Sunday, March 31, 2013

The New Pope on Easter

Most people are getting a little weary of hearing about Pope Francis. (I'm not; I'm getting weary of people complaining about how much they are talking about him.) Whose feet is he washing? What did he say about gay marriage? Is he talking to Kirill? How significant is his provenance? His order? His papal name? Etc. It is easy to forget in all this interpretive tumult that the pope is still the spiritual icon for one seventh of the world's population, one who has a message that is not hidden beneath layers of ambiguous action and mysterious origin. He offers these wonderful thoughts for the Easter Vigil:

Dear brothers and sisters, let us not be closed to the newness that God wants to bring into our lives! Are we often weary, disheartened and sad? Do we feel weighed down by our sins? Do we think that we won’t be able to cope? Let us not close our hearts, let us not lose confidence, let us never give up: there are no situations which God cannot change, there is no sin which he cannot forgive if only we open ourselves to him.

Here is the essence of Easter, distilled and repackaged to meet the world's needs in this moment. The conquest over death is not merely a soteriological mechanism but a testimony to the efficacy of divine action. There is no recession that is more destructive than death, no sorrow which can match its permanence, no wound which can mirror its absoluteness. It is the content of our greatest tragedies and the aim and consequence of our most viscous sins. Yet God took it and transformed it, not into something marginally less terrible but into life itself. It is precisely because of this confidence display of power that we can turn to salvation, that we can expect our own deaths--the individual and the corporate deaths, the physical and the existential deaths--to be transformed ultimately into the eternal life promised for those who love him. In a world acutely aware of its own sufferings and dogged by its own perpetual inability to cure them through its chosen devices, the pope has echoed the psalmist who finds in the fidelity and potency of God the redemptive power of hope: "This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life."

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Cows, a Sequel to Hitchcock's the Birds

Photo by Ryan Thompson
Remember that cow that got shot outside the primary school in the UK? You know, the one that got shot, and then got shot again, and then got shot again, and then was finally killed? The one the police insist they definitely did not miss, because it is better to be inhumane than inaccurate? Of course you remember--unless you're from Oklahoma, in which case you're excused. Well, after promising to take seriously the "significant public interest" in the not-at-all-disproportionate response--four marksmen, one sergeant, five officers, four PCSOs, five patrol cars, and a police van--to a cow loose in a residential area, the Lincolnshire Police issued a statement:

"The animal's presence in a residential area posed a serious risk to safety. A significant amount of resources were committed to containing the animal. The intention was to safely remove the animal from the area without destroying it if at all possible.

"After more than two hours of working towards this aim, it became apparent that it was not achievable. Several options, including sedation, were considered. The RSPCA and the owner of the animal were consulted.

"As more members of the public turned up to watch the incident, prompted by online commentary on the situation, the animal became increasingly distressed and there were fears that it would jump further fences and re-enter a residential area."

A compelling argument.

Meanwhile, on the continent, the Austrians are dealing with a full blown cowpocalypse.

A police statement says the 43 steers defied attempts by police and volunteer firefighters to recapture them after wandering off Thursday and heading toward the Upper Austrian town of Freistadt. After being chased away from the railway station, they endangered motorists by stampeding onto a two-lane highway before running into a town suburb.

Two firefighters who tried to stop them were injured and needed hospital treatment.

The statement says 18 of the animals remain on the loose Friday. The rest have been corralled or tranquilized.

Oh, the humanity! Of all people, the Austrians should have a keen cultural awareness of the danger of appeasement techniques like corralling and tranquilizing. Lives are on the line, and the casualties are racking up. After two hours days of trying to control these stampeding menaces, surely it is time to take off the kid gloves and bring in the amateur marksmen with the seventy-two rounds necessary to fell eighteen cows. The real question for Americans is, if Austria solicits military aid in this time of crisis, should we send troops or should Obama just call in a drone strike?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Wisdom of John Burroughs

An interesting thought from nineteenth century naturalist John Burroughs:

Truly, man made the city, and after he became sufficiently civilized, not afraid of solitude, and knew on what terms to live with nature, God promoted him to life in the country.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cow Shot, Shot Again, Then Killed

In front of an elementary school, it would appear:

Police were slammed yesterday after shooting dead an escaped cow in a primary school car park. The Belgian blue went on the run for almost three hours after fleeing its field.

