Friday, July 27, 2012

Ross Douthat is a Genius.

Seriously. You'll not hear me say that very often about anyone, but in this case I think it's justified. The ouster of Metropolitan Jonah has all the makings of a brilliant story. A high level church official, the highest actually, has been implicated in a cover up of a rape by a deranged priest. There is sex, alcohol, religion, and scandal, but all anyone can seem to talk about is an article Douthat wrote about the statistical decline of the Episcopal Church. Small newspapers in smaller midwestern towns are giving each other high fives at the downfall of the nominal Christian. Episcopal bishops repudiate the criticisms, Episcopal parishioners echo them, and Episcopal priests try to temper them. Meanwhile, emergent, missional, politically leftist, and every stripe of hipster Christian have launched an Occupy the Blogosphere movement to protest the caricature. How did Douthat do it? It has been outrageous, and I am clearly by no means immune. (I've even caught myself arguing in the comments of other articles with people clearly too riled to think straight.)

Considering how heated the discourse has become, a few clarifications and disclaimers seem to be retrospectively in order on my part.

The liberal-conservative continuum is a useful but not flawless tool for discussing contemporary Christianity. I endeavor to be very careful with the labels I use in describing Christian groups. A historical perspective has afforded me a wonderfully rich taxonomy with which to precisely categorize various manifestations of the faith as they have appeared repeatedly throughout history, and I am convinced that it is safe to talk about a "liberal" wing of Christianity and a "conservative" one that dominate the scene in the American religious landscape. Now there are important qualifiers there. First, only America is in view here. Talking about liberal and conservative Christianity in Africa would conjure completely different images if not, more likely, be entirely nonsensical. Second, liberal and conservative Christianity dominate but do not constitute the American religious landscape. There are many groups, some significant theologically and some powerful within small segments of society, that fall into neither group neatly. Any kind of binary system of categorizing Christianity will necessarily fall short. (Sorry, Byron Williams.)

Ambiguity is the mother of conflict. Much of the tension that has arisen in the wake of Douthat's article has been a result of uncertainty about just what is meant by "liberal Christianity." Some of this has been on the part of self-styled liberals misreading what is being said in an effort to serve their own agendas. Much of it has been on the part of conservatives who are so busy rejoicing in their arguments that they do not take the time to clarify them fully. Even Douthat is somewhat at fault. It has been rightly pointed out that liberal Christianity can and does thrive in ways beyond what can be measured by attendance in the Episcopal Church. Douthat, however, is very careful to limit his criticisms to institutional bodies that have embraced liberal Christianity. Thus, saying that the "spiritual but not religious" demographic (who are often embracing the label "liberal Christians") yet grows is not to debunk Douthat but to confirm him. They are leaving the liberal churches because they have nothing left to offer. Additionally, many have complained that certain liberal church groups are continuing to grow, churches that cling to the traditional core of Christian doctrine but play free-and-loose with traditional Christian forms. Again, however, Douthat makes very sure to define liberal Christianity as theological liberalism, the marginalization (if not obliteration) of all theology and dogma in favor of left-wing social and political causes. Cf. Burklo. Churches that keep the faith and update the practice are the kind of liberal churches Douthat wants. Which leads me to...

The decline of liberal Christianity is nothing to be happy about. Douthat is careful not to gloat over the predicted demise of the Episcopal Church, and other conservative Christians should follow suit. The conservative church has always existed in order to temper the unbridled pursuit of progress as its own end, to sustain the truths which might be (and in many cases have been) discarded when they become inconvenient, and to continue the stress on holiness which has characterized God's relationship with His people from its earliest recorded moments. What the conservative church needs to realize is that the liberal church has an important function as well. It prevents the rest of the church from embracing the fallacy that something must be done a certain way because it has always been done a certain way. It keeps the faith fresh, timely, and growing. And, perhaps most importantly, the liberal church has historically stressed social ethics as a counterpoint to the conservative church's stress on personal ethics. Conservatives rightly have a problem with vulgarity, sexual libertinism, divorce, and substance abuse. Liberals rightly have a problem with war, poverty, oppression, and disease.

The two groups or, more appropriately, the two impulses within Christianity serve each other through their constructive tension. It is only when that tension becomes conflict that we see the kind of partisan infighting which is quickly coming to define every aspect of American life. So conservatives, put away the fireworks. The demise of a powerful liberal branch is among the worst possible outcomes for American Christianity. And liberals, there's no reason to equate Douthat with sexists and racists. His article has the same purpose that my responses to Burklo did: to encourage the liberal branch of Christianity to recover "a religious reason for its own existence" and "consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world." Because I want a strong, vibrant, liberal voice among institutional churches. Otherwise, the Southern Baptist Convention gets to set the tone of the message, and I'm not ready for that.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

That'll Teach You to Play by the Rules, Penn State

The verdict is in, the dust has settled, and, guess what, people are outraged. And why shouldn't they be? After all, the recent sanctions handed down by the NCAA are just one more in a string of knee-jerk reactions from the public on the final great unifying force for Americans, sex abuse scandals.

The punishment begins with a sixty million dollar fine. This and this alone seems like an appropriate punishment, and the number could have been much higher. That sum, equal to only one year of Penn State football revenue, will come exclusively from the athletics fund and will be used exclusively to fund sex abuse charities across the country. There is a logical connection here between the sexual abuse which was, to some extent, permitted by some members of the institution and the consequence for that complicity. From there, the NCAA added a loss of athletic scholarships and a four year post season ban, which is non-sensical but expected. Perhaps it may have some value as a deterrent, assuming, of course, that there are institutions out there who actually care more about the integrity of their football program than about pedophiles in their midst as so many fast-tongued commentators are implying about Penn State.

The real source of unrest, both mine and the Penn State community's, is the nullification of fourteen years of wins. The NCAA, in their inscrutable wisdom, decided that they would begin with the first abuse allegation and just erase the history of Penn State football from then until the present. Explain to me, who does that serve? Certainly not the victims, unlike the sixty million dollars about to flood abuse charities. And who does it punish? Not Sandusky, who has the tender affection of his fellow prisoners to look forward to as punishment. Not anyone in the administration who may have been complicit, since they have all been indicted, forced out, or fired.

It actually is pretty obvious who the revision of history is meant to penalize. None other than Joe Paterno, who, in losing those wins, has forever lost his place as the winningest coach in major college football. If you'll pardon the indelicacy, I'd like to congratulate the NCAA on coming as close as imaginable to literally using their authority to beat a dead horse. For my part, I agree with the Paterno family, that JoePa continues to be presumed guilty until proven innocent:

The point of due process is to protect against this sort of reflexive action. Joe Paterno was never interviewed by the University or the Freeh Group. His counsel has not been able to interview key witnesses as they are represented by counsel related to ongoing litigation. We have had no access to the records reviewed by the Freeh group. The NCAA never contacted our family or our legal counsel. And the fact that several parties have pending trials that could produce evidence and testimony relevant to this matter has been totally discounted.

Unfortunately all of these facts have been ignored by the NCAA, the Freeh Group and the University.

But let's say that Paterno is every bit as guilty as the most rabid conspiracy theorist believes him to be. You tear down his statue. You un-paint his halo. You--which is to say, Nike, Brown, the Big Ten, and so many more--blot out his name. Now you re-write history just to strip him of his records. What is this obsession with punishing the dead? He's dead! Dead and buried. It makes it very difficult to take all this self-righteous scapegoating very seriously when the scapegoat has already been slaughtered. The fact that an organization the magnitude of the NCAA has felt the need to jump on the bandwagon and actively repudiate Joe Paterno in the sternest way it knows how shows just how little courage and conviction remains in the world.

Stripping Penn State of those wins serves no purpose, except to satisfy the obligatory indignation of the corporations and the masses to whom they peddle their wares. It certainly doesn't actually bother the dearly departed Paterno (though it seems a trifle cruel to his entirely innocent family who have to suffer through the public flogging of his corpse). Instead, it sends a message to past and future players of Penn State, that their efforts on the field, the victories they achieve by the sweat of their brow, the brutality they subject their bodies to, are all in the hands of a fickle overlord who, at any moment, may wave a wand and erase them. "This is not a football related issue. We didn't cheat at football and they shouldn't take our wins," observed a Penn State freshman. That simple, off-the-cuff logic has all the rational force necessary to overturn the NCAA calculated decision.

