Friday, May 28, 2010

Not Understanding Zion

The big contentious issue for this least as it's being construed by the conservative and progressive wings in the Presbyterian Church (USA)...goes beyond our usual howling about human sexuality. This year, we're also fighting about the whole Israel/Palestine thing.

On the one hand, you have the leftists in the church, who seem so eager to show solidarity with the oppressed that they'll swallow anything that comes out of the mouths of Palestinians. This includes providing tacit endorsement to statements that equivocate about the morality of suicide bombing and that deny that the Jews who now reside in Israel are actually real Jews.

On the other side, you have the right-wingers who seem to think that Israel can do no wrong, being the Chosen People and all. Fences smack in the middle of communities? Keeps the rabble out. Draconian security? It's necessary. Destroying the houses of the families of those who cause trouble? That'll show 'em. Heck, this is the land that God gave 'em, so they've got a right to do whatever they darn well please. It's right there in the Bible!

Discernment is not really a well developed spiritual skill-set among partisans.

My own struggle with the issue is complex. I have no patience for folks who articulate hatred for Jews. Period. Meaning much of the rhetoric used by Palestinians just makes me angry. Israel as a secular state...meaning, a parlimentary democracy that is comprised primarily of folks who are of Jewish heritage and who speak Hebrew...doesn't trouble me at all.

But when I start thinking about modern day Israel as the theological Zion, as the place of God's promise for the Jewish people, things come apart a bit. Honestly, it doesn't connect with my understanding of the Kingdom in any way, shape, or form. It's a Christian bias, I know, even if it is squarely rooted in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. But the idea of Zion as a place, as a particular patch of land in a particular corner of our little world, that idea is completely alien to my theology.

The idea of Jerusalem as Zion hasn't, quite frankly, had any substantive foundation in the faith since the Babylonians trounced Judah. Jerusalem and the geophysical space we call Israel just aren't the same as Zion. When the prophets speak of Zion, they speak of a utopian reality, a state of being in which not only are the Jewish people living without fear of oppression, but everyone else who recognizes God's intended purpose for us is as well.

That state of being is not limited to a hunk of semi-arable land in the Near East. Way I see it, it manifests itself in any place where the Jewish people...and we Gentiles, too...can live free from fear, oppression, and want. From my own admittedly odd perspective , I see Zion more strongly expressing itself in New York City than I do in the Middle East.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Flavor of the Tea Party

In a revealing little editorial today, conservative columnist George Will explored the character, motivations, and philosophical underpinnings of Ron Johnson, a tea party candidate running for Senate in Wisconsin.

I'll admit that "I'm Ron Johnson from Wisconsin" does have a rather nice rhythm to it.

Johnson seems a straight shootin', matter of fact, no-nonsense sort of guy. He's a businessman, with a practical, matter of fact, no-nonsense...wait...I already said that. Well, that's the general idea. He thinks government is the problem, and that taxation at any level represents an impingement on his liberty.

What is most interesting about Johnson is what he says is the most important philosophical influence on his life. He's a Christian, of course, and pro-life. That goes without saying. That's pretty much a default. But the specific teachings of that strange guy from the middle east don't provide the foundation of his political philosophy. His "foundational book" is Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged."

This is a sign of the character of the Tea Party. For just as you can't claim to be an atheist and simultaneously a Christian and maintain even the tiniest semblance of intellectual cohesion, you can't simultaneously be an authentic follower of Jesus Christ and think Ayn Rand is the bee's knees.

The reason for this is rather simple. The core of Ayn Rand's philosophy, which is made clear in John Galt's monologue near the end of Atlas Shrugged, is intentionally and diametrically opposed to the Great Commandment. The beating philosophical heart of Atlas Shrugged is the rejection of Christ's message to love God and neighbor. For Ayn, the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself was a command to be weak. To be a parasite. This is not me being mean to Ayn. If you could straight up ask her, I'm sure Ms. Rand would agree.

For the Tea Party, which does draw inspiration from Ms. Rand's ferocious worship of the individual and yet is purportedly very Christian at the same time, this is a bit of a problem. Or it would be, if anyone bothered to make them think about it.

Just who in the Sam Hill pastors these people, anyway?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chuck Norris Doesn't Scare Me One Little Bit

One of the many viral threads in our society is the "Chuck Norris" thing. You know, that particular thread of humor that makes a statement in which Chuck Norris is revealed as the world's most fearsome individual. Stuff like:
There is no theory of evolution, only animals Chuck Norris allowed to live.
When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he's not pushing himself up. He's pushing the earth down.
Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares at them until he gets the information he wants.
I was reminded of the truth of this last one when I read Chuck's regular column in yesterday. In addition to being a karate champ thirty years ago, the star of some of the crappiest movies of all time and some epically camp broadcast television, and being considered the world's most kick-butt humanoid, Chuck also happens to be an ultra-right-wing commentator. In that way, he's a bit like David Hasselhoff, if David Hasselhoff was a fascist.

Norris is, perhaps unsurprisingly, eager to see the laws of the land enforced with extreme prejudice. This is particularly true when it comes to the Arizona immigration laws that have caused so much commotion among everyone who isn't as lily-white as my bad self.
In his column supporting the efforts behind that law, what was most striking was his argument that we should settle this matter by going back to what the founding fathers did about immigration and naturalization. There is no reference here to huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Instead, Chuck goes back to 1795, and to the Naturalization Act of 1795 in particular. Here in the Wisdom of Our Founding Fathers (tm), says The Chuck, is the model for how America should deal with immigrants. Two things make this Act of Congress a rather interesting choice.
First, the Naturalization Act of 1795, which you can read right here, permits citizenship for people dwelling in the United States who have been here at least five years and are willing to renounce the sovereignty of their place of birth. Nothing about "being here legally," because, well, there weren't any laws governing entry into the United States before the United States existed. If you stuck around and honestly wanted to be American, you were basically good to go. Period. I'm down with that, although I'm not quite sure Chuck's audience is quite so amenable to that option.

