Saturday, November 06, 2010

It Seems The United Methodist Church Is Further Behind The Curve Than Willow Creek

This past week, the Call to Action Steering Committee released its final report of recommendations to the Council of Bishops.

In the course of clicking through some links, I came across this article that, perhaps, the Council of Bishops should consider in depth before recommending anything from the Call to Action report.
The church creates programs/activities. People participate in these activities. The outcome is spiritual maturity. In a moment of stinging honesty Hawkins says, "I know it might sound crazy but that's how we do it in churches. We measure levels of participation."

Having put so many of their eggs into the program-driven church basket, you can understand their shock when the research revealed that "Increasing levels of participation in these sets of activities does NOT predict whether someone's becoming more of a disciple of Christ. It does NOT predict whether they love God more or they love people more."


[S]piritual growth doesn't happen best by becoming dependent on elaborate church programs but through the age old spiritual practices of prayer, bible reading, and relationships.
Turning inward and creating some kind of criteria for "vital congregations" ignores the reality that most United Methodist Churches are vital. They have Christian Education programs, Disciple Bible Study, small groups of various kinds studying this book, or that spiritual discipline. There are prayer groups and the United Methodist Women, whose focus is mission, local and global. There are connectional ministries local churches participate in through apportioned giving. All of it toward the end of being the Church of Jesus Christ, the people called Methodist (to quote John Wesley).

If we choose the path of programmatic intension, instead of evangelical and mission-oriented extension, we may just find ourselves in the same position as Willow Creek. With one exception - having betrayed our heritage in the search for a quick fix, we will no longer have a link to our past.

The Bush Legacy - Military Suicides

N.B.: This is a story I've been mulling over for a while. It may be incendiary to place responsibility at the feet of the Bush Administration, but I think there is justification for it.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States military has contracted in size. Our military budget is larger than the entire working budgets of most countries, to be sure, but our high-tech military has high front-end costs, not just actual equipment, but R&D. I perused the 2011 DoD budget numbers the other day (the declassified portion, over 800 pages, is in multiple .pdf form) prepping for this post, and taking the position that budgets are a good indication of priorities and underlying assumptions, I got the sense that, for all the complaining so many do about the size and scope of the military budget, it reflects the general consensus of the past 20 years that a highly technical, well-trained military can be lean and effective.

Unfortunately, since the end of the Cold War, all Presidents have seen fit to use the United States military as an easy fall-back tool to achieve certain foreign policy goals. Even as the Berlin Wall was being dismantled and chuncks of concrete were being auctioned off, the US decided that an invasion of Panama was a nice short-cut to ridding itself of the thorn of Manuel Noriega. Desert Storm/Desert Shield followed the next year. Finally, as lame-duck, George H. W. Bush committed forces to Somalia. Clinton had to deal with that, plus Haiti, plus policing various Balkan truces and peace accords. There was the bombing campaign in Kosovo, which managed to achieve very little. All the while, the United States Air Force policed the No-Fly Zones established in Iraq after the first Gulf War, plus conducted a couple serious bombing raids. We lobbed cruise missiles at Al Qaeda targets after the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The Navy has done a couple exercises as warnings to China, always a dangerous game. Afghanistan. Iraq, again.

This list doesn't include those deployments that were considered or demanded or otherwise part of our public debate and discussion. Right after the Rwandan genocide, there were calls for the US to send troops too police the peace there (even though the Canadian military that were present as part of a UN peacekeeping effort, castrated by UN ROE, were forced to stand by and do nothing even as the slaughter was under way). We constantly read that we "need" to send troops to Sudan to police the Darfur region. There is, under current Security Council Resolutions at the UN, good reason to send troops to Western Sahara (the African Union and I think a couple European countries are there now), enforcing Resolutions to keep Morocco at bay there.

Have I mentioned that the US nearly went to war a couple times with North Korea in the past 20 years, with 35,000 American troops on the firing line there?

So, we had this rather promiscuous use of our military, on the one hand, even as the number of persons in uniform actually shrank. We kept demanding that the service chiefs do more with less. This was raised to absurd proportions with the Iraq invasion. We invaded with about half the troops the service chiefs recommended, mostly to do police-work after the war was won. Rumsfeld's infamous dig, "You go to war with the military you have, not the military you want," was a signal to anyone who was listening that he, and his superiors (Bush and Cheney) held the services in contempt.

The gap between what was needed for occupation duty and what was available was made up in a few ways - calling up the reserves, multiple rotations in and out of combat/occupation zones, and the ready-reserve (recalling to active duty retired service members). There was a truncated debate over reinstituting a draft; Charlie Rangel, a Korean War veteran, made some speeches on the House floor, but members of the Bush Administration and Joint Chiefs balked. This debate left unaddressed the whole issue of force size in a time when the US, for all intents and purposes, was (and is) fighting a war on multiple fronts (there are two major fronts, Iraq and Afghanistan; there are troops facing combat conditions in various ways in the Philippines, Yemen, and other places as well which we probably don't know about).

The cost on our military personnel has been high. The services have been playing catch-up on addressing the issue of the emotional cost of demanding so much from so few, and they are doing more. All the same, along with suicide, we have the rise of social dysfunction among veterans - crime and various substance abuse issues, domestic violence and criminal activity in general.

In 2000, then-candidate George W. Bush was correct, to an extent, in criticizing Pres. Clinton for overextending the US military, both in terms of commitments and military action. After the September 11 attacks, when it was pretty clear there was to be a military response, Pres. Bush had the perfect opportunity to address the issue of "overextension"; the public was ready for a call to service, to be sure. Instead, we had the marvelous combination of bureaucratic parsimony and policy profligacy. And tax cuts, too.

