Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What Good Are Laws?

Throughout this political season--in addition to not so subtly pushing my Christian anarchist agenda--I have been trying to refer people as often as possible to different periods in the history of American politics in an effort to broaden the scope with which we look at the political process in the US. Today, I'd like to offer this quote, gleaned in passing from an oral history, that gives the political opinions of an early twentieth century resident of Italian Harlem:

What good are the laws of this country if a child is given liberty to talk back to his parents?

What good indeed? It's a remarkably different perspective than, say, what good are the laws of this country if they don't ensure a child's future right to choose his or her own religion without any bias from childhood religiosity.

Monday, October 29, 2012

David Lipscomb: A New Take on an Old Story

Actually, what follows is not a new take on the Babel story at all. It was a fairly common hermeneutical move during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, when they sat you down in Sunday school and taught you about the tower of Babel, I suspect it was never intended to be an illustration of the evils of government. How did Lipscomb and so many others make this hermeneutical leap? Let's see:

It is clear that human government had its origin in the rejection of the authority of God, and that it was intended to supersede the Divine government, and itself constituted the organized rebellion of man against God. This beginning of human government God called Babel, confusion, strife. It introduced into the world the organized development and embodiment of the spirit of rebellion, strife and confusion among men. God christened it Babel. It soon grew into the blood-thirsty, hectoring Babylon, and subjugated the surrounding families, tribes and kingdoms to its dominion, and became the first universal empire of the earth, and maintained its sway until the days of Daniel.

When we consider that God and the early inhabitants of the earth named things, persons, and institutions from their chief and distinguishing characteristic, it cannot be doubted, that God
intended in calling this first government established by man "confusion," and in so speedily confusing the language of its founders, to foretell that the chief and necessary results flowing from the displacement of the Divine will and the establishment and perpetuation of human government, would be confusion, strife, bloodshed, and perpetual warfare in the world. The results have vindicated the truth of the prophecy couched in the name. The chief occupation of human governments from the beginning has been war. Nine-tenths of the taxes paid by the human family, have gone to preparing for, carrying on, or paying the expenses of war.

All the wars and strifes between tribes, races, nations, from the beginning until now, have been the result of man's effort to govern himself and the world, rather than to submit to the government of God. I am not intimating in this, that human government is not necessary, I believe that it is necessary, and that God has ordained it as a punishment to man for refusing to submit to the government of God and it must exist so long as the human family or any considerable portion of it refuses to submit to the government of God. Human government originated in the rebellion of man against his Maker, and was the organized effort of man to govern himself and to promote his own good and to conduct the affairs of the world independently of the government of God. It was the organized rebellion of man against God and his government. The essential character of this government, as portrayed by God will be given here-after.

Lipscomb's hermeneutical lens, not to mention his grasp of ancient history, may leave something to be desired, but, for my part, after I first read this interpretation of the Babel story, I never looked at the beginning of Genesis the same way again.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Lesson in Political Speech from Sinclair Lewis

The following is a passage from Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry in which the Reverend Elmer Gantry contemplates the KKK and what stance to take on them publicly. With characteristic wit, Lewis gives the reader a picture of the vacuity of the vast majority of public discourse. Whoever can read the following without hearing the clear echos of our current political partisans either hasn't been paying attention (lucky them) or does not have "ears to hear."

The new Ku Klux Klan, an organization of the fathers, younger brothers, and employees of the men who had succeeded and became Rotarians, had just become a political difficulty. Many of the most worthy Methodist and Baptist clergymen supported it and were supported by it; and personally Elmer admired its principle--to keep all foreigners, Jews, Catholics, and negroes in their place, which was no place at all, and let the country be led by native Protestants, like Elmer Gantry.

But he perceived that in the cities there were prominent people, nice people, rich people, even among the Methodists and Baptists, who felt that a man could be a Jew and still an American citizen. It seemed to him more truly American, also a lot safer, to avoid the problem. So everywhere he took a message of reconciliation to the effect:

"Regarding religious, political, and social organizations, I defend the right of every man in our free America to organize with his fellows when and as he pleases, for any purpose he pleases, but I also defend the right of any other free American citizen to demand that such an organization shall not dictate his mode of thought or, so long as it be moral, his mode of conduct."

That pleased both the K. K. K. and the opponents of the K. K. K., and everybody admired Elmer's powers of thought.