Second, there's a wee little nuance to the Naturalization Act of 1795, one that Chuck might have overlooked when he was staring at it with that fearsome stare of his. The Act begins:
"BE it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, that any alien, being a free white person, may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States, or any of them, on the following conditions..."
I'm not quite sure that the requirement that you be a "free white person" to be a citizen of this nation represents the kind of Wisdom of Our Founding Fathers(tm) that The Chuck really wants to be referencing.

Ah, Chuck, Chuck, Chuck. When you're citing something, it always helps to have read the text itself, rather than the talking points that have been culled out by some inside-the-beltway think tank. A man's got to know his limitations.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rand Paul, Racism, and the Libertarian Conundrum

This morning, I read yet another piece on Rand Paul, the libertarian son of libertarian icon Ron Paul. Dr. Paul, an ophthalmologist, is currently a Tea Party favorite, having won the Republican primary for one of Kentucky's Senate seats. He's...well...interesting. Yeah, he's youngish, and photogenic, and his family is photogenic. But unlike other tea party folks, he speaks with what to me seems strangely flat affect.

Though the talking points coming out of his mouth are red meat to the Tea Party folks, they are delivered as a slow, deliberate, passionless mush. In terms of rhetorical style, he makes Al Gore sound like Benito Mussolini. Populist firebrand he ain't.

I can appreciate that.

Dr. Paul has been attacked vociferously on the left following comments he made about the Civil Rights Act, which enforced integration in the South. This has been taken, I think, as some form of tacit pandering to the racism that still weaves it's way through some corners of the American South. That may in some ways be true. When politicians speak of the rights of the states and localities and corporations and individuals and against the federal government, it's hard not to hear echoes of the Confederacy.
But when Dr. Paul was asked about the Civil Rights Act by progressive talking head Rachel Maddow, it was something of a loaded question. His response...which was to muse in the abstract about whether it was a good thing for government to mandate actions on the part of businesses (meaning, in the context of that law, you have to serve non-whites) was immediately attacked as coddling racism.

Honestly, though, it wasn't. I don't for a moment think that Rand Paul is a racist. He's just articulating a consistently libertarian position. Government is bad. Period. Unfortunately, that philosophical resistance to all things federal works under the assumption that localities and groups of individuals will always act in ways that respect the liberties of others.'t, you know. That, I think, is the biggest challenge for anarchists and libertarians. If every human being acted in accordance with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, living a life filled with compassion for strangers and the Other, then we could be anarcho-libertarian and all would be well. That's the character of the Basilea Tou Theou, way I see it.

But we are not now in that place, or rather, we are only there in part. Which means that in the here and now, there are individuals and groups of individuals who actively work to impinge the liberties of others. Government...particularly if it is by the people, for the people, and of the people...exists to protect the liberties of those who are oppressed. The exercise of the power of the state in defense of those liberties is not monstrous or oppressive.

It is, as both Paul of Tarsus and St. Augustine recognized, necessary.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Leashes and Magical Thinking

This week, my efforts to come up with an interpretive/metaphoric frame for my sermon kept frustrating me. It wasn't that my Tuesday morning scripture reading and meditations didn't yield anything. It's just that I didn't like the result. The operating metaphor that kept surfacing in my head to articulate the role of the Holy Spirit was...a leash.

A leash? Me no like! Controlling! Authoritarian! Annoying! But no matter what I did, I couldn't come up with anything else. It bugged me, nattered at me. I read, reviewed commentaries, and still...nothing but leash.


During my morning meditation on Thursday, I thought to myself, you know, my daily readings in "The Diary of an Old Soul" (Mystic George MacDonald's book of spiritual poetry and conflict) have often proven oddly reflective of what a day is like. So, like a shaman reading entrails or casting the Ummim and Thummim, I flipped forward to the poem intended for today, Sunday the 23rd of May, to see if there was any language in the spiritual poem of the day that might..err...lead me away from the language of the leash. This is what I read:
Ever above my coldness and my doubt
Rises up something, reaching forth a hand;
This thing I know, but cannot understand.
Is it the God in me that rises out
Beyond my self, trailing it up with him,
Towards the spirit-home, the freedom-land,
Beyond my conscious ken, my near horizon's brim.
Sigh. So leash it was.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mercenaries, Prostitutes, and Politicians

We all hate politics. And politicians. It's a peculiar thing.

Here we are in a democracy, a constitutional republic that assumes leadership of the people, by the people, and for the people. Yet Americans as a whole seem to view the process of our democratic governance with a deeper and more aggressive disdain than even our most aggressive enemies. Honestly. The rhetoric of Hugo Chavez and the rhetoric of the Tea Party populist mosh pit aren't all that far apart.

Yet there's a reason for this, one that whupped me upside the head this morning as I tossed back my coffee. The tides of corporate political action committee giving have begun to roll in for the 2010 election season, and it's a tide that is strongly favoring the G.O.P. This is, given the anti-incumbent mood, perhaps something to be expected. Republicans have always been the party that self-identifies as friendly to business. It's politics as usual.

What got me was that there's an official plan amongst the Republican leadership to court the giving of corporations. Again, not a surprise. Money, particularly in this era of unfettered corporate giving, pays for the oppo research and fabricated, media-driven controversies that win elections. To win, you need folks with deep, deep pockets. What the GOP is doing is, again, just the way the game is played.

But did they have to give their marketing strategy a name? I know, I know, every major military operation gets a name. It helps define the goal, and motivate people. But to name your strategy "Selling the Fight?" Somehow, marketing language here seems...well...more than a little telling. Yeah, we know you're for sale. But do you really need to don that tube top and short shorts and parade around in front of us?


Must our democracy be such a freakin' floozy?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Creating Life

"When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it. Although I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation, yet to prepare a frame for the reception of it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins, still remained a work of inconceivable difficulty and labour. I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organisation..." (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Chapter 4)

We crossed an interesting boundary as a species this last week.

