Saturday, February 16, 2008

Why Should We Listen To Those Who Aren't Interested In What We Have To Say?

As the quadrennial General Conference of The United Methodist Church approaches, a few folks are insisting that the various groups within learn to play nice.
United Methodists need to learn how to talk about divisive issues in constructive ways that bring people together, says the director of the church’s JustPeace ministry.

For the last few years, United Methodists have been seeking ways to have debates on difficult issues without stopping dialogue on them. As the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly prepares to meet in Fort Worth, Texas, in April, bishops and other church leaders have called for a civil gathering that places more emphasis on common ministry rather than on issues such as homosexuality, which have divided previous General Conferences.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could experience holy conferencing in Fort Worth, if we could name the real issues in our church and talk about them, learn from each other and come to a better place together?" asked the Rev. Tom Porter, executive director of JustPeace.

At the risk of extending my reputation for grumpiness (h/t, ER), may I just say, rhetorically, that any sentence that begins "Wouldn't it be wonderful if . . ." just gives me hives.
[Douglas] Stone [co-author with Porter of the book Difficult Conversations] advised that delegates to General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking assembly, deal with hot-button issues by creating space for listening and inquiry, to take the role of understanding how others view issues instead of being purely an advocate.

Inquiry, he said, "is helping me understand not just what you see but why you see it that way. What goes into your point of view? What values and experiences, what assumptions, what fears, your predictions about the future, what do you care about?"

There is only one problem with this particular approach to conflict within the United Methodist Church. Conservatives are quite clear that they care about one thing, and one thing only - power. This warm and fuzzy approach to conflict only works if one's opponents deal in good faith, and we have had an entire generation's worth of experience to show us that is just not the case with the folks from Good News, The Confessing Movement, and so on. They aren't interested in coming to some kind of mutually-agreed-upon conclusion, because in reality there is no such thing. They know it, we know it, and trying to be nice - all that does is give the game away before the opening whistle.

Sorry, but I do believe that being clear about who we are as the Church, what the demands of the Gospel are - including love not being warm and fuzzy but sometimes hard, even brittle - and how we incarnate the openness of God to all creation in our lives is far more important than making sure we all get along.

Saturday Rock Show

Originally the other half of The Yardbirds after Jimmy Page split the band and (briefly) stole the name before renaming his new group Led Zeppelin, Renaissance began life as a musical experiment, including using a female lead singer. They didn't really strike the right chord with the public until they replaced their original lead singer with the lovely, clear soprano of Annie Haslam. Others have drifted in and out of the orbit over the years, including a recent reunion of the band with Haslam for a couple CDs and tours. They represented a certain pastoral approach to the burgeoning prog rock movement in Britain, with lush arrangements featuring twelve string acoustic guitars and analog keyboards providing color rather than lead material. And, of course, Annie's voice.

The Gift Of Human Sexual Desire

Over at ER's place, I'm being dissed for my alleged grumpiness because I admit my dislike for C. S. Lewis. One of my complaints stems from my refusal to accept his neo-Platonism in his approach to "love" in his book, The Four Loves. Of course, he isn't alone. Christian writings are filled to the brim with a disdain for human sexuality stretching back to the very beginnings; from St. Paul's writings to contemporary discussions on the alleged superiority of agape over eros, we are inundated with claims that it is far better to love at a certain distance than to actually enjoy the many fruits of our embodiedness (for lack of a better term, I'll just run with this neologism, if you don't mind).

This is an old conversation. In the recent past I have been quite clear in some general way my views on human sexuality. I think it is important to make an even more bold, perhaps bordering on heretical, statement. As I have become increasingly moved by the power and profundity of the banal and mundane, or at least what is called that by those who do not know better, I am increasingly moved by the thought that even the most base human actions are open to being revelatory moments. Whether it is brushing one's teeth, sitting in traffic, balancing a checkbook - these moments can be epiphanic should we be open to the possibility.

Now, lumping human sexuality in with such dull activities might seem at first blush to be a bit of what I call a category mistake. After all, we are dealing on the one hand with the regular tasks of living, and on the other with that strange and wonderful thing that two people share in the most intimate, guarded moments and places in their lives. Yet, I do not think the comparison inapt. Indeed, I think that we place far too much on sexual desire than it could possibly support in a rational consideration of it as a human phenomenon. After all, it is nothing more and nothing less than the result of evolution ensuring the continuation of the species in general, and my specific genetic material in particular. That the genders approach sex differently shouldn't be surprising, either. Their roles, the results of the sexual act differ.

Yet, leaving human sexuality at this most basic level is to make of it something so unremarkable as to be almost hum-drum. In fact, there is something transcendent about those most intimate moments we spend with that other person to whom we have opened our lives. They define "eternity" in a way that makes the word real. While careful not to overload it with too much baggage, I think it is unremarkable to note that this is not so much because the human sexual act is of itself transcendent; rather, through the intervention of a good God, these most base, animal moments in our lives can become a vehicle for understanding the power of powerlessness, the strength inherent in vulnerability, and what it means to truly surrender oneself to another. The moments are indeed fleeting. That doesn't mean they aren't real.

I would add, for the record, that the Bible celebrates the most sensual, erotic appreciation of one person for another, in the beautiful poem called "The Song of Songs". Chockablock with detailed references to the rapturous beauty of each body part of the object of desire, the poem shows that, in fact, the simplest, most basic part of human life is nonetheless abundant with moments not just of grace, but transcendent power. I once had a minister tell me that to change the book in to mere metaphor is to rob it of its power. "Retain the earthiness" was his advice, and I have always held on to that.

I should also add, again for whatever record exists, that I am not limiting myself here to the love and desire between a man and a woman. My experience, however is limited to that, but I would also say that same-sex desire is no different. I'm sure heads are exploding as they read that line, but what the hell.

Anyway, the United Methodist Church affirms that human sexuality is a gift from a good God, and who am I to take umbrage at such a claim?

