodbye to the thesis that secularization will succeed, and that this would be a good thing for the world. It is time to recognize reality - religion is here to stay, and we must deal with it openly, constructively, and thoughtfully.

The Power of Beauty

I want to take a short break from politics (thank you, thank you!) and consider the question of beauty. I am far from being anything like knowledgeable about art history, but I tend not to be too fussy about what I consider an aesthetic experience. While moved by painting and the plastic arts to a limited extent, it is music, photography, and film that capture my imagination, move me, and put me in a new place. Sometimes, as with some surrealist and old Dadaist photographers, it is a horrible place (these same feelings are aroused, often, by some of the striking and disturbing images in the videos produced by the heavy metal band Tool). Most of the time, however, I enjoy the power of true art to move be outside myself, force me to see and hear something new, something different, something that might even challenge everything I thought I knew.
To return to the general idea of art, I am more often interested in the artist, and the way art pushes the artist to be different from others. Nietzsche, one of the great aesthetic philosophers, understood this best, and I have often considered his aphorism, "Beware of staring into the abyss that the abyss does not begin to stare into you" as a warning to artists. Too much beauty, too much of an obsession with what one sees, and the failure to achieve that vision - the best artists are always complaining that what they produce does not reach what they see in their mind's eye - becomes a burden to them. I think of VanGogh, of Pollock, of Michaelangelo. I think, even, of St. Thomas who, after having an ecstatic vision, left the University of Paris and retired to a small monastery, his Summa Theologica incomplete, repeating to those who asked him that his life's work was "all straw". While I believe there was more than just aesthetic dissatisfaction here, I cannot help but wonder if there was not something of that as well as a spiritual sense of emptiness.
Those who see and hear more beautiful colors, shapes, sounds, are not just gifted. They are also cursed, because too often they are either ignored because they see too far or hear too differently than their contemporaries, or they are exploited for commercial gain, their lives destroyed as their art is reduced to a purely commercial venture (think Kurt Cobain and, especially, Jimi Hendrix). This is not to say that commerce does not play a role in art: it is merely to argue against the commercial exploitation of artists' work, reducing them and what they produce to something to buy and sell, rather than as a vehicle for understanding.
I think of beauty the way I think about love. We Americans tend to be sentimental about both. Beauty is a child's smile. Love is a hug from a grandmother. Beauty is the first crocus of March. Love is an elderly couple holding hands as they Mall walk. That's the kind of thing most people think of when they consider these words.
Beauty can be savage, however, just as love can kill. Beauty can be harsh and unforgiving, giving so much that we are overwhelmed, overloaded. Love can quite literally drive people insane with joy or grief or jealousy or emptiness because true love requires more than most people have the capacity to either take or give. I admit these are romantic musings, but I would also insist the Romantics were on to something, because these are observations drawn from my own life experiences as well.
The aesthetic experience is not standing quietly before painting in a museum and considering the structure of the elements of a painting, and the way the artist perhaps utilized certain styles of brushstroke to achieve a desired effect. This is an academic view of the artistic experience and is to be avoided at all cost; it is the aesthetic equivalent of dissecting a butterfly. The aesthetic experience is having something grab hold of you, sometimes forcefully, sometimes seductively, leading your eye or your ear to teach your mind to see or hear in ways you didn't even dream possible before. We become a part of the history of art as we add our own reflection, our own reaction, our own stimulation to those who have gone before. We become, in essence, a part of the painting, of the song, of the statue, the poem, the building, the novel, the film. The trick, however, is not to end up trapped there.
I just realized this post has no theme, no structure, no goal or purpose. It is a series of rambles. For that I apologize. Yet, sometimes the best art is as useless as the meandering thoughts of the early morning.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Politics, Power, & Church Advocacy

In a comment here, a person raises the issue of the proper limit of Christian political advocacy. Embedded within this comment is a position that, if considered carefully, is actually nonsensical, because it flies in the face of the very nature of political action. As this seems to be a theme of recent posts, I thought I would take a moment and digress upon this issue to lay a broader context within which the quesiton of Christian political action takes place.
The commenter says, in essence, that Christian political advocacy is fine, as long as no one is forced to act against the dictates of their own beliefs, or according the beliefs they do not hold. The problem with this position, a position held by many Americans, even as far back as Thomas Jefferson, is that it is of the very nature of politics to get people to act in ways they might not want to act. Politics concerns itself with the use of power. Political scientists have a wonderful definition of power, which I shall quote as I learned it a quarter century ago as an undergraduate: A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something B would not otherwise do.
Thus, Republicans in Congress pass a law that permits the President of the United States to used armed force against Iraq. The vast majority of Americans is against the current occupation, yet Republicans, despite a diminished standing in the polls, still hold the reigns of power in both the White House and in congress, and so, the occupation continues much as it has. Conversely, if Democrats were to take over and, say, raise taxes on the wealthy, they put the rich in the position of having to pay more of their income in taxes to the government, something they would not otherwise do.
More to the point as a general statement of political advocacy, Christians (and other religious groups) spend their time in political advocacy precisely because they wish to exert influence to enact legislation to coerce people to act in certain ways, or perhaps not act in certain ways; said actions or non-actions being those that many would not otherwise engage in. It is not just Christian groups that do this. Lobbyists spend millionis each year to ensure that their pet projects become laws, becoming another link in the power chain in which people are forced to act in ways that may not be the way they would act if left to their own devices.
In other words, to claim to support political activity of Christians in the abstract, but to decry the results of that activity (if successful), is to betray an ignorance over the very nature of politics. The libertarian (small "l" here, not necessarily the position of the Libertarian Party) position that the Church has no right to exert influence over the behavior of those who do not subscribe to its beliefs is contradicted by the fact that groups whose beliefs we do not share very often get laws passed that anathema to some, or even most, Americans, who are forced, nonetheless, to abide by them. If you support Church political advocacy, beware what might be the result of that advocacy.

Another Example from the Right (?)