For the first time in human history, we managed to create a living organism, more or less from scratch. It was of rather "simpler organisation" than the tormented being created by Dr. Frankenstein, just a straight up single-celled critter. Yeah, true, it wasn't even an original design, its genome having been copied carefully from an existing microbe. And folks have done sorta kinda similar stuff before. And we did, a la Mary Shelley's monster, cobble it together out of parts of previously living things.

Whichever way, its an impressive event. The simple living creature created in the lab of geneticists Craig Venter and Hamilton Smith is unique among earthly life forms. The genetic material within it is entirely synthetic, intentionally assembled by humankind. It can reproduce. It is alive, yet does not come from a living parent.

The ramifications of this remain clouded. Venter and others see it through rose colored glasses, as a way to create organisms that will produce medicines and biofuels. Others see it as an ominous harbinger of new and terrible bioweapons, or inadvertent pandemics brought about as we fiddle with things that we don't really fully understand. Our advances in genetics have posed something of a challenge for ethicists, as our ability to manipulate the building blocks of life has outpaced our development and maturity as a species.

Theologically, this is something of a conundrum, too. Forming beings from earth-stuff and bringing them to life is...well...typically the business of the Maker. Yet here, without question, is a feat that constitutes the formation of a living thing, even if that thing is a very rudimentary knockoff. And if it "completely changes" the way we understand life, as Dr. Venter suggested in an article in the Washington Post, is this necessarily a good thing? Where will that lead us?

Things do get curiouser and curiouser.

Blessed Are The Poor in Transport

Yesterday, I took my ratbike motorcycle to a nearby shop for a new drivechain and a new set of sprockets. It's a funky little shop, a far cry from the shiny shiny megadealer nearby. The mechanics there are cheery, heavily tattooed, and can do the work on time and for about half the price.
The challenge is getting back home after I've left them the bike, and then getting there again. It's about four miles from my house. I can't have my sons pick me up or drop me off. The 12 year old couldn't care less about driving, and while the nine year old would salivate at the opportunity to get the keys, I'm not sure that little jaunt would end well.
So when I go there, I take the Metrobus.
And We Hate Buses. Americans are carefully programmed to hate taking the bus, a process that begins in high school. It's cemented when that senior with their jacked up fire-engine red '71 Chevelle reminds sad little sophomores that they aren't ever, not never, going to get a girlfriend if they don't get themselves a sweet ride first. We don't like the bus. The popular, successful kids don't ride the bus. And we have to sit there, waiting, waiting, waiting, never sure when it will arrive. It's frustrating, particularly for thems of us who want it right now. It's the American way, baby.
That waiting impatiently part is no longer true. In DC, as I discovered yesterday, the buses are all outfitted with GPS transponders. Those transponders rely data about real-time location to a Metro computer, which then relays data to the Metro website. Information about when the bus will show up at any given stop can be accessed your mobile phone. It's accurate to within 30 seconds. Meaning, you don't have to wait around at the bus stop. It changes the whole equation.
But the popular kids part is still true. I rode the bus twice yesterday. Once the bus was half full. Once it was nearly completely full. Both times, I was the only Caucasian on the bus. Everyone else was Latino, or African American, or Asian, or of Middle Eastern descent. None had about them the trappings of affluence. There were no suits, or expensive shoes. I saw no-one else dickering about on their smartphone, whipping off e-mails to assistants. No-one was manically thumbtyping texts. These were folks who are not on the upper rungs of the economic ladder, or even on the middle rungs. They were working class.
The upper and middle classes were in their cars, zooming around us, talking on their cell phones. Many were driving SUVs. Others were driving hybrids. What struck me, sitting there on my honkey behind, was just how much better at caring for creation my fellow bus riders were.
Our bus was powered by natural gas, meaning essentially no emissions, and no reliance on oil from nations that hate us. With a third-full load of passengers, it gets the same mileage per passenger as my motorcycle. With a full load, that bus gets the equivalent of 165 miles per gallon, which even the best promises of plug-in hybrid technology can't offer.
As I looked around at America's working class, America's bus riders, I realized something. For all of the talk on the right about America' energy independence, and all the talk on the left about environmental stewardship and carbon neutrality, the people who are doing the most they can to make us more efficient are the folks who need to be efficient. As human beings, those who aren't growing temporarily rich on the fleeting abundance of our carbon economy are the ones who are doing the most to care for creation. The folks who cry Drill Baby Drill and the folks who buy thirty-five thousand dollar hybrids loaded with electronic gimcrackery aren't even coming close to the folks who ride the bus, day in, and day out.
Yeah, they may not be the cool kids. Or the "successful" ones. But those things don't really matter, now, do they?
Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse. (Proverbs 28:3)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Drawing Mohammed