Armed officers eventually cornered the terrified beast outside a primary school. Marksmen were ordered to shoot to kill and opened fire with a high-powered rifle.

But the cow survived the first two shots and did not die until it was hit by two further bullets 15 minutes later. Horrified locals accused police of animal cruelty...

"It kicked its back legs for another five or 10 minutes.

“The so-called marksman was less than 100 yards away. It was a joke.”

I'm not sure what about the cornered cow was so threatening. Or why they needed to take a coffee break between shooting it the first couple of times and finally killing it. I'm not sure why they don't have tranquilizers. I thought the police weren't as trigger happy in the UK as they are here. So much about this doesn't make sense to me.

Almost as tragic was the decision of the journalist to caption the picture in the article "Udder disgrace."

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Should Vegans Drive Cars?

It's the question that never needed to be asked, and Rupert Read of Talking Philosophy has answered it. In reviewing Craig Taylor's Moralism: A Study of a Vice, Read explores a number of philosophical and ethical quandaries that inspire critical reflection, in addition to a desire to find Taylor's book. In line with Read's assessment of Taylor, my own assessment of Read is that he is largely but not universally correct. Take for instance the titular question, posed by Read in response to Taylor:

On p. 147, Taylor criticises an SUV-driver with a “No blood for oil” bumper-sticker. An easy criticism to make, but perhaps too easy. There seems a tacit danger at this of Taylor descending into moralism here towards individuals. For: It is a perfectly legitimate move for an individual to make under many circumstances to say that they would do something as part of a collective that they are not obliged to try to do merely as an individual. To think otherwise is to think in a way that is na├»ve or insufficiently politically smart. . . . An example is that it may well be legitimate to continue to fly and to enjoy the subsidies that are given to flying, while campaigning against those subsidies. To insist that this is hypocrisy and that one should instead have to go by train even when the train is far more expensive (and thus drains away funds that could otherwise be used for campaigning with) is moralistic and anti-political. (A more extreme example is roads, which were often made with some ingredients taken from non-human animals. Does this mean that vegans should refuse to use roads? An absurd conclusion.)

Like so many authors and thinkers, Read is kind enough here to answer his own question, thus saving the readers from the onerous task of formulating the answers for ourselves. Nevertheless, I wonder what precisely is absurd about the conclusion that someone who is principally opposed to the commodification of sentient life, someone who not only does not eat meat or animal product but who does not wear wool or decorate with ivory or use cosmetics tested on kittens should also not drive on roads made out of animals. The implication of Read's logic, both with the example of veganism and the choice between planes and trains is that inconvenience (on an existential level) and utilitarianism (on an ethical level) collaborate to justify various incompatible moral choices. Because we cannot conceive of the absurdity of some people refusing to use roads, we assume that there ethics must be sufficiently sophisticated to handle the dissonance created by the common sin of killing animals for food and clothes and killing animals for transportation infrastructure. That hardly seems a necessary conclusion. Rather, the burden is on vegan to demonstrate such a sophisticated ethos to justify the apparent hypocrisy. The nasty thing about ethics is that they demand difficult action, if they are worth their philosophical weight in gold. When life and ethics collide, the responsible solution is to either change your life to suit your ethics or to change your ethics to suit your life. The latter is the more common course, naturally, but Read seems to prefer a third path wherein people continue to live in the self-delusion that they are consistent moral actors while behaving in morally inconsistent ways.

