Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sexy Amendments to the Constitution

We have all heard the ultimately impotent advocacy for an amendment to the Constitution that would restrict marriage to heterosexual monogamy. We have also all heard the formulaic justification: protect the family, protect marriage. The main problem here is that if I am really interested in protecting the family and traditional marriage, if I toast my Pop Tart every morning in the warm glow of my righteous cause, then a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is not where I'm going to start.

You won't hear Mitt Romney or Sean Hannity say it (though you might keep an eye on Newt Gingrich), but what this country really needs to protect families is an Amendment that criminalizes premarital sex. Out of wedlock births are the problem. That is what's destroying the family. The Brookings Institution reports:

In 1965, 24 percent of black infants and 3.1 percent of white infants were born to single mothers. By 1990 the rates had risen to 64 percent for black infants, 18 percent for whites. Every year about one million more children are born into fatherless families.

As of 1990, more than one in four children are born out of wedlock. Meanwhile, The National Gay and Lesbian Task force estimates that only 3-8% of the population are homosexuals, a number significantly higher than equally partisan Christian groups' estimates and higher even than Kinsey's statistic of 4% exclusively homosexual males. Even if we accept that high number thought, children born out of wedlock are a significantly higher percentage of children than homosexuals are of the general population. Even if suddenly same sex marriage were legal and immediately the entire homosexual population of America were to marry at the same rate the heterosexual population does, roughly half, the 12.5 million newly married homosexuals would still not match the roughly 20 million children under eighteen who were born out of wedlock. If we want to promote healthy families centered on heterosexual parents, the first step is to criminalize sex outside of marriage with an amendment to the Constitution.

Even if, oh were that it so, we could get that magical clause tacked on to the Constitution, gay marriage wouldn't be my next stop. After criminalizing pre-marital sex, the next greatest threat to traditional marriage is divorce. The oft quoted statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce, probably more scientifically stated as 40-50% of marriage will be disrupted by permanent separation or divorce, ought to be enough to prove that conclusively. In addition to destroying half of all traditional, heterosexual marriages, divorce leaves an estimated 1.1 million new children in broken homes every year. That is only slightly lower than the 1.2 million children born out of wedlock every year. The family is suffering.

If we follow our statistical path from the tentatively titled "No Milk Until You Buy the Cow Amendment," allowing same sex marriage would only see about a 2-4% increase in marriages, or roughly 100,000. Meanwhile, the legality of divorce allows for the destruction every year of well over one million marriages. The disparity is clear. Divorce poses roughly ten times the danger to marriage and the family that same sex marriage does. It must be criminalized, and it must be done at the Constitutional level.

It is a tragedy, really, that the "consistent conservatives" in this country have had so much trouble appropriately identifying and combating the real threats to traditional marriage. Perhaps if we made it an issues of America's standing in the world. Maybe if we point out that socialist Sweden has managed a significantly lower divorce rate than America. Or that in the sensuous Mediterranean climes of Spain, the out of wedlock birthrate is about 75% of what it is in the States. Canada is beating us in every category, which ought to be enough to infuriate every conservative. For single-parent households as a percentage of total households with children, America ranks below Canada, Japan, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK. We're dead last.

So let's get with it, defenders of traditional marriage. If you genuinely care about the state of marriage in this country, then it is time to stand up and make the hard decisions necessary to protect it. That, or maybe it is time to be honest with yourself and the public about what motivates your politics. Honesty in politics: God help us if we ever get it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Wisdom of Ann Stoler

In the epilogue of Ann Stoler's Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power (a book which is absolutely not on my recommended reading list for anyone except specialists in colonial studies...which I am decidedly not) there is an intriguing reflect on the function of classification in politics. Stoler is speaking directly about colonial systems of power, and specifically about the Dutch Indies, but her observations have a broader application, one that has been touched on here with reference to Vernard Eller and Roger Hines.

[T]axonomies demand more than specification and detail. As Jim Scott too notes, "seeing like a state" may encourage just the opposite--that its agents master not sociological fine print but broad simplified sociological generalizations. Taxonomic states may encourage state agents to pay less attention to detail than to sorting codes. Psychologists convincingly argue that taxonomies reduce cognitive expense. Colonial administrators seemed to treat them as technologies that reduced political expense as well. In the Indies, social categories that were "easy to think" pared down what colonial recruits and residents thought they needed to master. Sociological shorthands lessened how much of certain kinds of information one needed to operate and how much one needed to know.

In other words, the appropriation of difference for the purpose of classifying social groups is an exercise in political laziness. It "gloms," to steal Eller's language, large and diverse bodies into manageable subheadings so that the government can do just that, manage them. White, black, Hispanic. Gay, straight. 99%, job creators. Eller would say none of that categories correspond to any reality and, in fact, function to distort it. Stoler would seem to agree, as she recounts the way the concept of race was constructed in colonial contexts (where, interestingly, European could be so broad as to include the Japanese and Arabs).

While for Eller the problem is an ethical one, the inability to construct a classless and therefore just society as God desires, Stoler's account has a more detached air. She passes no judgment--being a historian and not, like Eller, a theologian--but only presents the grim, unnerving picture of the way the state has evolved to take the path of least resistance between reality as it is and reality as the state would construct it. More unnerving still for me was the realization that our democratic system distinguishes itself from the Dutch system of Stoler's work in that rather than a hegemonic few deciding the sociological categories and directing the state on those grounds, Americans participate in the grouping of themselves into arbitrary categories and allow themselves to be berated, pressured, and educated into conforming to those categories. Every time Americans vote, march, speak, protest, or perform any civic act in the framework of a sociological taxonomy and conforming to the expectations of that taxonomy they remove a conceptual roadblock to the power of the state to mold reality.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Circumcision: Benefits Outweight Risks

As a general rule, when debates about circumcision arise, I tend to fall with those who believe that a parent should have the right to make that decision for the child in its infancy. The notion of a child's right to choose is absurd to me, a point I tried to hammer when the courts in Germany made this an international issue. Additionally the frequent argument that having a foreskin results in a better sex life is precisely the kind of qualitative judgment that science is unable to make. The statement that a penis with a foreskin is more sensate is a scientific claim. That a more sensate penis is better or results in more fulfilling sex is not.