Today, in some circles of the western blogosphere and in certain corners of our social networks, is "Everyone Draw Mohammed Day." The idea behind this event was to... it was to... um... ahhh... hmmm. I think the idea was that it has something to do with free speech. If we're a free people, then we can say or do whatever we like. If a particular pattern of speech is forbidden, then that infringes on our basic human rights to say and do whatever we wish. So if South Park wants to offend everyone and anyone, they're entitled to do so.
In Islam, producing images of Mohammed is forbidden. This little prohibition appears to have more to do with avoiding idolatry than anything else. You know, in the same way that Judaism forbids speaking or writing the name of G-d, or certain Calvinists forbade stained glass windows.
This injunction has been conflated and expanded by Islamic fundamentalists into something other than one of the house rules for participating in that particular faith. If anyone makes an image of Mohammed, it is an offense against Islam. This helps folks who are suffering from endemic poverty and oppression focus on something other than the thing that is oppressing them, and redirects their anger towards a convenient Other. They pour onto the streets, and shout and yell angry slogans. They issue death threats, which makes them feel big and strong, even if their nation is crushingly mismanaged and brutally suppressive. It's a very useful way to shore up populist support in paleotheocracies.
That's why Pakistan yesterday blocked access to Facebook, where a page was dedicated to the production of images of Mohammed. It's why, undoubtedly, there will be threats against folks who have created those images. There will be much stomping around, and the Arab Street will once again resound with the misdirected outrage of oppression.
The images themselves range from the realistic to the intentionally peaceful to the pornographically nasty. Some producing the images are doing so out of desire to express their own liberty. Many others are doing so because they despise Islam, utterly and totally. The latter group includes folks on the American right wing, some fundamentalists, and atheists. These latter folks are gleefully taking this opportunity to stick it to a religion that they assert is essentially violent, hateful, and the enemy of the free peoples of Middle Earth.
This issue here is complicated. On the one hand, theocratic prohibitions against speech can't govern symbolic action in a democratic and free society. If you want to present an image of the crucified Jesus immersed in your own urine, it is your right to do so. If Sarah Silverman wants to pretend to sing Amazing Grace with her rectum, she can do that. If something compels you to create homoerotic paper-mache sculptures featuring Krishna, the Buddha, and Joseph Smith, then you can do that, too. It is our right, in this society, to speak in ways that are offensive, petty, and nasty. We are, after all, free.
But intentionally seeking to give offense can't be viewed a noble endeavor. Yes, Islam as a world faith is a total mess right now. It's the angry man living in the tattered home at the corner of the street, the one who shouts at the kids when they step on his browning grass. Taunting that man isn't brave. It isn't mature. It's childish, the kind of prank done by little clusters of twelve year old boys emboldened by the knowledge that they can't be hurt because they have strength in numbers and anyway, their Dad would, like, so call the cops.
Quite frankly, that's all this event is. That's not to say Muslims should get a pass when they freak out over nothing and threaten lives. No religion or movement should be permitted to behave that way. Nor can the standards and ethics of a particular community be allowed to define the behavior of all others. But though taunting others is our right, in exercising that right we show ourselves to be ethically stunted, small-hearted, and ignoble.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Judge Moore and The Democracy Delusion

Out in the great state of Alabama, this election season is serving up an old familiar face. It's Ten Commandments Judge Rudy Ray Moore, getting himself back in black for some gubernatorial getback after his controversial stand on church and state.


Hold on.

Judge Moore isn't who I think he is? He's not blaxploitation legend Dolomite? He's not the Human Tornado, a "nerve shattering, brain battering, mind splattering One Man Disaster?"


That does explain a whole lot, but given the similarities, you can understand my confusion. My bad. Learn something new every day.

Anyhoo, Roy Moore is now a contender in the race for governor in Alabama, and he's running on basically the same platform that has defined his career to date. He's all about arguing for the unity of faith and country, for making the case that if our nation loses faith in God, we'll come apart. His entire political platform can be summed up in this little quote from the Religion News Service:
"For the government to acknowledge God is not a violation of the deny God is to begin to take away rights. In the long run, the welfare of our state depends on the blessings of God."
Judge Moore has, shall we say, a rather interesting approach to church and state. What struck me most in this little statement, though, is that second proposition: " deny God is to begin to take away rights."

How can one even think that? Faith is hardly a requirement for participation in our republic. Never has been. How can belief be correlated with the rights of citizens in a democratic society? I'm fairly sure that Judge Moore doesn't have an answer to that one that goes beyond just reiterating the above statement.

However, that doesn't mean that there isn't an answer.

The answer lies in a painful truth: Our rights in our democratic republic have no objective reality. Yeah, I know, I know, "we hold these truths to be self-evident." But that statement is not scientifically provable. Our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness cannot be established definitively on a foundation of empirical reason. Yes, you can make that argument. There is much to commend democratic societies.

But I'm sure there's a very smart, very articulate staff member of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of China who would be willing to explain just why our "rights" aren't really self-evident. He'd point to the provable economic success of his nation, to their global ascendence, to their clear financial and organizational superiority, and to their diligent "management" of public opinion and "unconstructive" dissent. "Show me these 'rights' you speak of," he might purr. "I see no evidence for them. I see only chaos and decadence and self-indulgent decay." He would then suggest that, given all of the material and empirical evidence in his favor, perhaps we are just deluding ourselves.

And in a sense, we are deluding ourselves.

Our liberty stands when we are willing to assert it, to "hold it" not as a scientifically defensible theory to be proven or unproven, but as a defining value. As with any value worth holding, freedoms exist because together we choose to believe in them, and affirm them, and live them out, even in the face of cooly rational arguments to the contrary.

Though it's not anywhere near what Judge Moore thinks, there is a deep connection between belief and liberty, between faith and our freedoms.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Reasonable Decision in Our National Interest

There's been a tension here in D.C. lately that troubles me. Well, there've been many tensions, but this one bugs me more than about 74.375% of other issues. On the surface, it's a little budget thing, but it feels to my admittedly overtuned sensibilities like a harbinger of a potential future. Let me elucidate, and you can tell me if I'm being paranoid. I do tend to be that way, you know.

There is a disagreement rumbling around the community here in DC between the Department of Defense and the Congress. The Secretary of Defense is deeply aware of the major crisis that our national debt will eventually cause. Defense Secretary Gates is particularly concerned that the military will be impacted by this debt, and is pressing for some reductions in military spending. In particular, he wants pay increases and benefits for our troops to be limited to a level that's rationally sustainable. There are also several weapons systems that both he and top military brass want discontinued as cost-savings measures, like the development of an unnecessary new engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or building unneeded transport aircraft.

Arrayed against Gates and top military brass are our elected representatives in Congress. Congressmen and women want to be seen as Supporting Our Troops (tm), and have passed numerous laws increasing the mandated benefits for troops and vets and their families. That's a surefire way to get votes, kids. Surefire vote-getting way number two is to make sure that the defense contractors who have positioned factories and offices in their districts continue to produce the weapons systems that produce jobs for folks who vote.