You reap what you sow, I guess. There may well be blame to go around to all sorts of actors. All the same, going to war and carrying out an occupation on the cheap has extracted a terrible cost on our troops, one that we will be paying for years unless addressed now.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Keep A Civil Tongue In Your Head

A big topic that is very often what journalists call a "sidebar" to so much of our public life the past few years is civility. When the political internet became really prominent about four and a half years ago, as many journalists turned their attention to it, they discovered, horror of horrors, that among many other things, people on the internet were pretty rude to one another. Some even used bad words! Over the course of time, this peripheral phenomenon has mutated, at least in the minds of some of our elite journalists, in to a disdain for any kind of hostile expression in public. Witness the general second-hand embarrassment so many expressed yesterday over Mitch McConnell's Heritage Foundation Speech, following not that hard upon his expressed wish that President Obama be limited to one term. Most, I think, recognize this as a truism, hardly surprising; what bothered them most was the nakedness of it. One just does not make public that the real goal of opposing parties is . . . opposing one another!

I find the issue of civility amusing, in a detached way. It's a game, with the rules set by other people, and I don't play games by rules set by other people. Part of the problem with the criticism of incivility is that it too often offers up false dichotomies. Both sides do it. If we ignore the extremes, that great mass in the middle (and the middle only seems to be defined as that area where this "great mass" exists) can come together and work together to hammer out our differences.

The problem with this view is that it has no basis in fact. Consider a recent description of Pres. Obama's attitude toward bipartisanship. A Republican commentator insisted that Pres. Obama was highly partisan, refused to reach out to Republicans, and only now after Democrats have lost control of the House will he realize what real bipartisanship is all about.

This description is so fanciful it defies description.

Pushing back against it, however, distracts attention from staying on the offensive, or even getting on the defensive. The President loses either by fighting this nonsense or ignoring it. It is the job of people on the outside to speak out as loud and as often as possible that this is, quite simply put, a lie.

Is it uncivil to call a falsehood, well, a lie? Most journalists get itchy when people call an obvious falsehood a lie. They demand that the person making that accusation prove the person who made it understood it to be false before it was made. This is a ridiculous standard. Especially in a case such as the one above. The public record is clear enough; the President worked far too hard to bring Republicans on board everything from Health Care Reform to the Hate Crimes Law, even the failed cap-and-trade climate legislation. He was rebuffed at each and every turn, with the Republicans egged on from the sidelines by commentators and celebrities like Rush Limbaugh and other talkers. Calling a statement like the one above a lie is fairly easy.

Who is uncivil in a case like this? Is it the liar, or the person who calls out the lie? Who is uncivil, a corporation spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for advertising time during the previous election cycle to elect a candidate with no direct ties to that corporation, or those who point out that the game is pretty clearly rigged in favor of deep pocket corporations? Who is uncivil, a member of Congress who favors a tax policy that favors the wealthy at the expense of the working class or the politician who is accused of "class warfare" for pointing this out?

Again, this is a game with rules set by other people. I don't play other people's games, so when I get accused of being uncivil, I tend to ignore it.

Whose Interests Are We Talking About?

On the one hand, there is a part of me that agrees with the viewpoint that, by and large, support of the current Republican Party runs counter to the general self-interest of most voters. All the same, I am self-aware enough to know that is a pretty blinkered thought. The idea that others can determine others' self-interest in a given case is the basis of that famous book, What's the Matter With Kansas?, and now political philosopher Ronald Dworkin makes the same assertion in an essay in the New York Review of Books as part of a review of Tuesday's election. The following section is so pompous and arrogant, I really don't know what to say about it.
We must take seriously what so many [voters] actually say: that they feel they are losing their country, that they are desperate to take it back. What could they mean? There are two plausible answers, both of them frightening. They might mean, first, that their new government is not theirs because it is not remotely of their kind or culture; it is not representative of them. Most who think that would have in mind, of course, their president; they think him not one of them because he is so different. It seems likely that the most evident difference, for them, is his race—a race a great many Americans continue to think alien. They feel, viscerally, that a black man cannot speak for them.

Obama isn’t one of them in other ways as well: in the period since he was elected it’s become clearer that he is uncomfortable with the tastes, rhetoric, and reflexive religiosity they identify as at the heart of American political culture. He tries to find his way into that culture—he speaks of “folks” in every paragraph these days—but his articulate, rational style strikes the wrong note. Many of those who voted for him before don’t like what they got. They want to take their country back by taking its presidency back, by making its leader more like them.

There is a second, equally dismaying, understanding of what they mean. All their lives they have assumed that their country is the most powerful, most prosperous, most democratic, economically and culturally the most influential—altogether the most envied and wonderful country in the world. They are coming slowly and painfully to realize that that is no longer true; they are angry and they want someone to blame.
I just love that we need to take seriously the things voters say! How innovative.

While there are many points in Dowrkin's article with which I agree to an extent - and it is only to an extent - the attitude on display here is just awful, part of the problem too many liberals and others have. To pretend that a college professor sitting in a campus in a city on the east coast has any idea what the self-interest of a voter in Iowa or New Mexico or even rural Maine may be is absurd as to be laughable. That Dworkin does not even seem to understand the massive failure of campaign leadership on the part of President Obama, let alone serious failures of Presidential leadership over the past two years isn't really all that surprising. If I had to guess, Obama is going to face not just hostile Republicans, but hostile Democrats as well who are going to pin the blame for their losses squarely where they belong - on him. I doubt many will want to haul water for the guy in Congress over the next couple years.

Rather than tell people they have no idea what their interests are - that's a sure-fire way to get people to listen to you, tell them they're too stupid to know what's best for them - it might be nice to read folks talk about all the reasons why it might just have been a perfectly rational, self-interested decision to support Republican candidates. Furthermore, all things considered - the sucky economy, the massive outside spending favoring Republican candidates, the many failings of Obama and the Congressional Democrats - that the Democrats didn't do worse is something that needs some careful consideration, too. Sitting and crying in your chardonnay that the great unwashed are far too child-like to understand where their real interests lie gets no one anywhere.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Torture And Its Discontents

There are many on the left, including me, who really, really, really wish that Obama had the gumption to go after Bush Administration officials for criminal activity during those horrid eight years. To be sure, we have had more than enough to deal with - like the near collapse of our economy - but it might have been nice had Pres. Obama spent just a tad bit of his electoral capital on making some kind of case that his predecessors in the Executive Branch were pretty awful people. We were given a reminder of just how awful today with former Pres. Bush admitting that he personally gave the order to torture Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