What remains, in terms of arguments against circumcision, is the notion that it is an entirely cosmetic procedure or that, if it has some medical value, that such a value is minimal and outweighed by the risks. The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a policy statement which the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists endorsed saying that just the opposite is true:

The nation's most influential pediatricians group says the health benefits of circumcision in newborn boys outweigh any risks and insurance companies should pay for it...

"It's not a verdict from on high," said policy co-author Dr. Andrew Freedman. "There's not a one-size-fits-all-answer." But from a medical standpoint, circumcision's benefits in reducing risk of disease outweigh its small risks, said Freedman, a pediatric urologist in Los Angeles.

Recent research bolstering evidence that circumcision reduces chances of infection with HIV and other sexually spread diseases, urinary tract infections and penis cancer influenced the academy to update their 13-year-old policy.

Their old stance said potential medical benefits were not sufficient to warrant recommending routinely circumcising newborn boys. The new one says, "The benefits of newborn male circumcision justify access to this procedure for those families who choose it." The academy also says pain relief stronger than a sugar-coated pacifier is essential, usually an injection to numb the area.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Convention has estimated circumcision costs range from about $200 to $600 nationwide...Meantime, a recent study projected that declining U.S. circumcision rates could add more than $4 billion in health care costs in coming years because of increased illness and infections.

As the quote states, this is nowhere near an endorsement of universal male circumcision. It does, however, better articulate a well-reasoned position on the subject. Informed parents can make informed decisions without being labeled, socially or legally, as child mutilators. Maybe that means that the US medical community is "out of step" with other developed nations, as Ronald Goldman suggests, but if Germany is an example of such a nation, I'm glad we're not in step with them.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Cow News

Several weeks ago, I had intended to share a story about an Oregon farmer who invested more than $100,000 in waterbeds for his dairy cows. The trend apparently started in the Midwest and is starting to catch on. The principle is simple, according to farmer Ben Van Loon: "Happier cows, happier milk."

A recent story about a rancher feeding his cattle chocolate brought it to mind again. This time the principles motivating the farmer are more explicitly commercial and the disclaimer "not fit for human consumption" puts a damper on the illusion, but it is nevertheless amusing to think about a world where cows are pampered with waterbeds and chocolates.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Pay Teachers Less

The American education system is broken. There are few if any who would argue otherwise. The problems are by no means simple, and the possible solutions are numerous. The administrative overhead of schools is one of the most obvious and easily resolved issues. Superintendents, principals, assistant principals, computer technicians, evaluators, social workers, security guards, secretaries, and countless other occupations which are not directly involved in the education of children, as well as the facilities needed to house this massive bureaucracy, eat up a disproportionate amount of taxpayer dollars. Consolidate the administrations, cut those positions, and slash those salaries. Bureaucrats should not be making four and five times the teachers in the trenches.

Numerous other problems do not lend themselves so easily to correction. The massive effort to centralize and standardize education has removed control from the people who should be served by, and therefore should control, the education process. Curriculum has become a political battleground, with the Right wanting schools to teach intelligent design and nationalistic propaganda and the Left wanting them to teach homosexual history and sexual liberation. The focus on variety—in learning styles, teaching methods, and more—has made education more about entertainment than learning. Teachers unions protect inept teachers, and the tenure system makes it impossible for new, highly qualified teachers to find good jobs.

Even more basic still, and therefore more difficult to change, is a set of cultural assumptions at all levels of society that hamstrings the education process. Parents aren’t interested in engaging with their children’s education. Students have no motivation to apply themselves. Decades of universal, compulsory education through secondary school has made graduation more a right than an accomplishment. The confusion of equal opportunity with equal ability creates an educational environment where teachers must teach to the least capable student, leaving those best able and most interested in learning to fend for themselves. Everyone thinks the system has malfunctioned, and everyone knows whose fault it is: not mine.

My vision for a functional education system would scrap the present manifestation of public education entirely, but if we’re discussing what to do with what we have, I have an unusual suggestion: pay teachers less. That, of course, flies in the face of conventional wisdom (which is a sanitized way of saying “campaign rhetoric”) and some unconventional experiments. There is a mindset which says that the problem with American schools is that education does not pay enough to attract the best and brightest that universities have to offer. If teachers were paid in a way comparable to other certified professionals, then maybe the kind of people we attract to be nurses, doctors, engineers, and lawyers would want to be teachers instead. My wife is a teacher, and so I understand acutely the attractiveness of raising teacher salaries and even the unfairness of their salaries relative to their workloads.

Baiting university students with the promise of more money, however, misunderstands the basic problem. American colleges are not under-producing qualified teachers. In fact, there are so many new teachers being sent out into the workforce, they can’t all find jobs. The ones that can find jobs, often find them as substitutes, teaching assistants, interim teachers, or as unprepared, ill-equipped new teachers in dangerous inner city schools. It is hard to imagine many people who actually spend time around teachers and hear about their problems directly (and constantly) honestly believe that the problem is that they simply lack the skill or financial motivation to do their jobs right.

Here’s the real problem. If my wife is a third grade teacher—and she isn’t, but bear with me—everyday she is faced with the same enigma. In her class she has little Bobby who is reading at a sixth grade level but still hasn’t mastered his multiplication tables. She also has little Sarah who is functionally illiterate but already has a rudimentary grasp of fourth grade math concepts. Little Mitchell is right on track with his learning if only my wife can convince him to sit in his seat and do his work. Little Rene is always too sleepy to pay attention, while little Marcus still doesn’t have a working grasp of conversational English. In addition to these five, she has twenty to twenty-five more students, equally diverse. Now, it doesn’t matter if you are Stephen Hawking and Steve Jobs and Mister Rogers all rolled up into one. There is no way anyone, no matter how qualified and no matter how well-paid, is going to come up with a multi-subject day of learning that is going to meet most or all of the needs of that class. Teaching devolves into learning-themed crowd management. In seven years, my wife is teaching tenth grade: Bobby is in remedial math, Sarah is cheating her way through high school English, Mitchell is on ADHD medication that has retarded his learning, Rene is pregnant, and Marcus is the father. The problem is compounded.