They haven't raised revenue to pay for those expenses, of course. That would mean breaking their promise to Never Raise Your Taxes (tm). It's not one or two members of Congress who do this. It's the nature of the critter. This is just how our representative democracy works. It may also be how representative democracy finally fails.

I'm pretty progressive, and would unabashedly accept the label "liberal." But when I see this disagreement between our unelected military leaders and our elected representatives, I find myself thinking the military is willing to act in the national interest, and Congress is not. By focusing on their own electability and narrowly drawn local interests, our representatives are making decisions that will cripple us as a nation. This seems obvious. They only do this because we make them do it, of course, but we'd rather forget that. Top brass, well, they're making the hard decisions that need to get made. It's the way the military works. That I should have that response is telling.

What worries me, seeing this, is that eventually the debt will hit the fan. We might see massive cutbacks in spending coupled with an increase in taxes. This would be painful, but would preserve the integrity of our republic. Being the pessimist that I am, I doubt this will happen. We would never, ever, ever elect anyone who would do this. If someone slipped through and started making the changes necessary to turn our debt around, we'd run 'em out on a rail.

More likely, we'll eventually see some form of default. When that happens, things will get bad in a way that makes the market seizure of 2008-2009 look like salad days. In that atmosphere of genuine crisis, I can see...and to a certain extent, feel...the temptation to set aside a clearly broken system of governance for one that gets the job done. If it's an emergency, then emergency measures would need to be taken for the security and well-being of the nation. Would we trust Congress to do this?

Or would we, perhaps, see how patriotic and hard-nosed and well-organized the decisions made by our military leaders can be in a time of crisis? Why not turn things over to them for a while, you know, until things have improved?

I can see how people might think this was a reasonable decision in our national interest.

Friday, May 14, 2010


Our societal takeaway from the recent failed Times Square bombing attempt is a teensy bit troubling. Following an unbelievably amateurish effort to detonate explosives, Faisal Shahzad was arrested on an aircraft. He apparently was quite the chatterbox, 'fessin' up almost enthusiastically. As Shahzad is a citizen of the United States, he was informed of his Miranda rights...meaning his rights under the Constitution. He kept on talkin', as getting attention was probably his hope all along. Probably something to do with getting back at his father, I'd surmise.

No citizen can be forced to incriminate themselves, and every citizen has the right to legal counsel. This little list of rights has been hammered into our heads. As pretty much every American TV show that's not reality TV is a cop/legal/courtroom drama, the Miranda statement is something we're all familiar with.

It's a given.

Or was, if things roll the way they seem to be rolling. Right wingers are, as they always are, outraged that Shahzad was read his Miranda rights. He's a terrorist! He doesn't deserve his Miranda rights! He stopped being a citizen the moment he decided to Wage War On America! There's much huffing and posturing and indignation, resulting in the possibility that terror suspects who "pose an imminent threat" may no longer be Mirandized. This, we are told, is an extension of the public safety exception, which allows suspects to be detained and questioned without being informed of their rights. This stirs all sorts of thoughts, but two in particular:

First, I'm not sure what actually constitutes a "public safety exception." Strong evidence pointed to Shahzad's culpability, sure. But he wasn't in the process of setting off a bomb. He wasn't at the scene of a crime immediately after its commission. He was on an airplane, sitting on his behind. So here is a citizen, who is the primary suspect in an investigation. He is arrested. He is read his rights, which he may then choose to act on...or not. Reading his rights to him did not, in any way that I can see, negatively impact public safety.

Second, and more significant, there are the implications of applying a "public safety exception" to American citizens who are terror suspects. Yeah, nobody likes a terrorist. But if a citizen is suspected of being involved in or plotting a terror attack, revoking their rights as a citizen in the name of "public safety" seems a very dangerous precedent. The danger, quite frankly, not the removal of that little script. Rather, it is the threat that seems to pose to the rights that underlie Miranda. Let's fast forward eight years to the Palin/Cuccinelli Administration. If you or I were implicated as possible terrorists, should we be stripped of our rights as citizens? You know, rights like not being indefinitely detained? Or not being [cough] encouraged to incriminate ourselves during the process of that indefinite detention? Or having the right to counsel and a speedy trial?

My sense of this is that some on the law-and-order right would be perfectly happy to have this be the case. It's all in the interests of public safety, you know.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Active, The Contemplative, and Social Justice

Ever since Ben Gleck (for speaking his name just gives him more power) declared that being concerned for the well-being of the poor, the widow, and the orphan makes you a Stalinist, progressive Christians have been a raging hornet's nest of fury. Well, that's not quite right. It's been more like an open, inclusive, and relational hornet's nest of respectfully stated disagreement. Not nearly as satisfying, but that's how we roll.

That finally waning kerfuffle did stir in me an old tension. It's the way to find balance between spirituality and social justice, between contemplation and action, between the "love of neighbor" that manifests itself in efforts for systemic justice and the "love of God" that expresses itself in prayer, worship, and meditation.

Honestly, progressive Christians haven't really proven themselves to be the best at finding the knob on the "spirituality" door. As a laddie who was raised in a very social-justicey church, there was a great deal of emphasis on social equity and the rights of the disenfranchised. There was...well...rather less effort put into developing a sense of God's presence. More significantly, there wasn't an intentional development of the connection between the two, establishing the connection between those two aspects of the central ethic of our faith.

I was reminded a bit of how much faith and action can be divided while reading through the writings of an unknown 13th century English mystic. I'd been intending to read "The Cloud of Unknowing" for a while, but finally got around to it after a friend mailed me a copy (thanks, Jonathan!). Though I'm glomming on to large portions of the book, I'm not sure I quite embrace the occasionally binary approach to Christian faith that the author proposes. For all of his wit and insight, he tends to split the faithful into the "contemplatives," who sit like Mary at the foot of Christ, and the "actives," who fret about in the kitchen like Martha and kvetch about their slacker sister.

