Friday, June 29, 2012

Holy Uncircumcised Penises, Batman!

Germany has become the first country (to my knowledge) to outlaw religious circumcision. While many countries have made cosmetic circumcision of children illegal, a court in Germany now says that religion is no longer a valid excuse:

Circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounts to grievous bodily harm, a German court ruled Tuesday in a landmark decision that the Jewish community said trampled on parents' religious rights.

The regional court in Cologne, western Germany, ruled that the "fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents", a judgement that is expected to set a legal precedent.

"The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised," the court added.

The fact that roughly one in every three males born into the world is circumcised in a practice which has been carried out continuously since the dawn of recorded history didn't seem to bother the German judiciary. After all, we are entering a brave new world, one that can put behind it the ways of life in the backwoods parts of the world where circumcision is still prevalent: Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Israel, Canada, the United States, and Australia. Thankfully, we have Germany to lead the way, standing on the cutting edge of oppressing Jews for nearly a century now. (I'm sorry. It was just too easy.)

This, it would appear, is what societies get when law and ethics become reducible to questions of conflicting theoretical rights. Being neither a Muslim nor a Jew and living in a country which permits circumcision with broad latitude, I don't really have a dog in this fight, except for my ideological consternation when I see courts ruling in favor of self-determination for infants. Because a baby has a right to a foreskin, a right which supersedes a mandate from G-d or Allah. That works if you're a secular court in Germany because you can touch a foreskin and you can't touch God, but that logic won't fly with the billions of unenlightened people in the world who think that the commands of their respective deities hold real weight.

The idea of self-determination for infants is, pragmatically, nonsensical. We recognize that infants require guidance and support in every area of life but at the same time pretend that parents ought to be raising them in a political, ideological, and religious void. Says the court: "The body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision. This change contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs." Ignore for a moment the fact that the absence of a foreskin does not actually prevent little Fritz von Spielberg from growing up to be good secular humanist like every other European millennial and imagine what this self-deluded ideology of neutral child-rearing and apotheosis of choice looks like in practice. In the words of Stephen Prothero, "This is foolhardy, not unlike saying that you will not read anything to your daughter because you don’t want to enslave her to any one language."

It is the right, or more precisely the duty, of every parent to raise each child in the way the parent believes is best for its health and safety temporal and eternal. Democrats can raise little Democrats. Republicans can raise little Republicans. Sooner fans can raise little Sooner fans, and the children of Longhorn fans will continue to thumb their noses at them every fall at the state fair. More importantly, Christians can raise little Christians and would be rather perturbed to find a court somewhere ruling that baptism prior to eighteen "contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs."

And Jews and Muslims ought to be able to raise their children up in the way they should go. That includes performing the defining and foundational right, at least in Judaism, on their children. Unfortunately, the Germans don't seem to agree, and who better than the German courts to decide for Jews and Muslims what unacceptably compromises their religious beliefs.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Children's Bible Commentary

Here's an amusing anecdote relayed by Theodore Roosevelt in a letter to Emily Carow in 1900. It's an adorable look into the mind of a child, perhaps the most astute and convicting hermeneutical tool available in Christianity--adorable, that is, if you can overlook references to the racist archetype:

The other day I listened to a most amusing dialogue at the Bible lesson between Kermit and Ethel. The subject was Joseph, and just before reading it they had been reading Quentin's book containing the adventures of the Gollywogs. Joseph's conduct in repeating his dream to his brothers, whom it was certain to irritate, had struck both of the children unfavorably, as conflicting both with the laws of common-sense and with the advice given them by their parents as to the proper method of dealing with their own brothers and sisters. Kermit said: "Well, I think that was very foolish of Joseph." Ethel chimed in with "So do I, very foolish, and I do not understand how he could have done it." Then, after a pause, Kermit added thoughtfully by way of explanation: "Well, I guess he was simple, like Jane in the Gollywogs": and Ethel nodded gravely in confirmation.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Meanwhile, in Africa

There have been plenty of well-documented reasons to temper global enthusiasm about the Arab Spring, and the precarious state of the Egyptian church is high among them. Now, with a recently resigned member of the Muslim Brotherhood as Egypt's first freely elected president in modern history, Coptic Christians react:

"Between ourselves (as Christians) we say we are for (Morsi's opponent Ahmed) Shafiq, but we cannot mention this publicly," said Father Yu'annis, a priest of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Upper Egypt. "But as a church we say — and believe — that we will accept who God gives us and work for the good of Egypt. Many people are afraid now and are thinking of emigrating. But Egypt is a country of rumors, and if not for these we would all be fine."

Meanwhile, the religious strife in Nigeria only seems to be getting worse, with whole states going into lockdown and Christians staying locked safely in their homes on Sunday mornings.

Worried by the threat by Boko Haram to make June the bloodiest in the history of its attacks, most Christians Sunday stayed away from churches in the Northern parts of the country, especially in Kaduna, Kano, Jos and many other cities.

In recent weeks, Christians have been serially attacked in their churches during worship services by the Islamic insurgents, Boko Haram. In Kaduna State, for instance, three churches-two in Kaduna and one in Zaria - were bombed penultimate Sunday, resulting in the death of 92 people in the tit-for-tat reprisals between Muslims and Christians, a situation that has resulted in a lockdown in the state. Prior to the Kaduna suicide bombings, churches in Bauchi and Jos were attacked for two consecutive Sundays in a row.

In several churches in Abuja yesterday, worshippers were few and visibly jittery owing to the threat by Boko Haram to start a religious conflagration.

Anthonia Eke, who spoke to Reuters, said she is trusting God to end an Islamist insurgency in Northern Nigeria but won't be praying in church any more, after a string of bombs at Sunday services. "We are still traumatised over the attacks and have no intention to attend church service until total peace and normalcy are restored," Eke said in Kano. "God understands our situation here so we have decided to pray at home. Only he can end this pain."

