Friday, December 24, 2010

What Would A New Carol Look Like?

Like the sainted Dickens, my hope is the following doesn't put you out of temper with me, the day, or the sentiments of the season.

Toward the end of John Mortimer's Introduction to the sesquicentennial edition of A Christmas Carol, he "wondered how far we had really come in a century and a half since that endlessly active pen scratched its Christmas message."
All over the world povery and ignorance are tolerated. Those great Western democracies, the United States and Britain, accept the existence of an abandoned underclass, unemployed, unwanted, uneducated, and ignored. In Russia poor children live on the rubbish dumps, in Africa they starve. What we need is another Dickens, a novelist to stir our consciences and succeed where politicians and preachers and pamphleteers have so conspicuously failed. (p. xiii)
As marvelous a piece of literature as A Christmas Carol is I have to wonder how effectual it, or a contemporary equivalent, would be in snapping us out of our socially moral lassitude. The obstacles we face in regard to issues of wealth and poverty, the attitudes represented by Scrooge and, in particular, the Spirit of Christmas Present, would find it far more difficult to penetrate the hearts of our contemporary Scrooges. The problem is not that ours is a less religious, or less moral time. The problem is not that our economic and financial elite are in some manner, fashion, or form less moral, or even more evil, than those in Lord Palmerston's Britain. Rather, the structures within which these elites operate, the professional and ideological demands upon their attention, that which sets their public priorities, could not be met by appeals to their better human natures, to the thought that, as Marley's ghost tells Ebeneezer, the dealings of their trade are but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of their business.

Part of the problem with any attempt to do what Dickens was attempting here - to paint a picture of a society indifferent to the condition of a large sector of its population even as it claims the mantle "Christian" - is that we all too easily get hung up on the personalities involved. Because Scrooge, in particular, but also Bob Cratchit, the gentlemen who come calling for a charitable donation, even Fred Holliwell and Old Fezziwig are such marvelously drawn characters that we can forget that they are much more than that. For example, I can imagine Larry Summers or Robert Rubin announcing tomorrow that they are willing to make slightly less money if it would mean paying their employees slightly more. I cannot imagine, however, any government official, or CEO at a major bank announcing policies that would harm quarterly profits. I cannot imagine a scenario in which the Chairman of GM or Dow Chemical would welcome greater environmental regulation. I certainly could not see the Board of Target or some other big box store inviting labor organization at its stores.

The obstacles to a more just, more equitable society are not personal. I am not the least bit moved by character sketches of this or that person in business or government, because who they are as individuals means nothing to their professional, public conduct. It may well be that Dick Cheney is a loving, attentive father and husband. His public, professional conduct, however, in offices of public trust, has been egregious not for the least reason because there are structural rules and limits upon those offices that limit the impact any particular individual's personality may have upon their operation. This is why the endless focus on certain personalities - Sarah Palin, Pres. Obama as a person, John Boehner as a lachrymose spray-tanner - really mean little to me. I could probably sit and have a nice chat with all of them and more, share a beer with the President, tell jokes with Boehner, talk Winston Churchill with Newt Gingrich, and it would mean little to nothing about who they are as holders of public office.

Which is not to say that we are not in dire need of a fiction of moral redress in regard to the abysmal state of our political, economic, and social life as we are currently living it. Some attempts, such as Jonathan Franzen's bleak perspective of an ever-shrinking field of moral choices, are more descriptive than prescriptive; for all that, they seem to offer little hope in their explorations of the tortured soul of America in decline.

While it would be marvelous if the Spirits would visit, say, our Secretary of the Treasury, inducing his support for fiscal stimulus and greater banking regulation, my guess is even if they did visit - and please remember the vision of spirits bound together granted to Scrooge, which he divines as "governments" condemned in much the way Marley is - our public policy would change little, and the larger framework within which public decisions are made would not alter one bit.

I am not saying we should not read Dickens' "ghost of a tale". I am hardly suggesting that its weighty moral vocabulary is irrelevant. I do hope you don't get the impression that I do not believe there is still so much for us all to hear in the words of Marley's Ghost and the two Spirits who speak to Ebeneezer. I am only suggesting that Mortimer's idea of some contemporary fiction of moral sermonizing faces a far more difficult set of obstacles than those faced by Dickens.

So, God bless us, everyone!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Women And Motherhood: A French Feminist Perspective

I could probably spend days reading through the links on the syllabus at The New Inquiry. While older - from August - this interview with Elisabeth Banditer certainly offers an interesting perspective on the choices women face, and the differing cultural pressures, as well as generational changes, effecting women's realities. While her particular view is parochially French, her constant compare/contrast with German domestic culture and the pressures German women face is reminiscent of the same pressures American women face.