Our local paper, the Rockford, IL Register-Star carried a story by staff reporter Pat Cunningham with the following headline: "Reactions mixed to bishop's swipe at Democrats". It seems that the Bishop of the Rockford diocese, Thomas Doran, wrote an article for the diocesan newspaper that, while not naming the Democratic Party specifically, wrote (in an excerpt printed by the Register-Star): "We know . . . that adherents on one political party would place us squarely on the road to suicide as a people." The holy bishop then named "[t]he seven 'sacraments' of their secular culture [which] are abortion, buggery [!], contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type and genetic experimentation and mutilation." The bishop then says that "[t]heir (I'm assuming here he means the Democratic Party, although he never uses the term explicitly) continuance in public office is a clear and present danger to our survival as a nation. . ." In a later paragraph he calls them "the party of death".
First of all, just as a matter of law, I believe (while I am no lawyer and certainly no expert) that the bishop's refusal to use the words "Democratic Party" keep the diocese safe from IRS investigation of violation of their tax-free status, I nevertheless find it incredible that a clergyperson, of any denomination, would skate so close to the edge of partisan politics, an edge that threatens to swamp their privileged position as exempt from taxation. Of course, the Christian Co-alition engaged in such partisan politicking in the 1990's, but they were under constant IRS scrutiny. The Roman Catholic Church, historically, has understood the clear border between issue and party advocacy, and has been a refreshing example of how religious groups should engage politically, even if you don't always agree with the positions the advocates hold. This "indiscretion" (to be polite), especially coming from a bishop, is incredible.
More to the point, following on recent posts and thoughts about the right and wrong ways for churches to engage politically, and the effects upon churches by political involvement, it is clear that a combination of a narrow focus on a handful of issues combined with too close an association with one major party has created a situation where all perspective has been lost. I am aware that the Republican Party advocates positions on a number of issues that dovetail with Roman Church teaching (and with a number of other churches as well). It has reached the point, however, where that association has led a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church to forget something that should, if he had but given it a moment's thought, should be obvious: it is not that the Democrats are the "party of death", and therefore the Republicans are the "party of life" (by default); rather, politics itself, because it is about the attaining and use of power, invariably involved the abuse of power and threats to life, regardless of party.
The Republicans advocate the end of abortion, obviously. The President has severely restricted access to stem cell lines and Congress has restricted funds for embryonic stem cell research. These points are true. Thay have also engaged in a war of questionable legality and certainly of dubious efficacy, resulting in thousands of American deaths and tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths. The President has shown no compassion at all, and is an earnest and vocal advocate of the death penalty, an issue certainly dear to the hearts of the previous Pope, who was not silent on the American fascination with eliminating convicted criminals. On these two issues alone, it might seem that to claim one party alone deserves the mantle "party of death" is not only misguided, but intellectually dishonest and simply untrue.
The Republican exploitation of Catholic (and other denominational) teaching on the sanctity of human life for political advantage has created a situation where there is no longer an attempt at evenhandedness by churches and religious groups in their political activity. This is an object lesson of the results of too close an association with a political party by a church.
Politics is a ruthless, nasty business, a necessary evil if you will. Church groups, as part of society have a privilege and a duty to speak out when politics becomes threat to those things they hold as sacred. They must remember, however, that politics is a game that, too often, involves a calculation of human life that is, shall we say, less than highest on the scale of values. It is not the Democratic Party that is the party of death; rather, politics itself is a game that very often, perhaps too often, is the game of life and death.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Not Quietism

Re-reading what I have written so far makes me feel uneasy. I am still working through these ideas, and have yet to figure out where they are heading, but it should be clear from the larger content of my blog that I am not in favor of religious quietism, from the left or the right. We Christians have a duty to speak up as our faith moves us. Our voices are not to be silent in the battles of our time. My problem is in too close an identification with a political party or platform or ideology. Conservative Christians, to my mind, have been corrupted by too close an association with the Republican Party. Liberal and progressive Christians need to be smart in their politics, true to their faith and the God who gives it to them, and never succumb to the temptations of power presented by secular politics.
Part of my reticence comes from an observation that the Republican Party uses conservative Christians, never intending to implement their pet policies, but demanding at each election alliegiance in order to do so. About half the agenda of the Christian right is inherently unconstitutional, and no amount of political power will push it into law. The rest serve as convenient wedge issues, easily exploited for immediate gain. The love affair of conservatgive Christians for Republicans is unrequited, and unrequited for sound political reasons. Republicans can only use them for so long, however, before that particular well runs dry.
Another part of my reticence is the danger presented by political power. Christians are not to concerns themselves with secular, worldly power, no matter their intention. Playing the political game is a dance with the devil, and that particular tune-caller refuses to surrender the hand of a suitor, even if the suitor's dance card is filled by God. Liberal and progressive Christians too often are earnest, well-meaning, serious-minded but absolutely incapable of the ruthlessness and even viciousness necessary to win. These are not qualities the Christian left should cultivate in any case, but the insidious nature of politics is such that they may make themselves known anyway, in the desire to succeed.
We must always live both within the political climate and above it. We must be on guard against the temptation to surrender our heritage for transitory political gains. Our goal is the kingdom, not a Democratic Congress, and that goal needs to be ever before us, guiding our ways.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

An Example . . .

So the story is this. In Ohio, a groups of liberal clergy are attempting to set up a meeting with the conservative Republican candidate for governor.
Because the candidate already had a meeting with a group of conservative clergy.
What a waste of time and energy.
As long as we play the game by their rules, we lose. As long as we play the game, we have already lost.

Finding a Starting Point

I think what brought about my "conversion", for lack of a better word, to a different approach to issues of religion and faith in the public square, was Barack Obama's speech earlier this summer. Much was made by liberal Christians, and E. J. Dionne, a moderately liberal columnist, seemed as giddy as a school-boy when he discussed it. I, on the other hand, was not impressed (in fact, I posted about it twice), and that lack of impression - and the visceral nature of it; there was nothing reasonable about it at all - forced me to think through some things that were then still nascent. Also, reading Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz (also written about twice), and his own refusal to enter into silly debates and discussions that stray from the point of things, forced me to wonder what it was I thought I would accomplish all these years.
I have followed the Christian Right since the early 1980's. I found Jerry Falwell's ghost-written manifesto Listen America when I was still in high school and laughed my way through it (personally, I especially loved the part where he talked about Alice Cooper, recounting Alice's stage persona as something this golfing, Republican son of a United Methodist minister actually believed; that and being all huffy about David Bowie, as big a poser as you'll find in rock). I was then young and naive. I couldn't imagine anyone "listening" to what Falwell had to say. They, did, of course, and have gone on listening for a quarter century (Falwell may well go down with Billy Sunday as one of the pivotal figures in American religious history, whether we liberals like it or not). Similarly, I was watching Pat Robertson do his Christian version of the Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin talk shows back when Tip O'Neill was still alive. Like Falwell, I found them risible as well. This had about as much to do with Christianity, as I understood and experienced it, as does a game of cricket.
Unfortunately for me, living and then studying in small town western New York, the country was changing, and these heralds of a new Christian activism - along with James Dobson, Tim LaHaye, James Hagee, the PTL Club, and others - were forging a new vision of what it means to be Christian in America. Part of my own struggle was that I recognized this, and thus my disenchantment with being a Christian for several years. I wanted no part of this nonsense. I let them raise much sound and fury, but it signified nothing for me.
Then, I decided that it would be better to try and debate them. I educated myself as best I could for all the traditional reasons, but also to prove how smart I was, to be able to intellectually smack down any conservative Christian I might meet. That is a sad confession, but it is true. I viewed the whole thing as a contest, a contest for truth, for power, for leadership; I viewed it, in essence, the way the folks over at Faith in Public view it. By the time I was in my late twenties, I was ready for most comers. By my mid-30's, I believed, I could take 'em all on.
They don't want to be taken on. They do not wish to debate, argue, discuss, forge agreements or reach compromises. They do not wish to preach humility or softness or meekness or peace or true Christian love. They honor potential life in unborn children, but are quick to demand that it ends for any who are viewed as evil. They saw themselves, and were, at least in parts of the country in some way, as kingmakers in the political realm. They sat in on meetings with Presidents, Senators, the Speaker of the House. They took over party structures and fielded candidates. They set part of the tone and limit and terms of much of our public debate.
That is not the role of the Christian. There is an irreducible political dimension to our faith, but its place and function is limited. It must always be remembered that politics is about power. Those Christian who desire it succumb to the second temptation of Satan in Luke's gospel - Satan offers Jesus a fourth of the world's kingdoms if he would just bow down and worship the tempter - and rather than vie with them, or against them, for a place at the table, we should reject the very idea that we have a place there. Our road is different; our calling is different; who we are, as those claimed by the crucified and risen Jesus, is very different from those who would seek to rule the world in God's name.
This is just the beginning of a change in my mind, a change effecting beliefs, attitudes, principles, and even actions that have been a part of my life for over two decades. When one reads someone say that he "just doesn't care anymore" about the games Christians play against one another, as I did earlier this summer, it is time to start thinking about a new way, or perhaps a very old way, of being a Christian, including being a political Christian.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Don't Take on the Christian Right