Nevermind that football doesn't really matter. Nevermind the pious but empty cries for "justice" that thinly mask bloodlust. The principle at stake here is fairness and a rational ordering of society. This ruling proudly announces the message that you can do everything right, play by all the rules (as the players did), and you can still be punished. Punished for someone else's crime. Punished to satiate a media fueled public outrage. Punished retroactively and without recourse to appeal. That, to me, is a greater catalyst for evil than leniency. After all, if they can come for you anyway, why be good to begin with?

Harding in the Olympics

I came across this exciting tidbit in the Arkansas Times:

[Janet] Cherobon-Bawcom, a former runner at Harding University, qualified for the 2012 London Olympics in the 10K race last month. A native of Kenya, she started running at age 20 when she was told it could help her get a scholarship. She will be Harding's first Olympic athlete. After becoming a naturalized citizen in 2011, Cherobon-Bawcom was able to represent Team USA in championships and now will represent the nation at the 2012 Olympics. See her in the 10,000-meter race at 3:25 p.m. Aug. 3.

This could be better than watching Tank Daniels play in Super Bowl XLII.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

And now for something completely different...

I'm not one for simply reblogging from other sites, typically. This short article, however, tickled me so thoroughly and will provide such a welcome relief from yet another protracted multi-part, one-sided argument that I can't help but share it:

Hipster Christians, I'm going to help you out. I see you are grasping at something, trying to find the ironic Church of your dreams, where men can grow beards of foolish proportions and women can dress like their grannies' grannies, a place where scarves are worn in every unfashionable fashion imaginable, a place where people do shots and eat hummus at community gatherings, enjoy rooms filled with a fog of incense and prefer to read books that pre-date industrialisation.

I would like to direct your attention to "The Orthodox Church."

With this teaser having whet your appetite, I'll direct you to the rest of this charming post on the original site.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Answering Allison: Pacifism and Hyperbole

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.


Allison's fifth and final argument, the last, desperate refuge of every uncomfortable exegete, is to claim hyperbole and then lean back in his armchair puffing his pipe and thumbing his monocle sinisterly.* Before launching into the "even if I'm wrong, I'm right" portion of his argument, he concludes, "It is, furthermore, even possible that the pictures offer impractical advice. If, after being struck on the right cheek with a back-handed insult from an enemy's right hand, one were literally to turn the other cheek, the slapper would either have to switch hands to give a back-handed insult or use a fist. And if one were to give away one's undergarment as well as one's overgarment, the result would be nudity. The very strangeness of these images warns that we may have here exaggeration or hyperbole." Admittedly, the advice Jesus gives here, and frankly just about everywhere else, is impractical by almost ever standard of pragmatism. Unfortunately, Allison had not yet realized, though he would on the very next page, that "the Sermon on the Mount does no promote utilitarianism." Jesus is concerned ultimately with what is right not with what is practical.

Hyperbole is that delightful hammerspace into which scholars like to cram all the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, particularly those on discipleship, which are unsettling. They then, of course, turn around and laud how revolutionary the Gospel is, but they apparently only want it to upset things they think need upsetting and in ways they think need upsetting. The Sermon on the Mount is the worst offender in hyperbolic language. Giving to everyone who asks of you. Being better to maim yourself than to sin. Going into a closet to pray. Not letting our right hand know what our left is giving in alms. (The only alms we like to give secretly are to politicians.) Not judging others for sins which we are presently committing. Can you imagine a world where people actually did those things? Me either, but it has more to do with the inability of my imagination to overcome human frailty than it does with the absurdity of the suggestions. Allison's suggestions aren't even the most shameful attempts at hyperbolically arguing for hyperbole I've witness. I was personally present when Sean Hannity--responding to a question about speaking at historically pacifist Harding University--said to a student, "If someone broke into your house and was raping your wife, are you telling me you wouldn't stop him" (paraphrase), Hannity apparently confusing what a university freshman would do if transported into a horror film with what is morally upright and commanded by Christ. The appeals, whether they be to nakedness or to home invasion and rape, all fall along the same lines. I admit that hyperbole is a legitimate rhetorical tool, one which was available to the biblical authors and figures and one which they likely made use of, but I am skeptical about painting every radical command with the nullifying label "hyperbole" as an expedient so we can all sleep easier at night.

The truth is, there seem to be very good biblical examples of Christ and early Christians taking these commands very seriously. After all, when someone begs a coin of Peter in the temple, he is forced to confess that he has no money--mirroring perhaps the radical poverty and charity of his teacher. More on point, Paul apparently had no problem being naked for Jesus, impractical though it may have been to labor, to toil, to lose sleep, to thirst, to go without food, and to endure the cold naked. He even thought nothing of becoming the scum of the earth, blessing when he was reviled, entreating when he was slandered, and enduring all manner of persecution. It could be, just possibly, that Paul took seriously the teaching and, more importantly, the example of Christ himself who, in the words of Peter, "when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly." And what is more radical, more impractical, more difficult to believe: that someone might be naked for Christ or that someone might die for him? The problem with painting this particular text as somehow invalidatingly hyperbolic is that there are too many biblical examples of it being lived out in a very literal way.

All of this without mention of Allison's most ridiculous point of all. The idea that turning the other cheek literally is logistically problematic is far and away that worst possible argument that could ever be made against pacifism. If you'll pardon the hyperbole.

*I don't actually know what Dale Allison looks like, but I suspect he doesn't smoke a pipe or wear a monocle or do anything remotely sinister...Or does he?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Song of the Summer

I don't typically go in for Top 40 music, but this song (shockingly) hit the spot. I'm not sure what it is:

Incidentally, to all those who have, for whatever inexplicable reason, visited The Itinerant Mind, thank you. The Blogger edition just passed the ten thousand pageview mark, with the much newer Wordpress edition sliding past one thousand at almost the same time.

Answering Allison: Pacifism and the Unforgiving Servant

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.


The fourth error in Allison's argument, his exegesis of the parable of the unforgiving servant, is intended to augment the third, but for the sake of keeping my comments brief I will treat it here separately. Picking up in the omitted portion of the previous quote, "But what does one do if others are being insulted or injured? Although this is a crucial question to which Matthew returns no explicit answer, in the parable in 18:23-25 a king, out of mercy, releases a servant from debt. But when that servant mistreats another, the king intervenes with punishment. In this story the king lets himself suffer wrong; but when it is another who suffers, mercy gives way to justice. Could it be that a similar sort of distinction should be read into 5:38-42?" The answer is, unequivocally, no. Why? Because that implication isn't even present in the parable. It has been devised by Allison as a possible exemption from the ethical strictures of the Sermon on the Mount and then superimposed onto an unrelated parable.

It is simple enough to discern the correct intent of Jesus' parable of the unforgiving servant, primarily because Jesus explains it at the end. Allison's mistake can be understood (and, yes, forgiven) when one considers that the idea of a king being personally forgiving and institutionally violent fits very nicely with his other justification for ignoring the "resist not the evildoer" command. Still, Allison makes a fatal flaw by identifying the king with a human agent when Jesus himself says that the king figures "the heavenly Father" who "will do [likewise] to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." The figure which represents the questioner, in this case Peter, is the unforgiving servant. If there is a figure whose behavior is an analog to Christians' it is the servant and not the king--lest our egos run away with us.

More than just being a gross exegetical failure, Allison's reading of the text as a tacit approval of institutional violence to correct injustice misses entirely the point which Jesus is making to Peter. When Peter asks how often to forgive, Jesus gives him an astronomical number and, just in case Peter thinks he's exaggerating, he follows up with a parable explaining the consequences of not forgiving. Quite in line with Christian pacifism, God is the only agent authorized by the parable to decide when "mercy gives way to justice." Human agents are expected to forgive because God has forgiven then and to expect the Father to remove that mercy if they are unwilling to emulate it. The suggestion that the parable might decide when Christians should be allowed to punish instead of forgive not only misunderstands the clear purpose of the story, it directly contradicts it. A more careless reading hardly seems possible.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Answering Allison: Pacifism and Love

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.