At $35,000 a year, my wife certainly isn’t getting paid enough to deal with that, even if it is only for nine months out of the year. It is hard to imagine, however, that one teacher making $60,000 is going to be able to solve the problem any better. On the other hand, two teachers making $30,000 each and managing two separate classes of only ten students each might just make a dent. Sure, there is still going to be diversity that needs to be overcome. Students will still present unique problems that will distract from an ideal educational environment. Some potential teachers might even be diverted from entering the field because of the reduced pay (though other ways to incentivize, such as broader loan forgiveness, could easily compensate for that). In the end, however, the net result will be a shift from the current reality of crowd management closer to an ideal experience of educational mentorship.

Of course, you could never actually pay teachers less. The unions wouldn’t allow it (and frankly, with the cost of getting a degree reaching meteoric heights, teachers couldn’t afford it). But it was never realistic to raise teacher salaries either, as that would inevitably cut into the lucrative business of multiplying administrative positions and bloating educational bureaucracies. Still, isn’t it nice to imagine a world where teachers could afford to train themselves to become educators and then actually be allowed to educate children? It distracts from the unsettling reality of one twenty-four year old woman in inner-city Atlanta trying desperately to get thirty nine-year-olds to meet state and national proficiency benchmarks on standardized tests so that she can continue to make payments on her six figure student loan debt. It’s almost as if prayer in schools isn’t really the issue after all.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Church in Nigeria "Strikes" Back

We have been following very closely the religious strife in Nigeria. (N.B., this is real religious strife, not "Obama is making me give condoms to nuns" or "My coach made me eat a pre-game meal in a church.") Initially, there were reports of retaliatory violence on the part of Christians in response to frequent, lethal assaults by Boko Haram. Thank God, the Christian Association of Nigeria has issued the following statement:

We will not encourage our people to carry arms against anybody whatsoever the situation may be. For those that are behind Boko Haram, you come to us with AK47, bombs, charms and other dangerous weapons, but we come to you in the name of God.

I want to assure Christians in Nigeria that Christ has always been with his people. He will never give victory to those persecuting Christians and the Church. Whoever is trying to exterminate Christians and Christianity from Nigeria is neither pleasing God nor his people.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Cow News

Is anyone else flabbergasted by the fact that we can put an R/C Tonka truck on Mars and develop a birth control pill for men but have yet to master the quick and humane execution of our meat? According to the Associated Press:

Federal regulators shut down a Central California slaughterhouse Monday after receiving undercover video showing dairy cows — some unable to walk — being repeatedly shocked and shot before being slaughtered...

Four minutes of excerpts the animal welfare group provided to The Associated Press showed cows being prepared for slaughter. One worker appears to be suffocating a cow by standing on its muzzle after a gun that injects a bolt into the animal's head had failed to render it unconscious. In another clip, a cow is still conscious and flailing as a conveyor lifts it by one leg for transport to an area where the animals' throats are slit for blood draining.

"The horror caught on camera is sickening," said Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing, based in Washington, D.C. "It's alarming that this is not only a USDA-inspected facility but a supplier to the USDA."

...The videos show workers pulling downed cows by their tails and kicking them in an apparent attempt to get them to stand and walk to slaughter. Others shoot downed cows in the head over and over as the cows thrash on the ground. In one instance, the video shows workers trying to get cattle to back out of a chute while repeatedly spraying them with water and shocking them.

It's a good thing the USDA is around to inspect these places. Otherwise, imagine what they would be doing.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Politics of Gun Control

I read Blake Zeff's recent article on gun control and found myself unexpectedly impressed. The piece begins with this simple premise:

There's a reason that nothing's happening to improve gun safety in America despite the mass shootings that now occur so regularly: No one in power is scared of the gun control movement.

And he proceeds from there to discuss not so much the "why" of gun control, which becomes so immediately repetitive in the wake of so many recent shootings, but the "how." Taking his cues from the movement to legalize same-sex marriage, he explores how gun control advocates need to be willing to invest financially in the cause and to take control of how the debate is framed. Both are pragmatic suggestions and both have worked very well for the same-sex marriage movement. It is an interesting exploration of the technology of politics.

Zeff also attempts to locate the major obstacle that gun control will face that same-sex marriage will not. For him, this is the established opposition represented symbolically (and fiscally) by the NRA. Now, I am skeptical that opposition movements to same-sex marriage can really be described as "relatively weak and poorly organized," except in places where it likely would have made no difference to begin with, but the political might of the NRA does make for a substantial hurdle to overcome.

Zeff does not, however, note a more crucial difference between the two movements. The press for same-sex marriage was, fundamentally, an attempt to expand a set of rights (as we conceive of them). Gun control, for whatever its merits may be, is an attempt to narrow a set of rights. It is critical to note that I am not saying that owning an assault weapon ought to be a right. For that matter, I am not saying getting married should be either. In simple pragmatic terms, however, where same-sex marriage has been permitted, people have been allowed to do something legally that they could not previously. Were gun control enacted, something that people could once do legally would no longer be licit.

You can frame the position as a libertarian one, as Zeff does. You can cite statistics about gun violence. You can appeal to examples of European nations with little to no gun crimes. You can reframe the parameters of the debate, restructure the narrative as much as you want. At the end of the day, Americans have a deeply ingrained cultural aversion to abridging rights. One need only look at Prohibition, that most dramatic of all prohibitive laws, and note that it took nearly one hundred years of temperance movements to see Prohibition amended to the Constitution and only thirteen years of spotty or non-existent enforcement to see it repealed. Once Americans have a taste of something or even the knowledge of the potential to taste of something, telling them they can't have it violates a spirit that permeates our society.