This information is a bit of synchronicity. I was reading Carlo Ginzburg's Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method yesterday. In an essay, "Witchcraft and Popular Piety: Notes on a Modenese Trial of 1519", he discusses the interplay among the officials doing torture, the victim, and the competing narratives at stake:
It may seem unnecessary to dwell so minutely on this monotonous succession of confessions extracted by torture and followed by equally punctual retractions. But torture, in reality, only reaffirms in an extreme form the essential characteristics of the witchcraft trial itself. However, obvious, it may not be superfluous to recall that a large majority of inquisitors accept the existence of witchcraft, just as many witches believed what they confessed before the Inquisition. In other words, in the trial we have an encounter between inquisitors and witches, though on different levels, who share a common vision of reality, one which implies the everyday existence of the Devil, the possibility of having relations with him, and so forth. but precisely because of the discrepancies inherent in the encounter, there is always a gap between the beliefs of the defendant and those of the judge, even when the defendant is, as happens more often than is generally supposed, really a witch who does conjure the Devil in her incantation. And the judge, generally in good faith, seeks to overcome this hiatus, even, if necessary, by recourse to torture. That insidious interrogation technique which we have observed at work, a device which tends to draw out of the defendant what the inquisitor already believes is the truth, also serves the same purpose. In various ways judges superimposed predetermined ideas on the witches' confessions. And we must keep these accretions in mind in our attempt to understand the real character of popular witchcraft, in contrast to the "learned" witchcraft on the demonological treatises.c
Let us move this analysis to the years when Bush and Company was waterboarding, using stress positions, sleep deprivation, and other tactics on prisoners in Eastern Europe, Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. On the one hand, we have the CIA and the Bush Administration who assumed that those in custody were "terrorists" (or that made-up category, unlawful enemy combatants). They had a model in mind as to who a terrorist was, what they did, how they interacted, the general shape and structure of the variously linked terrorist organizations, and so on.

The individuals in custody may or may not have "been" terrorists in some strict legally defined sense, but they certainly may, in all likelihood, either have meant direct harm either to US troops or the United States itself or sympathized and given material support to terrorist organizations and their affiliates. Through interrogation that became more and more coercive, to the point of using methods defined by international convention as torture, there was an effort underway to bridge what Ginzburg here calls the "hiatus" between the narrative of the official doing the interrogation and the mix of emotional, political, and religious sympathies combined with any actual involvement regardless of how extensive that may or may not have been, on the part of the prisoner.

Along with all the other reasons to be disgusted with torture - moral, legal, practical - we have this incredible interchange at work which actually prevents anything like seriously usable information emerging through torture. What is at stake is not information, reliable or otherwise. Rather, each side wishes to complete a narrative, with the "hiatus" bridged by the strenuous use of painful interrogation. What results, regardless of anything else, is nothing like a reflection of actual facts of the matter, but a general agreement that the person under interrogation "is" a terrorist.

Even if we were to set aside the legal and moral ramifications of torture, the detailed description of the effect of torture on this young Modenese witch by Ginzburg should serve as an object lesson in why torture doesn't work.

Profound Meaninglessness

I am still trying to figure out the dynamics resulting from Tuesday's election. At the very least, it continues a dynamic, by and large, of the combination of a fickle, easily-swayed electorate with a roughly equal partisan split. Coming after two national election cycles in a row after clear Democratic dominance, and just two years after many eulogies for the Republican Party (including from yours truly), the big question is - how did this happen?

I want to believe, "It's the economy, stupid," but, really, the Democrats took control of both Houses of Congress in 2006 while things were still going pretty well (although the economy was boosted by massive fraud). Furthermore, the Democrats actually did pretty well for playing defense.

The real story - one you probably won't hear discussed too much - is the effect of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on the election. By invalidating limits on corporate and union giving; by going further and opening up direct campaigning by corporate entities; this decision set the stage for something Americans haven't seen in a very long time. The mask of indirect financing and giving limits now legally stripped away, we had an election the terms of which were set by corporate America. While this has been the case since the rise of corporate entities, this election was the first since the Gilded Age when they didn't even have to pretend. In many ways, this Congress is the best our corporations could buy. Had I a guess, Tea Party candidates are going to find themselves facing a conundrum - elected on a platform of anger at Pres. Obama, seeking certain legislative goals like repealing Health Care and balancing the budget, they may just arrive in Washington in January with corporate lobbyists and senior members of the Republican legislative leadership sitting down with these newly-minted legislators and giving them the straight poop. While I doubt many of them will be naive of ingenuous enough to go public with the reality that they've been had, some might balk at being what they really are - willing accomplices in an agenda for which they feel they have not been elected.

It is impossible, I think, to understand the dynamics of this election without taking the reality created by the Citizens United decision in to account. Of course, for left-wing critics of both this election cycle and the Obama Administration, we have to face certain realities that contradict this narrative. If Obama is, indeed, in very deep hock particularly to corporate banking interests (and, really, there isn't much doubt about that), and was willing to give away most of the store in re-regulating the financial industry, why was there not more support for Democrats?

Were I to hazard a guess - and it is just a guess - I think there are two reasons. First, even though the regulatory regime for banks was seriously flawed, that any kind of regulation exists is anathema. Financial services have existed under a cowboy regime for so long, having to abide by certain laws probably just seems wrong. Even though it brought them, and all the rest of us, near the brink of collapse, the principle is at stake.

Furthermore, one key piece of the liberal agenda not acted upon by the previous Congress would, had that party continued to hold both Houses of Congress, have come up. Known as "card check", this refers to a reform of existing labor law that would allow for secret ballots for workers to move toward organizing themselves. Particularly since the goal of organized labor is the massive retail sector - think Target/Wal-Mart/Borders - and you start to realize the potential threat posed by a new legal regime that allows organization to proceed in silence.

Without realizing that this Congress is bought and paid for, anything anyone says really doesn't mean anything.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Did He Hear You Are Supposed To Write About What You Know?

I've been putting this off, but some reading I did this evening got my mind wandering (as it tends to do) and I decided I needed to get this off my chest in order to write a more coherent post tomorrow on related matters.