The third attempt Allison tries to make to undo any pacifist interpretation of Matthew 5 sees a contradiction between total pacifism and the all-important command to love. He argues, “One can also, on the basis of the command to love (7:12; 19:19; 22:37-39), question the pacifist’s interpretation. Each situation envisioned in 5:38-42 is one in which the disciple alone is insulted or injured. But what does one do if others are being insulted or injured…Non-retaliation is one idea embodied in our text; but what if the equally important imperatives for justice or defense of the innocent appear to demand the exercise of force?” Allison proposes some interesting problems, but the assumed answered to his own questions leave a lot to be desired, as, to a degree, do the questions themselves.

For example, he makes an allusion to the imperatives for justice and defense of the innocent in the Sermon on the Mount but curiously offers no citation. He came up with three separate verses from Matthew as a whole for the command to love but can apparently offer none at all for the command to defend the defenseless or dole out justice. That is not to suggest that justice and concerned for the defenseless are not biblical principles. If Allison were willing, he might point to the command to give alms in Matthew 6 as an example of such a measure on behalf of the weak. Of course, it would, unfortunately for him, be an example of positive yet non-violent social action and wouldn’t further his point. In fact, the absence of a supporting citation turns out to be because there is no text which might further his point, in Matthew or elsewhere in the New Testament. The reader is never presented with an occasion when “defense of the innocent appear[s] to demand the exercise of force.” Perhaps the biblical authors just left it out. After all, the Greco-Roman world was such a friendly, well-policed place—unlike the modern West. They probably never encountered the kind of injustices demanding violent reaction that we do on a daily basis in America.

More importantly than the now characteristically extra-biblical methodology, however, is the implied answer to Allison’s question. It is true that ethical cases do arise in which the love of neighbor and the love of enemy do conflict, and Allison seems to admit that to respond with violence toward our enemy is to do something other than to love him (something which not all proponents of violent Christianity are willing to admit). Setting aside the evocation of the illusory moral category of “innocents,” the problem, unfortunately, with choosing love of neighbor over love of enemy is that it seems to directly contradict the very logic of Jesus presented in the command to love one’s neighbor. Jesus makes the point very explicit, and Paul will later as well, that human logic would suggest that we give preferential treatment to our neighbor. In Christ, however, no one gets preferential treatment. The commands to love our neighbor and our enemies are parallel, and there is no ethical hierarchy about them. If anything, indulging the vulgar tendency to love our neighbors just a little better than our enemies undermines the Christian spirit and nullifies the teaching. Allison admits, and I agree, that the conflict between loving one’s neighbor and loving one’s enemy are impossible to resolve perfectly and logically. We differ in that I embrace the reversal of terrestrial logic imposed by God in Christ and argue that it is nearer to the heart of the Gospel to shower your enemy with love than to love him only when there is no impediment to that love, when it doesn’t get in the way of you loving the people you really want to love.

(Parenthetically—which is a word I feel strange using when there are actual parentheses visible—my wife joked with me that we ought to buy each other guns so that, by Allison’s logic, so long as we’re together we can be protected. If someone attacks me, she could shoot him and be morally justified because her action was the defense of others rather than self. If someone attacks here, the situation could play out in reverse. It was so magnanimous of God to give us such a convenient end run around ethics.)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lessons from Jerry Sandusky and Pedophile Priests

This sentiment, expressed with various degrees of intensity, popped up regularly in public responses and official statements regarding the recent resignation of Metropolitan Jonah from his position as primate of the Orthodox Church in America:

They finally got him. What they don’t understand is that they probably signed the OCA’s death warrant in so doing...because the sleazy, corrupt way the Synod has handled this from the beginning shows them to be a pack of ravening wolves.

That's actually Rod Dreher over at the American Conservative, and he doesn't get any nicer about it: "I wish he had gone out like Samson instead of yielding to this pack of wild dogs. But what’s done is done. And what was done is dirty. Filthy." Even if others didn't feel the need to get that heated, there was a sense that Jonah was a crusader who was making the Orthodox relevant in the twenty-first century Christian social and political landscape. Having followed Mark Stokoe over at OCA News for years, my reaction was decidedly less indignant.

As more information begins to surface, it would appear that perhaps Dreher and others should temper their criticism of the Synod. It seems their primary motivation was concern over the possible criminal sexual behavior of a priest appointed by Jonah and the Metropolitan's questionable attempts to conceal it:

"Metropolitan Jonah has repeatedly refused to act with prudence, in concert with his fellow bishops, in accordance with the Holy Synod's policies," the synod said in a statement.

"In light of the recent widely publicized criminal cases involving sexual abuse at Penn State and in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and the Kansas City Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, the extent of the risk of liability to which Metropolitan Jonah has exposed the church cannot be overstated," it said...

"At some time after his enthronement as our primate, Metropolitan Jonah unilaterally accepted into the OCA a priest known to him and others to be . . . severely abusing alcohol, which more than once was coupled with episodes of violence and threats toward women," the synod said.

These episodes included the "discharge of a firearm" and the "brandishing of a knife," which led to the man's arrest. In 2010, he was alleged "to have committed a rape against a woman."

Although informed of the rape allegation in February, Jonah "neither investigated, nor told his brother bishops," and did not report the incident to police or church lawyers, according to the synod.

In other words, the Synod is giving every appearance of doing exactly what people, in hindsight, wished that the Catholic Church and the administration at Penn State had done when their was suspicion of misconduct by their authority figures. They are cooperating with local law enforcement, being transparent about the accusation (save for releasing the priest's name), and removing the rogue administrator who allowed an accused rapist to be ordained in the OCA in the first place. And the revelations about Jonah just get worse:

When the woman reported her alleged rape to police, however, she and a family member were admonished by unnamed church officials "that their salvation depended on their silence."

As recently as last week, the synod reported Monday, Jonah was "regularly communicating" with the person who was instructing the woman to keep quiet.

Furthermore, it said, Jonah first encouraged the priest to pursue a military chaplaincy "without informing the military recruiter of any of the priest's problems," and then allowed the man to enter another Orthodox jurisdiction while assuring it there were "no canonical impediments" to a transfer.

I'm quite certain there were other factors involved in his removal, other less compelling reasons, but I can't imagine anyone reading that and thinking that the Synod is a pack of ravening wolves who have driven out the great hope of the Orthodox Church in America. If anything, the information now available shows the tremendous wisdom of the Synod in not allowing what's happened to the Catholic Church and to Penn State to happen to the Orthodox.

Answering Allison: Pacifism and Institutional Ethics

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.


The second flawed argument that Allison makes against pacifism is acheived by bifurcating personal and institutional ethics. He writes:

Jesus and Matthew and the pre-Constantinian Christians were outsiders or belonged to minorities, as have most proponents of pacifism. Now outsiders and minorities are not, by definition, responsible for the institutions of society. This circumstance makes it easier for them to promulgate ideals that seemingly take little or no account of the conflicts that inevitably arise when the follower of Jesus becomes involved with such institutions. But others, in contrast to Jesus and Matthew, have found themselves both Christians and members of governmental organizations; and they have necessarily found new ways of understanding 5:38-42. Rather than condemning the exegetical changes brought by the Constantinian revolution we should regard them as inevitable and consistent with the fact that the Sermon on the Mount offers examples that call the moral imagination into play.

No wonder I didn’t find my moral imagination inspired reading Allison’s work. His idea of moral imagination is the ability to re-imagine Christian ethics if Jesus had wanted to be involved in the same things we want to be involved in. Allison actually makes a number of very telling concessions in the above quote. For starters, he admits—as do most responsible historians and biblical scholars—that the pre-Constantinian (or at least up to the time of Marcus Aurelius) church did in fact understand the Sermon on the Mount as enjoining total non-violence on Christians. He also admits that this interpretation, the antique interpretation, directly conflicts with the exigencies of governmental involvement. (So far, he sounds almost like a Christian anarchist, no?) Finally, he admits that his reinterpretation of Christian ethics only works if you admit (1) that Christian comingling with government is inevitable and (2) that the teachings of Jesus (not to mention the example, which modern Christians, he admits, incidentally contrast with) are intended to be inspirational rather than normative.