Cult Of Personalities

I saw Charles Krauthammer's piece yesterday, and chose to ignore it. Sadly, No!, however, took up the challenge, and did it just right.

Krauthammer's column is the most cogent in the latest right-wing criticism of Barack Obama, which boils down to the claim that he is creating a cult of personality.
[I]n the most amazing trick of all, a silver-tongued freshman senator has found a way to sell hope. To get it, you need only give him your vote. Barack Obama is getting millions.

This kind of sale is hardly new. Organized religion has been offering a similar commodity -- salvation -- for millennia. Which is why the Obama campaign has the feel of a religious revival with, as writer James Wolcott observed, a "salvational fervor" and "idealistic zeal divorced from any particular policy or cause and chariot-driven by pure euphoria."


ABC's Jake Tapper notes the "Helter-Skelter cult-ish qualities" of "Obama worshipers," what Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times calls "the Cult of Obama." Obama's Super Tuesday victory speech was a classic of the genre. Its effect was electric, eliciting a rhythmic fervor in the audience -- to such rhetorical nonsense as "We are the ones we've been waiting for. (Cheers, applause.) We are the change that we seek."

That was too much for Time's Joe Klein. "There was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism," he wrote. "The message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is."

As someone who has engaged in creating the mythic RONALD REAGAN cult since the 1980's, I find it difficult to imagine how Krauthammer manages to square that particular circle in his own mind. Doing similar things with the even less worthy George W. Bush makes the notion that the left is somehow losing its collective mind, tossing out the left-wing version of the Hitlergruss and goosestepping down the boulevards of America - it's opera bouffe of the most horrific sort.

Except, of course, these people - Krauthammer, Tapper, Klein - are all quite serious. I am quite sure we shall see more of this kind of garbage should Obama win the nomination. On the heels of Liberal Fascism, they really have no choice.

There are days I hate reading about politics, because these people are so goddamn dumb.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Torture Talk

I haven't written about it in a long while, but the on-going "discussion" - "Is waterboarding torture?" - is enough to make you want to beat your head against a concrete block until the blood flows freely. It was considered torture by the international tribunal that convicted some Japanese war criminals of torture after WWII. It was considered torture when the Inquisitors used it in Spain. It was considered torture when it was outlawed by the Geneva Accords, those quaint little scraps of paper that codify international law (something John Bolton insists he not only doesn't know, but doesn't miss not knowing; it might have been nice to have known that before we put him in the United Nations, wouldn't it?).

These moral cripples are so frustratingly callow it is breathtaking. What does it take to send them somewhere they can do no harm? When will someone, somewhere other than blogs and websites, stand up and call these people out for exactly what they are? It's far too late for any public forgiveness; they have tarnished the United States far too much for that. No amount of contrition would ever convince me they are worthy of holding any office of public trust. They lie. They wage illegal, immoral war, and they insist that black is white/up is down/torture isn't torture when the United States does it. They are despicable.

Sorry for the rant. And for the following, but I am just outraged.

God. Damn. Them.

In Our Backyard

God, but it happened it again.

Northern Illinois University is 25 miles south of us. It is the campus home to several of our church members. It is my wife's alma mater.

Last April, after the Virginia Tech shootings, I went in to a funk. I do hope that I don't sink even further because this is so. Damn. Close.

Prayers, thoughts, karma - whatever you choose to use - please for the families of the victims who died, the victims who hold on wounded, and the family of the shooter.

This is just so awful. So bloody awful.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Lord, watch over me today.

From here:
The voters' message is getting through, not only in settling the fights for the Republican and Democratic nominations but in changing the mind-set of Washington.

The clearest evidence of the change is what happened last week on the economic stimulus bill. A week ahead of their self-imposed deadline, the House and Senate, by overwhelming votes, sent to President Bush almost exactly the kind of relief measure he had sought for the staggering economy.

Only in the mind of someone as idiotic as David Broder does the act of caving in to the demands of the most unpopular President in modern history qualify as progress. The Democrats stripped job-training and other real benefits from the stimulus package because Bush threatened to veto it. So, we all will get a check of some amount or other in a few months. That's not so much policy as it is bribery. And what happened wasn't cooperation so much as it was cowardice.

Why won't these people stop?

Valentine's Day II

Like my Halloween post, I want to say up front that I find Valentine's Day to be a false, commercial holiday. I also find others' behavior during the run up to the day amusing, as desperate men search for "just the right gift" to show the special someone in their lives how special they are, just like everyone else. I told Lisa years ago that it was the hundred things we did for one another all throughout the year that meant far more than a card and something silly on February 14th. She agreed, and we haven't exchanged more than a kiss on the day for years.

We live in a society that is confused about "love". A nation of romantics, we believe the purple prose of the "power of love", we listen to songs that encourage us to surrender ourselves to others, often with little knowledge of who that other person is. We equate love and sex. We equate love and marriage ("it goes together like a horse and carriage", a couplet that, if thought through, might give one pause). We snicker at the moony teenage couple, yet celebrate its perpetuation in to adulthood in our popular arts - who are Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, but superannuated adolescents, reacting to a physical chemistry in the midst of the tides of war, and calling it love, jeopardizing their own lives and the lives of others because they enjoy one another's company?

I want to admit up front that I am not immune to this way of thinking. I am the original moony teenager, to be honest. I bought so much of the hype, I sometimes think I am still in debt. I remember earnest conversations with a young woman when I was in high school on the difference between "loving someone" and "being in love" - and remembered that it had been gleaned from, I think, either Ann Landers or Dear Abby. Yet, I nodded my head in complete agreement with this nonsense. I have written poetry for women, dedicated songs, sat around in a state of confusion and wonder as relationships made their natural course and my emotions seemed a jumble it was almost impossible to sort through. I pledged undying fealty to one woman after only a few weeks together, and was not only sincere, it was so brutally honest it scared me. I don't think I have to tell you that she and I parted.