Because of the large influx of German immigrants here, much of our domestic culture in the United States is a rough adaptation and translation of the "kinder, kurche, kirche" notions of Wilhemine Germany. With the heavy weight of these demands, the demands of second wave feminism in the 1970's were felt as every bit revolutionary as the Civil Rights Movement. That these ideas were baptized by a cultural Christianity didn't help, at least here in the United States.

It is also nice that Ms. Banditer notes the socially structured limits on women's choices, that these structured limits aren't as present in France as they are in Germany (and the US as well). Yet, it is precisely at this point that I think Second Wave Feminism failed. While they pointed to the correct problem, placing it solely at the feet of patriarchy as a socio-cultural-political force ignored the capitalist system's demands, not just upon women, but men as well. The one attempt to redress the critique of patriarchy and capitalism - Catherine MacKinnon's Toward A Feminist Theory of the State - places feminism and Marxism in dialogue. MacKinnon, however, has far too many other issues, far too much baggage, to give her the kind of credibility needed to work through the synthesis such a dialogue might construct.

In any event, I recommend several reads-through as it offers up a whole salad for thought.

Holy Conferencing Starts At Home (Error Corrected)

With thanks to Matthew Johnson for the head's up, I would like to respond to this editorial at the United Methodist Reporter's website with some thoughts of my own.

Rather than looking to either individuals or a group at the top in the elusive quest after leadership, the United Methodist structure already has its own grassroots structure, waiting to be rethought, practiced with eyes toward real change, offering opportunities for real engagement. The Charge/Church Conference, the meeting of the local congregation that is held, minimally, annually, to address matters before the entire congregation, is far too often overshadowed by the Annual Conference as the place where we place our hopes. Yet, it is precisely here that local congregations/charges define themselves; where leaders find and even exercise their voices; where the vital interchange between clergy under appointment and laity exercise authority.

Far too long has the charge conference been seen as an autumn ritual to be gotten past. Far too long has its sole purpose been understood to be setting the pastor's salary, arguing over apportionments, and making the church's feelings clear concerning their appointed clergy to the District Superintendent. Yet it is precisely here, when the clergy and laity are gathered together to sum up their previous year, discuss the upcoming plans - budget! - and set out their vision for who they are as "church" that we have a far-too-untapped resource. We hear far too little of the ways local congregations can use charge conferences as a moment for making clear who they are, what they wish to be, and how they are to achieve their goals.

In my wife's previous appointment, a turning point was being reached. Not only was the church growing, but that growth had changed the self-identity of the whole congregation. A new group of younger leaders was coalescing, yet without any set of defined qualities, goals, or any mission. In this context, Lisa led a group through a year-long exploration that resulted in a Charge Conference that altered the leadership structure of the congregation, offered a vision and mission-statement that invigorated them, and set them on a path toward not just numerical growth - a result of changing local demographics that would have occurred anyway - but vigorous growth in their self-perception. It was a marvelous example of the power of Charge Conference as a vehicle for real change, real leadership, and the promise of what Holy Conferencing can achieve at the local congregational level.

I have a few other examples, but I think the point here is clear. Rather than seek "a leader", perhaps we need to rediscover the real leaders that we already have - our local churches, gathered in Charge Conference, telling the world who they are as the gathered Body of Christ.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


This might just reopen a great conversation.

Compared to America's legal drugs of choice, alcohol and nicotine, marijuana is relatively harmless, in terms of the health effects. Far from creating monsters, as alcohol can, it creates a mellow atmosphere, where strangers can become friends. The mild hallucinogenic effects, the way it opens up reception to stimuli, and the way it makes all such stimuli fascinating are all in contrast to the hyperactivity of nicotine, and the depressive, even narcoleptic effects of alcohol.

Plus, it does seem to mitigate certain issues in regard to appetite and pain relief under certain circumstances.

The debate over the legalization of pot has yet to finish, and Robertson's endorsement of decriminalization seems a huge step forward. While I doubt Pat fires up a hookah, it does offer a comical moment, too, the picture of moral rectitude sucking a fatty as a way of helping hear a Word from the Lord.

Confronting Library Shelves With Hope

I admit a bit of nerdishness here. I love University libraries. I remember times at the library at Wesley Theological Seminary and The Catholic University of America where, it seemed, endless possibility passed before me as I walked the stacks. For someone interested in just about anything, a University library in particular can be a dangerous place. It is all too easy to lose oneself in this or that set of stacks, rather than concentrate on getting the titles for which one is searching. In the midst of these searches, you run across a monograph on Chinese art, say, or the Northwest native Potlatch, opening up whole new vistas for understanding what it means to be human.

Even reading something daring in scope and intent - my own favorite in this regard is Bloch's Principle of Hope - provides an awareness of just how much there is to learn, how much to understand, about the world. Anything and everything is there for the taking.