Of course, that’s where he loses me. I do, obviously, agree with the accepted historical fact that the early church was pacifist. I also, clearly, agree that the obvious conflict between the traditional Christian ethos and the new involvement with government constituted a conflict for fourth century Christianity at large. What I cannot accept is that the choice of power over ethics was inevitable—unless, of course, we mean by that temptation and succumbing to it are inevitable. Allison speaks about the political ascendency of Christianity as something which occurred by happenstance, something which the Christians had no control over and for which they are therefore not responsible. Then, the reinterpretation of Matthew 5 changes from a deviation to necessarily finding new ways of understanding the text. Of course, Christian involvement in government is by no means mandated. It was not a historical inevitability. It is not a present imperative.

When it is realized that Christianity will be just fine—dare I say better off—without getting into bed with human structures of power, then Allison’s argument falls apart. Christian politics not being inevitable, we return to the fateful decision (condensed and dramatized as if it were a single deliberative moment) between Christian ethics as they were preached by Christ and as they have always been practiced and a modification or total abandonment of them in an effort to pursue what seems right on the surface. If only there were a biblical example that might offer guidance, say the disciples’ choice between allowing Christ to die as he taught them he must and taking up arms in his defense. And if only Jesus gave a clear teaching in response to this, say Jesus rebuking Peter for his armed defense or telling Pilate “if my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight.” Of course, if, like Allison, you believe that biblical teaching and example are intended exclusively or primarily as stimulants for the moral imagination, then these examples can be creatively reexamined to fit with whatever happens to us, quite passively, as the human race floats aimlessly through history.

What ultimately struck me, however, is the somewhat less logically rigorous but more evocative nonsense of dividing personal behavior into essentially occupational categories. Set aside for a moment that Allison gives no biblical reasoning for his separation of the two categories, no testimony of Jesus for how governments are allowed to operate by a different moral code than people, and consider instead the ethical absurdity of that line of reasoning. Allison is of the belief—as, notably, was Augustine, the founder of modern just war theory—that if a man walks up to you with a gun and murderous intent, you as a private, Christian citizen should not defend yourself. If, however, that same day, you happen to be wearing a uniform and badge, it magically becomes ethical for you to shoot that assailant in the face because you are an agent of the government which operates by a different set of ethical rules. Our society realizes the absurdity of such a position and makes self-defense permissible. Pre-Constantinian Christian ethics realizes the absurdity of this defense and labels institutional violence immoral. Only Allison (of course, not only Allison, but follow me here) believes that the tension can be maintained. When Obama kills a thousand men through the office of the presidency, it is just. If I were to kill the same thousand men, it would be unjust. It simply does not compute.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Answering Allison: Pacifism and the Law

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.

The first, perhaps most absurd and opportunistic, of the arguments pertains to the role of the Law in the New Covenant. Allison writes, “There is force in Calvin’s [just war] view. For if indeed Matthew understood 5:38-42 to enjoin an absolute pacifism and so to outlaw participation in all wars, it is very difficult to see how he could have included in his Gospel 5:17-20, with its strong affirmation that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law.” With no further explanation, Allison marshals to his cause the verse which has been the source of so much confusion and debate throughout the course of Christian history since, after all, Jesus seems to be immediately in tension with his own words as he juxtaposes his teachings with those of traditional Jewish wisdom and jurisprudence. The standard line is, of course, that Jesus is not erasing the Law so much as getting to the root of what it was trying to achieve, in a partial and anticipatory way, for human ethics. This is, of course, entirely consonant with a pacifist reading which sees in the Law, relative to alternative legal codes, an attempt to ameliorate violence and enshrine love and mercy in its place.

But Allison’s argument doesn’t even require so sophisticated of a refutation. It is enough that he offers no further explanation of the ongoing influence of the Law to demonstrate just how facile the attempt to unseat pacifism is. After all, all Christians throughout Christian history have agreed both that Jesus did not abolish the Law and that the Law no longer as legal force in Christianity. Allison might just as easily have argued that Jesus did not come to abolish the law and therefore the Sabbath or ritual sacrifice must be enforced on Christians. Admittedly, at least one of those positions has manifest itself on occasion historically, but Allison will have trouble pressing it now in a world of workaholics. In the absence of a more comprehensive hermeneutic of the Law in light of the New Covenant, the reader is left to curiously wonder just how much Allison thinks has gone unabolished. Frighteningly, he seems repeatedly to recommend lex talionis as an eternally valid legal principle, which would give the Sermon on the Mount all the restraining force of Shari’ah (if I can sound momentarily like an alarmist Oklahoman) and would seem to directly contradict Jesus’ monumental transition from a justice that springs from superficial fairness to one that is born out of love.

In other words, a blind appeal to the Law—even to the “spirit” of the Law, which Jesus makes plain is love and not violence—has no force in determining an interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer.” Unless Allison would have us return to Israelite jurisprudence for ruling the world, something which I doubt he or, especially, Jesus wanted, then shallowly claiming that the Law is not abolished and therefore violence is somehow ethical is insufficient on its face. More importantly, it makes the fatal error of assuming that violence was ever considered virtuous, even in the Old Covenant. One need only look at the numerous denunciations of violence—the violence which precipitated the flood, the violence which precluded David from building the temple, the violence which God “hates” in Malachi—to understand that Jesus’ command, if a truly pacifist one, would be more consistent with the Law than Calvin’s just war understanding (which, curiously, finds not clear foundation in the Law).

Monday, July 16, 2012

Couple Sues Eleven Year Old Baseball Prodigy

In case you weren't paying attention, the litigiousness of our society has reached unintentional self-deprecating proportions:

A New Jersey woman who was struck in the face with a baseball at a Little League game is suing the young catcher who threw it.

Elizabeth Lloyd is seeking more than $150,000 in damages to cover medical costs stemming from the incident at a Manchester Little League game two years ago. She's also seeking an undefined amount for pain and suffering.

Lloyd was sitting at a picnic table near a fenced-in bullpen when she was hit with the ball.

Catcher Matthew Migliaccio was 11 years old at the time and was warming up a pitcher.

The wife is claiming that the errant ball was actually thrown at her intentionally and constitutes assault. She also insists that the whole exercise of warming up was an "inappropriate...sporting activity," in spite of the fact that it took place in a fenced-in bullpen. The husband, putting the absurd cherry on this cake, complains of the loss of "services, society and consortium" from his wife and is holding the child personally responsible.

There's a whole litany of crazy here that could be addressed. Like that I was unaware that it is even possible to sue an eleven year old. Or how about the parents of the catcher's misdirected anger at Little League for not helping with their legal fees. Or that someone would send threatening letters to a child. Or the unnerving reality that a society exists--and persists--on the planet where something like this can happen.

But the question my wife and I just keep coming back to: how hard can an eleven year old really throw? I mean, c'mon folks. Really? Really? If I were standing two feet from an eleven year old and he threw a ball at my face as hard as he could, I don't think it would cause $150,000 and two years worth of damage. (It certainly wouldn't prevent me from providing "services, society and consortium" for my wife.) It wasn't even the pitcher throwing heat--do eleven year olds throw heat? It was a catcher warming up the pitcher at some reasonable distance from a picnic table. If there is even a shred of truth to the allegations from this woman, then the parents should just take out a loan and settle. It won't matter. This kid has a multimillion dollar Major League deal waiting just around the corner for him. Can you say, "Henry Rowengartner?"

Speaking of the Folly of "Progressive" Christianity

It would seem that Ross Douthat, of the New York Times has been reading my criticism of progressive Christianity's attempt to distance itself from theology and collapse religion into social ethics because he has chosen to illustrate my theological point with some statistical data. His article specifically reviews the declining attendance in Episcopal churches and correlates it to the conscious decision on the part of the denomination to become deliberately progressive.

As a result, today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.

Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace. Last week, while the church’s House of Bishops was approving a rite to bless same-sex unions, Episcopalian church attendance figures for 2000-10 circulated in the religion blogosphere. They showed something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.

And why not? After all, what do Episcopalians have now to appeal to a young, socially liberal demographic? You're telling them, "Look, we believe what you believe," but then you also want them to believe in the existence of an omnipotent deity which their college professors have told them is intellectual barbarism, ask them to give up an hour or two out of their precious weekends to do liturgical calisthenics (sit, kneel, stand, kneel, sit), and encourage them to give money so that the church can continue to feed the hungry, care for the sick, and marry the homosexuals (like Jesus did) out of the comfort of their altar-filled, stained-glass cathedrals. That's a PR manager's dream.

So while progressive Christians and secular liberals continue to laud the Episcopal Church (US) as a model for Christianity, regular old Christians are investing less and less of their time in the Episcopal and like churches. Douthat rightly observes that the problem is not a renewed emphasis on the social ramifications of the Gospel but on the emptiness that comes when you strip Christianity of everything not compatible with political liberalism, not unlike Burklo trying to taking everything "unbelievable" out of the New Testament. The truth is, and somewhere some Episcopalian must know it, that a Christianity without a full-bodied, soul-saving, pre-existing, sanctifying, dead-buried-resurrected-returning Christ is no Christianity at all. It certainly has nothing that is going to put butts in the pews and bills in the offering plate. If progressive Christianity is going to continue to have a voice in the greater faith community, it needs to realize that it has fallaciously and dogmatically married social liberalism and theological liberalism. Maybe that's the aberrant marriage they really should be worried about.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Acronymania: LCU and OCU join NCAA

Congratulations to Oklahoma Christian University and Lubbock Christian University. They're joining Abilene Christian, Harding, Lipscomb, Pepperdine, and Ohio Valley as Church of Christ affiliated universities competing athletically in the NCAA. It is interesting--a term intended to be without judgment--to see how far the Churches of Christ have come.

The OCA Spits Out Jonah

Here's a bit of news that shocked me both for how dramatic and how long overdue it was:

The Chicago native elected to the helm of the Orthodox Church in America resigned last weekend, saying in a letter that he has "neither the personality nor the temperament" to lead the church.

Metropolitan Jonah submitted his resignation during a conference call on Saturday, July 7, with other bishops of the church. In his letter of resignation, he said he was leaving the post in response to the unanimous request of the bishops.

"I had come to the realization long ago that I have neither the personality nor the temperament for the position of primate, a position I never sought nor desired," he wrote in a letter of resignation.

He should have come to the realization "long ago," as he said he did, but if so, why did it take him so long to step down. It was over a year ago that the mounting tensions led the Synod of Bishops to ask Jonah to ask for a leave of absence, for his own mental and spiritual well-being. The decision came as a result of ongoing struggles between Jonah and the Synod of Bishops, the Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisory Committee, and members of the highest echelons of the church and because of Jonah's attempts to force a move of the administration of the church from its traditional home in New York to Washington and suspicious relationships he maintained with the church in Russia that many believed hinted toward an effort to give up OCA autocephaly. All of that was last spring, and even after his "retreat," Jonah came back as contentious as ever.

So it really isn't shocking in the least that the bishops of the OCA would "unanimously" request that he step down. The only real surprise is that it took so long to do it. Jonah was chosen as the Metropolitan in one of the darkest times for the OCA and made his name by challenging prevailing notions of tyrannical authority that had lead to the corruption and crisis under the previous metropolitan. I remember his selection in 2008 and listened to his speeches as often as I could lay my hands on them. As an interested observer, I had hope for the direction of the OCA, but, having watched history unfold, I can only ask myself, what ever happened to this guy?

On a broader level our whole life in this Church together is a life of 'synergy', a life of voluntary cooperation, a life of obedience to Jesus Christ and to the Gospel. If it is not about obedience to Jesus Christ and the Gospel (then) what are we doing here? What are we doing here?

The Gospel has to be first and foremost above every other consideration. It is the canon by which we measure ourselves.

So when we look at our ecclesiology, when we look to see what the Church is and what the Church can be -- because it is always in that process of becoming - it is always in that process of entering into that divine synergy which is nothing else than the very process of our deification together as one body with one spirit, with one heart, with one mind. And it's a mutual decision to cut off our own will, to cut off our own selfishness, to cut off our own ideas, to enter into that living 'synergy' which is communion; otherwise, our Eucharist is a sham and we are alienated from Christ.

If we are not at peace with one another -- now that doesn't mean that we cannot, you know, work out our disagreements, God knows as Orthodox we love to fight, right? But we need to work it out so that we can enter into that living experience of communion in cooperation and mutual obedience and mutual submission in love and mutual respect.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Great Foreskin Debate Continues

I honestly felt remiss in delaying so long sharing this, because I noticed it right when it happened. The German government, clearly responding directly to pressure from me personally, responded to the court ruling made several weeks ago now which declared religious circumcision illegal:

Germany's foreign minister on Sunday offered assurances that Germany protects religious traditions after a court ruled that circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounts to bodily harm even if parents consent...

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that a legal debate "must not lead to doubts arising internationally about religious tolerance in Germany."

"The free exercise of religion is protected in Germany. That includes religious traditions," Westerwelle said in a statement. "All our partners in the world should know that."

That's good to hear, Guido, but even weeks later, it would appear that many are unsatisfied with these kinds of toothless assurances. So frightening is the stance of the German government--apparently, just one of many European abridgments of religious freedoms--that the Germans have driven together Jews and Muslims for a common purpose:

In a joint statement from Brussels earlier this week, a group of rabbis, imams and others said that they consider the ruling against circumcision ‘‘an affront on our basic religious and human rights.’’

...The German ambassador to Israel told lawmakers in Jerusalem on Monday that the government was looking into whether laws needed to be changed.

‘‘For us the deadline is not tomorrow, but yesterday,’’ Goldschmidt said of possible changes to the law. In the meantime, however, ‘‘we say to the Jewish community ... keep performing the brit milah, and have no fear.’’

Unfortunately, it may be difficult for the Jewish community to heed this call, since "the president of the German Medical Association this week recommended that doctors cease performing circumcisions for religious reasons until the law can be clarified."

Thursday, July 12, 2012

An Honest Assessment of Evil

Some years ago, I raised questions about the place of the Holocaust, and Auschwitz in particular, in debate regarding the problem of evil. It was my contention then--one which I continue to stand by--that the Holocaust did not represent any special evil, any new sort of paradigm shattering expression of the depravity of human behavior. In fact, the truly shocking nature of the Holocaust was precisely in that it was consistent with the overarching history of humanity's gross inhumanity.

In reading Vernard Eller's Christian Anarchy in conjunction with the Anarchy in May series, I came across similar arguments he was making with regard to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though I thought it best to delay sharing them so as not to overwhelm readers, the arguments bare reiterating and Eller argues them well:

With zealotism, things get worse rather than better. It turns out that the black heart of the black West is the United States of America. “More than any other event in history the worldwide human experience of those August days in 1945 (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was a recapitulation of the primeval Fall.”

…Why would it not be nearer to speaking the truth in love to say some things such as these: “In World War II, every combatant that possessed atomic capability used it. That some did not possess it is of no moral credit to them. T he evidence is that all would have liked to have it and would have used it if they had had it—as would the Romans (or the Zealots) if it could have been theirs in the first century. So where is this quantum jump in moral evil?

“Whereas Hiroshima was destroyed with a single bomb, other cities in other nations and other wars have suffered similar devastation from conventional (if not primitive) weapons—it just took a bit longer to do it. So where is the quantum jump in moral evil?

“Although we are not obligated to agree, we are obligated seriously to consider and thoughtfully to respond to President Truman’s rationale for using the bomb. His explanation cannot simply be waved aside as disingenuous.”

