Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Usual Cruelty

In this morning's reading through the newspaper, I found myself caught up in a most peculiar column by George Will.  I enjoy him, as I also enjoy Michael Gerson and Kathleen Parker.  Articulate, intellectually capable conservatives are generally quite entertaining to read.

This column, though, snared my attention more than most.  Perhaps it was the viscerality of Will's beginning, in which he recounted a "lenient" penalty for a horse thief in the 1790s, which involved the removal of ears and face-branding.  What was most striking was Will's analysis of a recent Supreme Court decision, in which the SCOTUS ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles represented "cruel and unusual" punishment.  The moderate/liberal wing of the court argued that forbidding judges to consider details of the crime coupled with the youth of the offenders meant that justice could not be served.  The inflexible sentencing guidelines had to go.

The four conservative justices disagreed, of course, but it was their core rationale...described dispassionately by Will...that caught my eye.  For the punishment meted out by a law to be unconstitutional, Alito/Roberts/Scalia/Thomas dissented, it must be cruel and unusual.  Meaning, it must a) be cruel and b) also be unusual.  If it is cruel, but is regularly and systematically practiced and legislated, then, argued the dissenters, it cannot be considered unconstitutional.

For justice to be justice, it must be "usual," meaning it must be fairly and evenly administered.  It's not an equation, but if I run a red light, and you run a red light, our tickets should be the same.  Extenuating and relevant circumstances always apply, of course.   If I run it because I'm thumb typing out a tweet while shaving, and you run it because your wife is 10 centimeters dilated and feeling the urge to push, then that factors in, or justice is not served.  But if I get a pass because I'm the son of the sheriff, and you pay a $200 fine because you're not, then justice is not served.   It has to be "usual."

But for justice to be justice, it can also never be cruel.   Hanging or mutilating a horse thief might be the law of the land, but the law and justice are not always the same thing.  Cruelty and brutality in punishment have never served the cause of justice.  They're great for instilling fear in a populace.  But justice?  Not so much.

In this jurisprudential parsing, to be honest, I heard echoes of my own children.  

"Don't kick and punch your brother," I might say. Thirty seconds pass, and then BAM!  "DAAAAAD HE PUNCHED MEEEEE!"  To which I'd say, "Did you punch your brother," and he'd say "Sure, but you said don't kick and punch him.  I only punched him."

Or, worse yet, the "well, all the other kids are doing it" line.  That would make it "usual," eh?


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Citizens and Taxpayers

Pastors encounter all sorts of folks in their journey through ministry, but one particular character is both regularly recurring and always unwelcome.  I've not had opportunity to encounter such a soul directly in my small church ministry, thank the Maker, but they are out there.  I hear the stories.

This is the person who gives a great deal to the church, and makes absolutely sure the pastor...and everyone else...knows it.  This is the person whose largesse is a manifestation of their power in the community, and who is more than happy to use their disproportionately large chunk of the church budget to make sure the church does exactly what they want.

If things aren't as they wish, well, suddenly the threat of removing their portion of the budget is made quite explicit.   A sermon that crosses the line into challenging?  An uppity youth pastor who isn't teaching the "right" approach to faith?   A choir director who explores "unfamiliar" music?   Pastor will get that angry call from Old Man Johnson, demanding a meeting RIGHT NOW.  Threats will be made.  Hissy fits will be pitched.  If you're Presbyterian, that may involve spreadsheets and financial projections.

When wealth is used to control or manipulate the direction of a congregation, it is never a good thing.   It's a sign that for that individual, what matters in the church is not the well-being of the whole, but their own power.  It's a sign of spiritual bankruptcy.

There's not a competent pastor in this country who yearns for the presence of such a toxic soul in their church.

And yet, for some reason, we think that's a perfectly fine way to approach our life together as a nation.

When we understand ourselves primarily as "taxpayers," that's exactly what's going on.  We're describing our relationship to our nation not in terms of our embrace of the guiding principles of our democratic republic, but in terms of a transaction.   We're articulating our commitment to our Constitution not as the voluntary act of a free human being committed to the well-being of a nation that defends that freedom, but as a market exchange.

Given how toxic that mindset is in churches, why would it be any less poisonous in our life together as a nation?

Monday, June 11, 2012

You Won't Believe What They Did With This One Simple Trick

My morning media feed is remarkably old-school.   I wake to the radio.  After poking my head into the rooms of the boys to make sure they're underway, I shamble to the kitchen to make coffee.  From there, I pad in stocking feet out the driveway to snag the paper, which I then read with the first drippings of the aforementioned coffee.

I like the paper, dying media though it may be.  One of the things that I most like about it?  The headlines.   Why?

Because they respect my having a brain.   I can skim over the paper, taking in the basic data about a range of issues.  If something seems interesting, I go deeper.

Other media?  Not so much.  When my radio drags me into consciousness in the morning at 6:30 AM, the headlines that begin the half-hourly newscast aren't really headlines.  When I get online, that seems only to expand, as the market ethos and the competitive, profit-driven demand for eyeballs only increases.   Instead of headlines, I get teasers.  They tell you nothing, batting their eyelashes as coyly as a geisha from behind a veil.  They leave out the essence of the data, and instead demand that you 1) continue to listen through the commercial breaks, 2) click through to the article, or 3) read more "after the jump," the "jump" being "your eyes forced to leap over the catchy little ad that pays the bills, baby."