[emphasis added]

Friday, October 26, 2012

An Unreconstructed Prayer

I came across this little prayer in Charles Reagan Wilson's Baptized in Blood and kept coming back to it.

Lord we acknowledge Thee as the all-wise author of every good and perfect gift. We recognize Thy presence and wisdom in the healing shower. We acknowledge Thou had a divine plan when Thou made the rattle-snake, as well as the song bird, and this was without help from Charles Darwin. But we believe Thou will admit the grave mistake in giving the decision to the wrong side in eighteen hundred and sixty-five.

J. William Jones' thoroughly Confederate prayer is an easy object for scornful derision or amused mockery, but I imagine at the time it seemed a powerful expression of the mind not only of the speaker but of the audience. If it was met with any reaction at all, I suspect it was hearty assent from the North Carolina audience.

Meanwhile, are we any more careful in the way we address ourselves to God. With the level-heads of calmer thinkers or the benefit of the perspective of history, how will people evaluate the all too often modern prayer that God will ensure that our soldiers be the ones to kill their soldiers and not the other way around. Do we suppose God receives those prayers any better than the informed criticisms of Jones? They certainly are no less self-interested or self-involved, no less tribalist than the Lost Cause musings of the rebel veteran.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Shane Blackshear, Starting to Get it Right

A minister recently pointed me to this entry by Shane Blackshear--she described him to me as "an emergent church guy" and assured me I shouldn't feel bad for never having heard of him. Blackshear begins with the gut-wrenching confession to the Christian community: "I'm not voting." It is a tragedy that it has come to this, come to a point where it requires more than a little courage to say with anything other than youthful apathy, "I will not be voting come November." Yet this is far from melodrama on Blackshear's part. My wife finds herself regularly harassed at work and among her relatives when it comes up that she does not vote. Just yesterday, I invited the ire of one of my colleagues by announcing, "I'm not voting. I don't have a dog in your fight." The notion that Christian principles could tend toward anything other than full and patriotic participation in American democracy is entirely foreign to the modern mind.

Blackshear, for his part, makes the beginnings of a good case for why he won't be voting in this election. Proceeding from the principle that he is pro-life, he asks two important questions:

Remember when we had a Republican President and abortion stopped for 8 years?

...Remember when a Democrat was elected 4 years ago and our soldiers were brought home?

There is in this a microcosm of the futility of conscientious voting for Christians, and Blackshear seems to feel it acutely, quoting Psalm 14 and discouraging Christians from trusting "in princes." Yet he proves willfully unwilling to press these observations to their logical conclusion. Appealing vaguely to the "valid reasons" for voting for each candidate, Blackshear makes it clear that this is a personal protest and not a Christian imperative. Where is the recognition that every vote is a vote for warfare? Why is it so difficult to extrapolate from the last twelve years of anecdotal evidence the profound truth that governments exist solely for the purpose of violence? The logical conclusion is easy enough to draw: in a representative republic, we elect people to govern on our behalf. Every abortion Obama facilitates, every "enemy combatant" Romney "subdues," it is done on behalf of the voting public and they partake fully in the culpability for those actions.

If Blackshear, making the right stand as I believe he does, really wants to argue that he cannot , as a Christian, cast his vote for another politician who cannot respect life, then it is incumbent upon him to realize that, as a Christian, he cannot vote. At which point, I'll be the first to welcome him into the rich, historic fold of Christian anarchism.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Connotations of Numbers

I came across a curious quotation while reading Barzun and Graff's The Modern Researcher:

Unlike numbers, words have connotations, overtones--the power of suggesting more than they really say.

That's an odd suggestion, particularly considering that only pages before reference is made to the significance of 3, 7, and 12 in Western history. Consider, as an example, 666. The number denotes nothing other than a quantity one more than 665 and one less than 667. Yet, culturally, we understand there to be something sinister about this number, and its appearance in our daily lives is often intentionally ominous. To a lesser but no less real extent, the number 13 functions in a similar way. Though not exclusively so. With no more than a simple familiarity with the film, or even just the cover art, most observers will understand what is mean by the title of the movie "Thirteen." It connotes to us something much more than merely one year older than twelve, one year younger than fourteen.