Zeff notes that the statistical data which shows a small majority of Americans in favor of at least some form of gun control is rendered pragmatically meaningless when the question of who will be motivated to translate those positions into votes. it is my suspicion that many people who will never own an assault rifle, even people who will never own a gun, when the time comes to decide whether or not to restrict a activity they have no intention of participating in, they will react viscerally and decisively. The Enlightenment sense of entitlement, of rights, is more essential to American culture even than Christian morality. To overturn it will require a more herculean effort even than the marginal gains that have been made toward legalizing same-sex marriage.

That is not to say it can't be done. It obviously can be. Americans have, from time to time and with varying degrees of permanence, broached new frontiers of government restriction of behavior. It is not typical, but it is possible. What's more, it is not even my intention to argue against trying to achieve gun control. While I recognize that pressing gun restrictions, even to the point that we already have, is antithetical to the spirit of those founders who drafted and supported the Bill of Rights, I also don't owe them any particular loyalty. I'd be happier in an America with fewer guns. Or no guns, since in my experience they exist primarily for sport hunting and violence directed at people--aggressive and defensive, licit and illicit.

All of that is beside the point. The point is that Zeff, while making an interesting and likely constructive argument for the mechanics of achieving gun control, fails to accurately grasp the problem of his parallel to same-sex marriage. This is not like knowing how to grow cucumbers and using that to learn how to grow squash. This is like knowing how to grow cucumbers and trying to use that to learn how to ungrow them. It's a whole different ball game.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Africa and Our Philosophy of Missions

Several weeks ago, I attended a Bible study, the speaker at which had just returned from a mission trip. The study took the form of a mission report, and the woman who led the study had a number of inspiring anecdotes to share as well as some gut-wrenching ones about the rural conditions there (which to my frustration, she seemed more curious about than moved by). Throughout the entire presentation, however, I couldn't help but wonder why she went at all. Her explanation, predictably, focused on issues like her calling and the personal faith journey it represented for her, as well as obligatory references to winning souls for the Lord.

Here's the problem. Zambia is a Christian nation. Not in the way America is a Christian nation but actually, constitutionally Christian. More than 85% of Zambians self-identify as Christians, a number significantly higher than the number of Americans who so self-identify. And while Zambia is notable, it is by no means exceptional among African nations. There are more Christians in Africa than there are Americans. Note, that was "Americans" not "American Christians." More critically, the African church is now being evangelized more successfully and more rapidly by Africans and increasingly Africans are being brought in under denominational headings that are non-existent and often unknown in the West.

In other words, the missionaries claim that while the people of Zambia had been "evangelized" they still hadn't been "discipled," came across more like American (or perhaps Baptist) chauvinism than evangelistic concern. African Christianity is thriving and growing in ways that Western Christianity have long sensed even dared to dream of. Long gone are the days of sixteenth century Ethiopian scholar Tasfa Seyvon, quoted by David Northrup as writing:

I am an Ethiopian pilgrim...from the land of the infidels to the land of the faithful, through sea and land. At Rome I found rest for my soul through the right faith.

I grew up, as so many of us did, with the missionary work to Africa taking center stage, and perhaps then there was a time for it. I don't know that I ever attended a church in my childhood that wasn't sponsoring a missionary to Africa. In truth, though, what the African church needs from Western Christianity is not another round of affluent white people to tell them the Gospel. They have the Gospel and they are taking the commission to preach it to all nations very seriously. Instead of evangelistic missions, they desperately need benevolence missions. Missions bringing doctors, food, the means to access clean water, plans for developing local infrastructure, and modern agricultural techniques.

In other words, don't tell me about going to a country where more than two thirds of the people live in poverty and expect me to be excited that you taught the local preachers to preach more mature sermons. Don't show me pictures of a village of people who lack the hygienic facilities and the understanding of disease to wash themselves regularly and expect me to be in awe that you saw a man healed miraculously of his sores. I don't want to hear the song that the children taught you in their native tongue, not those illiterate, naked children who were as hungry when you left as when you arrived. Callous as it may sound, and perhaps with a touch of exaggeration, the next missionary to Africa looking for support or accolade from me better have iodine tablets in one hand, Flintstones vitamins in the other, and these words on his lips: I am an American pilgrim from the land of the land of the faithful, through sea and land. At Africa, I found rest for my soul through the right faith.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Love Song for the South

I am not a Southerner by birth. In fact, I was an adult before I ever moved to the South for the first time. In view of those facts, my sudden and temporary exodus from the South should seem like a small affair, hardly worth mentioning (especially in this venue where I try to avoid autobiography as much as possible). Nevertheless, eight years living in the best and worst of Arkansas and Tennessee has thoroughly acculturated me.

I have been in the barren landscape of the American Southwest for only just over a week, and the culture shock, such as it is, has yet to wear off. I am not yet accustomed to the cool dry mornings and the hot dry afternoons. I still get confused momentarily at every sign where Spanish is the primary language, and English the translation. The Spanish Renaissance architecture, the dust storms, the cloudless skies, the brown landscape, the flat horizon. None of it even remotely recalls my adopted home in East Tennessee with the Smoky Mountains rising to greet me every morning.

The greatest difference is not, however, a matter of climate, scenery, or language. It is one of culture. The stereotype of the South moving at a slower pace, expressing herself in a more polite idiom, embracing notions of honor and classic
masculinity, of belles and beaus and agrarian simplicity are, James C. Cobb rightly notes in his history of southern identity, mythic constructions. Cobb does not, however, give quite enough attention to just how closely myth can conform itself to reality. The peculiar culture of the South, her sectional identity—nascent, perhaps, before the Civil War, but consciously constructed after that—can only be dismissed entirely by those academics (especially those educated Northern elites, curse us) who have only studied her but not lived in her.