Sam Harris, God-denier and religion-hater, has written a book on morality. Yes, this Sam Harris.
In a versatile turn, however, Harris moonlights as inquisitor as well as heretic. Without irony, he switches hats between chapters of "The End of Faith." Chapter 3 finds him complaining that the medieval Church tortured Jews over phony "blood libel" conspiracies. Then in chapter 6, "A Science of Good & Evil," he devotes several pages to upholding the "judicial torture" of Muslims, a practice for which "reasonable men and women" have come out.

Torture then and now: The difference, he tells AlterNet, is that the Inquisition "manufactured" crimes and forced Jews to confess "fictional accomplices."

But if the Iraq War hasn't been about "fictional accomplices," what has? "There's nothing about my writing about torture that should suggest I supported what was going on in Abu Ghraib," says Harris, who supported the invasion but says it has become a "travesty." "We abused people who we know had no intelligence value."


Society is remarkably free, however, in airing justifications for putting Muslims to the thumbscrews. Harris's case for torture is this: since "we" are OK with horrific collateral damage, "we" should have no qualms against waterboarding, the lesser evil. "It's better than death." Better, in other words, than bombing innocents.

Then again, Sam Harris is not devoting his time in the media to call for an end to bombing civilians. Attacking the sacred cow of airstrikes might have been a real heresy, true to his Quaker roots but ensuring himself exile from cable news. Instead the logic he lays out -- that Islam itself is our enemy -- invites the reader to feel comfort at the deaths of its believers. He writes: "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them."

Playing his part in last year's War Over Christmas, Harris plays it safe with "Letter to a Christian Nation." The book lumbers under a title so heavy, you'd think Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote it from prison. While keeping the Christian Nation on notice that Harris remains disdainful of "wasting time" on Jesus, he now calls for something of an alliance with the Right against Muslim Arabs and the "head-in-the-sand liberals" he denounced in a recent editorial. "Nonbelievers like myself stand beside you, dumbstruck by the Muslim hordes who chant death to whole nations of the living," he writes.
All in all, reading this same guy on morality just doesn't interest me.

Judicial Council Punts

Several years ago, the senior pastor of the South Hill, VA UMC denied membership to an openly gay man. He was put on leave of absence and appealed the decision to the Supreme Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church. In a 2006 ruling, the Council ruled in favor of the pastor:
Decision 1032, based on Paragraphs 214 and 225 of the denomination's law book, The Book of Discipline, said the paragraphs are "permissive, and do not mandate receipt into membership of all persons regardless of their willingness to affirm membership vows." The ruling meant that the pastor in charge of a local church has authority to determine a layperson's readiness for membership.
Several Annual Conferences, including the Northern Illinois Conference, have sought a revisit of the decision. Today, the Council, in essence, said, "It isn't up to us."
A United Methodist pastor has the right to determine local church membership, even if the decision is based on whether the potential member is gay or lesbian.

Annual (regional) conferences cannot limit that right or ask the church’s top court to set policy, the United Methodist Judicial Council ruled during its Oct. 27-30 meeting.

“The General Conference is the only body authorized and able to resolve the issue for the Church,” wrote Jon R. Gray in a concurring opinion on one of the October cases. The General Conference is the denomination’s top legislative body and meets every four years.
One would admire this example of judicial restraint and respect for the principle of stare decisis if, say, the Church were just as willing to toss out adulterers, divorced folks, thieves, and other such miscreants. Instead, we have the specter of local church membership being decided not by the Grace of God but the social predilections of clergy.

The denomination has set the question of the status of sexual minorities on the back burner far too long. With this decision not to decide the Judicial Council at least opens up the possibility of clarifying, once for all, that membership in a local congregation of the United Methodist Church is not at the behest of the too-often faulty judgments of appointed clergy, but solely the provenance of the grace of God.

General Conference is in two years. I think now is the time to submit petitions for consideration on this matter. Being the Body of Christ is far too serious a matter to leave to the ordained folks among us.

Creating A Whole World - Two Karl's And Yesterday's Election

Perhaps the greatest bon mot of Karl Marx (not one given to the soundbite) is the last line of his Theses on Feuerbach. He wrote, "Until now, philosophers have sought to understand the world. The point is to change it." In changing the world, Marx saw the proletariat not only in a political struggle for freedom, but in a far broader struggle, with metaphysical implications - with the coming Revolution, the oppressed classes would create their own reality. Because Marx understood that reality was nothing more than an imposition, a "set", as it were, imposed by the class that controlled the means of production in order to maintain its power, the socialist revolution would turn the tables, and for the first time the powerless would dictate the terms by which we understand reality.

Reading Scott McLemee's review of the first scholarly survey of the Bush Administration, he reminds us of Karl Rove's infamous quote, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Rove was roundly criticized by many on the left for this comment. Not just its arrogance, but for what many perceived to be a certain delusional quality; after all, isn't reality something that just happens?

In a comment, one reader gives the full context of Rove's statement:
We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
Further down, the commenter glosses:
Was Karl Rove denying the ultimate priority of external nature? I tend to doubt it. I find his comments frightening not because they articulate an incoherent philosophy (if they did, they would merely be laughable) but because they are a reminder of the degree to which the goal of changing the world has been expropriated by the apostles of imperial expansion.
My problem with this gloss is simple - Rove was merely being forthright about certain fundamentals. While I might question the qualifier "now", the fact is the United States is an Empire. Those in power are engaged in creating new realities by their actions.

Part of the reason liberals and those further to the left in America have fared so badly is their refusal to acknowledge this. Many on the left side of the political internet have for years called themselves "the reality-based community". The point, it seems, is there might be some thing called "reality" that is independent of the intellectual tools we use - tools granted us by the ruling class, never forget (that's why John Stuart Mill disliked public education) - for understanding that reality. There is a certain limited utility in spending one's time pointing out, say, the fundamental factual error in the claim that President Obama is a socialist. Quite simply put, there is an entire structure of understanding the world that defines him as such. It is impervious to facts not because those who believe this claim are stupid. It is impervious to facts not because of some phenomenon known as "epistemic closure". It is impervious to facts because facts are disputed territory.