Though merely a passing comment, the above quote misses the critical truth that all means of communication carry with them both a concrete, narrowly definable meaning and a complex of unspoken, amorphous associations which inform their use. This is true of words and numbers, not to mention gestures and images.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

In Other News

Lest we allow things to remain too lighthearted, it is important to remember that beyond the amusements of international interspecies intercourse or the remarkably more absurd character of American politics, there is real news going on which ought to affect all of us. For my part, I was troubled by the attack yesterday in Beirut, with its religious undercurrent hovering just below the surface. More disturbing still, however, is the revelation out of Kenya that Muslim groups appear to be converting Christians for the purpose of bombing churches:

Al Shabab, a militant Islamist group with ties to Al Qaeda, is no longer relying on its traditional base of Somali or Swahili Muslims. Instead, the group is recruiting a new multi-ethnic band of recruits, many of whom are former Christians, making it more difficult to identify would be attackers.

“It is the recent coverts who [are] being used to bomb churches. It is not members of the Somali, Boran, or Swahili communities, which have many Muslims, but the other tribes which have been known to follow Christianity, like the Luo, Kikuyu, or Luhya,” says Rev. Wellington Mutiso, the head of Evangelical Alliance of Kenya.

...Analysts say the problem originates with the chronic poverty that faces many young, well-educated, and talented Kenyans. Emmanuel Kisiangani, a senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Nairobi, says that poor Kenyan youth are being lured into Al Shabab because of the promise of an income...

Enabling Kenyan youth to deal with poverty, “uprootedness,” and youth disfranchisement could help keep them from turning to extremism, says Nyabera. He says if Christian churches practiced what they preached a bit more, that would also help.

This final observation bears consideration.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Tainted Love

This has been making the rounds for the past couple days now, but it is so wonderfully amusing--even touching, if you're of a certain bent...and I'm bent. It involves a peculiar elk who has been hanging around a ranch in British Columbia for several years:

For the first two years, it seemed too shy to make a move. That all changed this year, however, when the huge bull elk finally got up to the nerve to approach Messner's cows.

"This year, he decided to go for it," Messner, the owner of 100 Mile Ranch, told the Canadian Press. The Elk dominated the bull cows, in both size and aggression, which gave him a definite advantage during rutting season, when he found a frequent "partner" in one particularly frisky, if unconventional, cow.

"If you were there watching, it would be an X-rated movie. Several times a day," Messner added.

Apparently, the elk began to attract the attention of hunters who were admiring his rack. Fearing for his safety, and in spite of the fact that hunting is illegal in British Columbia, conservationists removed the elk's antlers and relocated him a dozen miles outside of town. The ranch owner expects him to find his way back to his beloved, and, perverse as it may be, I hope he's right.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Meanwhile, Stupidity Marches On

As the grand imbécillité that is American electoral politics continues to dominate the news, the petit imbécillité of everyday American life marches proudly on in the form of an ongoing dispute between cheerleaders and atheists. (Don't worry, Rick Perry is getting a proxy involved. That should make things simpler.)

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said Wednesday he will defend high-school cheerleaders who want to use Bible verses on banners at football games.

Mr. Abbott filed court papers to intervene in a lawsuit that cheerleaders at Kountze High School filed against the school district complaining that a new policy violated their freedom of speech. In September, district officials told the cheerleaders to stop using Bible verses at football games after the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained.

The atheist group argued that using banners with phrases such as, "I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me," violates the First Amendment prohibition on the government establishing a religion.

ATTN Atheists: It is profoundly stupid to think that "Congress shall make no law..." should somehow be interpreted "Cheerleaders shall make no banner..." and that's before we even get into the stickier issue of what "establishment" is.

ATTN Cheerleaders: It is profoundly stupid to think that Paul wrote Philippians 4:13 with anything like the herculean struggles of the Kountze Varsity Lions (Ra! Ra!) in mind, and that's before we even get into the stickier issue of whether or not the piece of paper you're going to have athletes run through is the appropriate place to write religious slogans or the appropriate arena to take legal stands.

ATTN State of Texas: It is profoundly stupid to insert yourself into the middle of a conflict between two demonstrably ridiculous disputants, and that's before we even get into the stickier issue of whether or not the state even has a legitimate interest in this debate.

Just a little reminder to all the parties involved, including those of us watching at home, how readily we allow ourselves to be distracted by the most absurd "problems."

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Rethinking the Turks and Recommending Casale

Giancarlo Casale’s recent work, The Ottoman Age of Exploration, is an innovative attempt to rewrite not only Ottoman history but also the broader understanding of the Age of Exploration, what constituted it and who its participants were. Taking the sixteenth century as his subject, Casale explores Ottoman activities in the Indian Ocean, drawing compelling parallels between the way Ottomans conceived of and executed this unprecedented expansion and the way historians traditionally conceive of the European histories of early exploration. Ultimately, Casale asks the question “Did the Ottomans participate in the Age of Exploration?” and answers boldly that they did.