There are numerous ways to attempt to quantify the cultural solidarity of the South against those who believe it is exaggerated or constructed out of misinformed nostalgia. The political solidarity is an obvious place to start, both as Democrats in the nineteenth century and beyond and then as Republicans in more recent history. Another obvious signifier is the historical predominance of democratic forms of religion in the South: the Methodists, Baptists, and Disciples. In either case, it would be simple to look at distinguishing political or religious features and reverse engineer from these telling facts about the South’s distinctive culture.

But southerners and sojourners alike do not experience those distinctive in this way. Instead, let me relay an anecdote or two that has been characteristic of my experience. After having lived in Arkansas for four years, I took a trip to the Midwest. While passing through Indiana, I stopped for a quick meal with a friend who lived nearby. The lunch was wonderful, but I couldn’t help but notice throughout how brusquely my friend addressed herself to the waitress. The waitress, in kind, seemed to respond to her just as abruptly. There was no overt hostility, but there were also a dearth of “please” and “thank you,” of smiles or friendly chatter. There certainly was nothing conversation about the tone. When lunch was over, I asked my friend if the waitress had done something to upset her, and she was confused. The waitress had been great as far as she was concerned. She left her a big tip. That was, in her Midwestern mind, a perfectly pleasant transaction. A similar lunch would probably have prompted distress for a southerner, as it did for me.

Some time later, after I had moved to Tennessee, I had occasion to attend a seminar in New York. I pride myself on my punctuality, and so I was surprised to find that when I arrived for the orientation precisely at seven o’clock when it was scheduled, I had already missed the first fifteen minutes and was left with nowhere to sit. Analogous seminars in Memphis invariable started fifteen minutes late. From New York, I took my wife into New England to visit my childhood home. We stopped at a snack shop along the way in the relatively early morning. We stood a way back from the menu, surveying it. There was no rush. The place was empty, and we had the whole day to explore the area. Nevertheless, we both got the distinct impression that we were being rushed.

There are countless positive antitheses to these as well. The police officer and the mechanic who replaced a torn belt on the side of the road in rural Arkansas asking nothing more in payment than a post card whenever we got where we were going. Walking into the barber after a bargain cutter performed a hack job on my hair and receiving the undivided care of the entire staff. Standing at the counter of a general store in North Carolina, holding up a line of tourists while I talked to the girl behind the counter about her morning sickness from her last pregnancy. Getting to know intimately the staff of a small town visitor center as we took hours to seek out the perfect place to eat. Sitting down with a stranger outside a store on main street and talking about nothing while our wives shopped.

On my last fateful trip out of the South, if you’ll pardon the melodrama, my wife and I stopped at a diner in Arkansas. A man in the parking lot noticed our Tennessee tags. He asked if the county on the license plate was near Sevier County. When we told him it was, he stopped and talked to us about his love of the Smokies, about his wife who had died some years ago, and about how he had scattered some of her ashes in the mountains. We offered our condolences. When I told him where I was moving, he offered me his condolences. Best wishes, God blesses, and good to me yous were all obligatorily exchanged, and my wife and I, delayed but not bothered, ate our breakfast.

That last incident sums up for me my brief but transformative experience in the South. Taken individually, my experiences elsewhere or my experiences in the South may be written off as so many unrelated incidents, not indicative of anything. Taken together, however, they manifest the character of a culture. Others from other parts of the nation will have had some or all of those experiences in their native regions, but I am convinced that they represent the soul of the South. Changed and changing, she nevertheless retains that distinctive pace, that polite, if only superficially so, idiom, that conservatism which is not limited to politics, that masculinity which is simple but virile, that femininity which is backward and self-contradictory but alluring, and that community where people are not strangers by default who become friends in time but friends automatically who may by circumstance be estranged.

There is, of course, a note of doxology in the above. It certainly isn’t my intention to place the South up as a paragon against which all other sectional American cultures are to be measured. Those peculiar features of southern culture have led to a number of the most shameful abuses in American history, though no more so than the ethos of the North. (Incidentally, as the historiography of the Northeast—which dominates the national conversation—continues to glory in the shame of race slavery in the South, it is curiously unconcerned with the analogous indignities which resulted from its competing system of wage slavery which, in some respects, continues even into the present.) Instead, I intend only to affirm the reality of those sectional differences and to express, on a personal level, my preference for the South, especially as I now find myself estranged from them.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Wisdom of Nobel Peace Laureates

Ten Nobel Peace Laureates are up in arms (pardon the expression) about a new show on NBC called "Stars Earn Stripes." In theory, at least, there is no such thing as bad press, but if there are any people you do not want publicly repudiating your work, it is Desmond Tutu and company. They have written an Open Letter to Mr. Robert Greenblatt, Chairman of NBC Entertainment, General Wesley Clark (ret.), Producer Mark Burnett and others involved in “Stars Earn Stripes”, which unfortunately only snippets of are being quoted by most press. Here is a longer quote about the way our culture, so distantly removed from its actual horrors, allows the enormity of war to be trivialized:

It is our belief that this program pays homage to no one anywhere and continues and expands on an inglorious tradition of glorifying war and armed violence. Military training is not to be compared, subtly or otherwise, with athletic competition by showing commercials throughout the Olympics. Preparing for war is neither amusing nor entertaining.

Real war is down in the dirt deadly. People—military and civilians—die in ways that are anything but entertaining. Communities and societies are ripped apart in armed conflict and the aftermath can be as deadly as the war itself as simmering animosities are unleashed in horrific spirals of violence. War, whether relatively short-lived or going on for decades as in too many parts of the world, leaves deep scars that can take generations to overcome – if ever.

Trying to somehow sanitize war by likening it to an athletic competition further calls into question the morality and ethics of linking the military anywhere with the entertainment industry in barely veiled efforts to make war and its multitudinous costs more palatable to the public.