Vegans Organize Protest on top of Dead Animals [photo by hughesdk] 

The distinction between individual and collective action seems equally problematic in that it assumes different standards of conduct for individuals and societies. Societies, unfortunately, have no real existence, not in the way that individuals do. (I realize that this is a ideological judgment on my part, but I trust it is one that will be widely shared.) A society is an abstraction, something constructed which has neither real existence nor uniform existence in the diverse minds in which it is conceived. As something which exists more in the realm of language than actuality, it cannot be held to ethical standards and therefore cannot be a separate ethical realm of action. If it is wrong for me to kill Bob, it is wrong for Rick and I to get together and kill Bob. It is wrong for Rick and I to round up a posse to kill Bob, and it is wrong for Rick and I to vote Barry in to office to kill Bob with a remote control stealth bomber being operated by some marine on an Xbox. My actions do not suddenly become more or less moral based on the number of people complicit in them. It is, of course, possible to construct certain teleological systems of ethics that oppose certain behaviors on a national scale by virtue merely of the scope of those actions, but those strike me as rather blatantly self-serving. Nations cannot do anything any more than societies can. Only people, those free rational agents Read is critical of (perhaps not unreasonably), do things. Whether they do them alone or in concert seems less significant than what they are doing. And if what they are doing is personally contributing to the demand for oil which has prompted the nation to collectively decide to invade oil rich companies, then in some infinitesimal but real way, they condemn themselves with their own critique.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Necessity of Redefining Marriage

Ben Witherington has recently commented on a CNN article which lays out, in my opinion, perhaps the strongest case against gay marriage from a strictly secular standpoint. I mention Witherington rather than going directly to the article because he includes many theological considerations which readers here are likely to find interesting. My main concern, however, is the argument of Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis.

Marriage is far more than your emotional bond with “your Number One person,” to quote same-sex marriage proponent John Corvino. Just as the act that makes marital love also makes new life, so marriage itself is a multilevel — bodily as well as emotional — union that would be fulfilled by procreation and family life. That is what justifies its distinctive norms — monogamy, exclusivity, permanence — and the concept of marital consummation by conjugal intercourse.

...All human beings are equal in dignity and should be equal before the law. But equality only forbids arbitrary distinctions. And there is nothing arbitrary about maximizing the chances that children will know the love of their biological parents in a committed and exclusive bond. A strong marriage culture serves children, families and society by encouraging the ideal of giving kids both a mom and a dad.

The authors make a compelling observation that, legally, marriage does much more than standardize a primary relationship (e.g. defaulting who ought to be your medical proxy or to whom your possession belong in the event of your death). If this was its sole function, there would be no need for the legal structure which has been built up around marriage, one which institutionalizes matters of monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and permanence. If it were about formalizing a person's primary affective attachment, it should be as easy to change as a will and open to the possibility of multiple equal levels of attachment. Which it isn't; at least not legally.

In fact, American culture has largely done away with these pillars of marital theory, particularly permanence. It is not quite as easy to change a spouse as it is to change a beneficiary in your will, but it is done with strikingly more regularity nonetheless. Sexual exclusivity is eroding with a startlingly rapidity, so that primary relationships which have not yet been formalized are rarely assumed to be sexually exclusive and even married persons have a wealth of ways to violate the bounds of sexual exclusivity with impunity. (Someone care to look up statistics about the use of pornography by married men?) Only monogamy remains largely uncontested both legally and culturally, although the authors do point out the swelling phenomenon of polyamory.

The solution seems to me to require a redefinition of marriage rather than a feigned conservative defense of the grand old institution. The heterosexual marriage characterized by monogamy, fidelity, and permanence exists more as a convenient fiction than a staid bulwark against social decay. If we care about a definition of marriage that includes these principles than a cultural redefinition of marriage is in order, one that would accord with and allow for the revitalization of marriage laws. If, however, we recognize the cultural shift behind which the law has lagged, then the legal redefinition of marriage seems to be in order, not only to exclude the heterosexual requirement, but also all laws which are artifacts of a time when marriage was permanent, monogamous, and exclusive.

My preference has, traditionally, been for the latter, but only because it divorces what is legal from what is ethical in a way that neatly accords with my view of the world. More to the point, short of a spontaneous, universal, and enduring cultural revolution that recaptures the historic conception of marriage, changing the law to reflect culture seems to be the prudent course.