Proceeding chronologically, Casale begins with what he considers to be the inaugural event in the Ottoman Age of Exploration, the conquest of Egypt by Selim the Grim, whom Casale creatively renames Selim the Navigator in a nod to his European counterparts. From there, Casale inducts the reader into a fascinating story of intellectual awakening, world war, political infighting, the construction of a worldwide “soft empire,” and the loosing of an army of merchants into the Indian Ocean. Casale makes the most of already compelling subject matter, colorfully populating this world with sultans, queens, scholars, pirates, cannibals, spies, and at least one morbidly obese octogenarian admiral apparently too ugly and pugnacious to be omitted.

Casale’s decision to rename Selim the Grim and to title his inaugural chapter “Selim the Navigator” is but the opening salvo in an unrelenting effort to unseat entrenched notions about Ottoman history, an effort which proves immensely fruitful. Casale, in clearing initial objections to an Ottoman Age of Exploration, discards the traditional question “Why didn’t the Ottomans explore the Americas” and asks instead “Why should they?” Pointing out that the Europeans only undertook New World exploration in an attempt to access the Indies, Casale legitimatizes Ottoman apathy about the Americas. After all, with Egypt conquered, they had access to the most direct route between the Mediterranean and India. Similarly, Casale goes on to directly challenge notions of the Ottomans as an exclusively land-based empire, of presumed state disinterest in sponsoring commercial activity, of extra-regional politics as an exclusively European concern, and of Islamic nations as intellectually indistinct and interchangeable. The result is a startlingly fresh picture of the Ottoman Empire as a Mediterranean state much like any other, one which realized he tremendous political and economic advantages of control in the Indian Ocean and worked out the means of achieving that control in ways not entirely unfamiliar to the student of European exploration.

Throughout the narrative, Casale attempts to highlight four key themes which he considers to be both commonly agreed upon as characteristic of the Age of Exploration for European powers and particularly relevant to the characteristics of the Ottoman participation in this period. He first notes the relative conceptual and geographical isolation of explorers prior to their initial voyages of discovery. With the onset of these voyages, Casale then notes the development of a new political ideology in the exploring nation that offers a new conception of sovereignty. For the actualization of this new ideology, he points to the importance of new technologies particularly military and transportation technologies. Finally, Casale sees during the Age of Exploration an expansion of intellectual activity facilitated by new information streaming in from abroad.

As Casale weaves these themes into his narrative, not all appear equally convincing. Certainly, the author proves near definitively that the Ottomans were no more connected to the Indian Ocean than their European counterparts prior to the conquest of Egypt and offers a withering indictment of those who baselessly attempt to collapse the Turkish worldview into the Arabic based simply on a common religion. In the same way, Casale gives an impressive catalogue of new and forward thinking texts—travel narratives, geographies, histories, and maps—produced by the Ottomans, most written and disseminated in spite of the absence of a printing press.

On the other hand, the development of a new political ideology and the employment of new technology present less straightforward pictures. The place of advanced weaponry has a direct parallel to European history, particularly as a commodity for export and as a tool for necessary cementing overseas relationships, but Casale admits that the Ottomans did not make the transition to large sailing vessels that Europeans did. Instead he proposes that they adapted traditional technologies to new uses, but these adaptations seem less novel than Casale would have the reader believe, consisting largely of exploiting the traditional advantages of shallow-bottomed, oared ships: the ability to travel into the wind and escape into shallow waters. Similarly, the suggestion that the “Universal Caliphate” and its ideology of extra-political sovereignty represented something new is belied by Casale’s regular reference to the longstanding Islamic conception of umma. This invites questions about whether what was actually new was the political ideology or the Ottomans ability to actualize it on a global scale.

These and other problems arise in part from Casale’s decision to structure his work as a chronological narrative, specifically rejecting the notion that it might be comparative. While this undoubtedly enhances the readability of the work and lays the necessary historical groundwork for later studies, it leaves the reader with a host of unanswered questions. What are the essential features, as distinct from the incidental manifestations that characterize the Age of Exploration? Why did Ottoman notions of control and empire differ so dramatically from the Portuguese? The questions could be multiplied and, perhaps, could have been addressed had the author elected to structure the book as a comparative study or, at the very least, used the four themes rather than time as the primary organizing principle.