Having said all that, and sounding like a big jerk, I suppose, I want to say that I think there is nothing more wonderful, mysterious, or powerful than the bond that forms, through some mysterious combination of emotion, physical desire, and the rational desire to keep alive and perpetuate the good feelings one has when one is with another. I will go even further and say that there is nothing more radical, more revolutionary, than the fact of romantic love. It can alter lives, even human history (The Iliad is one long paean to the power of human desire to move entire nations and even the gods). It can overwhelm our ability to act in our own interest. It certainly, for a time, overwhelms our ability to consider our lives rationally.

Our capacity for love makes us better creatures than most. Some other animals - some species of birds, for example, and by evidence elephants, whales, and the bonobo - seem to display behaviors we associate with romantic attachments. Yet, this odd emotion, either a by-product of evolution or a gift from God or some strange combination of both, gives to us both a grandeur and a meanness that is fascinating. Quite contrary to our own best interests, we open ourselves to another, invite them in to the hidden places in our lives, let them know our most desperate fears, give them the keys to our emotional core, trusting they will not abuse the privilege. And others do the same for us. I think we do love a disservice by reducing it to treacly verse composed by greeting card company employees and bad chocolate, flowers that wilt and balloons.

Rather than buy a bunch of unnecessary junk one day a year, consider telling the special other in your life what he or she means to you on August 8th, or May 23rd, or September 9th. Consider just how much you have invested in the other person who shares your house, your bathroom, your washing machine, and the wonderful duty of emptying the cat litter box. Love isn't always about gazing in to each others' eyes; sometimes it's about making the bed together, folding laundry, sitting down and paying the bills together. It should become clear that love is something far more mundane, yet profound - we open ourselves to another, and become more, and better, because we share our lives, the great and powerful, the mundane and base, with this person.

One more thing. There is no rational explanation that could possibly convince others as to why we choose to spend our lives with just one other person (actually, many if not most people do not so choose these days; we are serially monogamous creatures for the most part). To say that we are marrying "for love" is no more an explanation than to say we are marrying "for good cooking". Prizing our rationality above all other traits, we nonetheless betray what we claim is our most prized possession in the most important, most deeply personal parts of our lives, making ourselves emotionally open and vulnerable to the deepest pains and pleasures for no good reason. I will submit that I believe we surrender our rational capacity for one reason and reason alone - love is its own best reason. We are better individuals when we surrender ourselves to another, with all the risk - emotional and otherwise - that entails. It may not be rational, but it is the most deeply human thing we can do, far more than figuring out E=mc squared or the theory of evolution. Nothing can change the world like the real, honest love two people share.

Valnetine's Day I - Two Unusual Love Songs

I say unusual, but that's only because they are bereft of sentimentality, honest and profound, without hyping the reality of love, or putting more of our hopes and fears than any state of heightened emotional connection can possibly bear. And yet, the songs also testify to the power of love to surprise us even when we know it isn't all the poets claim it is . . .

Both songs are by Rush. I include the lyrics to both songs below each. The first is off Permanent Waves, "Entre Nous".

We are secrets to each other
Each one's life a novel
No one else has read
Even joined in bonds of love
We're linked to one another
By such slender threads

We are planets to each other
Drifting in our orbits
To a brief eclipse
Each of us a world apart
Alone and yet together
Like two passing ships

Just between us
I think it's time for us to recognize
The differences we sometimes fear to show
Just between us
I think it's time for us to realize
The spaces in between
Leave room for you and I to grow

We are strangers to each other
Full of sliding panels
An illusion show
Acting well rehearsed routines
Or playing from the heart?
It's hard for one to know


We are islands to each other
Building hopeful bridges
On a troubled sea
Some are burned or swept away
Some we would not choose
But we're not always free


The second, off Roll The Bones, is entitled "Ghost Of A Chance".

Like a million little doorways
All the choices we made
All the stages we passed through
All the roles we played

For so many different directions
Our separate paths might have turned
With every door that we opened
Every bridge that we burned

Somehow we find each other
Through all that masquerade
Somehow we found each other
Somehow we have stayed
In a state of grace

I don't believe in destiny
Or the guiding hand of fate
I don't believe in forever
Or love as a mystical state
I don't believe in the stars or the planets
Or angels watching from above
But I believe there's a ghost of a chance we can find someone to love
And make it last...

Like a million little crossroads
Through the back streets of youth
Each time we turn a new corner
A tiny moment of truth

For so many different connections
Our separate paths might have made
With every door that we opened
Every game we played

Somehow we find each other
Through all that masquerade
Somehow we found each other
Somehow we have stayed
In a state of grace

I don't believe in destiny
Or the guiding hand of fate
I don't believe in forever
Or love as a mystical state
I don't believe in the stars or the planets
Or angels watching from above
But I believe there's a ghost of a chance we can find someone to love
And make it last...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Only Half The Story

A couple weeks ago, I wrote this post in which I commented on the issue of Abraham's faith in light of the demand from the LORD that he sacrifice his only (legitimate) son. It left me with many questions hanging open, quite afraid to pursue them too far.

Today, in what some might call serendipity and other Providence, Pastor Dan at Street Prophets offers up the call narrative of Abram for consideration. He concludes by asking his readers the following questions:
1. How is God at work recreating the world around us? Where are the new names, the new lands, the new families? Where are the places of promise in the world?

2. What would it mean for you to pick up and accept a call as Abram did? Could you? How might we demonstrate a faithful response to God's initiative these days?

3. Why does Lot come along, anyway? (Hint: this is a bit of a trick question. Think of it in these terms: why does Abram bring Lot along with him?)

The last question is a practical one; as eldest, Abram was the head of the extended household, and Lot had few if any rights or say in the matter. He came along because Abram brought his whole family along. Lot was one of the cattle, as it were.