I just can't quite buy into that whole binary approach. Contemplation is not just for "contemplatives." Action is not just for "actives." We have, as human creatures, an admixture of gifts and needs. Though some of us may trend one way or 'tother, most of us require both time to ponder and time to get our hands dirty.

Giving care and seeking justice for the oppressed flows forth from contemplation, and contemplation is where we are called to go when the quest for justice seems too overwhelming for us to handle. In that balance, I think, is where we most effectively serve the Kingdom.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"God Does Not Exist"

Kids, they say the darndest things.

In a recent conversation with my boys about God, the fruit of my loins offered up their perspectives on the nature of the Creator. These are, shall we say, rather non-dogmatic conversations. I realize my task as the father of two PKs would once have been to require the boys to memorize the Larger Catechism late into the night whilst hovering over them ominously fidgeting with a thick black belt. This is not my parenting...or I do share with them what I believe, but will not force them to believe it. I listen. We talk.

Twelve-year old son number one, the big-hearted rationalist tweener, halfway between being a man and being a child, explained that he is essentially an agnostic. "How can I ever be certain," queried he. "How can you even know, especially in the face of a world where so many bad things happen?" This is more or less where I was throughout my teen years, and I agreed that finding that place where you are 100% certain is very very hard, if not impossible.

Nine year old son number two, whose thought processes are a whirl of convoluted intuitions, explained his position thusly: "God does not exist, and I believe in God." When his brother arched an eyebrow and asked him to unpack that paradox, the little guy went on. In order to exist, something has to be part of the universe. Because God made everything in the universe, God cannot be part of the universe. Therefore, it is not possible to say that God exists the way that a tree or a rock or you or I exist. But because the universe does exist, and something that is not the universe made it exist, he believes that there is a God.

Here, the little guy seems to be channeling Paul Tillich. I can't imagine where he might have picked that up. Ahem.

Tillich, a 20th century Christian existentialist theologian who occupies a significant portion of my study bookshelf, makes exactly that same statement in his three volume Systematic Theology. He says "God Does Not Exist" on Page 205 of Volume One, to be precise. This has not exactly endeared Tillich to modern literalists.

But in saying "God does not exist," Tillich was not being a heretic. He was also not being atheistic. He was being profoundly orthodox about the nature of the Creator.

Existence, for Tillich and for my son, means being part of space and time. There is no other way we can describe it. As creatures who are bounded by the parameters of the spatial and the temporal, we have no other ways to rationally conceive of being. If the Creator is to be understood in the way that Christianity describes, then God is not a being among beings, sitting on a vast throne on a moon orbiting a gas giant on the outer rim of the Andromeda Galaxy. God is also not all of time and space itself...because that would imply that God was governed by the rules and structures of physics, rendering God not God, but simply part of a process.

Neither of those two ways of conceiving of God reflects a classically orthodox Christian position. That doesn't stop hundreds of millions of Christians from believing those things, of course. But it ain't where the meat of two thousand years of Christian theology points us.

This is why Tillich obscurely described God as Being Itself...which means not all that is, but that which both transcends and underlies all that is. All that we know and can possibly know is part of God's own self-expression...but God goes infinitely deeper than that, into "places" that stretch and shatter the mechanics of the universe that frames us.

Grasping that, as son number one so astutely noted, is well beyond the capacity of reason. It is the realm of faith.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Middle Earth Meditations

I have, for the last month or so, been engaging in a slightly different pattern of morning devotion. First thing upon waking, I do what I typically do, which is stir my sleep-addled mind to wakefulness with the Lord's Prayer. Well, sometimes it's the second or third thing, but I make a point of getting to it before I get to my coffee, which is saying something. It's a balanced part of my spiritual breakfast...and, honestly, the linchpin of my prayer life. Yeah, sometimes I prattle on like the Gentiles do, pouring my monkey-chatter worries into the glory of the numinous. But mostly, I just pray the one way the Master actually bothered teaching.

The second thing I do is read a poem. I'm following a year-long discipline of reading through George MacDonald's "Diary of an Old Soul," which is 366 connected poems that lead one on a meandering journey through the faith. I've found they resonate in strange ways with my life, with the world around me, and with the particular struggles I'm having personally and spiritually. It's been a fruitful addition. I'll read today, mull over it, and then peek at the next know..just because I'm nosy.

Tomorrow's poem struck me as interesting for a range of reasons. Here it is:
Fair freshness of the God-breathed spirit air,
Pass through my soul, and make it strong to love;
Wither with gracious cold what demons dare
Shoot from my hell into my world above;
Let them drop down, like leaves the sun doth sear,
And flutter far into the inane and bare,
Leaving my middle-earth calm, wise, and clear.
Though this poem works on a range of levels for me in my own spiritual walk, I was struck by that last line. MacDonald is a stated influence over the lives of many writers, most significantly C.S. Lewis. But he was also formative for Lewises close friend and drinkin'/smokin' buddy, J.R.R. Tolkien.

It may just be a random happenstance. It might just be a random turn of phrase. But hearing the words "middle-earth" from a known late 19th century influence over Tolkien just doesn't feel random.

I love those serendipitous connections between things, seeing the places where words and ideas have their root. It's like encountering a forgotten picture of your home 50 years ago, when that tree was just a sapling. Or being filled with a memory of a tiny boy child, who now stands nearly as tall as a man.

Friday, May 7, 2010


As I was growing up, my folks whispered a subversive, un-American, anti-capitalist idea in my ear. Not only did they teach it to me, they lived it out. That dangerous idea: don't live beyond your means.

Outside of having mortgage debt, they took out no loans. Period. Ever. They always spent less than they made. That meant a humble but functional home. That meant cars that were purchased not as status symbols, but as ways to get around. Those cars were often purchased used, and they were purchased with cash on the barrel head. That meant clothes that...well...might have been in fashion 15 years ago, when they were bought. College for the kids? That was saved for. Home improvements? Paid in cash, after saving for years.

A credit card was a dangerous thing. It...meaning the one and only card you allowed yourself to have...was to be paid off every month, and watched as warily as a bobcat in a nursery.