(None of which, of course, comments at all on the permissibility of homosexuality in Christian ethics.)

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Question of Extraterrestrial Life (less than) Definitively Settled

I am inclined to think that there is no life on other planets. I have heard repeatedly the statements about the sheer size of the universe and the correlative theoretical quantity of planets, among which it is as near a statistical certainty as possible that many can support life and consequently that one does. Yet precisely this mathematical certainly disinclines me to believe that there is life beyond Earth. I am not saying that there isn't or that it would bother me if there were; only that I am choose not to suppose that there is.

The reason is, therefore, clearly not rational. It is not, however, strictly speaking irrational, which would imply a failure to rationally derive an argument for a proposition. Instead, it is contrarational. Having divined and accepted the rational argument that there is life on other planets, I formulate my belief in conscious opposition to that. What justifies such a contrarational position? It is precisely that beauty, joy, sublimity (or some other vague and subjective term) exist in contrast to rationality.

Again, this is not to say that the rational cannot be beautiful or incite joy or embody the sublime. It merely acknowledges what has been a well recognized feature of art and literature and romance and life. The human spirit is enlivened more by the unpredictable, the unexplainable, and the impossible-but-actual than by the reasonable. Serendipity and providence. Mad, stupid, consumptive, doomed love. Fantasies and phantasmagoria and psychosis.

I believe in a beautiful God, one Who transcends and can therefore contradict reason. The notion that this foolish Deity could have created a world which by its very nature speaks to the mathematical certainty of life on other plants and then refuse to populate any planet but this one fills me with an inexplicable joy in the mere possibility of it. I will rejoice in a God who creates and saves the inhabitants of other worlds as well, but until I know otherwise I prefer to be seized by the sublime belief in a universe that must and a God who flouts such necessity.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

In Other News

Continuing to bring you the latest from the Orthodox world, this offer from the Orthodox Church of Cyprus is rightfully making waves:

The head of Cyprus' influential Orthodox church, Archbishop Chrysostomos II, says he will put the church's assets at the country's disposal to help pull it out of a financial crisis, after lawmakers rejected a plan to seize up to 10 percent of people's bank deposits to secure an international bailout.


Speaking after meeting President Nicos Anastasiades Wednesday, Chrysostomos said the church was willing to mortgage its assets to invest in government bonds.


The church has considerable wealth, including property, stakes in a bank and a brewery. Tuesday's rejection of the deposit tax has left the future of the country's international bailout in question.

Whether or not anything will come of the offer--and whether or not the church's assets are enough to make a substantial difference in Cyprus's financial crisis--it strikes me as precisely the right move for the church, which has been roundly and rightly criticized from all corners and in most developed countries for being inexcusably wealthy. I wonder what kind of dent the US churches could have made in 2008 if they had made a similar offer. Of course, they didn't and lack the institutional unity to make such a gesture. No longer living in an age when the apostolic heirs can honestly say "Silver and gold I have not," the Cypriot church has made a gesture that powerfully displays the way sacrifice on a church-wide scale can influence society.

Even so, there are many who would argue that the world is becoming an increasingly churchless place no matter what denominational bodies do. This "none" movement is constituted in part by those postmodern Christians enamored of the idea that Jesus never went to church, so why should they? Launching off of a quote from Toby Mac (“Jesus didn’t hang out in the church") that appeared on the Huffington Post, Revelation rock star Rick Oster has thoroughly debunked the notion of a church-free Jesus:

Since everyone knows there was no Christian church in existence in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this statement is designed for its rhetorical impact, rather than its historical accuracy. Sometimes, though, rhetorical statements have a life of their own, and hearers forget the limitations of rhetoric. More probably the rhetoric of this statement was meant to emphasize the viewpoint that Jesus did not spend time associating with religious/Jewish organizations or hanging out in Jewish meeting places or chillaxing with the officialdom of Jewish religion. A fact-check of this viewpoint led me to conclude that it did not represent the whole story of Jesus.