The letter can be found, in its entirety, at the above link.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

John Lathrop on Peace and War

Here are some thoughts from John Lathrop's sermon "Peace and War," which, all in all, was intriguing from a historical standpoint and dreadful from a moral one. It starts out promising (provided you ignore the full title):

The principal happiness which we are made capable of enjoying, will be found in a state of peace with God, and peace with all mankind. It ought therefore to be the principal business of our life, to cultivate peace; that peace which Jesus preached, which his disciples preached, and which is inseparable from the religion we profess. Blessed, said he, who is in a peculiar sense, the author of peace--"Blessed are the peace makers for they shall be called the children of God."

It should be the business of the ministers of religion, in all possible ways, to promote peace. The Holy Bible is full of exhortations to this purpose. "If it be possible," saith the apostle Paul, "as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men!"

If only he didn't go on to reduce peace to a political objective, confusing it with the mere state of mutual non-aggression between the militarizes of respective bodies politic.

Our particular attention is called to the blessings which are to be found in a state of peace in the nation to which we belong; and peace with the other nations of the earth. Nothing is more to be deprecated than civil dissension.

As a side note, he spent a curious amount of time in 1811 decrying civil wars and ensuring his listeners that such a spectacle is unlikely to ever happen in the United States. "We hope...that the opposite parties [in our country] will not wantonly provoke and irritate each other." Oops.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Pacifism and Ethical Dualism

As promised, we turn now to Cartwright's thoughts on an ethical dualism which is characteristic of many, especially popular, expressions of Christian pacifist thought:

The bold contrast that Koontz draws between those who have converted to the Christian position and those who have not reflects a broader conception of dualist ethics, one that sharply distinguishes the moral obligations of the Church from those of the (unconverted) world. According to the dualist conception, Koontz argues, those "committed to the way of Christ" are expected to live differently from those in "the world." The dualist conception therefore leaves open the possibility of a certain "quasi-legitimate" justification for war, provided it is chosen and waged not by Christians but by the state. This view of the "higher responsibility" of Christians has its origins in another ongoing conflict of interpretations within a number of Protestant traditions. As Koontz observes, the conflict arises out of two closely related scriptural passages, St. Paul's Letter to the Romans 12:9-21 and 13:1-7, and is dramatically evident in the 1527 Schleitheim Confession: "The sword is an ordering of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and kills the wicked and protects the Good."

There can be no doubt that Cartwright is correct, at least where such an ethic exists (and it is by no means a straw man). Dividing the world into two ethical spheres with equally legitimate, divinely sanctioned codes of conduct (even quasi-sanctioned) creates a problem for pacifists when it comes to being a witness for peace in the world. Fortunately for pacifists, and unfortunately for Cartwright's complaint, much of the ethical dualism that is present in pacifist thought is only apparent, the product of semantic imprecision. The fault of pacifists, certainly, but not a great deterrent to their overarching message.

The key is in the language even Cartwright uses when paraphrasing Koontz. Christian pacifists know they "are expected to live differently" from non-Christians and, consequently, they expect non-Christians to live differently than they do. If these expectations are divine expectations which are, or ought to be, understood as identical to divine moral imperatives--if God expects a certain code of conduct from non-Christians in order to rise to the level of ethical living and a separate code of conduct from Christians to meet that same threshold, even if to different ultimate consequences--then Cartwright's problem is real and damning. If, however, the expectations are human expectations, pragmatic realities based on a recognition of the core beliefs which govern any give person or group of persons' behavior, the problem disappears.

To put it another way, the government expects you to obey the law, and I expect basketball players to be tall. Now, when I help a Christian convert flee the country in order to avoid sharing custody with her lesbian ex-wife, the government arrests me and puts me on trial. Rightly so. I violated their expectations which have authoritative force. Meanwhile, Muggsy Bogues was once a big name in the NBA. I didn't try to have him expelled from professional basketball because he didn't conform to my expectations. There is an obvious difference between normative expectations and pragmatic ones, even if Koontz does not take the care to specify which he means and Cartwright doesn't bother to consider the alternative to ethical dualism.

With regard to the use of force by government (e.g. war), it is important for Christian pacifists to be clear about what they mean when they say that they expect, or even that God expects (particularly in this latter case, with its anthropomorphic thrust), governments to employ violence. It is not an affirmation that their use of violence is legitimate, or even quasi-legitimate. It is a recognition that non-Christians in non-Christian institutions will employ non-Christian means to achieve non-Christian ends. To expect them to do otherwise--that is, to expect them to act like Christians--is to either live in a perpetual state of disappointment or, as has been more often the case, to find one's own view of what is Christian being slowly conformed to what is not even as Christians try to Christianize non-Christian instruments of power (e.g. civil government).

It is ultimately a matter of sequence not ethics, and it applies, for Christian anarchists, beyond the narrow scope of war. For example, when I say that I believe US government should legalize same sex marriage, that is not an endorsement of the morality of homosexuality. It is a recognition that it is inconsistent, even hypocritical, for the government to outlaw a behavior solely on the grounds that it violates morality. By the internal logic of the American system of government, in the political vision of the framers of this country, that kind of abridgment of freedom is anathema. I still think gay marriage is wrong, but I realize that expecting a country of non-Christians to behave as if they were Christians achieves nothing except to further open the name of Christ to ridicule.

The same logic then operates for the use of violence. I expect the government to use force not because it is virtuous to use violence beyond the walls of the church but because I understand that civil government necessarily sustains itself through the use of coercive force. The primary problem is not that Washington has a military and likes to use it. The primary "problem" is that Washington isn't Christian. Trying to coerce the state into becoming pacifist has all the logical consistency of going overseas to invade countries so they'll stop being hostile toward us. Which we would never do. Because it's stupid.