Re-reading Hannah Arendt's essay, "Lying in Politics", for a post on the Wikileaks contretemps, I was reminded of an important point we forget far too easily. Lying as a political strategy works because, for all that facts would seem to be self-verifying, really they are fragile as onion skin. Being contingent rather than necessary, even the least plausible claim merits a certain amount of attention for one simple reason - it might just be the case. Competing narratives, even those between liars and those who hew to the facts, have the disturbing virtue of a competition between potential equals.

Of course, there is a diminishing utility to this game, as Arendt also pointed out. At some point, those who accept as factual or "real" what is not the case, in the end, get mugged by the real state of affairs. All the same, the tactical advantage in the short run tilts toward the liar if for no other reason than the liar has the ability to be almost endlessly creative, while those in opposition continue to spin their epistemic and narrative wheels, stuck in a rut as much of their own creation as that of the opposition.

In light of yesterday's election and its mostly unsurprising results - there is a certain self-fulfilling prophecy in being told by corporate media that a party is going to lose en election and that coming to pass - it seems that, with the backing of tens of millions of dollars from corporations, we are witnessing the creation of a reality once again. Does it bear any resemblance to any actual facts of the matter? We shall see, I guess. At the very least, it seems that we still have far to go in coming to grips with the fundamental notion, embedded in Marx's little quip, that we need to be about changing the world. Understanding comes after.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Crow Eating

Several months back, I predicted that the Republicans wouldn't fare too well tonight. Let me say, for the record - I was wrong.

Sue me.

A Charge To Keep I Have

Buried near the end of the report on the Call To Action Steering Committee's final report to the Council of Bishops is a line so precious it couldn't be auctioned at Sotheby's at any price.
Ultimately, the message and ministry of the United Methodist Church is one worth saving, Mr. Alexander said.
Mr. Alexander, for those who may not know, is the head of the United Methodist Publishing House, so perhaps he can be forgiven for thinking his meal ticket should continue.

The report is a jumble of begged questions, undefined terms, and nonsensical buzzwords that are void of any sense of the Wesleyan heritage that Mr. Alexander believes deserves saving. Two related Wesleyan notions - stewardship as part of accountable discipleship, and the covenant prayer - might have led to a whole different series of conclusions. According to "Sermon 51" we recognize in faith that nothing we have - not our souls or bodies, not our senses or limbs, not the food on our shelves in our homes, not even the wisdom we gain through education nor the money that we have to maintain our economic life - is ours. We are entrusted with them to be used according to the will of God.

God, of course, might just want to know if we have used these gifts entrusted to us in accordance with the grace bestowed upon us.

A couple things missing from that list include the denomination named "United Methodist Church" and the pews therein. We aren't supposed to worry about whether or not this denomination, or even the Wesleyan heritage, survives or not. Quite simply put - it isn't ours.

Wesley wrote and edited over the years a prayer that was used at year-end watch-night services. It has come down to us as "A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition".
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine.

So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
I would like to direct attention to one particular petition: "Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee". In other words, we covenant with God to be God's. Included in this is accepting that our services, vital at one time, may no longer be needed. It takes a brave soul to offer this prayer in full understanding that it includes accepting our own irrelevance. This is true not just for individuals, but for the entire denomination.

I do not think the survival of the denomination is at stake. At worst, one can envision a smaller, leaner United Methodist Church. Yet, even smaller, the Church could still very well be vital. It isn't about numbers, either of butts in pews or dollars in apportionments. Rather, what makes the church vital is the last gift mentioned by Wesley as that which is not ours, but something entrusted to us - the grace of God. The notion that our denomination is somehow lacking vitality because it is no longer the largest Protestant denomination in the country strikes me as odd; the idea that we need to devote the next decade to ourselves is a violation of pretty much everything John Wesley gave us as a charge to keep.

And Are We Yet Alive?

In the wake of decades-long membership declines, the Council of Bishops and Connectional Table created the 16-member Call to Action Steering Team, which includes clergy and laity, to reorder the life of the church for greater effectiveness in the church’s mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Their recommendations?
“We must reduce the perceived distance between the general Church (including the general agencies), the annual conferences, and local congregations,” the report said. “We must refashion and strengthen our approaches in leadership development, deployment, and supervision. . . . In short, we must change our mindset so that our primary focus and commitment are on fostering and sustaining congregational vitality.”
Specifically . . .
• Starting in January 2011, make congregational vitality the church’s “true first priority” for at least a decade.

• Dramatically reform clergy leadership development, deployment, evaluation and accountability. This would include dismissing ineffective clergy and sanctioning under-performing bishops.

• Collect statistical information in consistent and uniform ways for the denomination to measure attendance, growth and engagement. “We should passionately care about results,” the group said.

• Reform the Council of Bishops, with the active bishops assuming responsibility for promoting congregational vitality and for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.

• Consolidate general church agencies and align their work and resources with the priorities of the church and the decade-long commitment to build vital congregations. Also, the agencies should be reconstituted with smaller, competency-based boards.
In other words, rather than be the Body of Christ, willing to sacrifice our lives for the sake of others, we have to spend the next ten years . . . I'm not even sure what any of this means beyond getting people in to the pews.

What bothers me most is the whole "congregational vitality" bit. We're supposed to turn our focus as a denomination on what, exactly? What is congregational vitality? I have seen moribund congregations in the hundreds, and vital congregations that are barely out of the teens.

In other words, this sounds far more like "growth at any cost" than anything. As for getting rid of some clergy and bishops, well, sure. Based on the undefined, smarmy nonsense in this report, however? Not so much.

For the better part of a generation, the United Methodist Church has sought ways to stem the tide of membership loss. I have reached the point where I wonder, why? There is nothing, at least in the linked report from the United Methodist News Service, about being the church. If being the church brings people in, great. If others leave, then we should always be sure to let them know on the way out their spot will be left open for them. Beyond that, I'm not sure what else we can do.