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Genovese on the Difference Between North and South

Here are an interesting pair of quotes from Eugene Genovese on the historic and enduring differences between the culture of the American North and the American South. They probably each warrant entries of their own with attendant commentary, but--as is the case with other great thinkers, like David Bentley Hart--I find that Genovese's thought is often more compelling when allowed to simply speak in an annotative void:

There nonetheless remains a fundamental difference between northern and southern versions of religious tolerance. In the North people are wont to say, “You worship God in your way, and we’ll worship him in ours.” This delightful formulation says, in effect, that since religion is of little consequence anyway, why argue? In contrast, the southern version, well expressed in an old joke, says: “You worship God in your way, and we’ll worship him in His.” From the early days of the Republic, when the Baptists led the fight for religious freedom and the separation of church and state, white southerners have done rather well in living together with mutual respect and tolerance for each other’s religious views. Always reminding themselves of human frailty, they are perfectly tolerant of some damned fool’s right to choose eternal damnation. But they are not about to pretend that they regard another’s religion as intrinsically equal to their own.

“Prejudice,” like “discrimination” and “tradition,” is a positive word in the southern lexicon, much as it is a dirty word in the liberal lexicon that prevails in academia…It rests upon a belief in an omnipotent God who necessarily can only be approached through a faith that requires community-grounded prejudices and apparently nonscientific modes of discrimination. This viewpoint warns against the unforeseen and often destructive results of social experiments that derive from an appeal to abstract reason—in effect, to ideological constructs. We might recall, for example, that “reason” in the guise of the most advanced scientific thought contributed to the pernicious triumph of racist thought in the nineteenth century. The religiously orthodox Old South, in contradistinction to the religiously liberal Northeast, stood on its prejudice in favor of a literal reading of the Bible’s account of the monogenesis of the human race and rejected scientific racism. Generally, this view of prejudice says that a community’s historically developed sense of right and wrong should be permitted to defy the latest fashions in reasoned speculation until they are empirically established.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Turning the Other Cheek; Blessing Those Who Persecute You

Or not:

Suspected Islamic militants bombed worshipers at three Christian churches on Sunday in northern Nigeria, killing some 23 people. Frustrated with the government's inability to stop a string of such attacks in recent months, some Christians responded today with reprisals, killing at least 7 more people.

More than 150 people, mostly Christians, have been injured from today's violence. Police have not confirmed casualty figures, which are tallies from hospital officials.

In 2012 alone, more than 10 Christian churches have been attacked in Nigeria. Boko Haram, a militant Islamic sect, has claimed responsibility for some of these attacks, including attacks on two churches last Sunday...

The explosions sparked violence in Kaduna as Christian youths retaliated, moving around with cutlasses and sticks among other weapons. The youths burned one mosque and broke into and vandalized another.

About 35 victims of the reprisal attacks have been taken to St. Gerard's Hospital, according to the hospital's public relations officer. Seven of them were dead on arrival, burned by their presumed assailants.

This, unfortunately fails both the test of pragmatism and idealism, something noted by a local analyst:

"The reprisal attack is wrong because the solution to the country's insecurity is by ensuring dialogue with the sect members who are attacking the Christians and even Muslims," says Ignatius Kasuwa, an analyst from Kaduna state, the scene of today's church attacks.

Mr. Kasuwa also appealed to the government to immediately overcome the issue of insecurity in the country, stressing that "Muslims and Christians worship God but reprisal is against the teaching of the two religions."

Perhaps even more unfortunately, all of this was entirely foreseen. The church in Nigeria has suffered terrible atrocities, the like of which I have no direct analog in my personal experience (nor do most Westerners), and so it is important to note that the above is not intended to be a statement of judgment against the Nigerians. It is meant to be an expression of hope that my brothers and sisters who have the opportunity to glorify God by participating in the sufferings of Jesus and bearing admirably the weight of persecution will take the opportunity afforded by global attention to be a light to the world, shining forth the humble, powerful, indomitable spirit of the faith.

Monday, June 18, 2012


Once upon a time, I believed reaching one hundred posts was a momentous occasion, one so memorable that I would want to do something, for myself, to mark it. The commemoration has become a personal tradition, and so, on this my four hundredth post, I offer you once again my favorite ten quotes from the previous ninety-nine posts.