This anti-institutional view of Jesus has a long history, but it stands in stark contrast to the picture of Jesus given us by the major writer of the New Testament, Luke, and also by John the prophet.

...To be sure, the validity of Christian ministry is determined by the authenticity of its message and accompanying lifestyle and not by its location. Bars and brothels are certainly within the purview of modern Christian ministry, but we need to be clear that this was not the fundamental approach used by Jesus. Most of Jesus’ time was spent in synagogues, in travel through the Jewish countryside, and in Jewish homes. It does not seem to have been an erratic choice when Jesus decided to give his inaugural teachings in synagogues (Lk. 4:14-15).

...We contemporary believers just might need to reconsider whether we want to recapture apostolic belief by acknowledging and confessing “that Jesus is not a parachurch Messiah” ([Oster's commentary on Revelation] p. 89), but a churchy Jesus, notwithstanding all the abuses and heresies propagated by his ostensible followers, both past and present.

Meanwhile, will Pope Francis go to Moscow? It's hard to care when you consider the momentous event that just occurred in Melfort, Saskatchewan:

Wally and Kerry LaClare raise cows on their farm near Melfort, and have seen hundreds of calves born. But last week when one of their cows gave birth, they witnessed something they've never seen before.

"Kerry came into the barn, and noticed the cow was straining a bit," said Wally LaClare. "I checked the cow and there was another calf, so we delivered it. We figured that was it, you never imagine triplets. When I came back in an hour later she was delivering her third,” he said.

The chances of a cow giving birth to triplets are so rare, about once in every 105,000 births, that a person has a better chance of hitting a hole in one.

I wonder how the chances of Orthodox-Catholic reunion stack up to that.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Two Men Go to Church Together: What Could it Mean?

Big things continue to happen in the Orthodox world, this time less comic and more significant than the Russian equivalents of Westboro Baptists demanding Alaska back. For the first time in nearly a millennia, the Ecumenical Patriarch will Catholic Mass for the installation of the new bishop of Rome:

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople will be present for the installation mass for Pope Francis on Tuesday. This is the first time an Ecumenical Patriarch has been present for this Catholic mass since the Great Schism of 1054, when the Eastern and Western Church cut ties with one another.

In an interview with a television network in Istanbul, Turkey, Bartholomew explained that the decision to attend was a gesture to showcase improving relations between the two Ancient Churches.

"It is a gesture to underline relations which have been developing over the recent years and to express my wish that our friendly ties flourish even more during this new era," said Bartholomew.

Other faith leaders, including other Orthodox Church officials, are expected as well. Metropolitan Tikhon, the head of the Orthodox Church in America, will be present. The Russian Orthodox Church's Patriarch will be sending his envoy.

Archpriest Leonid Kishkovsky, chairman of the Department of External Affairs and Interchurch Relations for The Orthodox Church in America, told The Christian Post that the attendance was "a significant gesture."

Fr. Kishkovsky's cool diplomacy probably rightly touches the limits of reasonable optimism, but who wants to be reasonable when the irrational optimism is boundless? It is hard not to be hopeful that such a substantial gesture is not the beginning of a quickening toward communion, toward the greatest stride toward Christian unity since...well since Christians started fracturing in earnest in the fourth century. Can you imagine the implications of the Catholics and Orthodox reestablishing communion? Neither can I. Of course, Kishkovsky is probably right when he says that union is "not in prospect at this time," but I confess I have never wanted a priest to be so wrong since the sixth century condemnation of Origen's doctrine of apocatastasis.

Fingers crossed.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Clean Monday: Straightening Out Alaska

Normally my Clean Monday thoughts tend more toward the devotional side. (I've already had some lagana this morning, have you?) But as I was perusing news from the Orthodox world, this little tidbit struck me as too delicious not to share.

US President Barack Obama must have known that his support of gay marriage would bring him trouble. But of all possible repercussions, a demand to roll back Alaska’s 1867 sale to the United States was one he was unlikely to have seen coming.