Over here a question is asked: "Why, in God's name, would Baptists raise a monument to the Puritans?" The simple answer is: historical ignorance. More to the point, the post of which this is a part - and the larger dialogue to which that post belongs - is, to my mind, a waste of precious time and intellectual and emotional energy. Why, in God's name, are we worrying about the Religious Right, the mounting of Ten Commandment tablets, and all the other nonsense of the the Christian Right? As a matter of course, these things are found to be unconstitutional, and more heat than light is added to our political culture by any attempt at dialogue, debate, discussion, or whatever, with those on the religious right.
More to the point, as with an earlier post on the way political progressives should approach the derisory figures of the political right, liberal and progressive Christians should not waste one moment of time on the Christian Right. Pointing out the history of the Baptist Church and its travails in Puritan Massachusetts avails nothing; showing the way evangelicals worked for everything from emancipation to peace to worker's rights is immaterial; showing the enormous gap in their knowledge of American history is irrelevant. Their goal is not to win an argument, but to win power.
Christians believe in Jesus, who was the incarnation of God, the Creator and sustainer of the Universe. Yet, Jesus relinquished any and all claim to power, choosing death - even death on a cross - rather than any vulgar display of power to show the depth of God's love for fallen creation. We are to live as Christ lived, foreswearing any desire for power, spiritual or temporal, serving others, putting the lives of others before our own. That is our sole concern.
I neither fear the Christian right, nor do I any longer feel the Church (or the churches) should take action against them. Rather, they should be allowed to voice their beliefs, and work to see them enacted. We, too, should live and be who we are called to be and do by the God who created us and loves us and saves us. In my opinion, we need to be about God's work in the world, and that includes loving those who would seem to be most unlovable, even those who hate us.
There is much work to do in the political arena. Christian voices for too long have been a part of this dialogue, to our great national detriment. Progressive Christian voices need to model a life where they can be political, without using the claims of faith as part of their political vocabulary. If we do that, we can open up the public sphere to a language of real debate and compromise. We need to be wise, recognize that, in the twilight on sin, all cats are grey, and not so much be a tin echo of the intransigent voices of the right, but speak words of truth that recognize their own contingency. I would rather assume I am wrong as often as I am right than demand others understand how smart I am, and declare that, rather than the ignorant right, it is the virtuous left who has all the answers.
Conservative Christians will always be there. Conservative voices in our national public cialogue, as it is shifting - as it continues to shift as it has over the past several months - are on the wane. Rather than replace them with another voice of religious intolerance, this time in the name of "progress", we should leave the public sphere open to secular voices, and live our lives, and do our work, praerfully, lovingly, and silently.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

My 100th Post, Going Where Angels Fear to Tread

Over at Faith in Public, in an article on recent criticisms of the Religious right by self-proclaimed evangelicals, there was a passage on abortion that made me realize I had yet to venture into those troubled waters. In honor of my one-hundredth posting, I thought, "What the hell?" I've already been told I hate Jews, why not piss off a whole bunch of other people?
First, I feel - as do an increasing number of progressives - that laws such as the recent total ban in South Dakota are an opportunity rather than a challenge or set back. The Roe v. Wade decision created an all or nothing situation, despite its attempt at creating a tiered system of increasing state interest in the life of the unborn child. Relying on scientific data available at the time, the court created the tri-mester test, with the passage of each three months of pregnancy creating a greater interest for the state, and therefore a greater ability to regulate. While most people felt the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision as upholding Roe, in fact it changed the terms in which abortion is to be understood, while still defending the procedure itself.
By placing abortion within a protected category of constitutional freedoms, thecourt removed serious discussion of abortion from the political arena. Thus, we have right-to-lifers pelting those entering clinics with little plastic fetuses. they compare abortion to the Nazi genocide of Jews. "Abortion stops a beating heart", that sort of thing.
On the other hand, the left uses fear of losing the "right" to abortion as a campaign tactic (and a not very effective campaign tactic, we might as well admit) against right-wing candidates. Some writers on the left even insist that abortion is the most basic right women have, because it is a question of control over their own bodies. If this right is taken away, it will be the destruction of all the social gains women have made in the thirty years since it was granted by the Court.
This is an issue where, personally, I feel more than a little conflicted. I grant the reality that abortions will occur with or without them being legal, and that making them illegal only creates an underground where women in distress are exploited. I also recognize that, in effect, abortion is a medical procedure, and legislating against it is, in principle, no different from legislating against heart-bypass surgery or vasectomies. On the other hand, I find the arguments too often used by those on the left - the underage incest victim raped by a father; the poor black woman already burdened by a number of children, ill-equipped to raise another - create either the most rare of incidents, or use a kind of racism that would be denounced roundly if used by those on the right (the fact that such arguments are often used by upper-middle class white women is even more disturbing).
The truth is, most abortions are performed on married women either for sex selection or to end an unwanted, or unplanned, pregnancy. This fact alone does not tell against the procedure, nor am I necessarily arguing that it should be outlawed. I am only suggesting that we need to concede reality, and rather than discuss fantasy scenarios of rape victims, if we are to support abortion as a choice available, we should argue for it on other grounds. The ground of Right, of Constitutional protection is much too precious to be used on a medical procedure.
If it seems that I am unclear on my own position, then you have read well. In fact, I still do not know where I stand, although I am sure about where I do not stand. I do not stand with the rabid right-to-lifers by any stretch of the imagination; on the other hand, I do not stand with constitutional absolutists on this issue, either. By creating a false dichotomy, by setting up an all-or-nothing situation, the Court has sidelined sensible, nuanced debate and disagreement. It is, indeed, the kind of silly situation created by George W. Bush when he said, "You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists." Actually, as in that case, I do not believe in an absolute right-to-life, at least for one unborn. I do not, though, believe, nor will I support or defend, a Constitutional right to abortion. I b elieve it is time to free abortion from its constitutional striaght jacket and allow us to have a free, lively debate.