10) An interview on Talking Philosophy with Alain de Botton proved to be my most interesting interaction with any atheist thinkers in the past hundred posts. His thoughts pointed to dangers in atheistic thinking and proposed, in deliberate critique of New Atheists, various senses in which religion was a good thing, even as an atheist. From Leading Atheist on What's Wrong with Atheism:
Attempting to prove the non-existence of god can be entertaining...Though this exercise has its satisfactions, the real issue is not whether god exists or not, but where one takes the argument to once one decides that he evidently doesn’t. The premise of my book is that it must be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless to find religions sporadically useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain of their ideas and practices into the secular realm.
9) I am deeply enamored of the thought of Eugene Genovese, a fact which will probably become evident over the next few weeks. In a criticism of southern support for American imperialism, I quoted Genovese, among others, to demonstrate the hypocrisy of Imperialism in the Imperialized South:
The history of the Old South is now often taught at leading universities, when it is taught at all, as a prolonged guilt-trip, not to say a prologue to the history of Nazi Germany...To speak positively about any part of this southern tradition is to invite charges of being a racist and an apologist for slavery and segregation. We are witnessing a cultural and political atrocity - an increasingly successful campaign by the media and an academic elite to strip young white southerners and arguably black southerners as well, of their heritage, and, therefore, their identity.
8) Of the critical series I have written in this cycle, the one I most enjoyed researching and producing was my exposition of complementarianism in response to Roger Olson. The great quote, on the other hand, likely came from the Founding Father's series. In Illusions of Innocence, I applied Richard T. Hughes and Leonerd Allen's thesis about primitivism in American Protestantism and applied it to American political primitivism. To conclude, I quoted their evaluation of Roger Williams primitivist thought, a historically unsustainable but ideologically more appealing variety:
For Williams, the radical finitude of human existence, entailing inevitable failures in understanding and action, makes restoration of necessity an open-ended concept. The absolute, universal ideal existed for Williams without question. But the gap between the universal and the particular, between the absolute and the finite, was so great that it precluded any one-on-one identification of the particular with the universal...the best one could do was approximate the universal, an approximation that occurred only through a diligent search for truth.
7) Though most of the series on Christianity and Jain occurred earlier, the day after the three hundredth post, I added to the comparative study Christ, Jain, and Mutual Forgiveness. Here is some wisdom from Mahavira on the subject:
If, during the retreat, among monks or nuns occurs a quarrel or dispute or dissension, the young monk should ask forgiveness of the superior, and the superior of the young monk. They should forgive and ask forgiveness, appease and be appeased, and converse without restraint.
6) Long overdue, I finally shared a selection of quotes in The Wisdom of the Pilgrim connecting my longstanding love of fourteenth century hesychasm with a more recent text:
[O]ne of the most lamentable things is the vanity of elementary knowledge which drives people to measure the Divine by a human yardstick.
5) For Easter--that is East Easter not West Easter--I shared a few notes from the Ecumenical Patriarch about the meaning of life in Christ made possible by his death and resurrection and the destructive attempts of people to secure life apart from him. From Christos Anesti!:
There is no need for some nations to be destroyed in order for other nations to survive. Nor is there any need to destroy defenseless human lives so that other human beings may live in greater comfort. Christ offers life to all people, on earth as in heaven. He is risen, and all those who so desire life may follow Him on the way of Resurrection. By contrast, all those who bring about death, whether indirectly or directly, believing that in this way they are prolonging or enhancing their own life, condemn themselves to eternal death.
4) Buried deep in the recesses of a response to a Fox News article, Invade Iran (et al) for Christ!, is perhaps one of my favorite short quotes from any of the early church fathers. Here is Justin Martyr's response to persecution:
You can kill us, but you can't hurt us.
3) Of all the wonderful cow stories--and I had options this time around--that have been shared here throughout the years, none had me more excited than finding an archival story about Grady, the cow who got stuck in a silo and captured the imagination of a nation. On This Day in Cow History celebrated her generations old story, and its very happy ending:
What's in store for Grady? "Well, I believe she's earned peace and quiet the rest of her life," Mach [her owner] said. "She's had more excitement than most cows."
2) My commentary on J. W. McGarvey's sermons offered throughout the month of his birth was littered with excellent quotes. McGarvey was, however, perhaps most poetic and profound when he recorded his thoughts On Prayer:
If God was a God who did not hear our prayers, or care anything about our prayers, He might as well be made of ice. He is a living God; a God who has friends, and loves His friends; and this is the reason that He will do something for them when they cry to Him. Don't think of God as mere abstraction, or as a being who keeps Himself beyond the sky; but think of Him as one who lives with you, who is round about you, who lays His hand under your head when you lie down to rest. So in praying, pray with the confidence of little children...Pray in the morning; pray at the noontide; pray when you lie down to sleep…Pray often; pray earnestly; and in order that your prayer may amount to anything, be righteous men and women.
1) The Anarchy in May series is perhaps the most fun I have ever had here, and selecting a single quote from a month of my favorite thinkers is exceedingly difficult. More than anything, this selection from Tolstoy on Moral Culpability, is appropriate because of Tolstoy's preeminent place in the history of anarchism:
[W]e are responsible for our own misdeeds. And the misdeeds of our rulers become our own, if we, knowing that they are misdeeds, assist in carrying, them out. Those who suppose that they are bound to obey the government, and that the responsibility for the misdeeds they commit is transferred from them to their rulers, deceive themselves.
I can only hope that the next hundred posts flow as easily and are as much fun to write as the last hundred were.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fred Gray Gets Honorary Doctorate

That's not interesting in itself. What makes it a bit more intriguing is that Gray received the doctorate from a university he had sued during his years as a civil rights attorney. Lipscomb's gesture is apparently part of a broader effort at racial reconciliation that has landed the Churches of Christ in a USA Today article:

Whenever legendary civil rights lawyer Fred Gray comes to Nashville, Tenn., he drops by the intersection of 24th and Batavia.

That spot was once home to the Nashville Christian Institute, a K-12 school for African-American members of the Churches of Christ once banned from Lipscomb University and other Church of Christ schools.

Long closed, the school is never far from Gray's mind. The man who once represented Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. paid tribute to it during a recent ceremony at which he received an honorary doctorate from Lipscomb — an institution that he once sued over its racial policies...

In the 1940s and 1950s, there was some interaction between black and white Churches of Christ, because of Nashville preacher Marshall Keeble.

The dynamic evangelist was one of few African-Americans welcomed at white Churches of Christ. He often convinced those congregations to donate funds to the Nashville Christian Institute — known to alumni as NCI — where he was president from 1942 to 1958.

Things changed in 1967, when the NCI board of directors closed the school amid dwindling enrollment and gave all its assets to Lipscomb.

Gray and other alumni sued, saying Lipscomb was hostile to African-Americans. They lost in court. But the case — and Keeble's death in 1968 — marked a further split between blacks and whites.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Step Aside, Miss Cleo

We've been following the meteoric rise to fame of Yvonne the Cow from the very beginning, including her movie deal. Now she has been entrusted with the important task of predicting the results of Euro 2012 games:

Yvonne the runaway cow has made an unpopular start to her career as successor to Paul the psychic octopus by predicting that Germany will lose to Portugal on Saturday night.