…”That the Hiroshima bomb was not ‘history’s most evil event’ as the zealots make it out to be is shown clearly by its context. The bomb was not used as a first strike but as one blow in a raging war in which every combatant already was throwing everything he had. And the U.S. had not started but had entered only under the provocation of what was indeed a dastardly first strike. The U.S. purpose in using the bomb clearly was to achieve a surrender and a cessation of hostilities, and was in no way a genocide of the Japanese people…”

Now I am opposed to war—all war, including the U.S. involvement in World War II. But in my anti-war manual of the Bible I find not one little bit of this business of playing fast and loose with the facts in order to single out one nation’s “war demon” as the special recipient of true Christianity’s righteous rage. If find it suggesting, rather, that from Cain on, all war has been very much the same, a manifestation of the same spirit of sin no matter who’s doing it how—even if it should be the “peace people’s” war against the U.S. Government.

The same, of course, should be said for the Holocaust, and Eller's argument should give Christian's pause as they attempt to single out Nazi Germany's "war demon" as somehow more atrocious than their own. After all, the same war which saw the internment of Jews in Germany saw the internment of the Japanese in America. The same war that saw Hitler exterminate six million Jews over the course of twelve years saw the Americans exterminate seventy thousand Japanese civilians in a single day. You do the math: which nation was the more efficient executioner of non-combatants?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Change of Perspective

It has been a long time, a very long time, since I have been excited about reading a history text outside my field of academic specialty, but a brief description of David Northrup's Africa's Discovery of Europe (2nd ed) was more than enough to arouse my interest. In this concise but engaging study, Northrup attempts to dissect the Afro-European encounter of the pre-colonial era from the perspective of the Africans. The approach doesn't seem all that novel on its face, until you really begin to consider just how euro-centric our perceptions of the "discovery" of Africa are. It doesn't take long before Northrup begins to turn standard wisdom on its head, forcing the reader to reconsider what idiosyncratic ideologies, politics, and historiographies have motivated the retelling of this history up to this point. The final result is a more fully rounded, realistic picture of Afro-European relations, one that is not dominated by the historiography of racial guilt but which privileges the historical recordings of actual Africans to European assumptions about what Africans must have been doing, feeling, and thinking.

The only real drawback in his exciting new approach is that Northrup has a frustrating habit of hedging his bets, an unfortunate necessity in an academic climate where the fear of political intrusion with its standard accusation of racism has taken on far too much weight. It is so obvious that it ought not need restating that the experience of Africans in the Americas was dominated for centuries by overwhelming racial prejudices. This fact notwithstanding, we ought to have the intellectual fortitude to let the evidence decide what the experience of Africans in Europe was or, for that matter, that of Africans in Africa encountering Europeans. The regular reminders by Northrup that his facts may be tainted, biased, skewed, or corrupted eventually begin to come across as defensive and indecisive, even if he follows these caveats with assurances that he is confident in his rendering. It is not for the historian to remind us that historical records are not scientific data which can be analyzed like so many particles under a microscope.

Nevertheless, Northrup's text is deeply challenging and, because of this, immensely satisfying. He takes direct aim at the popular notion of the African encounter as one between the exploitative light-skinned pillagers and the poor, dark, benighted villagers. He points out that war, plundering, and the slave trade all antedated the Africans first encounters with the European. Taking specific aim at the politicized notion of a European-induced cycle of selling slaves to get guns to capture more slaves, Northrup even cites explicit statements from African rulers that capturing slaves is a centuries old part of African culture (as it was in European culture) and that he never goes to war simply to take slaves. The guns, Northrup points out, that so fascinated the Africans, actually did very little to give any one combatant a decisive advantage in war, making such a cycle unlikely if not impossible. Northrup also debunks the notion that European trade somehow destroyed native craftsmanship. He combats blanket assumptions of racism, showing cases where Africans were encouraged to marry white Christian woman rather than black pagan ones and numerous cases in which Africans in Europe translated a lionizing of their skin color into educational, political, and social opportunities.

What remains then is a less stylized and more human picture of the Afro-European encounter. Contrary to prevailing notions, Africans and Europeans entered into mutually beneficial economic, social, and political relationships which made many on both sides extremely wealthy at the expense of the lower classes (an economic circumstance which has always dominated history). Africans and Europeans mingled and even intermarried at almost every level of society with restrictions of class and religion being infinitely more important than those of race. Of the many successful and long-lasting conversions to Christianity, those which were in any sense forced were the exception rather than the rule, and most accounts by actual Africans represent the choice of Christianity as a conviction of faith that they embraced rather than a decision of expediency. (Interestingly, Northrup points out as a historian what many theologians and ministers have been realizing for some time now, that the metaphysical world of tribal Africa is on many of its most important levels, compatible with Christianity.) Local artisans continued to create local crafts, local peoples continued to embrace local customs, and even "westernized" Africans remained acutely aware of their cultural heritage and those features of it which were non-negotiable just to suit their fascination with the technological and cultural advances of the West.

This is, of course, not to say that everything was rainbows and roses. Africans made war on Africans; Africans made war on Europeans; Europeans made war on Africans. Slaves were taken by Africans to be kept, to be sold to other Africans, or to be sold to Europeans (who would in turn typically resell them). Slaves ships, while probably not most accurately represented in the polemical accounts of the abolitionists, did have a one in eight mortality rate, with the cause of death ranging from disease, dehydration, capital punishment, and, all too often, suicide. However muted the inter-cultural animosity among Europeans and Africans was, it is an inescapable fact that many Africans ended up in the Americas where conditions were brutal and racism rampant, and, before long, European colonialism would irrevocably change the dynamic between the cultures.

Nevertheless, what Northrup offers is an account that steps away from using history in the ongoing blame-game and instead engages the accounts on their own terms. He admits that his credulity in reading some of the accounts will strike some historians as naive, but--and I cannot stress my agreement with him here too strongly--the alternative method of assuming a certain narrative and then discounting accounts which deviate from it is infinitely more suspect. What Northrup does instead is challenge the reader to take Africans at their word rather than assuming to speak for them, which seems to me to be a more pernicious form of racism anyway. The final product then is not only a great work of history covering a specific subject in a specific time period but also a convicting challenge to be wary of our inevitable and natural inclination to assume that history exists only in our default perspective of it.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Real Victims of the Heat

Why aren't more people talking about the cows?

For farmers this extreme heat can be just as hard on cattle as it is on their crops.

Farmers told 13 NEWS spoke with are using misters and watching their cows around the clock because they know this heat can have a devastating affect on their lives.

"Anytime the temperature gets above 70 degrees actually, cows start feeling heat stress and so you add 35 more degrees with a heat index on top of that, those cows are not having a good day."

More than just not having a good day, some cows are dying. It breaks my heart. If I thought it would help, I would start a Lemonade for Cows charity, but I don't know how well that would go over.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Customized Christianity: Ethics à la Carte

The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled "How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable." For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo's Bible.

I have made a number of arguments against Jim Burklo’s vision of a believable Christianity over the past week. I criticized his willingness to assume an oppositional relationship between faith and practice, his inability to distinguish between marginal and central biblical stories and truths, his dangerous Christology, and his selective hermeneutic. All of these, however, are part of a broader flawed attempt to collapse religion into ethics. It is only by elevating ethics to the status of comprehensive and exclusive truth that he can effectively disregard the doctrine, dogma, and fantastic stories that he believes hinder people from finding genuine Christianity. Unfortunately for Burklo, Scripture gives us every indication that ethics are rooted in theology, conditioned by soteriology, and aimed toward eschatology (just to name a few of those evil, confusing categories that label trivial matters).

Burklo, as mentioned repeatedly, believes that the central message of the Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount. Far be it from me to ever stand in the way of someone trying to refocus Christians on the Sermon on the Mount, but the majority of Protestant Christianity is going to have a bone to pick with Burklo. And rightly so, as there seems to be a general consensus that, if a single passage encapsulates the gospel, the real text of central importance is John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Look at that. We have a theological statement about the nature of God flowing into a soteriological statement about the mechanism of salvation flowing into an eschatological statement about the eternal destiny of humanity. Do you notice what’s missing? Any mention of ethics. This has been the animating sentiment of so much of Protestantism, precisely because of its antinomian character, from Luther’s sole fide to the now widespread evangelical idea (specifically derided by Burklo) of a personal relationship with Jesus.