And yet that was the very claim that an ultraconservative religious group made in a Moscow arbitrage court, citing the need to protect fellow Christians from sin.

Obama’s alleged plans to legalize the “so-called same-sex marriage” threaten the freedom of religion of Alaska’s Orthodox Christians, who “would never accept sin for normal behavior,” the nongovernmental group Pchyolki (“Bees”) said.

“We see it as our duty to protect their right to freely practice their religion, which allows no tolerance to sin,” the group said in a statement on their website.

The groups charges that the contract for the sale of Alaska is null and void because of a technicality about the method of payment. Ironically, this lawsuit is only coming to light now because of the group's own inability to abide by the legal technicalities of their own system.

Something tells me this isn't the kind of cleanliness Clean Monday is supposed to be about. It's a shame that Lent starts so much later for the Orthodox this year than for Catholics and Protestants--my preference would always be to observe them simultaneously--but, if nothing else, let those observing the Western fast season allow today serve as a reminder of the purity you committed yourself to back in February. Your Orthodox brothers and sisters around the world join you today in offering themselves as living sacrifices. If only for two weeks, Christians everywhere will be united in a period of self-reflection, purification, and anticipation of the resurrection.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Southern Nation of Speechifiers: Heyrman and Eastman in Conversation

University of Chicago Press
Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross makes a wonderful companion piece to Carolyn Eastman’s A Nation of Speechifiers. More precisely, Heyrman preemptively corrects a historical oversight in Eastman’s much more recent work. Both authors are concerned with identifying the relationships of nonelites to structures of power in the early national period. Both argue that the changes which took place after the turn of the century were not the rosy picture of democratization which has been the academic orthodoxy for politics, society, and religion for some time. Both excellently demonstrate their cases. Yet, while Heyrman treats her subject comprehensively within her limits, Eastman claims a broader scope than she is ultimately able to encompass.

In Nation of Speechifiers, Eastman argues that far from a great triumph of democratization that once dominated thinking on Jacksonian politics or even the perpetual repression of nonelites that has dominated some feminist and minority histories, the period immediately after the Revolution was one of profound cultural negotiation in which nonelites were able to seize access to public participation in limited but meaningful ways. She looks at politics, education, voluntary associations, trade organizations, publishing, and professional oratory to see the ways that women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice prior to 1810. After that, however, culture shifted as the nation solidified. A war won, a peaceful party transition, and a new vision of suffrage for white men all functioned to close the previously permeable borders of public participation and exclude nonelites.

Yet Eastman glaringly omits religion as an arena in which women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice, a curious oversight particularly in view of Eastman’s stress on oratory as a means of public power. The omission might have made a good avenue for further research had not Heyrman perfectly tackled the question more than a decade earlier. Heyrman takes the same period Eastman considers, treats the same nonelites that Eastman does, but focuses narrowly on religion in the South. The conclusions she draws are largely the same. A newly formed (at least in the South) evangelicalism is initially open to the public voice and at least informal authority of women, children, and racial minorities. After the turn of the century, however, Heyrman exhaustively and convincingly traces the restriction of power into the hands of older white males. She concludes, much as Eastman does, by attacking facile notions of democratization by asking the question democratization for whom.

Eastman’s omission of religion—and of the South and transmontane America almost in their entirety—clearly could have been corrected by reading Heyrman, and the failure to do so borders on inexcusable. Yet readers of Heyrman can benefit from consulting Eastman as well. Heyrman explains the changes in evangelicalism largely as evangelistic necessities. “To put the matter bluntly, evangelicals could not rest content with a religion that was the faith of women, children, and slaves” (193). Growth required appeasing and then appealing to white men, in whose hands all temporal power rested. Eastman suggests there is something more at work in the culture at large here. Eastman’s exclusion of the South from her study may throw this observation into doubt for the arena of Heryman’s work, but nevertheless the question must be raised whether or not evangelistic necessity adequately explains the need for a more male-oriented, “traditional” religious structure. Even if it does, do the broader cultural changes charted by Eastman explain what is driving this evangelistic need? In Heyrman, essentially, evangelicals hit a glass ceiling above which a movement of women could no longer ascend. The early nineteenth century as the period of transition is incidental; it is just when the need for change outweighed the inertia of convention. Eastman’s work suggests there is something more happening in the period.