Nevertheless, these questions are as much a testament to the work’s heuristic value as to any structural defect. In The Ottoman Age of Exploration, Casale invites the historian and the reader into a reconceived world of the sixteenth century Indian Ocean, one which has been methodically researched and persuasively reconstructed. The result is thoroughly compelling work which challenges the traditional thinking of historians and will hopefully usher in a new paradigm for investigating both the Ottomans and the broader Age of Exploration. A riveting collection of true stories that would put Hollywood epics to shame, this extremely accessible book has my unqualified recommendation for even the general public.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Goodbye, Gene Genovese

I realize that I am late commenting on this, but the unfortunate truth of our culture is that we do not announce the deaths of great thinkers with quite the same vigor as the deaths of mediocre musicians. I met the news of Eugene Genovese's death--a few nights ago when I finally heard it--first with disbelief and then with a profound, perhaps misplaced, sense of loss. I came to Genovese somewhat late in my academic career, after making the unlikely shift from Byzantine intellectual traditions to Southern ones, from oriental mysticism to Baconian rationalism. Genovese became something of an inspiration to me, both because of the monumental shift in focus that he represented in his academic life (from Marxist to conservative, the mind of the slave to the mind of the master) but also simply as a native northerner who developed a profound fascination for southern history. My comparatively recent turn to southern history means that I have only just scratched the surface of Genovese's contributions to the field, but Consuming Fire and The Southern Tradition proved easily the two most influential works in cementing my love for the South as an object of study. Genovese will be missed. He was the sort of scholar who might very well have gone on producing monumental new works indefinitely if life allowed it. It is my good fortune to be left with so many volumes of his thought still unread so that I might continue to have new experiences of him for years to come.

In tribute, let me leave you with these thoughts by Genovese, a voice from beyond critiquing the blindness of that overwhelming majority on the Right who proudly claim conservatism in ignorance of its most basic features:

Southern conservatism has always traced the evils of the modern world to the ascendency of the profit motive and material acquisitiveness; to the conversion of small property based on individual labor into accumulated capital manifested as financial assets; to the centralization and bureaucraticization of management; to the extreme specialization of labor and the rise of consumerism; to an idolatrous cult of economic growth and scientific and technological progress; and to the destructive exploitation of nature. Thus, down to our day, southern conservatives have opposed finance capitalism and have regarded socialism as the logical outcome of the capitalist centralization of economic and state power...

What goes largely unnoticed is that, on much of the American Right, the conservative critique of modernity has largely given way to a free-market liberalism the ideal of which shares much with the radical Left’s version of egalitarianism. The traditionalists are entitled to gloat, for they have always regarded socialism and radical democracy as the logical outcome of bourgeois liberalism. The free-market Right professes to believe in a level paying field and an attendant doctrine of equality of opportunity, despite all evidence that neither could ever be realized. The projected hopes are no less an invitation to disillusionment and despair than their counterpart in the Left’s chimera of equality of outcome and ultimate condition. And they are just as cruel. The left-wing version of egalitarianism generates the politics of envy and the degrading psychology of victimization. Those who cannot match the performance of others blame sexism, racism, and other forms of social oppression for their personal failures and shortcomings. Their frustration, anger, and irrationality produce effects all the worse since there is often a measure of truth in the complaints.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

19th Century Messages for 21st Century Political Partisans

As that impending day of doom draws near, I would like to share with those who choose to engage actively in the political process a series of messages from three 19th century political partisans who shared some of the core values that current political activists continue to espouse.

The first political thinker is 19th century Baptist preacher John Leland who had this message which should resonate with contemporary Republicans, particularly those of the Tea Party persuasion.

I would as soon give my vote to a wolf to be a shepherd, as to a man, who is always contending for the energy of government, to be a ruler. I conceive our national government to be strong enough, and yet provision is made therein, to counterpoise all the powers that may be abused.

Let the people keep awake, and danger flies. It is not long since the people of these states were becalmed in their spirits: they left government in the hands of their servants, and reclined on the bed of domestic ease; but, thanks to kind Providence, the servants fell out about the loaves and fishes, and contended so loud that they awaked the people from their slumbers. Let the dangers which we have just escaped make us more watchful, with lead, line and lookout. And when our hoary heads shall lie slumbering in death, may our sons and successors take warning, and never forget the inactive folly of their ancestors.