On Becoming a Minister

I figured if I didn't write something like this soon, my sister would start asking me, "What about all the Christian stuff?"

To become ordained in the United Methodist Church, the process is long, involves input from everyone from your best friend to complete strangers, psychological testing, paper writing, and interview after interview in front of committee after committee. While the UMC didn't create the church committee, it certainly went a far distance in making sure the world doesn't run out of them any time soon.
While much of the process involved personal reflection, the interview process, to me, is the most important part. It is here, where ordained clergy and lay people sit in front of a candidate for ministry that one is tested, pushed, questioned, forced to reflect on things that may be uncomfortable, and often left feeling that one has failed when in fact the committee has appreciated the effort and sees great promise. Of course, very often those who sail through committee with confidence often find themselves denied further movement along the path to ordination.
Here in the United States, it is so easy to start a church. One need only declare oneself a pastor, hang out a shinlge (so to speak), and get others to listen to you preach once or twice a week. The amazing thing is that the United Methodist Church continues to push a model for ordination that forces accountability and responsibility on a peoplewho could otherwise simply toss it all overboard and set up their own little church. Why all the fuss?
The call to ministry is something that only reveals itself through reflection, is intensely personal, and pushes and prods even as the rest of the world discounts its very existence. The committee, responding in body to the reflections, tests, papers, and testimony of the candidate, evaluate each person before them on a set of criteria first set forth by the father of Methodism, John Wesley. These criteria are as objective and open to scrutiny as possible, leaving the processopen while confidential, and accessible to any person interested in finding out how it is done. There is always a need for striking a balance between the candidate and the needs of the Church, and the committee process forces everyone involved to take the task seriously and thoughtfully and, of course, prayerfully.
The key, as with much in Wesley's thought and actions, is accountability. We are, as Christians, answerable to each other for the results (what Wesley called "fruits") of our faith. While salvation is God's decision, not the Church's, and it is impossible to know what lies most deep inside the heart of any person, Wesley still believed that if a person's life did not reflect true Christian piety and action, then one could question the sincerity of that person's proclamation of faith.
Having said that, the committee process allows the Church to screen out, of course, the worst of the worst - potential criminals of a variety of kinds, the borderline personality, those seeking escape inside the Church because of recent trauma in their lives - but it also helps to keep down the self-proclaimed ministers, those who claim some direct access to God's revelation and their central role in carrying out the divine directives. It isn't perfect, and it doesn't stop those with a will rather than a faith to hop around from Conference to Conference, or even denomination to denomination, seeking a clerical home (there is one perosn of whom I am aware who was turned away by no less than three conferences in his attempt to become an UMC pastor). While not flawless and accessible to manipulation, the committee process does put the focus upon the individual seeking ordination to prove, with tangible evidence, that they are deserving of the great privilege and duty and sacrifice of the title of United Methodist minister.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Why are you afraid?

Thinking about some comments on a thread on the other blog where I write led me to the whole subject of fear in our political climate. One would have thought that, with the White House fear machine pretty much plaid out, and liberals and progressives on the offensive, fear would no longer be an issue. Yet, it is. A commenter insisted that there was much to fear from Pat Robertson - his command over voters, his influence, blah, blah, blah - and I could only guess from his comments, especially in light of my thoughts on that thread, was afraid of him.
First of all, he has no constituency outside the few million (at most) viewers of his television program. The new Christian right front group, James Dobson's Focus on the Family, has replaced Robertson's now disbanded Christian Coalition (his alternative to the ACLU, the American Centerl for Law and Justice [ACLJ] is winless as far as I am aware in any major constitutional case), and Ralph Reed, the boy-faced front-man for the CC back in the '90's recently lost a bid for the Republican nomination for Lieutenant Governor in Georgia. He says a lot of crazy things - suppoprting the killing of Hugo Chaves, fo rinstance - but so what? You can't argue with him, or his followers, so there's no point in engaging in dialogue. He has neither a constituency nor a platform (although he does have an agreement with the Egyptian government to house television equipment near Mt. Sinai for exclusive coverage of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ). He is, I think, a has been, rather pathetic, but of no real political consequence.
On the larger question of fear, liberals and progressives have been running too long from the fear-mongering from the right. It is so pathetic, really, to hear Dick Cheney call Ned Lamont a George McGovern Democrat, because half the voters today have no idea who George McGovern is. The fact that he is one up in the military department on both our current President and Vice-President (he is a decorated bomber pilot from World War II, with 25 missions), and that he was right on equal rights for minorities, for women, right on Vietnam - are all pluses. Of course, McGovern is code-word for right-wingers for "crazy lefties". In truth, today, the label is irrelevant, and it was refreshing to hear the Democrats laugh at Cheney's comment, giving just the response such a line deserves.
Why should Democrats run from the their past? Why should they run from charges of weakness, of softness on terrorism, of "tax and spend"? Challenge those making such charges: Are we any safer today, after the Constitution is in tatters, and thousands of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, than we were on September 12, 2001? Where is Osama bin Laden? Tax and spend, especially when you want to fight multiplpe wars on multiple fronts, is a much better option than no tax and spend, spend, spend, true? I know Democrats are finally developing a spine and doing some of this, but some on the left still react with fear to certain names - Pat Robertson, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rover - that should be the source of derision.
We have a lot of work to do putting our country back together again, putting our country's finances back together again, putting our environment back together again, putting our relations with other nations back together again, and we cannot afford to waste time being afraid. This is our time, our moment. We are defining the political debate, its terms, its limits, what is and is not acceptable, and we have the American people behind us. It is time to jettison fear and get to work ending this nightmare in which we are currently trapped.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The War on Terrorism comes to rural Illinois

I need to get off this whole "the government has lost its mind" kick, but I have this little anecdote to report. Yesterday, a friend of ours had to enter a gated community near where we live on an errand. The rules of the community are that any guests must be called in by the person they are visiting. My own experience is that this rarely happens, and it didn't happen in this particular case. Our friend called the person, and the person called the security booth to give our friend's name to the guard. The person was not using a land line, however, but a cell phone. The guard apologized, but said that permission was still denied; the resident of the gated community had to call on the phone in the residence, because the caller ID on the guard shack phone did not recognize the cell phone being used as an authorized phone. Our friend sat and sat, the line behind got longer and longer. I am not sure whether admittance was granted or not.
Why this ridiulous level of nonsensical inanity? The community was on Code Orange like the rest of the country, and the guard was following the community procedures to prevent a terrorist attack on their little artificial lake and overpriced houses. As I have said previously, and I think this little incident reinforces my point, I am not sure we shall ever be sane again.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Old School Approaches to Terrorism