The first two questions, however, are more closely related, and on first blush offer all sorts of opportunities for progressive Christians to wax eloquent on the power of renewal inherent in grace to manifest itself in the world. Yet, I would submit that, considering the call narrative apart from the entire story - reading just this particular pericope rather than the entire story of Abraham as an arc, a story of faith and doubt, promise and its delayed fulfillment, and fixing in one's mind the demands of faith in this God who calls us out of the familiar, daring us to believe that, while perhaps not we expected, the promises are fulfilled - misses the central point at work in the stories of the patriarchs. From Abraham, to the Jacob-Esau conflict, through the saga of Joseph, the stories of the patriarchs (Isaac is merely an object, for the most part; we only know he nearly died at his father's hand, and was easily manipulated by the women in his life) are stories of how faith is challenged by the vicissitudes of everyday life. Yet, these challenges are overcome because the promises of faith don't dwell on detail - I'll pass this test, win this lottery, get that job, win that woman/man - but more on the end-result. Abraham will be the sire of a great nation; first, however, God will ask him to sacrifice the life of his only heir, thus threatening that promise. Jacob, the younger twin, is to be the bearer of the promise, yet he is so only through the cunning and deviousness of his mother (gotta love those patriarchal family values). Joseph saves the children of Abraham, only to lead them to slavery, from which the LORD must rescue them, making them truly the LORD's people in the process.

In other words, this is only the very beginning of the story. To answer PD's questions, without thinking through the entire Book of Genesis from chapter 12 on is to have a truncated view of the authors' views on faith, on what "promise" and "fulfillment" might mean, and how we should go about seeing these new places to which God is calling us. I believe we need to concern ourselves very much with the messy "how's" of getting from here to there, because Genesis is nothing if not nakedly clear that the process can be messy; and this messiness is as much part of God's plan as the end result.

Never doubt that. God recognizes the compromised state in which we live, the compromised reality that is our lot this side of the eschaton. Inasmuch as it is so compromised, to somehow pretend that the journey itself can be free from the ugliness of the world - including murder, war, betrayal, and so forth - is to miss the reality that the authors of Genesis were pretty clear these, too, are taken up in God's plan - and God's grace - and made holy.

The Socio-Political Acumen Of The Profoundly Stupid

This post at Sadly, No! has it all. Obama-support, a video from Motorhead, and a link to this truly awful piece by the truly awful Jonah Goldberg.
“Bill Clinton: Obama’s White Half Won Maine,” read the headline on the humor site Scrappleface this week. “Obama gets to play both sides of the race card,” a fictional Bill Clinton told the site. “I told you he won South Carolina because he’s black, like Jesse Jackson. So, to be consistent, I’d have to say he won Maine because he’s white like Michael Dukakis.”

There’s more than a little truth here. It seems that Barack Obama can win blacks and that he can win whites; where he has trouble, electorally speaking, is winning blacks and whites.


So let us stipulate that it would indeed be wonderful if America could move beyond the intergenerational venom, guilt-mongering, orchestrated offense-taking, and entrenched animosity that has characterized much of the black-white relationship over the years. Let us also concede that this is what Obama wants to do and what his followers want from him.

There remains the inconvenient question: Does it make any sense?

Rather than serving to heal America’s racial wounds, maybe Obama’s campaign is more like a dye marker that helps us better diagnose the complexity of the problem.


Although there’s got to be some truth to this at the margins, I think it’s mostly hogwash. Still, it says something fascinating about our political and racial landscape that the Democratic voters with the most experience living in multiracial, multicultural communities are the ones most immune to Obama’s “beyond race” rhetoric. At the same time, the whitest states are the most gaga for Obama. (He beat Clinton 80 percent to 17 percent in white-supremacist-rich Idaho.)

One possible explanation for this might be found in the work of Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. In 2006, the scholar of civil society and author of Bowling Alone released some controversial findings: The more diverse a community, the less trusting it becomes.

“In the presence of diversity, we hunker down,” he told the Financial Times. “The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.” Social trust was at its absolute lowest in Los Angeles, one of America’s most diverse cities, Putnam found.

The hard interpretation would be that diversity does in fact breed racism and ethnic resentment. But a softer, and I think slightly more plausible, reading would be that increased diversity breeds not so much resentment as realism — at least among rank-and-file voters.

It’s easy for upscale liberals to talk about the glories of diversity because they live at Olympian heights, above the reality of multicultural America. For Obama’s wealthy, white, liberal supporters, diversity is knowing a rich black lawyer, a wealthy Latino accountant, and lots of well-to-do gay folks.

Meanwhile, for working-class white liberals who live in places such as Iowa or Maine, it’s easy to see our racial divide in almost purely theoretical terms and therefore believe that purely rhetorical responses are sufficient; Obama says the right words, and that’s all we need.

But for much of the rest of the country, people are more skeptical that high-flying talk about diversity and unity, married to fairly conventional liberal policies on affirmative action, immigration, and the like, will do much to solve the real problems we face. They may have never heard such rhetoric delivered so well. But they’ve certainly heard it before.

Reading Jonah on race and politics is almost as painful as rolling on a floor covered in shattered glass. It's less bloody, but it still hurts all over.

What he lacks in an understanding of the reality of the racial divide, he makes up for in profoundly ignorant race baiting - people who actually live with those of other races are more "realistic" (he says "not racist" but I do believe that is what he means) than those who don't. And what the hell does "look like America" mean anyway? Last time I checked, pretty much everywhere between the Canadian and Mexican borders, and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, plus Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands is America. This is what America looks like. "Diversity" isn't some word that can mean only what some people want it to mean. It is an actual description of America.

I really, really wish he would just go away. Perhaps to a place where there's no internet access, or access to a publishing house. Reading Jonah Goldberg hurts my brain.

Trust Is Earned - And You Haven't Earned Anything Other Than Contempt

I cringed when I saw that Condi and Robert Gates have an op-ed in today's WaPo. I cringed even more at the summary headline on the front-e-page, "Trust Us".