The solution to the problem of violence, as with the problem of homosexuality or any other ethical problem, is first to convert the problem people in question. Before I can convince someone that war is wrong, I first have to convince them that God exists, that sin is a problem, that God intervened through the Incarnation to remedy the problem, that the work of Christ inaugurated a new, peculiar existence for those who join themselves to him, and that this new life in Christ comes with a set of covenant expectations. Only then can we share the kind of internal logic necessary to get from the world needs war to thrive to Christ has called you to love your enemy, not resist the evildoer, and bless those who persecute you. There is no dualism there. Just a recognition of the organic nature of the human transformation which occurs when someone comes out of the kingdom of the prince of this world and into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Pacifism and Just War: Finding Common Ground

I recently checked out The Ethics of War and Peace from a local library primarily interested in reading Theodore J. Koontz's article, "Christian Nonviolence: An Interpretation." Like most people, I typically enjoy reading authors who I already agree with. There's nothing quite so satisfying as spending an hour reading someone say what you'd like to say if you had the clout to find your thoughts in print. Unfortunately, I found very little in Koontz's thought that impressed and instead found myself drawn to the critical response of Michael G. Cartwright to Koontz in "Conflicting Interpretations of Christian Pacifism."

Cartwright offers a number of probing critiques of Koontz, as well as an interesting engagement with the ethical dualism often inherent to Christian anarchism (which I will treat later), but what struck me most of all was his re-drawing of the lines of conflict. Cartwright admits that there is substantial disagreement between the way Christian pacifists and just war theorists approach the problem of war and the ideal of peace, but suggests, compellingly, that by marking the primary distinction as one between Christians who live in "the house of love" and those that live in the "house of fear" (to borrow Koontz's terms for describing pacifists and just war theorists), Christians necessarily mute what could be a common, if narrow, witness about war to the rest of the world.

If the conversation is framed as one between just war thinking and Christian pacifism, it is likely to proceed with advocates for just war focusing attention on Christian pacifists--as if they were the problem--while neglecting the challenge posed by other kinds of thinking about war and peace, such as "holy war" thinking, political realism, and Rambo-style militarism.

Borrowing Koontz's imagery, Cartwright later suggests,

It may be true that "fearful questions never lead to love-filled answers," but there are many kind of "fearful questions," and not all such questions are necessarily prompted by the same kinds of fear. To refine the image of the two houses, then, we might agree that not all the rooms in the house of fear are equally well-furnished, morally speaking.

More important than making allowances for a moral continuum, however, Cartwright stresses that the commonalities between the pacifists and just war theorists have something to offer as a witness to the global community, a message both parties are interested in propagating. He offers two specific examples. First, both, in contrast with realpolitik, agree that the burden of proof for justification is for those who choose war. Both ideologies represent a voice in the world, when they aren't too busy with internecine squabbling, that insists on "why go to war" as the dominant question rather than "why not?" Additionally, both ideologies reject consequentialist reasoning as primary in making personal or political decisions. The ends, in other words, do not necessarily justify the means for either group, and this is particularly true where war is concerned. Cartwright hints at other areas of potential common witness throughout, but these suffice to point out some of the deep ideological commonalities between the two groups.

Unfortunately, the possibility of a shared witness is, as is so often the case, destroyed precisely because of this common ground. As has been seen in countless times and in countless circumstances--for example the denominational struggles between the Baptists and the Restorationists in the 19th century South--it is when groups are most alike that their differences seem most important. Pacifists, and I am no exception, spend an inordinate amount of time assaulting just war thought. Even more incomprehensibly, just war advocates spend a disgusting amount energy trying to undermine pacifism, as if the real problem were Christians who do not go to war rather than Christians who go for sinister reasons to commit unspeakable atrocities.

This is not to say that debate should not continue or that--as Cartwright, with his professional ecumenical bent would seem to suggest--both positions are legitimate expressions of a common set of truths in Christ. It merely admits that war is evil, both in an absolute moral sense and in a utilitarian sense, and that as Christians we have a common duty to "speak the truth to power" against these evils. Where the alliance between Christians modes of thinking is possible it should be embraced rather than rejected because it is incomplete. At the end of the day, a just war theorist and I can sit down and lament the dropping of the bomb and, with any luck, convince the world that the consequentialist logic Harry Truman used and defended throughout his life fails to live up to the highest impulses of our created nature and, more importantly, with the divine expectations God expressed for us in Christ.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Mennonite on Trial for Kidnapping and Conscience

In case this story has been flying under your radar, here is what's happening:

Eleven women and three men were impaneled [Tuesday] to hear the case against Mennonite Pastor Kenneth Miller, accused of helping a woman flee the United States with her daughter rather than share custody of the child with her former lesbian partner.

Miller, 46, of Stuarts Draft, Va., is charged with aiding in international kidnapping. A conviction carries a maximum prison term of three years...

The judge said jurors will have to set aside their opinions and deal with the facts and the law in the case.

‘‘What is at issue here is whether Mr. Miller committed a crime,’’ U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions said.

The trial is expected to last six days.

Lisa Miller, no relation to the defendant, and Janet Jenkins of Fair Haven entered a civil union in Vermont in 2000. Lisa Miller gave birth to her daughter, Isabella, in 2002. The couple later broke up, and Lisa Miller returned to her native Virginia.

Kenneth Miller is accused of helping Lisa Miller and her daughter travel from Virginia to Canada, then to Nicaragua in September 2009 where they lived among Mennonites. The current whereabouts of the mother and her now-10-year-old child are unknown.

Now, I am typically a person of decided opinions, but I confess that I don't know what to do with this case. As a matter of navigating everyday life, I reject the judge's mindset that one must prioritize what is legal to what is moral. As the state has no legitimate authority, it has no power to coerce Christians to do violate their consciences regardless of the law. The instructions to the jury are appropriate, however, for the context in which they were given. They are in a courtroom and not an ethics seminar.

The beauty of the American legal system rests on the rule of law, single code for everyone, evenly applied. At the same time, the counterbalance to this potentially inhuman system is the court's dependence on the weighty roll given to a jury of peers to decide whether or not actions warrant penalty.