I was thinking last night of the last spurt of international terrorism the Palestinians engaged in, back in the mid-1980's. There was the comandeering of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean, and the murder of Eugene Hasenfus, quite literally wheeled overboard in his wheelchair. That was in the fall of 1984. In the summer of 1985, there was the hijacking of, I believe, an American Airlines flight, said plane flying about the southern Mediterranean, a murdered body unceremoniously dumped out a door. The plane was finally stormed by commandos and most of the hostages were freed. There was that terrible image, however, of one of the skyjackers inserting himself into the cockpit, preventing the pilot from communicating with the outside world, waving a pistol in the air, an obvious threat to the pilot's life. Finally, at Christmas time, 1985, the Rome airport was shot up by Palestinians, the gunmen being killed by Italian security, but only after the terrorists had managed to kill numerous innocents.
I was thinking about this because we didn't lose our minds at the time. This is made doubly strange because we had Ronald "I have just outlawed the Soviet Union. The missles fly in five minutes" Reagan as our President. We actually figured that there were ways of dealing with terrorism that didn't involve shredding the Constitution.
You know, things must be bad for me to yearn for the relative sanity of the Reagan years.

Second Verse, Same as the First . . .

In the movie Ghost, Patrick Swayze "haunts" Whoopi Goldberg, trying to convince her to send a message to Demi Moore. In doing so, he revived a horrible Herman's Hermits song "Henry the VIII", singing it over and over and over and over . . . She relents, of course (I would have as soon as I realized what he was up to!). I bring this up here because of comments Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff made yesterday on the Sunday talk shows, reported here and here. In the first article, it is reprted that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is actually backing off some of the restrictions, allowing up to four ounces of fluid, although a child's pacifier or other chewing help that contains liquid is still banned. He reassures us that a ban on all carry-ons is not contemplated. Yet.
Why doesn't this flunky simply admit he has no clue what he is doing? Why doesn't he come out and say, "You know, we're playing pick-up security, making it up as we go along, providing good pictures for the papers, but our collective heads are up our collective asses"? Of course, if he did that, (a) he would not only lose his job, he would be disgraced in front of the entire world; and (b) it would be a rare instance of honesty from the Bush Administration, and no one would believe him, because all that comes out of this bunch of hoodlums in Washington are lies.
More to the point, in reference to the Herman's Hermits, it is more of the same nonsense, phony security measures that perhaps reassure someone somewhere, but do nothing to protect us, and create a false sense that, since something is being done, we might be safer than if nothing were done.
The other article has Chertoff offering his opinion that we need to change our laws to give law enforcement the power to detain without probable cause, arrest without warrant, to be tougher and tougher and stronger and more manly, to fight these people over here rather than . . . wait a minute. Sorry, I thought the whole purpose of Iraq was so we didn't have to fight them over here. Also, there is this little unconstitutional piece of legislation called the PATRIOT Act that provides just that. Even declaring various provisions of it unconsitutional, and allowing others to phase out have not hindered the Bush Administration from doing these various things, and more, in violation of every constitutional, legal, and moral stricture we possess. Has Chertoff never heard of Guantanamo Bay? Of hundreds held for years, with no charges, no evidence, no nothing but the possibility that they might, possibly, in someone's mind somewhere pose a threat to the United States? What of the barely literate bunch in Florida, arrested not because they were actually capable of anything, but because they talked among themselves about possibly blowing up a building one of them might (or might not, this is still not clear) be able to find? Terrorists, arrested for thought and speech crimes. And the sorry group of entrepreneurs, arrested in Michigan because they had Trac phones in their van. Because they were Muslims, they were obviously on their way to blow up the bridge between the Upper and Lower Peninsula, right?
These clowns in Washington keep singing the same sorry song, playing on fear, offering nothing but more and more restrictions on our freedom, offering more and more death in Iraq to no known purpose, offering nothing of substance that could actually help us be more secure while still preserving our precious heritage of our constitution. We are losing ourselves. We are becoming a land strange and foreign, a land permeated by "leaders" who promote fear, and offer no solace but to throw away our bottles of water and sun-tan lotion at the airport, and the assurance that a small group of men looking to make a quick $5000 are actually cunning, dangerous terrorists bent on destruction. From Bush on down, they are pathetic, ridiculous, incompetent, ham-handed cretins, and we deserve better as our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers are dying in a war without end. We deserve better because there are real threats out there, and concentrating so much on fake ones, and on fake solutions to fake problems allows those who pose a threat time and opportunity, and more people will die, deaths preventable if Chertoff had worried less about carry-on luggage and more about real, sensible security.
"I'm Henry the eighth I am I am . . ."

UPDATE: If you look here you will see that the vigilance never ends. The item is unknown, we're not even told if it was in the cargo hold or in a carry-on, because the search includes both. If I hear or read one person say "Better safe than sorry" I swear I might lose it.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Security Courtesy of Barney Fife