Certainly, I am part of a generation that wants to correct the stress on faith without ethical strictures, but there is much to commend Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (one of those passages where Jesus is speaking but Burklo apparently isn’t listening, as there is nothing about social justice) as a good synopsis of the purpose of the Incarnation. The biblical text is not the narrative of the struggle for a moral principle to take root among moral actors but of a perfect God trying to reconcile to Himself a willfully imperfect creation. This reconciliation, the New Testament makes very clear, takes place not with Jesus preaching on the mountain top but with him dying on the cross, being buried in the tomb, and conquering death in the resurrection. Christianity is not an ethical system which we can be convinced to believe but a comprehensive experience of a personal God that radically shapes more than just our ethics.

Otherwise, the poor are left to hope in the moral regeneration of the world for their deliverance. The sick are left to hope in the dedicated work of altruistic physicians for their healing. The oppressed are left to hope for a people powerful enough to enact their liberation but righteous enough not to use that power to oppress. It’s a false hope, an empty hope, very much like faith in an unresurrected Christ is an empty faith. Faith in Christ and hope for an inbreaking kingdom are realities which transcend how we treat one another. They have to do with the totality of existence, and all of reality falls inside the scope of Christian faith.

Genesis, historical or not, teaches us about the nature of the physical world and God’s relationship to it. The Psalms reveal the human character, both as it is and how it can be when it allows itself to be transformed, more than just morally, by the redeeming power of God. Job guides us through the problem of evil and, centuries before the greatest philosophers the world has known would reach the same conclusion, declares that it is irresolvable (but nevertheless God). The prophets instruct us on the interrelatedness of piety and social justice, a lesson Burklo could stand to revisit. Micah introduces us to a vision of the culmination of reality which will define not only Judeo-Christian eschatology but the whole of Western civilization’s utopian vision: peace, fertility, leisure, uncoerced global unity, and the eternal pursuit of knowledge.

Most, if not all, of these themes are taken up explicitly or alluded to by Jesus in his ministry and, if we are going to accept the validity of the biblical account, they must be engaged by Christians as well. We cannot simply call them trivialities, hindrances in the way of creating a heaven on earth (something which Burklo doesn’t seem to believe that Scripture explicitly states is beyond the scope of human possibility). God’s transformative work is not limited to human behavior. Being in Christ is a total transformation, and that includes those pesky truths that Burklo encourages us to ignore. We may never understand them perfectly and we may dispute about them until the second coming, but pursing those truths is part of the great pursuit of perfection, of conformity to the image of Christ.

And, of course, an unwillingness to engage these doctrines and stories, the marginalization of everything that isn’t explicitly command in the social ethics of Jesus, has profound and tragic implications for ethics. Burklo relishes the fact that “Jesus said nothing about [homosexuality and abortion] whatsoever in the New Testament. There’s no hint in the Bible that these topics mattered to him at all.” While the factual accuracy of much of this may be disputed, the real issue is with Burklo’s logic. By the same reasoning, Jesus never mentioned eugenics and therefore there is no reason to assume that the actions of Nazi Germany bothered him. He certainly didn’t talk about atomic weaponry and therefore the atrocities in Nagasaki and Hiroshima probably wouldn’t have mattered to him. After all, harkening back to the points about the divine sparks, Truman probably reasoned that the bomb was how many Americans thought they could express love for the Pearl Harbor widows.

In truth, Jesus presented a radically different view of reality, and more than presenting it, he inaugurated it. The mission of Christ was not primarily one of persuasion. It was one of redemption, and it is impossible to crack the pages of Scripture and think otherwise. The greatest change achieved when he ascended into heaven was not that he had presented a wonderful new ethos for people to construct their own heaven but that he had made of himself the conduit through which humanity might find themselves reconciled to God—which, it turned out, is “heaven.” Trying to take Christianity and customize it, sanitize it, by saying, “I like the ethics but not the other teachings” (i.e. doctrine, dogma, and stories) is a little like saying, “I’m a Muslim but only because I feel compelled to make a trip to Mecca once in my life.” Religions are not like buffets: “none of that ‘I’d rather gouge out my eye than go to hell’ nonsense but I’ll have a double helping of the meek shall inherit the earth.” They stand or fall on the strength of their interrelated features. Frankly, without a benevolent, personal deity who became incarnate as an expression of love to recreate the world and me with it if only I choose to allow myself to be transformed, the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t make sense. If I’m imagining my most pleasurable world, my “heaven on earth,” I’m ashamed to admit that liberating the oppressed is a lower priority than legalizing marijuana and prostitution. Certainly turning the other cheek doesn’t sound heavenly at all.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Customized Christianity: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled "How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable." For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo's Bible.

In spite of his unorthodox view of the nature of Jesus and his divine spark, Burklo does put an appropriate stress on Jesus as the central figure in the Christian religion. It is his thought, his teachings, and his deeds which need to take critical importance rather than Calvin or Wesley or Luther or Campbell (to steal an old and mostly unfounded intra-Protestant polemic). Unfortunately, Burklo thinks that it is appropriate, for whatever reason, to be very selective about what in those human documents about Jesus are really important and which are not.

We have already observed that Burklo was prepared, inexplicably, to declare the unique passage in Matthew 5-7 the central message of the gospel and the resurrection, retold by all four gospel writers and Paul, doesn’t really matter. This is really reflective of a broader fallacy for Burklo of paradoxically trying to affirm what Jesus said and reject what he did. He admits that Jesus’ moral teachings are hard to swallow, but insists that therein lies their moral force. Then, in direct contradiction, he declares the stories about Jesus hard to swallow and therefore expendable. It isn’t just the resurrection imperiled by Burklo’s Jeffersonian attempts to purge the Bible of the unbelievable. In the course of listing all the things Jesus doesn’t mention, he points out:

The Sermon on the Mount makes no mention of believing in miracles, believing the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ, believing in the Trinity or the Apostle’s Creed, or even “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior”.

Ironically, in the previous entry we noted that one of the core features of Burklo’s vision of love is healing the sick. It’s unfortunate that, in spite of that commission, Christians are being instructed to disbelieve the miraculous healing stories. Not to mention the famous reply of Jesus to John, “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Having made clear already that he doesn’t believe in miracles and especially not in resurrection, Burklo makes Jesus a liar or at least his human biographers. If that’s the case, why should we even bother to take the all-important Sermon on the Mount all that seriously? Perhaps it is just hyperbolic or distorted or metaphorical. Perhaps turning the other cheek isn’t a hard and fast rule. Perhaps God really isn’t all that invested in the success of marriages. Of course, that’s the way Christians throughout the centuries have treated the famous sermon, but the strength, the cornerstone of Burklo’s vision of Christianity is the weight it gives the radical ethical challenges presented in the Gospel. Unfortunately, his own vision of biblical credibility compromises the integrity of his favorite passage.

It isn’t that I believe you can’t be a Christian without believing that Jesus walked on water. As someone who has taken my fair share of criticism for doubting the historicity of numerous Old Testament narratives, it would be hypocritical to impose that standard on anyone. The real problem is that the blithe way in which Burklo treats essentially all the deeds of Jesus directly contradicts and undermines the confidence he has in the moral teaching of the Gospels. There is at least a greater deal of intellectual honesty and consistency with groups like the Jesus Seminar that apply rigorous scholarly criteria to determine what the historical Jesus might actually have said, and approach the entire Gospels with a heaping dose of doubt. Burklo has decided what he wants the gospel to be—love, defined as God and the divine spark within all of us and the social justice impulse of Jesus’ recorded ministry—and invested only those passages of Scripture with credibility. It is not convincing as an objective hermeneutic, as appealing as it may be as a sanitized, politically correct incarnation of the faith.

Of course, it isn’t merely the stories about Jesus’ life that Burklo takes the knife to. He also makes no positive mention of any non-ethical teachings of Jesus or even those ethical teachings which might not fit neatly into his social gospel. That, however, is the content of my next and final complaint.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Destroying Obamacare, the American Way

I happened to be on the road this past Tuesday--all day in a compact car filled with all my earthly treasures--and managed, from time to time, to pick up bits of NPR and conservative talk radio, depending on what city I was passing through. It happened that in the Metroplex I tuned in to the Ben Ferguson show, only the regular host was out for the holiday. Faux-Ferguson, unsurprisingly, was in a tizzy about the much discussed recent Supreme Court decision regarding health care. The overwhelming boredom of a long road trip compelled me to listen.