Both books are supremely readable, and Heyrman in particular has a literary flourish rarely seen among historians. Though my interests and preferences tend toward Heyrman's work, I confidently recommend either for general reading. Eastman's more theoretical framework may scare off non-academics, but anyone who has even a hobbyists interest in the period will be more than amply rewarded by putting in the effort to understand her argument. Together, these two works give a picture of early national American democracy that will challenge the narrative taught in most colleges not to long ago and still, consequently, taught in most grade schools.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Dorothy Day, the Anarchist

I began this study of Day by admitting that my interest in, and therefore my knowledge of, her had always been limited to my focus on the history and thought of Christian anarchism. That narrow-mindedness has been corrected to such a degree that I am ashamed of many of the uninformed musings I have blithely made about Day in the past. Yet, for all that, I return now to Day and her place in Christian anarchism, though my intent is less to stand as ideological judge than it is to situate her within the broader realm of my thought. I find that I have has as much to learn from Day as a Christian anarchist as I have learned from her simply as a Christian. Some of this has just been to put a more gifted voice than I possess to common thoughts that ought to inspire all Christians, particularly those of us reading (or writing) this comfortably in our middle-class affluence:

I recall this tiny incident [where she slapped a man who made a pass at her] now because it illustrates a point that has since come up many times in our work with others. Our desire for justice for ourselves and for others often complicates the issue, builds up factions and quarrels. Worldly justice and unworldly justice are quite different things. The supernatural approach when understood is to turn the other cheek, to give up what one has, willingly, gladly, with no spirit of martyrdom, to rejoice in being the least, to be unrecognized, the slighted.

Other times, Day brought new dimensions to my thoughts as a Christian anarchists. Growing up in the deeply Baconian Stone-Campbell Restoration, my thoughts on power and on evil have always been more rational than emotional, tinged though they more than occasionally are by Orthodox mysticism. Day reminded me, however, that there is an emotive side to anarchism, one that may form the basis for more pragmatic cooperation between me and my ilk and those who either do not know or do not care to class themselves as anarchists.

Anarchism has been called an emotional state of mind, denouncing injustice and extolling freedom, rather than a movement.

Even so, I came away knowing that somewhere in our thinking Day and I diverge. At some point she conceives of power, and the violence inherent in exercising it, differently than I do.

The spiritual works of mercy include enlightening the ignorant, rebuking the sinner, consoling the afflicted, as well as bearing wrongs patiently, and we have always classed picket lines and the distribution of literature among these works.

The most dramatic change for me, however, is to read that now and see more our spiritual affinity than our categorical difference. I hope that Day is recognized as a saint by the Catholic church, but, for my part, I can rest easy in the knowledge that, as a Protestant, I am empowered by the hubris that mine is the only judgment that matters when it comes to seeking profound spiritual guidance from the holy departed.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Creational Worship Experience

As I watch this video of a three day old Mouflon (proto-sheep) exploring for the first time, all I can think is, "Who lets their newborn play near a cactus?"


Maybe I can adopt her, rescuing her from that clearly unsafe home environment.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Animal Advocacy in North Stonington

Todd Caswell is still on the loose, but animal rights advocates are seizing the Angel shooting as an opportunity to improve the system of justice for cows, among others.

A bipartisan group of legislators, including state Rep. Diana Urban (D-North Stonington), is introducing a bill that would allow court-appointed advocates for animals during legal proceedings that concern the animals’ welfare or custody.

It a logical extension of the near universal practice in the US judicial system of appointing advocates for those without a voice, and it will almost certainly be a big step forward in animal rights law (one they've already taken in Rhode Island). Unfortunately, we still only care about violence against animals as an indicator of future violence against humans.