Germany has been in mourning since the demise in 2010 of Paul, who became an international star two years ago after successfully predicting the outcomes of World Cup games, and a Bavarian radio station has decided to turn to Yvonne for guidance.

Unfortunately for Yvonne, though nice for the Germans, Portugal ended up losing the match which took place last Saturday. There are really only two explanations: either Yvonne isn't psychic or Germany, fearful of her predictive prowess, cheated in order win the match. I'll let you guess what I think.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt

Quoted in Edmund Morris' Theodore Rex, consider Roosevelt's thoughts on the role of the presidency given in response to a report who suggested he work to nationalize the American rail system:

Here is the thing you must bear in mind. I do not represent public opinion. I represent the public. There is a wide difference between the two, between the real interests of the public and the public's opinion of these interests. I must represent not the excited opinion of the West but the real interests of the whole people.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In case you weren't paying attention yet...

The bombing by a Muslim faction in Nigeria of a church not long ago was overshadowed, understandably, by the disastrous plane crash in Lagos. Unfortunately, the plane crash was an isolated accident. The anti-Christian violence in Nigeria continues:

It was another bloody Sunday yesterday. No fewer than seven persons died — many were injured — in attacks on two churches during service...

In Jos, the Plateau State capital, yesterday’s suicide attack was the third on worshippers since January.

The second attack was at the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria in Biu, 180 kilometres to Maiduguri, the Borno State capital...

Over 50 worshippers have been killed in the three attacks on churches so far.

Source said the original target of the suicide bombers was ECWA Church located about 50 meters away from CCCG, but there was a security check point before their target. The bombers diverted the explosives to the CCCG Church. The explosives, apparently, was timed.

The church building came down on about 200 worshippers.

The Nation article reports that no one had yet taken responsibility for the bombings, but later reports have attributed these once again to the terrorist Muslim group Boko Haram. The most disturbing part, as far as I'm concerned, is the response of certain Christian youths who met violence with violence by assaulting a group of Muslims. Among other things, the church in Nigeria needs prayers for resolve to meet persecution in the spirit of Christian love.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Jesus, Nuns, and the Margins of Society

I recently commented on the foolishness of reading misogyny into the Vatican criticism of Margaret Farley's defense of homosexuality, masturbation, and divorce. The Vatican having age-old positions on these questions, Farley's sex would have no bearing on their judgment. It is a smokescreen--intended or not--to try to throw sexism into an issue that has been decided for centuries just because the present dissenters happen to be women.

In the article I linked to, the writer referenced critics but made little attempt to name them. Since posting, critics have been coming out of the proverbial woodwork to defend Farley and other nuns against Vatican censure. One prominent monastic, Sister Simone Campbell of the lobbying group NETWORK, went on to Stephen Colbert's show last night in order to say her piece with Colbert as her farcical foil. During the course of their discussion, Colbert asked her to admit that she wasn't socially conservative enough. She responded:

Actually, what I’ll admit is that we’re faithful to the Gospel. We work every day to live as Jesus did in relationship with people at the margins of our society. That’s all we do.

Colbert retorted, tongue firmly in cheek, that it was unfair to play the Jesus card and that he couldn't debate the Bible with a nun. Luckily I have no such compunctions. What Sister Campbell claims to be doing is the Gospel. There really can be no argument about that. Jesus did live his daily life among the socially marginal, forming relationships and working for their benefit. Unfortunately, her contention that this is "all we do" is misleading. The Vatican is not complaining that the nuns are ministering to or forming relationships with homosexuals, divorcees, and other arguably marginal groups. The problem is that they are endorsing morally marginal behaviors.

It is necessary to remember Jesus' stated motivation for being among sinners: it's the sick who need a doctor. Jesus solution to morally marginal behavior was not to expand what was morally permissible but to rehabilitate sinners (a grace of which we are all recipients). When Christ steps in to defend the woman caught in adultery, apocryphal though the story may be, he does tell her "neither do I condemn you" but he concludes with the admonition "go and sin no more." It is critical in this discussion to realize that keeping the commands of love and forgiveness do not translate into a fluid morality.

That's the fundamental problem when people--take Carrie Underwood for example--try to say that their Christianity made them endorse homosexuality. It is possible, because people have done it, to make a number of reasoned (though I think fatally flawed) arguments that homosexuality is consistent with the Scriptures and the broader Christian ethos, though obviously not with the traditional testimony of the church universal. Stating matter-of-factly, however, that God wants everyone to love everyone ergo gay marriage is moral misunderstands love just as much as Sister Campbell misunderstands relationship. The question of whether or not gay marriage is morally permissible is distinct from whether or not we should love homosexuals or establish relationships with them.

I, of course, have opinions on both issues which coincide neither with Sister Campbell nor Stephen Colbert's caricatured conservative. But those aren't really the point. The point is that the unthinking appeal to Jesus and the Gospel like a political slogan by both sides is shameful and, more importantly, unproductive. Jesus does not belong to a modern political party--just like he didn't belong to an ancient political faction--and the suggestion that Christianity endorses political positions is repugnant. At the very least, however, we should realize that God does not recognize the lines that we draw. Social liberals and social conservatives need to realize that they can both be Christians--flawed, finite, wrong more often than they're not Christians. When the Vatican says to its ecclesiastical subordinates, "You're not teaching what we believe" that is not sexism and it is not infidelity to the Gospel. It is a statement of fact. Meanwhile, when Sister Campbell says "We're faithful to the Gospel...that's all we do" it has all the grandiosity characteristic of self-delusion and unintentional falsehood.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Quantifying Christianity?