I think it was Don DeLillo, the first head of the President's Faith Based Initiative who, after leaving the White House in disgust, called the team in charge in Washington "Mayberry Machiavellis", no doubt insulting both a great instance of American popular culture and one of the great political thinkers of all time. Yet, there is something to be said for this description, for it captures, in an image that is easily remembered, both the ineptitude and ruthlessness of the political machine in the White House. There are any number of examples one could give, but the recent attempts at airport security after the British broke a plot allegedly aimed at bringing down airplanes in midair offer a great synopsis of the buffoonery, and the way the buffoonery is exploited to create an atmosphere both of fear and political gain for the President.
First, it is this writer's humble opinion that the recent imposition of restrictions on certain carry-on items should be interpreted not so much as the action of an administration dedicated to American safety but a confession of a lack of any serious security policy. Rather than create policy that allows for a lively, integrated, flexible security policy that creates a balance between security and common-sense, the Bush Administration ham-handedly forces people to dump their water and perfume, sun-block and skin cream, and calls it a victory in the war on terrorism. There are intonations of vigilance and the declaration that the increased security is a necessary precaution, as the bloody shirt is waved (it should, in fact, be seen as the white flag of surrender, but that is another post for another day).
So, we have an administration that allocates more money for the anti-terrorism efforts to Indiana than to the city of New York (forgetting, of course, the entire state of New York); we have an administration the put Sen. Edward Kennedy's name on a terror watch list, preventing him from boarding a plane for several hours; we have an administration that disbanded a successful anti-terrorism unit at the National Security Council, disbanded the unit at the CIA in charge of finding Osama bin Laden (probably for abject failure), and offers business management of our ports to a principle financier of the the September 11 attacks; this same administration then touts the latest security measures as proof of its concern for our safety. The other items mentioned are not "sexy", they don't provide good sound bites nor are they grasped by most people for the failure they are because they do not effect us directly (at first). It is clear to those hundreds attempting to get on planes being asked to toss away bottles of booze and perfume that the Bush Administration is now doing something to help keep us safe.
I saw a poll that said 51% of Americans approve of the Bush Administration's security measures, and I cannot, for the life of me, understand it. We are x-rayed, our bags are opened and shuffled through, our shoes are removed, we are x-rayed again, our passports and pictures and names cross-checked against a variety of watch lists and most-wanted lists, and now we can't even take a bottle of sun tan lotion to our vacation in the Azores because we may not be who we say we are, who all the various searches and intrusions into our lives and persons make us out to be. We do security badly, and we react to threats even worse. We are, without a doubt, the most pathetic excuse for a supposedly powerful country in the world.
Before anyone asks about the costs and possible consequences of not implementing the "security measures" that have been put in place, let me just say that it is not a question of doing what the Bush Administration is doing and doing nothing at all. It is, rather, the choice of doing security well and doing it very, very badly. We have chosen the latter and will live with the consequences for many years to come. We surrender a bit of our most precious gift from our founders - our freedom from government intrusion into our lives - each time we sheepishly accept the nonsensical, and most likely ineffectual non-security measures the Bush Administration puts in place. As long as we live in fear, as long as we allow the Bush Administration to continue an atmosphere where we are afraid, as long as that fear can be exploited for political gain, we will continue down a dark and dangerous path, a path that can only lead to tragedy, unless we stop now and demand that we start over and do it all better, sanely.
Don Knotts' characterization of Barney Fife was so wonderful because he used his own physical attributes to great effect, puffing out his sunken, pigeon chest, putting a frown on those wide, thick lips, making his attempt at authority even more ludicrous because, while Knotts knew it and we knew it, Barney was unaware of just how ridiculous he looked to the rest of the world, and that such antics actually destroyed any authority he may have had. We laugh at Barney because he is the antithesis of the hero, but someone most of us are most of the time - a failed caricature, a clown who is blind to his or her own clownishness. Yet, Barney somehow managed to continue on, each failure teaching him nothing, because Barney refused to allow reality to dent the aura he had created in his own mind about who and what he was.
This would all be funny and instructive in a detached, academic sort of way if it weren't so deadly serious. Lives quite literally hang in the balance, and the balance is tipping away from us each day we scan Evian bottles and don't scan tens of thousands of shipping containers in our ports. Barney puffs his chest out as he supervises the removal of creams, lotions, and liquids from our airports while the real criminals, always ten steps ahead, move through areas not watched by TV cameras. We leave our security in the hands of those in charge in Washington at our peril; it is encumbent upon us to vote this Novemeber for a change, a change that forces scrutiny of our national security policy, foreign and domestic, and demands accountability wherever deficiencies are found. That way Barney can retire and take over the apartment building in Santa Barbara where Jack Tripper, pretending to be gay, lives with two beautiful women.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Madness is starting again

When I read the headline, I wondered what the story could possibly be about. The story itself shows that, because of a plot in Britain, we are about to lose our minds. Cell phones are used in Iraq as IEDs, so why not here in the US, right? Three Arab men with Trac phones, they must want to blow up something, right?
I think we may never be sane again.

Some Thoughts on Embryonic Stem-cell Research

Since I wrote here that it is necessary for Christian progressives to offer alternatives both to the nay-saying of the Christian right and secular progressives, I figured I had better put up or shut up. I will admit, off the bat, that I haven't really thought through many of the implications beyond certain "first principles" for lack of a better word, and anything I write here is very preliminary. Saying that, let us venture into territory bound to upset just about everyone, shall we?
First, as a principle, I do not accept the simple-minded "Christian" idea that embryonic stem-cell research is wrong because an embryo is a human life. By no stretch of the imagination can an artificially created blastocyst be considered on moral, legal, or theological grounds to a human being. While I understand this is an attempt to be consistent - it is an adherence to the principle behind the right-wing opposition to abortion - it goes to ridiculous lengths. An embryo, especially the embryos used in the research in question, are nothing but a blob of relatively undifferentiated cells. The fact that those cells that are differentiated are stem-cells is the reason the blastocysts are so sought after for research purposes. These are cells that have the ability to turn into just about anything in the human body (the point here, a point even an Aristotelian-minded Roman Catholic might appreciate is potential) and are thus the source of many possibilities.
Stem-cell research, however, is not the end of bio-technology. There are serious concerns that opening the door to therapeutic stem-cell research opens other doors - sex-selection reproduction (something that already occurs; married women have abortions because the gender of the fetus is not the one desired); pre-natal genetic therapies that could alter everything from hair color to intelligence to physical development - that have the potential to create a new stratification within society. There will be those who can afford to provide for their unborn child a variety of genetic "improvements" and those who cannot. It is dangerously close to eugenics, although much more refined in detail if not in general outline.
The integrity of the human person is part and parcel of Christian faith, both the doctrine of creation as well as Christology (God chose to become human, not a raccoon, after all), and this integrity is something with which we tinker at peril. I am not suggesting that research in a variety of bio-techonologies not go forward. As a society, we need to be cognizant of the dangers involved, all the dangers, and we need, as a society, to debate them. On the one hand, to simply insist the research not go forward, especially when such insistence is based on bad science and worse theology, serves no purpose other than the very narrow political agendas of a variety of persons. On the other hand, to insist there there are no legitimate criticisms of bio-technology research is to be myopic in the extreme; there is no technology human beings have developed that has not been used to destroy. This aspect of Christian thought, known as the doctrine of original sin, is not to be dismissed as so much medieval baggage, but needs to be in the forefront of our thought as we move forward on this front.
I am sure I have satisfied no one here, least of all myself. As I said, these are preliminary thoughts only, and I may perhaps revise or completely reject some or all of what I have written here. It is an attempt, from the prospective of a progressive who is a fiathful Christian, with a subject full of serious implications for who we are as a society.