As for the whole business about aligning our general agencies around the priorities of the Church, I kind of thought we did that already. You know, the General Board of Missions sends missionaries out, here and abroad, to do work in the name of the Gospel. The General Board of Church and Society witnesses to the Gospel as it applies to our political and social life. The Board of Discipleship provides resources for fostering the spiritual life of congregations, fulfilling our denominational mission statement, "Making disciples of Jesus Christ or the transformation of the world."

Is the status quo in the church tenable? That assumes that a denomination spread across all fifty states, comprised of many ethnic groups who speak a variety of languages, has a status that can be grasped through statistical analysis. Yes, the denomination is mostly white. Guess what? The country is mostly white! Yes, the denomination is growing older. Guess what? The country is, too! Furthermore, one area we are deficient is this - we do not present any cogent reasons for young people to remain within our ranks. Most churches are aging, with young people leaving, and this is reflected in the United Methodist Church no less than any others.

Based upon the summary here, I cannot find anything of any real value in this report. Least of all do I sense any understanding of that "vital piety" that John Wesley considered essential. Indeed, focusing on "congregational vitality" seems like the exact opposite.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Right Idea, Wrong Country

Yesterday, David Broder mused on all the possible benefits that might accrue to Barack Obama if he pursued war with Iran.

Seems the old hunter's eye was off-target a wee bit.
The U.S. is seriously considering sending elite "hunter-killer" teams to Yemen following the foiled mail bombing plot by militants in Yemen. The covert teams would operate under the CIA's authority allowing them to kill or capture targets unilaterally, The Wall Street Journal reports. Support for an expanded U.S. military effort in Yemen has been growing within the military and the Obama administration, according to The Journal.
From Time's Robert Baer:
If indeed al-Qaeda's base is now in Yemen, we're facing a whole new dynamic. Yemen's well-armed and notoriously independent tribes are even less likely than those of Pakistan to stand for a sustained aerial campaign against the militants. Angered, the tribes can be all but counted on to move on Yemen's capital Sana'a and other major cities, dragging the country into a full-fledged civil war. Or they will increase their attacks on America's ally, Saudi Arabia.

If this is an accurate assessment of what's happened — the battlefront has moved to Yemen — the Obama Administration had better start boning up on Yemeni tribal politics.
By coincidence, or perhaps not, The New York Review of Books had a recent review article that dealt with Yemeni history. To be honest, I had never really thought much of anything at all about Yemen. What I took away from the article was that even a cursory repeat of the high points of that history belied all sorts of complications that might prove insoluble. While I understand the visceral desire for striking at those who have struck at us, it might be a nice idea, rather than sharpening our knives, to take a long, slow look at all sorts of alternatives short of sending in SEAL teams.

We currently have a nasty war that isn't going well in Afghanistan. We still have 50,000 troops in Iraq, a situation that is ripe for trouble. Now, it seems, journalists and pundits have decided that Yemen will be the next . . . whatever.

Slaughter In Church Called "Success" By US Military

Christian have been leaving Iraq since before the 2003 invasion. After the invasion and the rise of sectarian violence, however, the pace of de-Christianization quickened. As Cardinal McCarrick noted in the NYRB recently:
Iraqi Christians continue to be targets of systematic violence, especially in Mosul and Ninevah. These Christians belong to ancient communities that once grew and thrived in Iraq but now face potential disappearance there. Christians in Iraq told me of threats they had received to abandon their faith or risk death. Others described how their homes or churches had been attacked.
They seem to be fleeing to neighboring Jordan and Syria:
Of the 4,000 Iraqi families officially registered as refugees with the agency in Damascus, more than half are Christians. It is believed that there are larger numbers of Iraqis in Syria because it is cheaper to live there than in Jordan. Iraqi Christians also said they have stronger cultural and spiritual ties to Syria. Syrian authorities estimate there are about 300,000 Iraqis in the country.
Even as the human hemorrhage continues, the violence against those Christians who remain in Iraq goes ever on.
Scores of worshipers and seven Iraqi commandos were killed Sunday night during an hours-long siege of a prominent Catholic church in Baghdad, authorities and church officials said.

The bulk of the bloodletting happened shortly after 9 p.m. when Iraqi Special Operations troops stormed Our Lady of Salvation church in the upscale Karradah neighborhood to try and free worshipers who had been taken hostage. Several of the hostages had already been killed by the assailants who had taken over the church, authorities said. The attempted rescue prompted to detonate suicide vests, multiplying the death toll.(italics added)
Please note the italics above. Most of those who died did so only after the Iraqi military decided to storm the church.
Two Assyrian priests who were presiding over Sunday evening Mass were among those slain during the hours-long encounter. One priest was executed and the other was reportedly killed in an explosion, fellow priest Meyassr Portus said.

"People come here just to pray," Portus said Monday, weeping outside the church as residents swept broken glass off the street and repair crews fixed windows and mangled electrical wires. "They are trying to destroy humanity here. Christians just want to live in peace."

In all, 51 worshipers were killed, including at least eight women and five children, Iraqi authorities said. Nearly 60 people were wounded in the exchange of gunfire and the blasts inside the church.
Official response? Ahem.
Iraqi police officials said five of the attackers were slain and eight were taken into custody. The U.S. military called the takeover a success.

"Last night's operation by the [Iraqi security forces] is proof of their competency to provide professional security to the citizens of Iraq," the military said in a statement.
While I realize officials are faced with hard choices in a situation like this, calling a raid to end a hostage situation "successful" when the bulk of casualties occurred during the raid may not have been the best word choice. Call it, oh, I don't know, "botched", maybe. Anything but successful.

For God's Sake, Please Stop

I gave myself a day to consider even if I should mention David Broder's loony, monstrous column in yesterday's Washington Post. Rather than treat it as an "argument" needing discussion on the merits, I think a better approach would be to consider the general phenomenon of commentators blithely offering up the bodies of the American military and foreigners in the quest of some goal that is far removed from any notion of the national interest.

It isn't just Broder. Bill Kristol calls for war with Iran so often it is almost a tag line. Charles Krauthammer, seeing a military strike upon Iran as a necessary part of our commitment to Israel - a formula I still cannot fathom - sees such as inevitable.