Are you really a Christian? I mean, really. You may answer yes, but Changing the Face of Christianity reserves the right to disagree. They have constructed this very scientific quiz to determine just who makes the grade and who doesn't. (Though, rest assured, "This index is not intended to pass judgment on you. Instead, use it as a gauge of how well you reflect Jesus Christ both internally and externally.") There are four categories of classification: far from Christ, worldly Christian, good Christian, and spiritually mature. I am ashamed to admit--so deeply, deeply ashamed--that, upon completing rigorous ten question assessment, I just barely made the cut for "good Christians."

Now normally I am a wise enough person not to put much stock in the results of online quizzes. (I lost all faith after Quibblo told me I was a Ron when I am clearly a Hermione...a very manly Hermione.) Unfortunately, however, this quiz seems to actually be making news--or at least popping up regularly in my news feed from a variety of sources--with its claim that one out of every three professed Christians in America actually falls into "worldly Christian" or below category. According to Changing the Face of Christianity founder R. Brad White, people in this group have admitted through his test that "they rarely live the teachings of Jesus Christ."

Of course, the biggest problem with this project is the nonsensical idea that one can quantify Christianity on a multiple choice quiz. Perhaps in an age when there were fixed, catholic formulas for orthodoxy (and such an age exists only in the ignorant imaginations of nostalgic minds) that sort of cut-and-dry ten question litmus test might fly, but who is and isn't a Christian becomes much more difficult in the real world. What we have today, and have always had, is more of an ethical sampler platter where we can all identify Christian positions and non-Christian positions, but for the most part we can also all recognize that there is a tremendous field of uncertainty where confident categories cannot be widely agreed upon.

Consider this example, the first question on the quiz:

1. When someone recklessly cuts you off in traffic, do you:
  • Say or "gesture" angrily at the other driver
  • Not get angry, but think about what COULD have happened to you and your passengers
  • Thank God you weren't hurt, and pray for the safety of other drivers
  • Control your tongue/temper, but think angry thoughts

I'll go ahead and admit that as often as not what I actually do is the fourth option. What I strive for, given the options presented, is the second answer. I think it is probable, though they do not offer an answer sheet for those who have completed the test, that the "correct" answer is to thank God and pray for the safety of other drivers. Perhaps someone would like to explain to me how someone's spiritual maturity can be called into question because they do not pray for the safety of drivers whenever they get cut off. If we want to talk about living the teachings of Jesus, what he taught us to do is to go into a closet and pray privately. He lived a marvelous example of that in that most (arguably all) of the Gospel references to Jesus praying involve him going off alone to do it somewhere in private. Now if someone, say perhaps me, were to believe that prayer is a more serious matter demanding more gravitas than a few rote words muttered from behind the wheel or that being innocent as doves and shrewd as vipers allows someone to refuse anger and still be cognizant of the dangers presented by reckless driving, such a person might grade the quiz differently, declaring that those who pray every time they're cut off are good but not great Christians. Of course, I would never make a test.

It is possible, of course, that I have improperly inferred the intent of the test creators. Maybe option two really is the "right" one and option three is one of the stereotypes they are trying to combat. Even if that's the case though, the point still stands, because for everyone one who thinks that two is a better answer than three, there are those who think that true Christianity consists in constant, altruistic prayer. And therein lies the main problem with trying to quantify a population's Christianity.

There are of course other problems. The second question highlights it, asking how often you read your Bible but giving no indication of the portion of Jesus' teachings in which he commands Bible reading. After all, how could he, the Gospels not having yet been written during his earthly lifetime? I haven't read my Bible today. I don't think I read it yesterday or the day before. I'd like to believe that doesn't negatively reflect the strength of my faith or on my conformity to Christian ethics. That isn't to say that Bible reading is worthless. It isn't. It isn't to say I'm entirely satisfied with the amount of time I spend refreshing my memory about the teachings of Christ. I'm not. It is to say that cracking the spine of your Bible is not a magical means to faith nor is it a measure of faith. If I don't read it "Throughout the day, only missing occasionally," it isn't because I'm not living the teachings of Christ. In fact, I wonder how someone who spends so much time reading the Gospel has any time to live it at all.

There are innumerable problems with the quiz presented, but one more merits mention. The good people at Changing the Face of Christianity ask test takers how much time they spend worrying, with the implication being that worry (according to Matthew 7) is something Christians are commanded not to do. That's true, of course. The perfect Christian (perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect Christian) does not worry. Yet, the presence of worry does not necessarily indicate spiritual immaturity, in less you take that in an absolute and therefore meaningless sense. Think of the heroes of faith, the biblical characters that I hope R. Brad White wouldn't think of calling anything but spiritually mature, who have worried about the mundane things of life, doubted providence, and argued with God. One might even say that there is worry--or, if you prefer, anxiety--present in the garden when Jesus is praying (off alone, at a distance from his disciples *wink wink*). Later, the testers ask how often you do things privately of which you might be ashamed. Paul, who thinks himself mature enough to comment on the spiritual maturity of others, admits struggles against the baser instincts of his own flesh. Our inclination to hagiographical excess to one side, it is perhaps time we all admitted out loud that, recorded or not, it is safe to assume that our biblical heroes all sinned, even after they were redeemed in Christ.

Here we come back to an essential problem, one perhaps even more foundational than our own ethical uncertainty and tendency toward qualified pluralism. The very attempt to classify Christians in this way fundamentally misunderstands the sanctification process. Our lives are not about achieving a state of spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity is the carrot dangled in front of us which we pursue but never achieve because perfection is an infinite virtue and not attainable concretely by finite beings. The people at Changing the Face of Christianity have some admirable goals. "Their mission is to reverse Christian intolerance, hypocrisy, homophobia, judgmentalism, and other negative Christian stereotypes, by helping Christians to be more like Jesus Christ." That's great and should be incorporated into the mission statement of every local church. Still, even if the questions were more exhaustive or more carefully chosen or if they could actually find an answer which all Christians could agree was right, it still would be a failed endeavor because the categories that matter on continuum of spiritual maturity are not qualifiers which range from worst to best. The real issue of consequence is progress versus stagnation. I feel more spiritual kinship with the angry, foul-mouthed, bigot who fights and fails to change his acknowledged flaws than the elder's wife who donates all her time to charity but confuses contentedness in her righteousness with contentedness in the saving graces of God.