Disdain mean suspicion, but cherish manly jealousy; be always jealous of your liberty, your rights. Nip the first bud of intrusion on your constitution. Be not devoted to men; let measures be your object, and estimate men according to the measures they pursue.

The second message comes from Jacksonian Democrat John Leland whose thoughts will likely resonate with the contemporary bearers of his party name:

Disdain mean suspicion, but cherish manly jealousy; be always jealous of your liberty, your rights. Nip the first bud of intrusion on your constitution. Be not devoted to men; let measures be your object, and estimate men according to the measures they pursue. Never promote men who seek after a state-established religion; it is spiritual tyranny — the worst of despotism. It is turnpiking the way to heaven by human law, in order to establish ministerial gates to collect toll. It converts religion into a principle of state policy, and the gospel into merchandise. Heaven forbids the bans of marriage between church and state; their embraces, therefore, must be unlawful.

Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion, in choosing representatives. It is electioneering intrigue. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes. If pure religion is the criterion to denominate candidates, those who make a noise about it must be rejected; for their wrangle about it proves that they are void of it. Let honesty, talents and quick dispatch, characterize the men of your choice. Such men will have a sympathy with their constituents, and will be willing to come to the light, that their deeds may be examined. Remember that the genuine meaning of republicanism is self-government; if you would, then, be true disciples in your profession, govern yourselves.

Finally, we look at a speech from a third political activist, the committed abolitionist John Leland. His words should remind both modern political parties that citizenship begins at home:

Remember that the genuine meaning of republicanism is self-government; if you would, then, be true disciples in your profession, govern yourselves. The man who has no rule over his unruly passion, is no republican. He who will swear profanely, drink to excess, cheat his neighbor, speak falsely and scandalize his fellow creatures, is no republican, let his profession be what it will. Such republicans, like ferry-men, look one way and row the other. If you are republicans, indeed, you seek the public good. Be looking out, then, for objects of charity. Let the widow and the fatherless meet your kind assistance, and the blessing of him that is ready to perish fall upon you. Let the naked and hungry share your favors; the sick and afflicted, your hospitality; and let the case of poor prisoners and slaves excite your pity and stimulate your prayers.

Naturally, of course, the various political parties will find little to appreciate among the various sources from which these quotes are drawn, but that, unfortunately, seems to be the nature of politics. Everyone must either be all one thing or the other in our quasi-Manichean understanding of politics. At least we can all agree not to cheat, speak falsely of, or scandalize our neighbors, provided of course, we define "neighbor" as narrowly as possible to mean people in our own political party.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Pulpit Freedom Sunday

There is a fairly simple test of validity for Christian civil disobedience, and Pulpit Freedom Sunday fails it. For those who haven't heard, Pulpit Freedom Sunday is an initiative put together by the Alliance Defending Freedom that has rallied the support of some 1,000 preachers to violate the law today by endorsing political candidates from the pulpit:

Pastors are hoping their bold move will prompt the IRS to enforce the 1954 tax code, the so-called Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, from making political endorsements. The law states it is illegal for churches that receive tax-exempt status from the federal government to intervene in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

Alliance Defending Freedom, which is holding the summit, said it wants the IRS to press the matter so it can be decided in court. The group believes the law violates the First Amendment by “muzzling” preachers.

“The purpose is to make sure that the pastor -- and not the IRS -- decides what is said from the pulpit,” Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the group, told “It is a head-on constitutional challenge.”

It's a worthy enough cause, I suppose, from a secular standpoint, and I certainly sympathize with an interpretation of the First Amendment which ensures legal protection for political speech, even by non-profit employees. After all, Citizens United taught us that corporations are people and money is speech. It would be a travesty of common sense to accept that but reject the notion that preachers are people and sermons are speech. But, being the confirmed old Christian anarchist that I am, whether or not the preachers have a constitutional case is largely academic for me. I am more concerned with whether or not the this instance of lawlessness is permissible by scriptural standards.

The classic biblical justification for civil disobedience, the clear exception to the otherwise ubiquitous insistence on lawful submission to the state--rendering unto Caesar, being subject to governing authorities, honoring the king--is Peter before the high priest. At first blush, this would appear to be a sound justification for Pulpit Freedom. After all, the issues seems to be the high priest telling Peter and the apostles what they can and cannot preach. Surely, however, our interpretation cannot be so anachronistic as to believe that the principle at issue here was one of free speech and the independence of the church from state censorship. Those are not first century concerns.