Friday, August 11, 2006

An Illustration of Yesterday's Post to Help my Big Sister

The breaking of a terrorist plot in Britain yesterday aimed at destroying up to ten airplanes in mid-air is the gateway to a multitude of reflections. We shall restrict ourselves here to the political hay supporters and critics of the Bush Administration are making of it. In this way, we shall illustrate the power of narrative to take a complex event and use it illustratively in an on-going narrative - whichever one chooses to control how one lives and views the world - and the competing political visions that lie behind such narratives. I want to say beforehand, as a disclaimer, that while I am a serious critic of the Bush Administration, I do not subscribe to the developing progressive narrative. I view the event in and of and for itself, within a broader context of international relations, the worsening situation in the Middle East, and a whole variety of other factors it would take too long to go into here (believe it or not!). I use the narrative structures to illustrate a point, not to make one.
The President was out in force yesterday, claiming early and often (like a Chicago voter) that the arrests in Britain prove that (a) we still face a dangerous enemy bent on killing us, destroying our way of life, and forcing us to never bake apple pie again (sorry, I made that last one up; sometimes I can't help myself); and (b) it is necessary to continue doing as a nation what we are doing in the War on Terror; and (c) the effectiveness of this War in thwarting another terrorist plot.
Critics of the Bush Administration point out that (a) such a plot, and those who could conceive it, and carry it as far as they apparently did might have been thwarted before conception had the Bush Administration not wasted resources in Iraq, left Afghanistan early to pursue Iraq, and allowed Al Qaeda to continue to exist; (b) our unflinching support for the on-going Israeli war against southern Lebanon (justified or not) creates a situation where those whose support we need in thwarting such plots as this - Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, other Arab and Muslim countries - are less likely to go along with us for fear of the unrest any overt support of the US might create; (c) to maintain the status quo is a recipe not for success but for an increase in such plots and a decrease in the possibility of catching them before they reach their horrible, bloody conclusion.
Both views are not analytic points as most would think, but rather plot points in a narrative, the creator of the first being George W Bush in his State of the Union Address in 2002, with the whole "Axis of Evil" and "War against Evildoers". In this narrative, the Unites States is a target of terrorists not for discrete political acts and policies that are perceived as harmful to Muslims and others, but rather because the terrorists are evil and we are good. With this basic structure, the plot points become clear, and the structure of the argument predictable in a way that is demoralizing to those who think.
On the other hand, critics also rely on a narrative, in which the Bush Administration planned a war against Iraq before the terrorists attacks on New York and Washington, using this as an excuse to go in and conquer (the reasons behind this obsession vary, from the absurdly personal to the racist to oil; since this is a narrative and not reality, subscribing to any of these conspiracy theories is really beside the point). The continued harping - "Bush lied"; "What about tax cuts during wartime?"; the end is listless - on points that are in fact irrelevant are necessary because they provide what story analysts call "backstory", the background necessary for understanding the current unfolding of the plot. Because the bully pulpit of the critics is much smaller than that of the President, it is necessary to repeat these plot points in order to get us to where we are now.
Thus narrative takes the variety and confusion of reality and creates a structure for interpretation and understanding. As a creation of the human mind, it bears no resemblance to the reality we face, in all its confusions and contradictions. It is usually easier to grasp something if it fits into a pre-existing understanding - a narrative, an on-going story - rather than to take it as the construct of the complexities of human life, with little bearing on how we might understand it.
I wish life were a story, with a plot, a theme, heroes and villains, and all the other elements that make story such a powerful vehicle for understanding. Alas, story is used for greater udnerstanding, but it is just a tool and is no substitute, in politics, for soming to grips with the complexities of the world in which we live.

Does this help, Big Sister?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

On Narrative

Apparently, back on June 8, I used Norman Cohn's Europe's Inner Demons as a vehicle to speak against the whole idea of creating narratives. While I think the post was OK, I want to be a bit more explicit in my condemnation of the whole idea of imposing a narrative structure upon the world. My position is actually quite simple to articulate: The imposition of narrative upon reality creates a fiction, a false impression of coherence, structure, and easy comprehension that defies the reailty that our world is a jumble, a mess, often contradictory, and that understanding is a difficult task, with a variety of tools necessary to coming to grips with the complexity of the world.
Proponents of narrative often site the fact that story-telling is as old as the oldest human communities, a way to come to grips with the world. This is not so much true as it is a truism, an oversimplification of the structure and function of story as it exists within various human communities. This simplificatino is based upon a biased notion that societies less advanced technologically than our current one are "primitive", less sophisiticated, and therefore need different tools than those we employ for understanding the world. Such cultural bias is ridiculous and should be cast aside.
It is true, for example, that the Hebrew Scriptures contain a variety of relatively coherent narrative, sophisticated in both structure and content, that can be boiled down to certain themes, such as the sinfulness of humanity, the surprising power and suddenness of God's grace, and the way these two interacted in the history of God's chosen people. These stories form the basis for a much deeper theological understanding of who Israel was and how it was to live its collective life. It is this deeper theological understanding that is, to my mind, more important than the stories themselves (although the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures are far more sophisticated than a cursory reading of them would lead one to believe). The stories are just one part of how Israel understood itself to be God's chosen people, however; ritual, liturgy, law, prophetic protest, and song all formed - in my humble opinion - an equal share in the people coming to an understanding of what it meant to be an Israelite or resident of Judah.
Having said that, it is also important to remember that we have other tools, and live in a time when these tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated, to help us come to grips with what it means to be an American, an Iraqi, a Christian, or whatever identity we may choose for ourselves. These tools include, but are not limited to, history, sociology, politicl science, theology, philosophy, and even cultural anthropology, and cultural studies generally. It is the cult of the expert, that ridiculous idea that one must have an advanced degree in some specialized area of knowledge that prevents a more general appreciation of these tools for communal self-understanding. It is the greater fiction of the idea of narrative that the results of these tools must have some kind of coherence in order to be comprehensible.
Our world is complex, occasionally terrifying, usually more messed up than we could ever guess, and even, once in a while, a place of hope and joy and beauty. To reduce these elements to a false coherence forces us to leave behind this jumble, that can exist all at once in the same place, and appreciate the power of reality in its complexity.
This is, perhaps, the view of an aesthetic, someone who would rather see and comprehend a whole, rather than analyze all the different parts. It is the difference between the illustrator of a physiology textbook and the painter of human figures. There is a certain truth to this, I think, but only because we have forgotten that art, in all its power, is a window to wonder, and wonder, as the ancient philosophers knew, was the springboard for understanding. Along with true understanding came wisdom, and wisdom is the acceptance of limits to our understanding. This is all part and parcel of my distaste for narrative, which attempts not only coherence, but wholeness that simply does not exist. I wonder at all I will never know, or even understand, and try and try to grasp just a bit more while I still can, and I never for one second believe that I live, or any of us live, within some story. Reality is much better than any story we could tell about it.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Christians and the State of Israel