As best we can, my family has tried as best we can to stick to this approach to financing our lives, while all the while feeling a bit strange. It's just so out of touch with the way the world works. This is not the way we good capitalist consumers have been taught to live. Nor, quite frankly, is it the way that our governments do business.

That is, I'm convinced, why the world increasingly finds itself in such a financial fustercluck. When you can live large, charge after charge, eventually, inescapably, you'll drive yourself into personal ruin. When housing speculation feeds off of the false abundance of irrational subprime lending, suddenly homes are driven out of reach of the average family. When those loans fail, as they inevitably must, our entire financial system totters. When entire nations decide to live high on the borrowed hog of their sovereign debt, the system shakes even more. That shaking hasn't even really begun, kids. Endemic debt has this way of destabilizing societies, be they the ancient Hebrew people or our newfound global community. That's the reason debt was viewed so warily by the Torah. A society that allows indebtedness to run any level...will eventually tear itself to pieces.

We conveniently forget, even in this putatively "Christian" nation, that our sacred texts never ever no not never teach that the false abundance of debt-driven living is something worth seeking.
Do not be a man who strikes hands in pledge or puts up security for debts; if you lack the means to pay, your very bed will be snatched from under you.
I can't imagine that our comfy bed of debt will still be under us, as a nation, for very much longer.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Syncretism, Style, and Substance

Over the last half-year, I've been teaching a monthly class on styles and approaches to prayer. After sputtering a bit at the beginning...folks were just too full up on church on Sunday after worship/Bible study...I moved it to mid-week on Wednesday. Since then, it's been cozy and pleasant, as I've explore some of the classic techniques of Christian prayer with some of the dear saints of my church.

We've been following an online Upper Room guide to ancient forms of prayin', and it's been generally helpful. We've done lectio divina. We've done Ignatian prayer. We've even popped into the sanctuary and used the stained glass windows as a focal point for icon-based contemplation. Yeah, John Calvin wouldn't be pleased, but hey...if contemplating Christ is wrong, I don't wanna be right. A symbol is a symbol is a symbol, be it word or image. If you worship the image and not the thing it points to, you're an idolater. If you worship the text and not the thing it points to, you're an idolater. Six of one, half dozen of the other.

Yesterday, though, we did something a teesny bit different. I loaded up my little group into my minivan and went down to the C&O Canal Towpath for some walking meditation. It's a technique I've used for years, but it's not one I learned in church. It is, instead, something I did naturally. I then discovered that it was, well, a thing Buddhists do. In particular, it's the schtick of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn. It's a simple exercise in mindfulness and self-emptying, and particularly useful in stilling the anxieties and petty demons that can beset humankind. You don't fret about tomorrow, about things that might be. You don't anguish over the pains of yesterday. It places you squarely in the now, and at some fleeting, ephemeral moments, in the great peace that can be found in the Eternal Now of the Kingdom.

Having read up on it and practiced it over a decade or so, I find it's completely simpatico with a Christ-centered faith. It is simply a style of prayer. There are, of course, Christians who would be stressed by such a thing. Learning a prayer style? From a Buddhist? Outlandish! That's a step down the slippery slope of syncretism!

But focusing on form and technique rather than intent and purpose is the dangerous ground on which a Pharisee builds his home. If the purpose is deepening an awareness of our Maker, opening ourselves to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and finding a source of strength for our Christian journey, then it isn't to be feared. It is no more antithetical to Christ than pressing one's hands together in prayer.

I hear Buddhists do that too.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Medical Marijuana in DC

Yesterday, the typically strange state of affairs here inside the Beltway got a little bit stranger. In a vote that surprised basically no-one, the DC Council gave the go-ahead for residents of the District to use medicinal marijuana. There are several significant hurdles still to be cleared, but if they are, those suffering from chronic conditions will be entitled to up to four ounces of da chronic monthly to assist them in ameliorating their suffering. This is good news for many.

I, for instance, suffer from LDSCEDD, an ailment I've had to endure since graduating from elementary school. Fortunately, my Little Debbie Snack Cake Enjoyment Deficiency Disorder is entirely curable through the wonders of medical marijuana, now potentially just a stone's throw away in DC.

Doofy efforts at stoner humor aside, there are those...particularly those suffering from the side effects of chemotherapy, glaucoma, and other illnesses...for whom medical marijuana makes a real difference. Acknowledging this, though, I must 'fess up to being completely out of step with the rest of America on the whole issue of cannabis. Most Americans (typically around 60%) are in favor of medical marijuana. But I've got a real problem with it.

Pot as medication may be efficacious, but it bears no resemblance to other prescribable pharmaceuticals. It's typically smoked, which ain't that great for ya. Wacky tobacky is an impressive melange of psychoactive substances, whose interplay is not entirely clear. If Pfizer produced a substance as chemically amorphous as your average sativa, there's not a chance it would ever get cleared. Still, it does do something...although what that something is simply isn't understood.

Mostly, though, I don't like the idea of medical marijuana because it is clearly a trojan horse. In places like California, where it is the law of the land, marijuana dispensaries bend over backwards to accommodate just about any medical condition. Many have doctors conveeeeniently located on site to pitch out that scrip. Depressed? Smoke some pot. Have anger management issues? Here's a doobie. Have ADHD? This plump sweet sticky bud's what you need...or, at a bare minimum, will give you an excuse for, like, not having it together, man. Though there are some conditions whose symptoms can legitimately be treated with cannabis, that just ain't the way it's playing out.

That folds a peculiar contempt for the law into the law itself. And a law that exists to be broken or as a loophole around other laws just shouldn't be bothered with. That entirely defeats the purpose of the law. So while most Americans, motivated by sympathy for the suffering, feel that cannabis should be made legal for primarily therapeutic use, I disagree.

Unlike the majority of Americans, I think marijuana should be legal. Period. It should be available for those who use it to reduce the suffering caused by an illness. But it should also be available to those who just happen to enjoy it.