You can't be fricking serious.

There isn't a member, junior, senior, somewhere in the middle, of the Bush Administration, to whom even an ounce of trust should be given. Now, the pair of semi-alleged war criminals who head the State Department and Defense Department, respectively, are asking/demanding Congress just sit back, not do its duty to oversee what the Administration is doing (not even when it comes to paying the bills, which is kind of Congress' purview), and just let them do whatever they want in terms of negotiating a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq.
Our troops and diplomats have made untold sacrifices to help put Iraq on the path to self-sufficiency. A crucial phase in this process will unfold in the coming months, when our ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, begins negotiating a basic framework for normalized relations with the Iraqi government -- to include what is known as a "status of forces" agreement. We encourage Congress and the public to support the efforts of our senior diplomats and military officers as they forge ahead with these talks -- which we believe are essential to a successful outcome in Iraq and, by extension, the vital interests and security of the United States.

I know, I know, the Democrats in Congress, callow cowards for the most part, will bow to the group with a 30% approval rating, even as the American people shake in frustration at the thought of these nincompoops committing more blood and treasure to the immoral sink hole that is our current Iraq policy.

I wouldn't let Condi Rice talk to my kid's school class. I wouldn't trust Robert Gates to help my mother across the street. I wouldn't let either one of them do anything, just sit in their office and shuffle papers until next January.

My guess is Iraq will most likely stall until then anyway.

Blogroll Featurette - A Wonderful Angry Ballerina

It's been a while since I singled out a site on my blog roll. A few months ago, I discovered Angry Ballerina and I haven't looked back. She is one of the most fearless, profane, honest, blunt, foul-mouthed, profound, insightful people I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Her posts are clear, the writing short and to the point. She discusses topics that one might not find at a "religious" or "political" blog, but should be. I have never failed to come away both smiling and a bit envious when I read her. Her posts are probably not work-safe, but that says more about work than about her.

That's her, by the way, over to the left. Tell her I said, "Hi," and know that you will be rewarded by visiting her every day.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Some Early Results From Virginia

With only 17% of precincts reporting, right now Barack Obama has more votes than all the Republican votes for all the candidates combined.

Not only "Yes, we can," but "Holy crap".


Via email, my friend Jim Bush-Resko sends me this article from Harper's magazine. A discussion of the temptation story in St. Matthew's Gospel (4:1-10), it ends on an interesting, and relevant, note.
The three tests point to the weaknesses of the human condition, and the prospect that the believer will be led astray by three false paths. The first is a life devoted to material things at the expense of humankind’s spiritual needs, a life which might today best be understood in terms of a careerist rut. The second which balances the first is religious fanaticism which loses sight of all the earthly duties which humans must bear. But the third is the most intriguing, for it points to the great danger of political power to corrupt and pervert he who holds and wields it. A just ruler, it suggests, is one who does not seek power, but holds it as a burden, and then willingly lets go of it. Political power, it suggests, is the most potent and most dangerous of the three temptations.(emphasis added)

I'm not sure that is true. I do think, however, that it is a reminder that we are not saved by political action. As corrupt as all other human activities, no matter how well intentioned or well thought-out, in the end, politics is about power, which in turn is about coercion. The Christian life is about self-sacrifice; the "power of God" revealed in the crucifix is the powerlessness of the one tortured and murdered by political power.

Any thoughts?

Political Gnosticism

Long-time reader, commenter, good friend, and Ithaca resident (which makes him automatically cool) Democracy Lover and I are engaged in a kind of meta-political debate on the issue of the clarity of political discourse and the limit of political choices we face, as well as possible solutions to our condition. I am always challenged by him, kept honest, and our debates, while certainly heated, are also done with (I hope) the deepest respect for each other's position.

In this post, he welcomes back to the blogging world, after a health-related hiatus, Arthur Silber. When I first started this whole blogging thing, in my first attempt nearly two years ago, I stumbled, quite by accident, across his blog, and read it daily. His was a voice of strident public morality against the wishy-washiness and even immorality of so much of our public discourse. He reminds me, in many ways, of another public moralist, Noam Chomsky, and his positions are similar to Chomsky's in many respects - the clarity of vision, the refusal to accept what is given to us in order to ferret out the way things really are, rather than how we wish them to be. Finally, he uses the best in America's beliefs about itself as a goad to those who provide lip-service to our moral sense while violating it over and over again.

Yet, over time, I discovered that, as much as I accepted Silber's morality-based, reality-based critique of American society and politics, I yearned for an answer, an alternative. At the heart of Silber's critique lies the insistence that, for the most part, not only does the public not recognize the reality that is slapping it in the collective face; it cannot due to the ubiquitous power of propaganda, which somehow he and a few enlightened souls have managed to escape. I find this kind of thing a bit off-putting, to be honest. In essence, he is arguing that his is a far more honest, far more real analysis of our predicament, due to a superior ability to see and think through events; there is no way to escape this predicament, not because alternatives aren't available, but because most of the American public is too callow, too involved in the simple necessities of living, or too blinded by official lies to "get it".

In the post linked above, Democracy Lover welcomes back Silber by, in essence, calling Americans who participate in our current elections shit-eaters, because we are being fed a plate of offal that we gobble without checking to realize we are being fed a pile of excrement. He was kind enough to exclude me from the list of those who are unaware of our main political course, but I would have none of it:
It is all well and good to refuse to include me in the "shit-eaters", yet am I so different? I admit my support for Obama is far more emotional than it is rational; can any of his other supporters offer serious, substantive reasons, considering the differences between Clinton and him are minuscule? I would much rather be counted a shit-eater, as long as you know that I am quite aware of what has been set before me. You may count me foolish, but I prefer a foolish acceptance of the limits of what it is we have to deal with, to some dreamy "democracy" that cannot exist.