You know, for someone who claimed he hated to write about Israel, I certainly am spending quite a bit of time writing about the subject. The current focus is on the strange marriage of convenience between Zionists and various shades of Christians who support the current nation-state of Israel. I find such a marriage interesting because the Christians who enthusiastically support the existence of Israel, and its viability in the face of a hostile regional situation, do so for reasons that are more theological than they are political or social. They see the establishment of the modern nation-state of Israel as a key in various apocalyptic and chiliastic interpretations of the Bible, culminating in the return of Jesus, the final battle with Satan, and the establishment of the heavenly kingdom on earth. What is most irnoic, if one can call it that, is that these same Christians, so enthusiastic in their support of Israel, would doom all Jews, along with most of the rest of humanity, to eternal perdition if they fail to bow before the returned Jesus as the true Messiah and Savior of humanity. Thus it is that Israel serves a functional purpose in a strange prophetic timetable, only to be destroyed along with the rest of the world in the final conflagration to come.
Similarly, these same Christians demand of Israel the right of Christian missionaries to proselytize there, because, of course, the Jews and Muslims who live within its borders are adherents to what these people believe are a false religion, and as such are living outside God's grace. Thus, they support Israel's existence and right to self-defense without question because that serves a theological purpose, yet they insist that Israel needs to change its character as a homeland for the Jewish people because, as such, they are doomed to eternal hell-fire.
I cannot understand why either Americans or Israelis who are die-hard in their support of Israel tolerate the support of these folks. Honestly. Left-wing critics of certain Israeli politics, including left-wing Christian groups, are accused of anti-Semitism, yet (while I can only speak for myself, of course), I would insist that the Jews, Muslims, and non-Chalcedonian Christians (Syriac, Coptic, Marionite) who live within its borders and have done so for centuries should do so unmolested by the religious zealots who see Israel not as a modern nation-state, but as part of some grand theological drama to which they are privy, and in which they play starring roles. It is an insult to the Jewish people that these people see them as mere puppets on divine strings, said strings destined to be cut, leaving them to fall helplessly (in their rather sordid, and completely misguided interpretation) into the pit of fire. Yet, because it is support that is unquestioning, it is welcomed, while more thoughtful people, who do not hold those of other faiths in contempt, are called anti-Semitic.
It wasn't the UCC, the Presbyterians, the United Methodists, the Lutherans, or even the Roman Catholics who declared that God does not hear the prayer of "a Jew". That was the moderator of the 1980 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. These same folks are welcomed with open arms by Israeli dignitaries. Where's the outrage against them? Why are labels thrown around so carelessly? Why are people so blinded by - what? ideology? an emotional attachment to a nation reborn, offering hope to an oppressed people to live as people, not a minority, despised and living under constant threat because of their religious faith? - whatever the pull Israel has to Zionists in America and Israel that they cannot see that the marriage of convenience in which they exist is one where they are held in nothing but contempt by their current spouse?
Perhaps I am naive, but I thought people acted in their own best interests, and I see nothing good for Israel coming from the current political alliance of conservative Christians and supporters of Israel.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

History and Therapy

In an earlier post, "Trying to be profound and getting it all wrong" (or whatever it is), a commenter wrote that he did not see the Enlightenment as a contributing factor in social ills, but rather what he called a "pathology". I find such a comment interesting because it implies that there is a norm across time and space and culture against which human social and political action can be guaged. That outside is, thus, pathological. It also implies a superior vantage point; we, of course, exist within the "norm" and are thus quite capable of calling societies that engage in genocide, mass murder, religious persecution and discrimination, and other such actions as "sick".
Alas, I do not subscribe to such a view. I am not a fan of the therapeutic model applied to society and politics, because it excuses great evil. We all know that seriously mentally ill individuals are not responsible for their actions in the same way, or at least to the same extent, that mentally healthy individuals are. If we say that the Terror, or the Khmer Rouge are pthologies, we can excuse great evil because those involved are caught up in some mass social mental illness. I would rather call them evil, thus fully responsible for the deeds they have committed. It is really that simple.
Finally, to call some societies pathological, to subscribe in general to a therapeutic view of society and politics, implies that there might actually be a cure for the pathologies in question. Again, what cure is there? We cannot educate ourselves to a better world, we cannot Americanize ourselves to a better world. We cannot, alas, Christianize our world to a better world. All we can do is keep trying, together, and count each little victory as it comes. There is no comfort, not even cold comfort, in a view that ascribes to human evil the term "pathology" because the search for a cure will divert us from acting to really make our world a bit better.

While I was away . . .

Amazingly, while I was on a bit of a hiatus, I have received quite a bit of atention. First, someone, posting under another person's name, posted a copy of a letter from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to my thread criticizing Alan Dershowitz. Apparently, no criticism of Israel is allowed, even from a temporarily inactive blog. Second, i've been getting all sorts of traffic and invites to different blog rolls, etc. It's nice to be noticed.
Tomorrow is do or die day in Connecticut. If Lieberman wins, will Kos shut up? If Lamont wins, will Lieberman shut up? There are the pressing questions everyone wants to have answers to.
Finally, I hope to be posting a bit more regularly now, although perhaps not three times a day.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Some Thoughts on Smoking

This is outside the general purvue of this blog, but I was asked recently by a European concerning the American attitude towards smokers. While this person is a physician and is well aware of the physical damage smoking does, this person does not see the issue as a social question. This person even used the word "segregation" to describe our general treatment of smokers. While smokers are increasingly treated as pariahs, with localities enacting stricter non-smoking ordinances, the word "segregation" has such horrid connotations from American history that I cannot countenance its use in describing the way smokers are treated.
That does not mean that there is not a social dimension to the issue of smoking. I was asked, specifically, if I felt the increasingly intolerant attitude towards smokers was rooted in public health concerns or economic concerns. Actually, I believe them to be rooted in both, and to try and separate them implies that we can cordon off a part of our life from society.
Smoking is the leading cause of heart disease and a variety of cancers, especially lung cancer, and a contributing factor in prostate cancer in men and uterine and breast cancer in women. As such, smokers incur costs that are passed on to the rest of us through higher taxes due to increased Medicare costs. Private health insurance companies can discriminate between smokers and non- in setting reates for policy-holders; the federal government cannot, and rather makes us pay for the destructive habits of others. In an era where the population is aging, and Medicare is taking a larger part of a shrinking federal budget, a government policy that is discourages smoking as much as possible benefits everyone. It is smart economics, smart public health policy, and smart way of creating a different budget environment in future years.
The libertarian argument that smokers damage no one but themselves is simply untrue, as the health effects of second-hand smoke are now well-enough documented to be beyond serious dispute. Thus, a public policy geared towards protecting the health of non-smokers from the effects of second-hand smoke fits in with the above consideratioins as well.
I cannot say if this answers the person's questions concerning American attitudes towards smoke and its social costs. I'm not even sure if the policy is as thought-out as it is here; there are the general arguments used, however, to describe the background to the policies in question.

Friday, August 04, 2006

An Analogy

Suppose that a group opposing Mexican immigration, tired of a lack of policy on the part of the federal government, decided to take matters into their own hands, and used armed force to deter illegal Mexican immigration. Suppose that the group, emboldened by a lack of serious deterrent on the part of state and federal law enforcement, and a show of vocal support by at least a plurality of the American people, decided to make an armed incursion into Mexico, resulting in the deaths of Mexican civilians. The Mexican authorities protest, but the federal government continues to do nothing, frightened by the support the group receives from a sizeable segment of the American people. The gorup continues to act, in defiance of federal and state law, and numerous Mexican citizens are killed.
Mexico, tired of the lack of any positive action, and aware of the at least general location of the bulk of these Americans, engages in military action to prevent the attacks on its citizens. Would the US government say to the Mexicans, "You know, you're right, these guys are nothing but terrorists. Go ahead, invade our sovereign territory, kill numerous innocent civilians as you try to end these incursions into your territory. We'll help you, in fact."
This analogy, imperfect as all analogies are, is my response to supporters of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon who "wonder" why the Lebanese government doesn't "do something about Hezbollah".