But maybe that's why I failed the test.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

What's Wrong With Spanking in Public Schools?

Due to a recent interest in public views about child rearing, and particularly with innovative new disciplinary methods, I recently came across a USA Today editorial opposing corporal punishment in public schools. It ought to go without saying that I have a profound dislike for corporal punishment of any kind applied to anyone. Not being a parent myself, by the grace of God, I stop short of presenting this dislike as a conviction, but--as an ardent opponent of violence properly understood and in all its forms--the prospect of hitting a child in a way which is typically logically unconnected to the offense being corrected is repugnant to me. In addition to being nonsensical and to the multiplicity of more taxing but more benign forms of discipline that could function as alternatives, corporal punishment teaches that violence is an appropriate corrective, an ethical and pragmatic fallacy that has far-reaching personal, political, and global consequences when children inevitably undergo the metamorphosis into citizens.

Yet, with all that being said, something about this article immediately rubbed me the wrong way. It wasn't even the pathetic and predictable public declamation of everyone's favorite ideologically backward whipping boy, the South, in the second sentence. It also wasn't the specious attempt by the writer to make an entire system culpable in the excessive of a few extreme incidents. It wasn't even the shameless way the bugaboo of racism was conjured. Okay, so maybe it was all those things--as good points poorly argued are a pet peeve of mine--but not first and not most. This is what really troubled me:

When children are struck by school personnel, they learn a couple of lessons, neither of them good: One is that it's OK for non-parental authority figures to hit them. Another is that violence is an acceptable response to bad behavior.

Why should that bother me? After all, that sounds very much like my primary objection to the corporal punishment of children. Here's the problem: both of those "bad" lessons are true lessons which will serve children in our society. After all, I wonder if the writer is aware that the police, the most prominent domestic "non-parental authority figures," still employ force as a means of social control, even in the thirty one states and over one hundred foreign countries that have disallowed corporal punishment in schools. We may think ourselves civilized in America because we don't cane vandals or maim thieves, but our civil servants still strike, mace, wrestle, and electrocute suspected criminals for refusing to comply with official directives. As for violence acting as "an acceptable response to bad behavior," the continuing presence of capital punishment domestically and military action internationally prove that violence is still very prominent in our culture as a means for suppressing unacceptable behavior.

Perhaps the editorial writer and the enlightened residents of the Northeast would like it if all of that weren't true, if there were no violent action by the police, no armed conflict internationally, and no capital punishment. As a matter of fact, I'd like those things. But saying that for children to learn that the world is controlled by means of violence is a bad lesson is disingenuous. It is perhaps the most basically true lesson they can learn in school. If they'd like, opponents of corporal punishment can change the way the world works so that the life lessons they admit corporal punishment teaches are no longer true. If, however, the idea is to alter education in an attempt to rework the world order into their ideological image...well, wouldn't that be shocking.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Don't Feed the Bears

And by bears, I of course mean homeless people in Philadelphia:

The city of Philadelphia is being sued in federal court for its ban on feeding the homeless in city parks.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday on behalf of a group of community and church organizations who have distributed meals for years in parks along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

The area is also home to many Philadelphia museums and tourist attractions. The city moved in March to ban the feedings.

Homeless advocates say the city wants to keep the homeless hidden. But businesses in the area complain about health hazards and crime in the feeding areas.

Mayor Michael Nutter says the city wants to get the homeless indoors where they can get medical and other services.

Signs have been posted prohibiting outdoor feeding. Repeat violators are subject to $150 fines.

I realize that there may be legitimate concerns on the part of the city, but the humane course of action seems to be to provide indoor places for the homeless to be fed and receive "medical and other services" before penalizing the charitable groups that are doing the best they can with what's available to them.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Cow News

Speaking of beef behaving badly, apparently a pair of lascivious cattle decided to hold up traffic outside of Pittsburgh in order to have sex in the middle of a highway, causing a traffic jam and outshining the parkway pig.

"It's right in the construction zone so it's making a big mess out there," Trooper John Corna said.

The bull rebuffed any notion of interruptus and police had to summon Pennsylvania Farm Bureau personnel. They coaxed the animals into custody.

In other news, while digging up the link to this amusing article using the search terms "cow sex road," an article about the Queen's diamond jubilee was the fifth result. I'm not sure what that's about, but congratulations to her majesty nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Breaking News: Vatican Opposes Gay Marriage... part of a broader agenda to systematically oppress and silence women. That, at least, is the position of some unnamed "critics" in a USA Today article. The story is a response to a recent Vatican censure of a book on sexual ethics by nun and Yale professor Margaret A. Farley.

After two years of study, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a "notification" on Farley's Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, saying it contradicts Catholic doctrine on key issues such as gay marriage, homosexuality and divorce.

Coming just days after U.S. nuns rejected the Vatican's reasoning for a wholesale makeover, and a year after U.S. bishops sanctioned another nun theologian, the condemnation of Farley is the latest example of what critics see as a top-down attempt to muzzle women's voices and an obsession on sexual ethics.