The last sentence captures much of my frustration with Democracy Lover's position. To stand above it all and issue a pox on all our houses due to ignorance and fallibility is not really political criticism. It is to be a political gnostic, to pretend to a wisdom and insight only available to the enlightened few who have rescued themselves from our officially semi-sanctioned cycle of misinformation and desensitization. It is, in the end, not just a counsel of despair, but an anti-politics, really. Choosing to stay aloof is all well and good; to argue that the system is rigged, and that we are engaged in a farcical non-democracy whose strings are pulled by invisible strings, and that millions of Americans are just too ignorant (not necessarily through any fault of their own) to see they are being served a plate of steaming shit is both to insult the millions of Americans who are actively, even excitedly engaged in our current Presidential contretemps, but offers no solution.

If the situation is as desperate, as hopeless, as advertised - why not give up, surrender now, and recognize the limited fare offered by the powers that be? It is one thing to complain that our political choices are narrowed by a variety of forces - John Edwards was about as far left as is acceptable in our political tradition for a serious political operative - but to say that Americans are desensitized so much they cannot recognize these limits (except for the enlightened few who are not taught to vote via American Idol) is to offer no hope.

It is also to pretend that our political structure has not always been the tool of the powerful and those with money and access. Or perhaps not so much pretend this, as pretend that politics, the game of power, can be played by other rules. To see Obama supporters (to offer an example) as misguided disciples searching for a savior, is to believe that all those folks do not recognize the limits of politics, political action, and politicians. Our country won't be saved by Obama, and I doubt his supporters (including me) think he can, or will do such a thing. Recognizing the limits of politics as a tool for social action - power is as corrosive as acid, no matter how enlightened; the better the intentions, I think, the more corrosive - he can be a vehicle for people to do the job themselves. This is potent stuff, but also quite limited. Obviously, it is hardly the radical change some would desire. Under the rules of the game - and I don't mean invisible rules devised in secret by our corporate overlords, but the rules of the game of power that has always existed - this is pretty good stuff.

I much prefer being just a humdrum American citizen, with my plate before me, to a starving beggar who dies with the satisfaction of knowing that at least I'm not one of those people, forced to smile with each bite.

An Offering For Comment

I came across this article at TPM Cafe, a review of sorts of E. J. Dionne's recently released Souled Out. The author of the piece, Richard Parker, offers an interesting, nuanced analysis on the whole question of the political power of the Christian Right:
It’s true that the professional “public discourse” classes—journalists, columnists, academics, pollsters, bloggers, politicians, and the like—have unabashedly swarmed around this thesis of “rightwing religious” dominance for thirty (not twenty) years. They used it initially to explain what was to them Jimmy Carter’s peculiarity—a Georgia peanut farmer who tells Playboy he’s committed adultery in his heart and ends up in the White House. Then, succumbing to the ancient, endless, unapologetic self-promotion of the televangelists--especially Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority--they used it in the 1980s to “decode” Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy, and to “discover” how important a kind of religion that no one on the Upper West Side or in Georgetown or Cambridge practiced still is. Since then, this “conservative dominance of religion”---though at the heart of EJ’s message in Souled Out is that that conservative dominance is now waning (and/or redefining itself)—has owned the talkers’ and writers’ story of the world around us.


But here’s why I think this “right wing dominance of religion” story is false: over eighty percent of Clinton voters in the 1990s, Gore voters in 2000 and Kerry voters in 2004 identified themselves as “religious” in exit polls—and I’m guessing at least eighty percent of the Democratic vote will say the same this coming November. So clearly millions upon millions of Americans have long counted themselves “religious”--but don’t behave in the voting booth, or think of themselves generally, as “a right-wing force” at all.

Personally, I think of this as the window onto America’s God Story.

It’s clearly not the same as Washington’s—and what’s quite evident, to me at least, is that the lived religious experience for these many millions has gone systematically underreported or misreported for years, in no small part because it's lacked the theatricality, cynicism, and venom of Washington's God Story. Yet it's a story that's far more important and encouraging to many of us.

So while the “discourse classes” have preoccupied themselves with the “dominance” narrative of an ultra-conservative branch over American religion and politics in general, much of the rest of religious America has quietly but steadily kept moving in a very different direction, in support of very different values--kinder, more far-sighted, and frankly more in line with values people EJ and I count as the best of America's religious and political traditions.


From the 1970s to today, the white evangelical share of US population hasn’t been “exploding”; it’s been nearly constant, between a fifth and a quarter. And big evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptists have been losing membership by the millions, while membership in mainline churches has been steady or even growing.

And what of the policy triumphs of conservative evangelicals? I don’t see a long list. What about the ongoing presence and power of The Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, the Promiskeepers, Eagle Forum, the Bakkers, Jimmy Swaggert, Ralph Reed… see where I’m going here. On the list of policies mainliners have been prominent allies in fought for, I’d for one point to this: we now have a woman and an African-American in serious contention for the presidency of the United States. And I’ll be happy to add to that list.

So for starters, let’s have a discussion about how and why Washington’s God Story has been so different from America’s these past thirty years---and about why, out in the real world, a conservative politico-religious agenda may have transfixed elites but never grew out from its base to create an effective majority on any of the Religious Right’s oft-trumpeted agenda.

OK, so the clip is a tad longer than I might have wanted, but I wanted all the main points of Parker's argument out there.

Let me just add, for whatever record might exist somewhere, that I think this misses a point that must never be forgotten. For all that there has been a pretty consistent lack of support on issues central to the Christian right (save for gay marriage, a singular success), they still held the whip hand in many ways due to money. With assistance from the Coors and Hunt family fortunes, as well as the direct mail fund-raising of Richard Viguerie and his disciples, the Christian right managed, without a whole lot of fuss and bother, to co-opt our national discussion on a range of issues.