I do not think that the courts should be deciding issues of custody based on the sexuality of the parents. I also sympathize, to put it mildly, with the Christian convert who, following Biblical commandments, insists on raising up the child in the way it should go.

As I struggle with these tensions, I try to put myself into the pastor's shoes. We share, at least in theory, a common outlook on civil disobedience. Were I in his place, I might have done exactly what he did. I might even try to avoid legal penalty as he seems to be doing, although here I think this may not be the most Christian course. The biblical examples of civil disobedience, as well as those incidences of resistance which are lauded in modern times, have not tried to circumvent the law with impunity. When the time comes for a confrontation with the state, no excuses are made and no legal wrangling is attempted. Miller's attorney is claiming innocence via technicality, but when Peter confronts the state, his attitude is closer to, "I am innocent before God, even as I am guilty before you. What does that say about you?" Early Christians were imprisoned, flogged, and executed without resistance, a fact which has richly colored Mennonite history as well. Perhaps the truer course would have been to spirit the woman away and, when she was safely among the church, to accept whatever civil penalty the state imposes for right behavior.

But what do I know? Miller has already shown more courage than most of us will ever be called to show, made a more difficult decision than any of us will have to face. My purpose is not to judge him, but to take his extreme situation and use it to animate our common, extreme ethos. Whatever happens or should happen, my hope is that he will allow God to enrich him through the consequences of his actions.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Wisdom of Rowan Williams

A recent discussion in the comments lead me to an article by Rowan Williams responding to John Shelby Spong. Amidst a wealth of delightful wisdom, Williams offers this compelling thought on the Resurrection:

For the record: I have never quite managed to see how we can make sense of the sacramental life of the Church without a theology of the risen body; and I have never managed to see how to put together such a theology without belief in the empty tomb. If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker.

This struck me specifically, in addition to Williams' good humor, because of the number of times I have heard people, or heard of people, who have declared apparently uncritically, that if they turned up Jesus body today it wouldn't affect their faith at all. Williams is a better man than I. If that body turned up, I would probably fall from faith entirely.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Feast of the Transfiguration

The Transfiguration is one of the most critical, glorious, enigmatic texts in the Gospel story, not to mention one of the most neglected. I sat in an Episcopal church yesterday morning, and no mention was made of the upcoming feast at all. (Labor Day, on the other hand, is going to be a big to-do.) The Catholics didn't even decide to uniformly celebrate it until the fifteenth century. Only the Orthodox seem to have afforded the story and its commemoration the appropriate place of importance in their corporate life.

Perhaps it's not as sexy as the various smaller, less central passages about sexual ethics or gender economics. It's certainly not as gory as the Passion. But, in spite of its gross inability to satisfy our western lust for sex and violence, the Transfiguration represents a crucial moment in the Christian narrative when God manifests Himself to the world, glorifies His Son, and declares our hope and our promise in Christ. Jesus is revealed for who he truly is, and we glimpse what we will be through conforming ourselves to his likeness.

So, to commemorate the Transfiguration--in addition to eating grapes--consider the following quotes from two great theological masters for whom the Transfiguration was central.

Maximus the Confessor, First Century on Theology, 13-14:

If a man seeks spiritual knowledge, let him plant the foundation of his soul immovably before the Lord, in accordance with God's words to Moses: "Stand here by me." But it should be realized that there are differences among those who stand before the Lord, as is clear from the text, "There are some standing here who will not taste death till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power"...To those who follow him as he climbs the high mountain of his transfiguration he appears in the form of God, the form in which he existed before the world came to be...

When the Logos of God becomes manifest and radiant in us, and his face shines like the sun, then his clothes will also look white. That is to say, the words of the Gospels will then be clear and distinct, with nothing concealed. And Moses and Elijah--the more spiritual principles of the Law and the prophets--will also be present with him.

Gregory Palamas, Triads, I.3.5:

So, when the saints contemplate this divine light within themselves, seeing it by the divinizing communion of the Spirit, through the mysterious visitation of perfecting illuminations--then they behold the garment of their deification, their mind being glorified and filled by the grace of the Word, beautiful beyond measure in his splendor; just as the divinity of the Word on the mountain glorified with divine light the body conjoined to it. For "the glory which the Father gave him," he himself has given to those obedient to him, as the Gospels says, and "He willed that they should be with him and contemplate His glory."

..It is necessarily carried out in a spiritual fashion, for the mind becomes supercelestial, and as it were the companion of him who passed beyond the heavens for our sake, since it is manifestly yet mysteriously united to God, and contemplates supernatural and ineffable visions being filled with all the immaterial knowledge of a higher light. Then it is no longer the sacred symbols accessible to the senses that it contemplates, nor yet the variety of Sacred Scripture that it knows; it is made beautiful by the creative and primordial Beauty, and illumined by the radiance of God.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Wisdom of Roger Hines

The April-June of the Magnolia Messenger, which I am still receiving without ever having subscribed, includes an article by Roger Hines on the difference between secular pluralism and Christian pluralism. I'm not entirely sure I agree with his use of the term "pluralism" in this context--and I certainly don't agree with all the points he makes throughout the article--but his comments on the divisive way that secular culture treats difference in a paradoxical attempt to construct unity has distinct Vernard Eller overtones:

Secular pluralists teach that the differences are the determining factors in any interaction with people. The ultimate determiner of how one views marriage, how one views public policy and the role of government, how one views religion and its role in society, how one views human life in the individual and the group with which the individual aligns himself or herself. The group determines truth.

This is seen even in how groups view the Bible, not as containing a timeless message that calls one to subordinate the group to the lordship of Christ but as a message that the group can adapt to fit its own goals. So, the members of the group (i.e. liberation theology, feminist theology, black theology, gay theology, Marxist theology) view the relevance of the gospel in relation to how it relates to what they deem important.

Thus, by its very nature, secular pluralism is divisive and self-serving.