Faux-Ferguson was of the opinion that, once Mitt Romney is elected president, he needs to sign an executive order voiding the decision of the court. He seemed to understand the unprecedented and unfounded nature of this action, suggesting that what America really needed was a "constitutional crisis." After all, in his opinion, the action of the court had been unprecedented and unfounded. He was of the opinion that anyone who read the Constitution would understand that judicial review as it is now practiced is beyond the scope and power of the judiciary.

What he could not do, is point out where the Constitution contravenes what I learned in kindergarten: that two wrongs don't make a right. Thankfully, a caller phoned in and suggested that very fact to him, implying that just as the Constitution didn't envision a tyrannical court, it didn't intend for an imperial presidency. The caller insisted that what Republicans needed to focus on now, to get rid of Obamacare, is electing a majority in both houses of Congress and a Republican president.

Faux-Ferguson pointed out that even with the legislative repeal of Obamacare, the legal precedent of taxing inactivity has been set and will need to be overturned. And he's right, but there is a perfectly legitimate constitutional mechanism for achieving this without falling into the blatant hypocrisy of a so-called "consistent constitutionalist" suggesting that the actions of a single man can unilaterally overturn the actions of an entirely equal branch of government.

If the talk jockey would spend less time shouting at his dissenting listeners "have you read what the Constitution says about the court" and move on to the history of the court, he might make some headway and realize that the court's size is not fixed. It has changed at least a half a dozen times over the course of history, both expanding and shrinking. No less a revered Democratic figure than Franklin Roosevelt made a valiant attempt to stack the court with justices in order to ensure his legislative achievements would stand. With a little determination, modern Republicans might succeed where he failed.

Certainly the eradication of Obamacare requires the election of Republican majorities in Congress and a Republican president. From there, the constitutional course is for the new Congress to pass legislation expanding the size of the court from nine to eleven justices, for the new president to nominate two strict constructionists to the bench, for the new Congress to speed there approval, and for Republican states to find new grounds on which to bring suit once again.

Sure, it's an arduous process, but Faux-Ferguson and other Republicans need to understand that this is precisely the beauty of the Constitution. With all the whining about how slowly the wheels of progress turn in Washington, it is important to realize that the USA was founded with deliberate safeguards to insulate government from the hot will of the masses. It is just as dangerous to have a president who is willing and able to sign unilateral orders on the basis of public opinion as it would be elect justices by popular vote for short terms or to directly elect Senators (oops). The point is that each branch of government always has recourse to correct the errors of the other, but these correction require, and ought to require, a tremendous exertion of political effort. It is this political inertia that actually prevents the government standstill that would inevitably result from conflicting branches of government entering a cycle of political power-brokering and one-upsmanship.

Imagine if all the branches of government thought like Faux-Ferguson's president. Romney would sign an executive order voiding the courts decision, then the court would unanimously strike down this move, then the legislature would move to impeach the court, but the court would have itself acquitted. Ad infinitum. What a wonderful world that would be. At least for talk show hosts.

As always, the preceding were my thoughts as a politlcal observer and not a political participant.  They were not intended to endorse a particular course of action, whether that be the repeal or the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.  It was simply an attempt to bring historical observations to bear on the present situation and to encourage an internal consistency by the parties as they discuss the way forward.  The Kingdom will come in its own time and in its appointed way whether the government penalizes citizens for not buying health care or not.

Customized Chrisitanity: Finding Your Divine Spark

The following is one of a multi-part response to an article by Jim Burklo entitled "How To Live As a Christian Without Having to Believe the Unbelievable." For an introduction to these thoughts, see Burklo's Bible.

As promised, let us turn now to that nasty dogmatic discussion of Arianism, a spectrum of beliefs which, in their many forms, share the common denominator of a belief that Jesus was somehow less than divine. The Trinity, and its necessary belief in the full and equal divinity of Jesus, is among those pesky doctrine that Burklo would have us do away with if we find them at all offensive. What he proposes instead is a benign, new age rendition of the divinity of Christ more palatable to our refined, enlightened sensibilities.

When Jesus asked us to believe in him, he wasn’t asking us to believe a list of ideas about him. He was asking us to believe in that spark of the divine that was inside of him, because he wanted us to believe in the spark of the divine that is in every one of us.

Let's ignore, for the time being, the unfortunate reality that Jesus never actually says what Burklo wants him to. He never references a common divine spark shared between himself and humanity. He doesn't mention a divine spark at all. But this willingness to pick and choose and distort Burklo's own chosen source material to conform to his preset notion of who Jesus ought to be is a problem to deal with tomorrow.

Instead, let's assume, arguendo, that Burklo's argument isn't self-defeating on its face and look to the disastrous implications of his vision of Christianity. What Burklo has offered us is a perverted version of Jesus message read anachronistically through the lens of Enlightenment humanism. It imagines Jesus not as something other than or apart from the human condition but as an exemplar of the ideal human as humanity can and ought to be. If only humanity would see and embrace love ("who is God") which is already available to us, already accessible, then we could construct a heaven on earth.

It is, for all intents and purposes, a functionally atheistic form of Christianity. Except that really isn't fair because what it actually does is deify humanity creating a vulgar, anthropotheistic religion. This devastates theology, particularly the cosmic story of fall and redemption, creation and recreation, that dominates the biblical narrative, replacing it instead with universe which revolves around me. Just the way we like it. This paring away of the annoying doctrines of soteriology, cosmology, and eschatology will be the subject of my final complaint. More crucially here, Burklo's vision of Christianity even undermines his all important ethical consideration. After all, if God is love and I have God (i.e. love) inside me and practicing love is the whole duty of man (not, as the narrator of Ecclesiastes says, fearing God and keeping His commandments) then any behavior which I can reasonably justify as originating from love--whatever that is, however I feel like defining it, since I have the divine spark equal to that of Jesus--is moral.

In fairness, Christians of all stripes do this anyway. I'm loving that homeless man by not giving him a few dollars because he'll probably just use it to buy liquor anyway. I'm loving my spouse by being obstinate because, in the long run, what I know is right will be best for both of us. I'm loving my enemies by invading their country and setting up a democracy because that's how God wants their lives to be governed. It's all ridiculous, but, by making Jesus the messenger of love and divine sparkliness, Burklo actually exacerbates the problem. If Jesus really did come to say, "Hey, I have a divine spark, and I'm living consistent with it. You should look to your divine spark too and live in accordance with its law of love," then he freed every man to be a canon unto himself, the measure of what love is and how it should be applied through the loose framework of "willingness to feed the hungry, liberate the oppressed, heal the sick."

Sure, it makes you always feel good about the kind of loving your doing because it is always consistent with your divine spark, but you're left feeling a little suspicious of the guy down the road whose working just as hard to liberate a different set of oppressed people--maybe the people you thought were oppressing your oppressed people--and in a way that you don't think is all that loving. I guess maybe his divine sparkler just sparkles different from yours.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Timely Note on Patriotism

We interrupt your regularly schedule review of Burklo's Christianity to offer these thoughts on the nature of patriotism from James Hillman's A Terrible Love of War.

The enemy provides the constellating image in the individual and is necessary to the state in order to collect individuals into a cohesive warring body. René Girard's Violence and the Sacred elaborates this single point extensively: the emotional foundation of a unified society derives from "violent unanimity," the collective destruction of a sacrificial victim, scapegoat, or enemy upon whom all together, without exception or dissent, turn on and eliminate. Thereby, the inherent conflicts within a community that can lead to internal violence become exteriorized and ritualized onto an enemy. Once an enemy has been found or invented, named, and excoriated, the "unanimous violence" without dissent, i.e., patriotism and the preemptive strikes of preventative war, become opportune consequents...If war begins in the state, the state begins in enmity.

Emphasis added.