What say you?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Music Monday

OK, so I thought I was going to deal with some songs about death, in the old, grand tradition of American folk songs. Trouble is, this is far better a beginning rather than as a sole source of inspiration. Death is as much a good subject matter for song as love, or money, or any other human experience. Whether it is our own death, the deaths of love one's mourned, or the death of former loved ones through murder (a staple of both white and black folk music traditions in this country), death is just there.

My sister was wonderful enough to send along this Louis Armstrong number, with which I want to begin:

The next one is a wonderful example of the subject matter being used in rock. I don't know if it's a cult classic, a rock novelty song, or how you want to describe it. It's Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper":

I've had a jazz tune, a rock tune, and now a blues tune. The blues were and are full of songs about people done wrong taking the law in to their own hands. Limited as the audience for blues was (different segments of both urban and rural black communities as well as working-class Britain), it was quite a shock when Jimi Hendrix released as his very first single the traditional blues "Hey, Joe" about a man who kills his woman for cheating on him. It also showed that he was too much for this world, really. God bless him.

I haven't really thought of a "topic" for next week, so I'll just ask for songs you like that aren't really meaningful. I want suggestions for songs that you like because they're just fun. They don't even have to be very good.

Is Reinhold Niebuhr Relevant?

Pastor Dan, discussing an online debate he had with a fellow UCC pastor, uses a quote from Niebuhr as a jumping off point for a discussion of the culture wars, and the role of religion in such political debates.
Politics always aims at some kind of a harmony or balance of interest, and such a harmony cannot be regarded as directly related to the final harmony of love of the Kingdom of God. All men are naturally inclined to obscure the morally ambiguous element in their political cause by investing it with religious sanctity. This is why religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm. The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry.

I would like to offer the heretical (for a liberal) suggestion that, for all his wisdom and insight, Niebuhr is no longer relevant to our current political and cultural situation. Indeed, by trying to have it both ways - act out of the love that is the hallmark of the Christian life, yet chiding all those who did so for fooling themselves - relying on Niebuhr as a guide leaves us wondering what possible relevance there is between our faith and political action.

I think the culture wars, in fact, are the best place to show the utter lack of relevance Niebuhr has for our situation today. PD is quite correct further down when he writes the following:
Either a woman has a right to control her own body or an unborn baby has a right to be born. Either gays and lesbians deserve to have their contractual relationships recognized by law or they don't. Basic rights don't admit of much compromise, since our understandings of them are usually grounded in foundational moral principles. Not everything can be reconciled, in short.

These are not just political or cultural (in some kind of broad sense) issues. They are issues that define who we are as a people. Are we people who value the freedom of adult human beings to make decisions about their own lives and bodies, or are we people for whom a fetus trumps such freedom and dignity? Are we people who recognize the reality of same-sex love, and honor it with dignity, or do we enshrine bigotry as part of our refusal to grant equal status to same-sex couples? These are moral questions, and while it might seem easy, even correct, to run to scripture for guidance, we should not stop with specific verses, or passages that might or might not say what we think they say.

This is where the whole question of Niebuhr's relevance becomes clear. Niebuhr was, above all else, a defender of a certain view of the Christian life as transcending the contingent debates and struggles of our common life. By all means we need to be involved in them, he said, but we must not mistake these struggles as having any ultimate meaning or relevance. Except, of course, they do. If they did not, passions would not run as high as they do. We are discussing, at a most basic level, who is and who is not a responsible, equal member of society, to be thought of as having the same intrinsic worth as all others. There is no way to square this circle by saying these are passing issues, to which some kind of religious test, or the whole question of God's love incarnate in our lives and communities have little to say. If the Christian ethic cannot guide us, or if we have to continually remind ourselves that we are not engaged with the whole question of God's love, then of what possible use is it? What possible relevance does the Christian faith have if we have to set its demands aside as we face these difficult issues?

The Potomac Primaries

Tomorrow there will be primaries in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and my old stomping grounds of The Old Dominion. I cannot speak from experience about Maryland. DC I see going to Obama, for a variety of reasons. The real contest, and here the media actually has it right, is Virginia.

Lisa and I moved to Virginia in the end of June, 1994. By the time she told me she wanted to move back to northern Illinois, in the fall of 1998, I wanted to pack up and move that day. The '90's in Virginia were not good years, at least for me.

Before we moved, in mid-June of '94, I got my first taste of what was to come when I read an editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It concerned a case that was, at the time, garnering national attention, a woman attempting to take custody of her grandchildren from her lesbian daughter. The "argument" of the editors was simple - the woman had admitted in court that she had engaged in "sodomy" (oral sex of any kind is technically illegal in VA), rendering her an unfit parent.

When I read the piece, at first I thought it was a parody. I honestly did not believe anyone could "think" that way. I was to encounter far worse over the course of several years. There was Ollie North's attempt to enter Congress on the back of Chuck Robb's massage in 1994. There was the election of George Allen to the Governor's mansion in 1995, followed by his chosen successor, Jim Gilmore, who won by promising voters a rebate on their personal property tax (read "assessed value tax on automobiles" here). There was the on-going controversy in the capitol, Richmond, over the appointment versus election of a mayor (the whole thing was a farce, based on racial fears).

There were the insults and indignities I witnessed on an almost daily basis visited upon half the population of the little town in which we lived because of their race. The ubiquitous racism became a grinding, horrid reality I found no way to escape.

Yet, in the years since, Virginia seems to have undergone a sea change. The center of political gravity has shifted from traditionally "conservative" (please read racist) regions to the far more open suburban areas north near the nation's capital, and around the cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach. The state has elected, wuite handily, two successive Democratic governors who have performed well and popularly (much more so than the current Democratic governor of an alleged "blue state", Elliot Spitzer in New York). There is talk about Virginia being in serious play come the general election, rather than four-square in the Republican column.