What unites all these gentlemen is not just the offhand manner in which they offer up death and destruction as a social good. In their war-mongering, they display an almost comical lack of understanding of any of the dynamics of war. Their simple disregard for human life is almost breathtaking. Their refusal to acknowledge the massive costs we would pay as a society is a serious blind spot.

No, what unites these men is simply this - they know they can continue to beat the drums of war because it costs them nothing. With the exception of those on the internet - a constituency they do not even consider, anyway - people who read these columns, strange as it seems, take their words seriously, even as carefully constructed options for us to ponder. Never mind that we as a nation have gained nothing of substance from our invasion of Iraq (we did disperse Al Qaeda in the initial attack on Afghanistan; our on-going presence seems, however, to have reinvigorated it). Never mind the architects of that invasion are viewed, outside the United States (and by some within) as war criminals. Never mind that, as several commenters have noted here and there, any serious attack on Iran would pin the label "Rogue Nation" upon the United States in such a way that we might just find ourselves facing a large number of states quite willing to use force to make us stand down.

Reality impinges not at all upon the fantasies of these gentlemen because it doesn't have to. They will not lose their jobs, or their seat at the table of the powerful and influential. They will not be denied a spot on television, or a speech invitation. Other than the opprobrium of some liberal folks on the 'net, most readers see all of this as a kind of intellectual exercise, really.

Except, of course, offering up death and destruction without serious provocation or even need isn't an intellectual exercise for sane people. It is disturbing. It is frightening, really. The insouciant notion that the American military exists for no other purpose than the gedenkenexperiment of Washington insiders is really quite foul.

I really don't know what else to say about any of this. It would be nice if Broder lost his perch at the Post, but I don't see that happening. I don't even see him responding in any serious fashion to critics. In all likelihood, Broder sees this as just another column, just 800 or so words tossed off to fill a deadline, maybe get some folks talking and thinking. All of which is most disturbing of all.

Naming Names Updated

N.B.: What follows is a "second edition", updated to include the names (or pseudonyms, as the case may be) of people who have continued to challenge me, forcing me to grow and change, which is never easy but always necessary. If you don't see your name here, don't worry.

Today is one of my favorite feast days in the church calendar, All Saints Day. This is the day to celebrate and remember that "great cloud of witnesses" that surrounds, upholds, and gifts us by their presence in our lives. In the spirit of the day, I want to offer a partial list of those who have enriched my life, some of whom will never meet me, many of whom are long dead, and all of whom are faithful witnesses in their own way to the power of God's loving care. Should some of those listed prefer not to be associated with me, I can understand. Yet, I would be dishonest in the extreme were I to omit the names of those whose impact upon my life has been through admonishment, criticism, and (on one or two occasions) rejection.

First and foremost, almost without need of mentioning, are those sacraments of grace, my wife, the Rev. Lisa Kruse-Safford and my daughters, Moriah and Miriam. Minute by minute I am reminded of the nature of true grace - unmerited gift that demands a response of love in return. I am the most blessed man I know because this is my family.

As for the others, kind of in reverse order:

Those who, through interaction on the internet, never allow me to rest easy, even (perhaps especially) when they agree with me: Dan Trabue, Alan Kiste, the Erudite Redneck, Feodor, Drlobojo. This small group of faithful readers and commenters keeps me going.

The members of Cornerstone United Methodist Church and the Associate Pastor, Cavlin Culpepper. The members of North Boone Co-Active Ministry (Poplar Grove United Methodist Church, Blaine United Methodist Church, Hunter United Methodist Church) and the associate pastor, the Rev. Richard Holton; the people of Community United Methodist Church, LaMoille, IL; the people of Centenary United Methodist Church, Jarratt, VA; Steven Creech; the faculty of Wesley Theological Seminary, particularly those who, through direct instruction, taught me the true meaning of what the marriage of knowledge and vital piety could be - Rev. Dr. Sharon Ringe, Rev. Dr. John Godsey, Dr. Roy Morrison, Rev. Dr. James Cecil Logan, Rev. Dr. Josiah Young, Dr. David Hopkins, then-Dean Dr. M. Douglas Meeks, Rev. Dr. Laurence Hull Stookey, Dr. Mark Burrows, Rev. Dr. Douglas Strong, Dr. William Shopshire; my fellow students and others from my time at Wesley Theological Seminary, especially Rev. Rodney Lorenzo Graves, Rev. Alpha Estes Brown, Rev. Scott Prinster, Sean Boyd, Mitchell Bond, Pamela Monn, Rev. Lauren Heather Lay, Rev. David & Sarah Roberts, Michael Jones; Rev. Kim Kathleen Capps; Janet Powers.

From my pre-seminary days: Rev. Lisa-Jean Hoefner; James and Lucinda Krager; Revs. Hugh & Sarah Miller; Rev. Edwin Martin; Robert & Valerie Crocker; Rev. Richard H. Schuster (d.); Barbara Bouton.

Many of these names are now on my Facebook friends list, which is a marvelous blessing.

My teachers long-distance, most especially Gary Dorrien for his insights on the small, yet vital, movement of liberal Christianity in America; Gustavo Gutierrez; Rev. Dr. James Cone; those teachers who have passed from this life, but whose work illuminates the lives of many - Langdon Gilkey, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Friederich Schleiermacher, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, John Calvin, Martin Luther, William Ockham, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, Tertullian, St. Paul, the Gospel writers.

Jesus Christ.

I know I have forgotten many, many people (and they are probably thankful).

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Gods And Monsters

This review of two books on the Hitler/Stalin mass murders in central and eastern Europe are chilling. Perhaps because it begins with an indictment of the West from one who lived in it and through it, Czeslaw Milosz, does the roll call of mass death, and the insistent call from the mass graves for real justice, it spoke to me this Halloween.
Murder became ordinary during wartime, wrote Miłosz, and was even regarded as legitimate if it was carried out on behalf of the resistance. In the name of patriotism, young boys from law-abiding, middle-class families became hardened criminals, thugs for whom “the killing of a man presents no great moral problem.” Theft became ordinary too, as did falsehood and fabrication. People learned to sleep through sounds that would once have roused the whole neighborhood: the rattle of machine-gun fire, the cries of men in agony, the cursing of the policeman dragging the neighbors away.