Some days, I just ignore it.  On others, it bugs me.   It seems condescendingly manipulative whenever I encounter it.  And yet the teaser spreads, more and more deeply into our culture.

I wonder if out there somewhere, there's a modern bible that uses that same approach to titling units of tradition, pericopes, and other assorted teachings.

  • 2 Samuel 11:1-5:  "The king and a beautiful married woman?  What the palace authorities don't want you to know."
  • Psalm 23: "In the valley of the shadow of death, only this will help."
  • Isaiah 61:1-11: "You won't believe what the Lord's going to do for us with this one easy trick."
  • Matthew 5:1-11:  "Are you among the blessed?  More following the jump."

Somewhere, I'm sure someone has already come up with that idea...and thought it was a good one.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Creation? Apocalypse? They're All About Me.

A recent Gallup poll reiterated what is a reasonably well known phenomenon in American public thought: A significant plurality of Americans - 46% - believe that God created human beings in their current form.   It's a stat that's been hovering at around that mark for almost thirty years, or as long as the venerable polling company has been maintaining that data.  

It does represent something of a bump from the 2011 data, in which forty percent were creationist, thirty eight percent embraced theistic evolution, and sixteen percent saw no divine engagement in the process.  Both threads in the evolution-support camp have waned in the last year, which is probably interpreted as a good sign for the GOP in the upcoming election.

I don't say that to be snarky or partisan, either.  The sub-data indicates that self-identified Republicans are more likely to be creationist...some 58 percent of them.

Gallup interprets these results as being fundamentally static culturally.  But it remains a to-me-amazing reality that a near-majority of Americans view humankind in a way that is, as Gallup dryly puts it " odds with the preponderance of the scientific literature."  Which is a nice way of saying: they are completely oblivious to the reality of creation.

And yet, as I reflected on that this morning, I found it reminded me of another common phenomenon amongst human beings:  the assumption that we live in the "end-times."   A surprisingly large number of Jesus-folk work under the assumption that the end of all things is just about to come to pass.  The Rapture is just minutes away, coming real soon.   We're in that time just before the end, and we need to prepare, 'cause the signs are clear that Jesus is returning.  In recent polling, for instance, nearly 44% of Americans attribute natural disasters to the coming of the end times.  This number seems remarkably close to the 46% who are creationist.

Why this belief?

Folks assume this for the same reason they've always assumed this.  We generally exist in the small, tangible world of our day-to-day existence.  We see little beyond it.  We're too busy.  So if it's in the Bible, it must pertain to me.  And as my life is at the center of my universe, and all of existence came into being for this time in which I live, clearly, the end must be about to happen.

And therein may lie a commonality between how we view the end and the beginning.  We cannot imagine a beginning that is so radically different from our now.  We cannot imagine an end that goes so far past the end of our little flicker of days.

And we particularly do not want to imagine that this great, glorious span of created time and space does not have us at the apex.  How could it possibly continue"leave us behind?"

So to speak.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ah, Trollery

This evening, I'm leading a class and small group discussion at PPC, as I do every first Wednesday of the month. This month, though, the topic is Homosexuality, the Bible and Gay Marriage.  It's going to be an interesting discussion.

My perspective is inclusive, but I know some folks in my congregation still struggle with that.  Which is why it's better to talk about it than to preach about it, as I see it.

As my small but connected church always does, we pitched up an invite to the event on Facebook, which was distributed to the broader community.

And that brought out the trolls.  Ah, the trolls.

"Reginald" and "Salvatorre" had interesting things to say, the most polite of which had to do with my being their "rent-boy" and their primary source for cocaine.   Unfortunately, many of their other comments were...well...not exactly phrased in church language.

My first assumption when alerted to some untoward comments by a church member was that this was from the right fringe, but the trollery seemed unlike that of fundamentalist critters I've encountered.  I know what that looks like, and while there's much talk of hellfire and heresy and sin, it generally doesn't involve quite so much creative profanity.  Some of the crazier ones, maybe, but generally, there's a consistent theme.

Instead, the comments seemed vaguely adolescent, and to work from the presumption that the intentionally neutral title of the event indicated an anti-gay bias.  A faint whiff of unreflective atheism hung about the first of the comments, so my gut was that this was just some teen mischief-maker.

Still, one can never tell with trolls.  The dank vapors in their basements do odd things to their minds, particularly if they've been in said basement for the last forty years.

So we scrubbed our FB Group of the unpleasantness and blocked the faux users.

Ah well.  Far easier than clearing graffiti from a wall or eggs from a window, I suppose.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Disconfirming Information

For the past month, he'd been there, every morning, limping out to meet me with his cane in hand.

His house had been notable on my morning walk with the dog.  The semi-cluttered yard.  The primer-painted 1960s pickup truck.  The large no-trespassing sign, and the chain-locked back yard, and the overgrown gutters.