The reasons for that are simple. While it's not great for you, it's no worse for you than alcohol and tobacco. Cannabis does not cause the same type of physical addiction as alcohol and nicotine. Unlike alcohol, it is one of the least lethal substances known to man. There is no such thing as a marijuana overdose. It does not lead to violent behavior, unless by "violent behavior" we mean "the presidency of the United States." Yeah, I know, but that's another argument for another time.

Most importantly from a societal perspective, the criminalization of marijuana breeds a contempt for the law. Laws in a democratic republic need to be based on reason, and to be clearly justifiable to a disinterested observer. Cocaine, for instance, is a substance that is radically addictive. It also has major negative impacts on an individual's ability to function as a citizen, not to mention the fact that it turns just about anyone into an impossibly insufferable egotist. We Americans are too self-absorbed already. Substances like meth are even worse.

But pot is not those things. By criminalizing a substance that is comparable in effect to other legal and regulated substances, we have created a "gateway" drug. Despite the fulminations of anti-drug propaganda, it isn't a pharmacological gateway. There is no evidence to suggest that such a thing can even exist.

Instead, it's a sociological gateway. When we establish laws that aren't rational, we create significant subcultures of resistance to the law. When we prosecute individuals for "crimes" that do no significant harm to either the individuals themselves or the communities in which they are located, citizens begin to see the law not as a way of protecting the integrity of our society, but as essentially arbitrary and oppressive. Marijuana, which is easy to produce and obtain and does little harm, has become a significant point of entry into a subculture of illicit drug consumption. That is not it's "fault" as a substance, but rather our fault for enforcing laws around cannabis that have a really shaky conceptual foundation. In the same way that our insane drinking age has created a culture of clandestine binge drinking among our young adults, laws criminalizing marijuana have fueled a culture of disrespect for the legal frameworks that should protect us from truly harmful substances. This does not serve our interests as a people.

So as I watch the District of Columbia start down the same shadowy, disingenuous path as California, I find myself oddly bothered. Why...why...why...can't we just do this right?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Virginia's Contribution to American Energy Independence

Following the GOP's enthusiastic embrace of offshore drilling in the last presidential election, the great state of Virginia has aggressively moved to open our coastal waters to oil exploration. With the election of Gov. McDonnell, things were moving vigorously towards Virginia being 1) for lovers and 2) for drilling, baby, drilling. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. Up until a short while ago, Virginia was leading the nation in plans for gettin' more of the black gold out of the sea.

This was right up until the ongoing fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico. With two hundred thousand gallons of crude pouring daily into the Gulf from an unrepaired and apparently unreparable rig disaster, things have ground to a halt on the drilling front. For some reason, those Virginians who live by the water or make their living on the tourism generated by our beaches...well, they've suddenly realized that oil isn't always neat and tidy and out of sight.

That doesn't mean that Virginia conservatives have set down the mantle of oil exploration. It is, we hear, just as important as before. America needs that oil, if we're going to finally shake ourselves free of our addiction to them furriners and their go-juice. We can't let this little setback shake our resolve to seek new energy for America's future!

What will Virginia's contribution to energy independence be? In an article today about Virginia coastal drilling, there was a little factoid buried amidst the political posturing, one that stuck out. Total potential reserves of oil off the shore of Virginia are now estimated at 130 million barrels. That's a whole bunch of barrels! 130 million reasons to get out there and start burrowing into the sea floor!

This impressive untapped reservoir of Virginian oil will, at current rates of consumption, fuel American cars and drive the American economy

Six days. Six. More. Days.

Suddenly, drilling seems rather less pressing. Even if supplies are twice what's been projected, they're not going to make a meaningful difference in America's energy future. Funny how that never gets mentioned by the folks who are so eager to have rigs off the coastline of our beautiful state.

Monday, May 3, 2010

House Spirits

Back when I was in college, some of the coursework that I most enjoyed were courses on folklore. The stories that formed the culture of pre-media peoples were rich and earthy and magical. One little niblet of data that has stuck with me from those classes is the idea, from Slavic folklore, of the domovoi. That magical critter is a house spirit, typically represented as an ornery and hairy old man. As I recall, the house spirit is protective of the home, but also rather finicky, and prone to messing things up if you don't do things the way he wants. Their nature varied from house to house.

As I've been walking through my neighborhood of late, with my dog trotting more-or-less obediently by my side, I've been paying attention to the homes that I pass. I'm reasonably sure most of them don't have a grizzled little homunculus crouched behind the dryer. However, most of them are, in their own way, reflective of the lives of the human creatures within. Sure, they were all made out of ticky tacky, but that was 40 years ago, and they no longer look all the same. Though seemingly inanimate, they speak volumes about their occupants. They each have, in their own way, a domovoi with a story to tell.

Like, for instance, the house on the corner. It's lawn has been recently mowed, apparently with a chainsaw. Wet grass is clumped everywhere, including in mounds on the street. A huge but dirty American flag hangs from the carport, behind which a car is in a state of permanent repair. The car in the driveway is festooned with right-wing bumperstickers. It is disheveled, chaotic, angry. The domovoi of this home quite clearly thinks the tea party movement is too namby pamby.

Or the house nestled between two neatly kempt two story ranch homes. It is, in structure, the same. But the grass hasn't been mowed. The car in the driveway has four flat tires, and a registration that expired in 2007. The carport is full of brickabrak. Strange objects, formed from household detritus, hang from the roof. In windows can be seen piles and piles of newspaper, and some faded, hand-lettered signs. The domovoi of this place is deeply alone, and the house seems to radiate sadness.

Sometimes, of course, we human beings are good at masking the spirit of our homes. Brokenness and anger and sorrow can exist behind a facade of spitspot kitchen tile and neatly trimmed hedges. But typically, I think the home reflects the spirit within, in the same way that our bodies respond to our states of mind.

Which reminds me...I've got some cleaning to do.