With demographics changing the socio-political landscape in the fallen capital of the Confederacy, the stakes are high. An Obama win south of the Potomac would be huge. Furthermore, it would crack the Republican southern strategy, a gift to the party from Lyndon Johnson (which he was wise enough to acknowledge). Of the three primaries, this is the one to watch. Should Obama win Virginia tomorrow, I foresee serious problems for Sen. Clinton's continued viability as a candidate. Of course, there are more primaries and caucuses coming up, in states larger than Virginia. Yet, we lost most the rest of the field after Iowa and New Hampshire, so there is that to consider. Also, unlike Obama, Sen. Clinton's funds are running low.

We might have serious clarity to the race before the week is out.

Yes, we can.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Bit More Clarity

Obama swept the weekend primaries and caucuses (caucusi?). To me, I think this clearly shows where the momentum in the Democratic race is. These were small states, to be sure, and under Democratic rules, there is no winner take all. Yet, surely states coming up must see this and start to wonder. Pennsylvania is a fairly large state coming up. Should Obama do well there, especially in Clinton's backyard, it cannot but bode ill for her campaign.

This has been a historic primary campaign, and it is still on-going. It seems, however, that now, it is Obama's to lose, rather than the other way around.

Yes, we can.

Lord, I almost forgot. Oliver Willis links to this at, in which President Bush takes a swipe at Obama's foreign policy bona fides. I really, really, REALLY like the retort:
"Of course President Bush would attack the one candidate in this race who opposed his disastrous war in Iraq from the start. But Barack Obama doesn't need any foreign policy advice from the architect of the worst foreign policy decision in a generation," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.

This needs to be repeated as often as possible. Especially since we were told over and over again how "expert" the Bush foreign policy team was.

Beyond Good and Evil?

Last night, my wife and I were talking about sin and grace and the Christian life. I know, not exactly light topics for a late night conversation between husband and wife, but considering that she's a pastor and I'm a theologically educated lay person, just roll with it. She was asking me a serious question - does she challenge the congregation enough with sermons on sin?

My response, and the conversation that ensued covered some very limited territory. It came down to my own beliefs right now on my journey in this thing called faith. I have reached the point where my sense of God's presence does not include that old Protestant bugaboo, the dialectic of sin and forgiveness. Rather, having accepted the reality of Christ's sacrifice, and that it is for me, but not just for me but the whole world, I see faith as encompassing far more than simply vacillating between the poles of despair over my own sinfulness and joy at my acceptance. Such a blinkered, narrow view of the Christian life misses the point that we should move beyond our own, individual needs. This whole Christian thing isn't about me escaping a fiery doom in the pits of hell as demons torture me eternally. Rather, it is about living as God has created us - and here I use the plural quite deliberately - to live. That means, in the end, just living. Including living with the knowledge that I shall not live up to what God expects. Accepting grace means living with the knowledge that's OK.

Harping on sin, whether it be "traditional morality" (whichever tradition one accepts here) or social sin, or what have you, keeps one's Christian faith journey truncated, stuck in park at the foot of the cross. Jesus called us to carry our crosses, not stand and gaze at his. His cross should be before us, of course. But in the distance, that towards which we are always moving, rather than a static presence in a static life. Living the Christian life means risk, including the risk of sin. It also means trusting in grace greater than our sin.

Living means living without a net, metaphysical or otherwise. There are no guarantees this side of the eschaton, so we can only do the best we can, trusting in grace to make up the slack that is inevitable. The decisions we make won't always be right. Even the right ones might either seem wrong, or end up making a mess of things. Thinking that God is going to pull our chestnuts out of the various fires we make in our lives misses the point of the freedom entailed in grace. We weren't freed from sin only to find ourselves chained to it in some kind of push-me-pull-you tug of war with grace. Rather, we are free to live as God intended, for God. Whether that means being a saint, or just being a regular person, or anywhere in between - that is up to us.

In the end, I said that, as a good Wesleyan (and Lisa is a very good Wesleyan), the emphasis needs to be on grace. She responded by saying that while that's true, sin needs to be there as the reason for grace. I agreed, but responded by saying that the emphasis still needs to be on grace - grace unmerited, this mystery of God taking us and making us as we should be.

I don't know if I convinced her, but it was a good conversation.

More Numbers From Yesterday's Obama Sweep

The on-going story of voter turnout is alive and well. C&L has the raw numbers again, and, again, the Democrats pulled out a larger number of voters than the Republicans. Louisiana saw more the twice as many Democrats go to the polls as Republicans. Washington had two and a half times as many. Now, one could say that, with McCain having wrapped up the nomination, this story is no longer a real story. Except, of course, Huckabee won in Louisiana, and came within two percentage points of McCain in DC, so voters turned out to vote against the presumptive nominee, or at least for his opponent.

Part of what is driving this phenomenon is something that hasn't happened in Democratic circles in a long time. Democratic voters are quite happy with their candidates, would be content with either one on top of the ticket (none of that fence-mending necessary here), and see themselves as rolling on to victory whoever wins the nomination. Republican voters, on the other hand, are angry, not happy with their choices, and conservatives (at least the most vocal and connected ones) distrust and even loathe him. By winning without hard-right voters, especially religious conservatives, McCain is showing what a paper tiger these folks really are. Unfortunately, without a base of support, he has no where to put his feet come the general election, unlike either Democratic candidate, so that will make his job much more difficult.

I am quite sure we can expect "fence-mending" stories in the press once either Obama or Clinton win the nomination, even though the empirical evidence, via polls, shows this won't be necessary. Like the slogan on this blog says, brace yourself for a bunch of stupid, folks.

This is an historic primary season, defying all the rules and precedents. It is quite exciting, really, to have been and be a part of something like this. Regardless of who wins (OK, I said it), we are witnessing all the old assumptions about how these things work disappear. Candidates who tear each other down hurt themselves in the long run. A longer primary fight leads to bad blood and party disunity. These two verities, once confirmed by social science data, are showing themselves to be epiphenomena of one historic period in American history, rather than trends in American politics to watch out for.

By the way - Yes we can (h/t, ER)

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