A month ago, he'd stopped me and asked for help as I'd walked by.   I said sure, let's talk.

Visiting his house, and listening to his story, he was a complex mess.  The house itself was a warren of debris, with a basement so packed with old electronics, car parts, and junk as to be functionally impassible.  His mind was equally cluttered, as he spun tales of thieves and constant burglaries, legal troubles and lawyers who were out to get him, and elderly neighbors embedding malware on his computer.   He needed legal help, and help selling the vast agglomeration of junk in his home, or so he said.   He was sick!  Everyone was stealing from him!   He was abused!

His anger seethed and snarled, a dog tearing at its tail, superheated by the Archimedean mirrors of his isolation.

And as that isolation was perhaps the dominant cause, I listened.   I stayed, and I came by day after day, and offered what help I could.  I offered to review legal documents with a former contract-officer's eye...but that need seemed to disappear the moment I mentioned it.  There were no documents.  I offered to follow up on a letter...but no, no, he didn't need that, not now.   I offered to clear out several vanloads of stuff, but no, no, he was going to sell it, it was worth something, he knew it.

What he did want was for me to go with him to the mass media and the French Embassy with evidence of the plots against him.  I politely demurred.

I did manage to get up on his roof and clean out his gutters, which was desperately needed, and read through one letter from the court for him.  He'd also asked me to contact a few local churches so that he could get free legal aid, while simultaneously telling me he'd been Mormons, and by some evangelicals...but that all of them had tried to steal his stuff.

About six days ago, as he told...again...the story of how he managed to escape the clutches of a local social service agency that contacted him to offer free mental health support, I demurred.  "Are you sure they were trying to entrap you," I asked.  There was confusion.  "What do you mean?"  "Is it possible they were just trying to help you," I suggested, as gently as possible.

"NO," he said, taken aback.   "It is the way I say it is.  You have to believe it is the way I say it is."  I had stepped on the mine.  A long rant followed.

And now the house is silent as I pass.   On the outside, at least.

Nothing, but nothing, drives us so quickly to madness as the unwillingness to engage with disconfirming information about ourselves.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Secular Pantheon

This last week, the family trundled off to our nearest sprawling Mega Mall for a viewing of the latest and greatest wham-bang early summer blockbuster:  The Avengers.   It was, well, it was what it was.  The kids loved it, of course.   But I while I enjoyed it a great deal, I was aware of its purpose.   It was there to entertain.   Period.

And entertain it did.  It was remarkably well crafted, a testament to the strength of Joss Whedon's direction and screenwriting.  Whedon knows how to create authentically resonant interpersonal exchanges, how to subtly interweave an ensemble cast to spin out a sense of the genuine tension between human beings.  Or superhuman beings, for that matter.   Couple that with a highly competent and well-cast group of interesting characters and a big wahonkus budget, and you've got a shoo-in.

Here you have a film that's mostly explosions followed by fighting followed by more explosions.  Here you have a film where an astonishingly primitive alien "army" appears, one that looks like it wouldn't have posed a challenge to the New York National Guard had they actually ever freakin' showed up.   Yeah, I know, there was that one Humvee, but really?

Yet thanks to Whedon and the cast, it managed not to feel stupid.

Afterwards, though, I found myself musing on how little of the film stuck with me.  It was just fluff, sweet and tasty as cotton candy, or perhaps cotton candy creatively sprinkled through with sour patch morsels and poprocks.  Mmmmm.   Visually interesting, sure.  Enjoyable?  Absolutely.   But ultimately?  Nothing of substance.

We can read substance in, of course, making this some sort of metaphor for teamwork and difference and how we need to learn to be together if we're ever going to defeat totally incompetent alien armies, but whatever "there" was "there" solely served the purpose of being the spoonful of interpersonal authenticity that made the 45 bucks we spent on tickets go down smoothly.

In reflecting on the film further, though, I did find one interesting thread.  This was a story of the Gods, twenty-first century style.  Each of the characters was an archetype of sorts, in much the same way that the gods of the ancient pantheons were archetypes.  You have the Divine Embodiment of Dynamic Capitalism.  You have the God of Honorable Patriotism.  You have the God of Anger.  You actual God of Thunder.   That one always carries over across cultures, as does the God of Chaos and Mischief.

Oh, and Scarlett Johannsen, who may well be her very own archetype.  Or perhaps that's the Goddess of Empow'rd Mercenary WymmnHood.

Wait.  I'm missing one.  Um.  Hmmm.  Oh yeah.  There was that guy with a bow, too.  Perhaps the God of the Hunt, or the God of Accuracy in All Things Including Typing?

In a post polytheistic culture, that yearning to tell stories in which the archetypal powers that frame our existence take on form is still present.  We know they're not real, but that doesn't matter.  We still want to hear the stories.  Once upon a time, we'd gather around the hearth and hear those tales spun by a raconteur, wild stories of battles and intrigue and love and revenge in the heavens as the wind and rain blew fierce outside.

Now, we just see it on the big screen, with bellies full of double butter popcorn, our seats rumbling with the thumping of subwoofer thunder.