Curiously, there is no report of critics taking aim at Farley for her obsession with sexual ethics--after all, she is the one who published a book on sexual ethics--but the Vatican, in evaluating and responding to the work, reveals its deep and abiding obsession. More importantly, this notification is clearly an attempt to silence women and has nothing to do with the long-standing and well known opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to homosexuality. I mean, who could have expected that the Vatican would react negatively to the argument "that 'masturbation … usually does not raise any moral questions at all,' and that homosexual acts 'can be justified' following the same ethics as heterosexual ones." Apparently Farley could, as she admits that some of her views are "not in accord with current official Catholic teaching."

Nevertheless, there is clearly a vast, institutionalized misogynistic mechanism at work here. Luckily we have feminism to protect women from facing the same standards of ethical orthodoxy as men.

The Lord's Church in Nigeria

Though overshadowed, perhaps rightly, by the considerably more lethal plane crash, Christians should also be aware that on the same Sunday a suicide bomber attacked a church in the Nigerian city of Bauchi resulting in the death of twenty of the congregants and the injury of forty five others. Nigeria is a Christian majority nation, though only just with Muslims making up most of the remainder of the population. In the North, where Bauchi is located, the population is almost exclusively Muslim, and Boko Haram--the Islamic group responsible for the Christmas Day bombings in Nigeria--have claimed responsibility for the bombing. There were, allegedly, three other assaults planned for the same day, but they were intercepted.

Perhaps more disturbing than the attack itself is the accusation by the local chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria that not all of the deaths were the direct result of the explosion:

At a press conference in Bauchi, the state’s chairman of CAN, Rev. Lawi Pokti, alleged: “Twenty Christians and a Muslim have been confirmed dead. Twelve died from the bomb blast while eight were shot dead by the military personnel drafted to the scene to maintain law and order.”

Pokti, accompanied by CAN executives, condemned the bombing and described it as evil, dastardly and satanic.

According to him, “though CAN appreciates the state government’s efforts in responding quickly to the attack and attending to the injured victims by taking them to hospital, we condemn in strong terms the extra-judicial killing and injuring of the unarmed and aggrieved relations of the victims of the bomb blast.”

He added: “Women and children have sustained various degrees of injuries from the military bullets. As far as the civilised world is concerned, we see this as an extra judicial killing.”

Officials are denying any involvement in any of the injuries, going so far as to say, "no soldier or policeman fired at any person," but the nature of the relationship between separatist Islamic groups and the government of northern states at least makes the CAN's accusation possible if never conclusively demonstrable. Regardless, it is important that Christians worldwide, but particularly in the West where complacency is so easy a temptation, remain mindful of the ongoing suffering of the Lord's church throughout the world and lend our eager and familiar support to them in whatever ways we can.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Who Owns Jerusalem, Historically?

I believe very strongly that the artificial drawing of new national lines by benignly disinterested world powers is idiotic. A popular form of postbellum recreation for Western countries during the colonial period on through the early twentieth century, the foolhardy attempt to make new countries has led to countless wars in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Of all the manifest stupidity that has been splattered across the pages of history, there has been no more boneheaded move on the part of the wise world rulers than the creation of an independent Israel in 1948. Recognizing this is, of course, not the same as suggesting that the state of Israel, now in existence, should be as blithely destroyed or that the Palestinian people have a right to any or all of the land that was given to the Jews after World War II. It is, primarily, a historical observation, a looking back into time and performing the academic equivalent of a facepalm in view of our forefathers shortsightedness and naivete.

Unfortunately, however, the ability of so many to distinguish between historical and political realities has apparently been stunted by decades of war and rhetoric that grasps hopelessly at historical straws to justify political actions. Consider this passing, and thoroughly unnecessary, aside in Seyyed Hossein Nasr's brief introduction to (and apology for) Islamic civilization, Islam:

But [Arabs] remain of central importance in the ​ummah​ because of their historical role in the Islamic world...and the significance for all Muslims of the sacred sites of Islam that lie within the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, and old Jerusalem, which was historically in Palestine but has been occupied by Israel since 1967.

Subtle, Nasr. Not to mention irrelevant to your point, which was, ostensibly, to explain the ongoing significance of the Middle East and Arabs to the global Muslim community. Most unfortunate of all, however, when evaluating a work of supposed history, is the ease with which Nasr states as a matter of incontestable fact that "historically" Jerusalem has been in Palestine. Perhaps in the primary sense of the term Palestine prior to 1988 as a geographical determination, Jerusalem has always been in Palestine and, of course, still is. As for who has controlled Jerusalem, I would hope that Nasr--as with every thoughtful intelligent person with access to Wikipedia--would realize that if anyone can ever be said to have owned it, then just about everyone can be said to have owned it. So, in the interest of injecting some much needed history in to the question of who "historically" Jerusalem belonged to, let's construct a timeline beginning with David, the first Israelite who "occupied" the city:

  • ca. 1000 BC - David seizes Jerusalem
  • 586 BC - After more than four centuries of Israelite occupation, Jerusalem falls into the hands of the Babylonians
  • 539 BC - Cyrus the Great and his Medo-Persians take control of all Babylonian holdings, soon after allowing the exiled Israelites to repatriate and be ruled, alternatively, by Israelite governors and Israelite theocrats
  • 332 BC - Alexander conquers and the region is held by his Ptolemaic successors
  • 198 BC - The rival Hellenistic Seleucids take control of the region
  • 167 BC - The Israelites resume autonomous control after the Maccabean Revolt
  • 63 BC - Pompey captures Jerusalem for Rome
  • AD 614-629 - Jerusalem is briefly in the hands of the Sassanid Persians before returning to the Romans (now known to history as Byzantines)
  • AD 637 - Jerusalem is captured by the Rashidun Caliphate, representing the first time in more than one thousand years that Jerusalem was under the control of non-Jewish Semites (e.g. Arabs)
  • AD 1099 - The First Crusade results in the establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem
  • AD 1187 - Saladin takes Jerusalem back for the Ayyubids
  • AD 1229 - Frederick II treats to return control of most of Jerusalem to the Kingdom of Jerusalem
  • AD 1244 - Mercenary Turkic Khwarezmians take Jerusalem and raze it to near total destruction
  • AD 1247 - The Ayyubids resume control of Jerusalem
  • AD 1250 - The Mamluks overthrow the Ayyubids, thus inheriting Jerusalem
  • AD 1517 - The Ottomon Turks take control
  • AD 1917 - The British win control of Jerusalem as part of World War I and are entrusted with its care
  • AD 1948 - The State of Israel declares independence and begins the process of occupying of Jerusalem
Was that easy enough to follow? If not, realize that the above is the condensed and sanitized version. It omits the centuries of infighting between various Arab states, a number of momentarily successful Jewish revolts, the constant battling between Persian and Egyptian Muslim groups, and so on. The result ought to be a humble refusal to say that anyone has a legitimate historical claim to Jerusalem. The Jews are in the wonderful position, historically, of being the first and last group to hold it (unless there are some Jebusites who protest), but that reality is historically incidental. If people really want to give Jerusalem back to its previous owner, then pass it back to the British. After all, they won it fair and square the way territorial lines used to be drawn. Of course, the problem there is that the British don't want it. We could go back another generation and give it to the Turks, ethnically and geographically distinct from the Palestinians with their "historical" claim to the territory, who ruled it before the British in the form of Ottomans and Mamluks. Of course, Turkey has enough problems of it's own without adopting Levantine ones. One of those problems happens to be a restless Kurdish population. Turkey might consider signing over their rights to Jerusalem to the Kurds who ruled it before the Turks did in the form of the Ayyubid Caliphate.

In truth, a historical evaluation of who has ruled Jerusalem throughout its history shows both Jews and Arabs (which most modern, self-identifying Palestinians are) are both in the ethnic minorities. Turks, Persians, Greeks, and Romans occupied it with at least equal frequency. In fact, in the above timeline, Jews and Arabs each have only about four centuries each in the form of the Davidic and Rashidun dynasties respectively. If either party wants to make a historical argument on the grounds of frequency of occupation or proximity to the present, they will find other groups with stronger cases based on the offered criteria.

What's truly important to remember, however, is that deciding national lines on the basis of historical arguments is a modern novelty, not to mention a modern fantasy. It's lucky for Americans that people who owned our land one thousand years ago (which was the last time an Arab empire ruled over Jerusalem) can't just demand to have it back. For millennia, borders have been determined in the same bloody way. It's awful, it's immoral, but it's effective. Moreover, it is precisely what we are seeing played out in the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict. UN resolutions and negotiated borders cave under the tantalizing prospect of land won a the expense of life. What will ultimately decided the conflict--if we can pretend, after seeing the above timeline, that the conflict will ever be ultimately resolved this side of the eschaton--will be who ends up with the biggest guns in the best positions when everyone gets bored of fighting. War and politics are a nasty business (perhaps the same nasty business variously named). Let's try not to sully the noble discipline of history by impressing it into their service armed conflict.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Unorthodox Teen Discipline Prompts Criticism

In a story surprising equally for the unapologetic ingenuity of its protagonist and the gross oversensitivity it uncovers in the general public, ABC reports that one woman has taken her fight against inappropriate social media behavior deep into enemy territory:

At first, it might seem like your typical case of modern parental discipline: A Texas mom has prohibited her 12-year-old daughter from using the photo-sharing site Instagram after she caught the girl posting a photo of herself holding an unopened bottle of vodka with a caption that read “I sure wish I could drink this.”

But it’s what ReShonda Tate Billingsley did next that has people buzzing: Billinglsey, a prominent Houston-area author, had her daughter post a new picture of herself to Instagram earlier this month holding a sign reading, “Since I want to post photos of me holding liquor, I am obviously not ready for social media and will be taking a hiatus until I learn what I should (and) should not post. Bye-bye.”

Billingsley then posted the same photo – in which only the lower half of her daughter’s face was visible – to her own personal Facebook page and it has since gone viral. It has seen 11,000 shares from Facebook alone, not to mention attention from various media outlets.

It was a clever move on the part of Billingsley and effective, apparently so much so that the daughter begged for a spanking as an alternative. What I love about this, particularly when compared to corporal punishment, is there is a logical relationship between the "crime" and the "punishment." Most obviously, if children abuse social media, they should have their access to social media restricted. Moreover, with the theoretically limitless reach of online behavior, the act of forcing her daughter to own up to her mistakes is equally essential. When I committed some indiscretion against someone, some public act of bad behavior, as a child, I was required to apologize to all those who were effected by said behavior. As Instagram was the arena of her malfeasance, then it is appropriate that she should own up to her mistakes through in the same place.

For some reason, however, the "public shaming" has apparently made Billingsley the target of serious criticism. Aside from the presumptuousness of child-rearing professionals and the public at large meddling in other people's parenting in ways they would never permit in their own families, the real problem with this is the labeling of the second picture as the embarrassment rather than the first. It is precisely this misconception that Billingsley's choice of discipline can serve to correct. The shameful act is not and should not be taking public responsibility for one's actions and accepting the consequences of them, as Billingsley made her daughter do. It is the careless and deeply inappropriate act of a twelve year old announcing to the world how much she would love to be able to drink hard liquor. When the child's aberrant behavior ceases to shock and the act of publicly taking responsibility offends, it becomes clear that the world is hopelessly confused about what is truly shameful.

And just so that we can all gain a little perspective, let's all take a look at this mother in Mexico City who also employed an unorthodox punishment:

A mother in Mexico has been arrested on suspicion of gouging out the eyes of her 5-year-old son during a ceremony...The mother is believed to have removed the eyes with her bare hands because the boy refused to close them during the ceremony, police told a news conference.