For all of these reasons, Miłosz explained, “the man of the East cannot take Americans [or other Westerners] seriously.” Because they hadn’t undergone such experiences, they couldn’t seem to fathom what they meant, and couldn’t seem to imagine how they had happened either. “Their resultant lack of imagination,” he concluded, “is appalling.”
The reviewer, Ann Applebaum goes on to point out that, for all the studies of the Holocaust, the killing machines of the Nazis and the Russians, we in the west really have no way of grasping the horror of living in that stretch of Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea. We write far too blithely of the German psyche, of Russian barbarism, of anti-Semitism, and all the rest, without recognizing that all those who had eked out meager livings in that vast plain were marked for death one way or another. Trying to assign a name to it, even creating a legal classification - genocide - does not and cannot capture the brutality of life in eastern Europe from the rise of Hitler and Stalin's first attempts to break the kulaks (1933) and didn't really end until Stalin died in 1953, on the eve of yet another planned mass killing and simultaneous purge of "Heroes" from the ranks of the Red Army.

On this Halloween night, let me repeat myself. There are monsters who walk the earth. They do not have claws or horns or wings; they don't drink blood to survive, or change in to creatures and devour human flesh. Until we have the imagination to realize the most horrible creature imaginable stares out at us each day, not just from our jail cells and TV screens, but in the mirrors of our homes, we shall never come to terms with this horrid, bloody part of our shared history.

"The Year of Jubilee has come, and we've forgotten all about it!"

This is the third and last week of the stewardship campaign at Cornerstone UMC. Next week is consecration Sunday, when we lay before God and everyone present what we have pledged to give. Lisa preached today on Acts 4. I wish I could type a transcript of the entire sermon, or perhaps post a recording of it. Quite simply put, this was one of the best sermons, one of the best worship experiences, I have ever been a part of. I say that even though she is my wife.

It is difficult enough in our day and time, particularly in tough economic times, to ask people to give. It is difficult to either explain, or perhaps explain away, the explicit description of early Christian communism, or the way that sharing of worldly goods created a bounty for all so that, as the passage says, there were none who were in need. Yet, Lisa cut through all the awkwardness, all the ways we want to wrestle these texts to the ground, and insisted they offer a vision of hope and possibility for living as God intended. The title of this post was a line that underscored her entire point - we are, even now, living in the Year of Jubilee, that time when all debts are forgiven, when all slaves are freed, when the slate is wiped clean. We must embody this reality as the people gathered together as part of our witness to the power of the Gospel, the Good News that Christ was raised from the dead.

If we aren't living as if this changes everything, then we don't get it. We have to dare to live this reality. It isn't about giving. It's about living. Surprise, surprise, the testimony time and again is that living this way creates a bounty that leaves none in need.

There is no way to convey the power, the possibility, the Spirit within the congregation this morning. The Year of Jubilee has, indeed, come, and friends, we need not just remember that. We need to live that out together.

Managing Evil

Today is Halloween. It is also Reformation Day. Not that the two have anything to do with one another other than an accident of history. Anyway, I wanted to take just a few moments to talk about a phenomenon I had not really encountered until I was an adult. I find it difficult to understand, really. I am going to try to state my position as clearly as possible without, at the same time, dismissing out of hand the thoughts and beliefs of others.

There are those who take Halloween so seriously, they not only do not "celebrate" it, they actively seek to ensure that others do not do so, either. Because of its traditional association with monsters and ghosties and all sorts of beasties, there is a sense that even a comical flirtation with things of questionable moral value can only lead others down a path to perdition.

I want to state, categorically, that evil exists. Denying that reality is foolish. We see it around us. Earthquakes and cholera in Haiti. Earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes in Indonesia. Gay teens bullied to the point of suicide. Children beaten, starved, tortured, and murdered by their parents. The twin ancient enemies - indifferent nature and human beings - exist all around us.

Accepting this reality, however, does not entail, by some kind of necessity, accepting all sorts of other things that are termed evil. Devils and demons, evil spirits and Satanic cults - these are, by and large figments of the human imagination (except, it seems, in Norway, where they take their Satanism so seriously it became a bit of a problem; an exception that, I think, proves the general rule). For those Christians, exercised by a sense of urgency over the threat posed by evil, accept the fundamental reality of these and many other creatures and their human worshipers insist that Halloween is a day to celebrate evil miss a fundamental reality made by J. K Rowling in the third book of the Harry Potter series. One particular creature, the boggart, is most susceptible to laughter. Amorphous and formless, it manifests as whatever the person confronting it fears most. It is defeated not so much by courage, but by humorous dismissal.

By making sport of those elemental creatures that haunt our nightmares, by laughing at death and evil allegedly incarnate, we Americans manage to show the best way to confront the monsters within us all - by showing that, in the end, they cannot have power over us. Even as we confront the constant barrage of evil acts, large and small, at least on this day, we insist that evil cannot win, because it is something we need not fear.

Those who insist, out of an earnest desire to refrain from participation in anything that might be considered evil or morally vicious, forget that rather than shrinking from confrontation with our darkest fears, we must learn to face them with courage and, in the end, a bit of wry wit. Even childish nonsense is a good cure for the creepies.

So, our children will go forth this night, gather up candy in a social ritual that is generations old, and laugh out loud at the outlandish notion that there is anything to fear. This is not to say there is are not real things out there from which we need to protect our children, our families, our communities, our nations. Rather, it is to insist that we cannot live in fear of the boogeyman, because the boogeyman isn't real. Even as we insist on the reality of some being known as Lucifer and his potential for havoc, we might just miss the far more real, far more preventable evil that exists down the block, the next town over, or on the other side of the world.

Mexican drug gangs that decapitate people; the Burmese and Chinese governments; a young man who murdered then burned the body of an 18 year old college freshman in DeKalb, IL - these are the real monsters that haunt our world. Facing them takes real skill, real courage, and, yes, a bit of humor. Laughter is the greatest weapon we human beings have in facing evil. Halloween, as currently celebrated, is a marvelous lesson in managing fear and evil.

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