Urban cited data, which she noted has been available since 1971, that point to animal abuse as an early indicator of violence against humans. She has already authored legislation, now a law, that requires cross reporting of animal-abuse and domestic-violence cases. About 80 percent of school shooters were once animal abusers, she said.

“I just want society to take this seriously,” she said.

It's too bad society won't take seriously shooting a cow in the face, fatally wounding her, just for thrills and then conspiring to conceal your crime unless it can be shown to somehow threaten human well being. Baby steps, I guess.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Dorothy Day, the Activist

Having reflected on the the false tension between Catholicism and social justice from the perspective of Day as a Catholic, it is time now to turn to that more familiar persona of Day as an advocate for social justice. That Day should be an powerful voice for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized should by no means surprise anyone. But as I read The Long Loneliness, I was struck by the emotional depth and theological richness of her conviction as she narrated the very painful and very personal journey from a child who understood only the impossible gap between what was real and what was right to a woman who could blur those lines so that even what was possible would come in to doubt. Whatever the success or the validity of her methods as they began to express themselves practically, the acute connection that Day shared to society's outcasts crafted in her a moving ethos in which the active pursuit of social justice was central. Writing of time she spent imprisoned with other activists, Day said:

I lost all feeling of my own identity. I reflected on the desolation of poverty, of destitution, of sickness and sin. That I would be free after thirty days meant nothing to me. I would never be free again, never free when I knew that behind bars all over the world there were women and men, young girls and boys, suffering constraint, punishment, isolation and hardship for crimes of which all of us were guilty. The mother who had murdered her child, the drug addict—who were the mad and who the sane? Why were prostitutes prosecuted in some cases and in others respected and fawned on? People sold themselves for jobs, for the pay check, and if they only received a high enough price, they were honored. If their cheating, their theft, their lie, were of colossal proportions, if it were successful, they met with praise, not blame. Why were some caught, not others? Why were some termed criminals and others good businessmen? What was right and wrong? What was good and evil? I lay there in utter confusion and misery.

What is striking here is just how profoundly Day the activist differs from both traditional evangelical activists and from contemporary left-wing activists. Unlike the conventional evangelical rendering of social ills, Day could not see poverty, prostitution, murder, greed, and the host of other evils merely as problems of sin in individuals. She recognized the truth which is attested in the most antique Christian tradition's reflection on sin: it is everywhere. Beyond the individual, sin perverts institutions, cultures, and even the physical world itself. Preaching repentance to sinners and charity to saints would never be enough to combat an all-pervading sin like this.

I had an ugly sense of the futility of human effort, man’s helpless misery, the triumph of might. Man’s dignity was but a word and a lie. Evil triumphed. I was a petty creature, filled with self-deception, self-importance, unreal, false, and so, rightly scorned and punished.

The solution advocated by so many activists now, activists who have laid hold to Dorothy Day as a patron saint, is institutional reform. That can never be the essence of Day's activism though because, like all Christian anarchists, she realizes that sinful people cannot employ sinful means to redeem sinful institutions. Instead, she recommends a different path, one that can all too easily be misconstrued--in the decontextualized form I offer it--to be just another admonition to charitable works. To interpret it this way is to admit a complete ignorance of the Catholic Worker movement and of Day's life, an ignorance I was supremely guilty of before starting this project. What Day advocates here is not charity (in the sense of material benevolence) but empathy. It is an actual, existential participation in the life of the oppressed. It is Christ eating with prostitutes and publicans. It is a living out of the radical equality which has been reduced to rhetoric in our sanitized relationship to the "least of these" Christians exist to serve.

Going to the people is the purest and best act in Christian tradition and revolutionary tradition and is the beginning of world brotherhood.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Brigham Young on English

Speaking specifically of politicians communicating with their constituents, Brigham Young made this observation about the English language:

Among its other capabilities, the English language is better adapted than any other in existence to the using of thousands of words without conveying an idea.