The real issue, the obvious issue, the issue that has been recognized by countless thorough and even casual exegetes, is that the commands of the ruling authorities directly interfered with the proper exercise of Christianity (if I may--hypocritically and anachronistically--throw that term back onto Peter). This would be the grounds not only for the continued preaching of the apostles throughout Acts in spite of persistent official and unofficial opposition, but it would also be the rationale that made later Christians prefer martyrdom to burning incense for Caesar, made them refuse under threat of torture and death to renounce the faith, and, if I may let my examples be a little more tribalist, has caused countless conscientious objectors to suffer abuse and death at the hands of the state. In each case, what was at stake was not preference or rights but the essence of Christian living. When a conflict arises between the mandates of God and the mandates of the state, Peter makes abundantly clear what would probably have been obvious nonetheless. God takes priority.

The question then becomes whether or not candidate endorsements are essential to the practice of the faith or, to put it another way, whether or not I can be a good Christian without taking sides politically. Obviously, I spend more time wondering whether or not I can be a good Christian if I do partake of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Whig and Tory, but even those still hopelessly mired in the belief that there is no conflict between faith and politicking must surely admit that it is possible to be a good Christian without being a good Republican, a good Democrat, a good independent, or even a good citizen if we're defining that as active participation in the democratic process. Or at least I would hope most could admit that. Certainly, I can recognize that there is more than ample room for uncertainty in the realm of civil disobedience, particularly when ethical questions become more slippery than our neat categories of right and wrong can handle. But unless there is someone who would like to argue with me that abstention from politics is a positive sin, then there is no basis on which to believe that something as trivial as the violation of our artificial, contrived rights is grounds to break the law, man's and God's.

What we have here, the fundamental conflict for the Alliance Defending Freedom (and let it not be lost on anyone the use of "Defense" and "Freedom," those two favorite codewords for mobilizing aggressive, militant behavior) is not between what God commands and what the state commands but between what the state promised and what the state delivered. There's a disconnect, certainly, or at the very least a lack of clarity. In any case, a Christian--or any reasonable person, really--should not be surprised when civil government proves itself inconsistent, self-defeating, and oppressive. That's the nature of the beast and all the more reason to keep it out of our sanctuaries.

Meanwhile, because I abstain from politics I found myself regrettably compelled to abstain from church today as well. I only hope someone, somewhere had a bolder response. Perhaps, in messianic fashion, someone took a whip (figuratively) and drove the peddlers out of God's temple. A politician is certainly no less a robber than a vendor. If turning the holy place into a marketplace is enough to get the Son of God angry, do we assume he'll be any more pleased to see it turned into the Forum?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Wisdom of Seydi Ali Reis

Seydi Ali Reis is one of those interesting figures of world history that Westerners, with their Eurocentric bias, are never introduced to. Under the Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent, Seydi Ali was an admiral in the navy. During the course of his service, he was shipwrecked in India. His journey home took four years and involved travel through India, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran. In 1557, he composed a memoir of his travels, the first of its kind among the Turks, entitled Mir’ātü’l-Memālik, or The Mirror of Countries. His protracted and grueling travels taught him a number of lessons, primarily the overwhelming greatness of the Ottoman Empire. Buried, however, in all this proto-nationalist rhetoric is the following more spiritual insight, quoted by Giancarlo Casale:

He who wishes to profit from this narrative, let him remember that not in vain aspirations after greatness, but in quiet and contented mind lies the secret to the true strength which perishes not.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Lactose Free Cows?

New Zealand researchers have genetically engineered a cow whose milk, produced for the moment by artificially stimulated lactation, lacks β-lactoglobulin protein, one of the primary milk allergens affecting humans. Great news for people who are lactose intolerant!

Or not, since apparently it is presently illegal to market or even consume transgenic milk. There are perhaps more important reasons to take the linked story as less than the revolutionary news the headlines make it out to be. For example, the researches can't explain the curious rise in casein proteins in the milk. They also are dismissing as irrelevant--though unconvincingly--the premature birth of their franken-cow and the significant absence of Daisy's tail. (Perhaps Eeyore has it.)

If only there were a way for lactose intolerant people to survive, even thrive, without scientists amusing themselves by tinkering with the genetic makeup of cows. If only we could get baby cows the old fashioned way, the way God intended. Using smart phones.