It was with surprise, then, that I read Rob Horning's "Confessions of a Mass Man".
The palpable sense that there was so much more to know, the concrete proof of it bound up in volumes front of me, not only made it difficult for me to imagine leaving the library; it also made it hard to actually start reading anything. I wanted to stay there in the narrow aisle, facing the books forever, contemplating the spines, surveying Contents and Works Cited pages, poised in a moment of perpetual potentiality. As long as I didn’t commit to any one text, I could continue to fantasize about reading them all. Walking away from the shelf would be tantamount to surrender; I’d have to admit to myself how much there was that I would never know, how I was doomed to dilettantism.

This sort of library visit was somewhat counterproductive to my studies. I learned to evade that state of petrified fascination in the stacks only by avoiding the library altogether and ultimately by dropping out of school.
Obviously, this is a fully human choice. Horning sees himself as one of Ortega y Gasset's "mass men", defined in his The Revolt of the Masses as "constitutionally incapable of appreciating the society in which it found itself."
Sunk in a mire of “self-satisfaction” and “radical ingratitude,” this new inert generation lacked the autonomy to strive for the “noble life” of ceaseless moral and intellectual struggle. “They are from birth deficient in the faculty of giving attention to what is outside themselves, be it fact or person,” Ortega asserts. “They will want to listen, and will discover they are deaf.”
Ortega y Gasset's view of "mass man", however, is really a description of the petit bourgeois, that most reactionary, defensive, frightened of capitalist creatures. Threatened from below by the fear of proletarian victory, envious of the success of the bourgeoisie that always seems to elude them, the petit bourgeois' rage and frustration finds its outlet in fascist politics, anti-intellectualist attacks on culture, and racist and xenophobic attacks on "the other".

Far from the overwhelmed undergraduate, numb and dumb before the prospect and promise present in the University library, I would suggest, rather, that Horning's attempt to see himself reflected in Ortega y Gasset's "mass man" does himself a disservice. One can, I suppose resign oneself to a life viewed as dilettantism. On the other hand, one can dedicate oneself to seeing those shelves as holding the promise of a lifetime of learning, seeing the connections among things that might elude others. Certainly the reality of specialization, as Horning notes, leaves ever smaller niches, to the point where real knowledge and understanding will disappear. All the same, this is not the only possible answer.

An Odd Interview

The folks at The New Inquiry offer up an interview with Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor at The Utopian that is just strange. The interview seems to want to revolve around questions raised by Taylor's last, magesterial work, A Secular Age. The very first question signals that the interviewer hasn't quite grasped either the central point of Taylor's work, let alone surveys our contemporary scene for any clarity.
Is it possible to be religious in today’s world?
Even European intellectuals, long either resigned or elated by the passing of even the possibility of religious belief are coming to the realization that, as a very real human phenomenon, it has not and will not disappear as easily as was once envisioned. Indeed, the history of the past generation, if anything, is testimony to the tenacity of religious belief, and the very limited appeal of the western critique of the possibility of religious belief.

This last point is something that Taylor has made part of his philosophical project, that is, understanding how it is that the supposedly universal criticism of the possibility of religious belief is, really, merely a socially and culturally conditioned position. Furthermore, while it has given to the West many gains (which Taylor describes in brief in the interview), it also entails losses as well, which he also discusses.

Furthermore, the interviewers seem insistent to draw out from Taylor what he believes to be the political implications of the work, a view he rejects.
The book may have political consequences, but it’s not something that you could necessarily produce by political action.
What Taylor discusses in his book is the slow-moving intellectual change, with some political effects, but others as well. Are there political ramifications of this intellectual arc? Obviously. Yet, they are far more subtle, and might even be contradictory. Taylor is pretty clear about that in his work, as well as the interview.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is the interviewer hasn't grasped the essence of Taylor's work. The following question makes that pretty clear; Taylor's response is generous, to say the least.
So let’s talk about these political consequences. If you jettison something like the mechanistic worldview, and perhaps substitute it with a more holistic religion that makes more claims of authority during our time on earth — wouldn’t one of the consequences be that it would be very difficult for many such religions to co-exist? Is the liberal part of your soul worried about the societal clashes that might result?

That sort of thing is possible, but it’s not inevitable. Religions can be lived in very many different ways. One of the big things that started happening in the 20th century is ecumenicism. I don’t just mean: let’s get together, let’s be nice to each other. (Laughs) I mean, I’m all for that.

But there’s something else which is much more subtle. This is ecumenicism as a real desire to learn from the other — and this extends to atheists as well — to learn from the other why their position so deeply appeals to them. There is a great deal of exchange operating at this level. It both presupposes but also builds initial respect and friendship. Again, you could say that this all corresponds to a new upheaval for people, who find it very difficult to flip back to the old way. So people argue that it, too, has downsides. I’m not sure about that, but it certainly has upsides. For instance, it frees in a plural-religious situation — where the other is a real possibility — certain kinds of ecumenicism that have traditionally existed in more despotically ordered societies. For instance, where the Greek Christians and the Armenian Christians and the Turkish Muslims all co-existed and nobody expected anyone to look at each other.

But in situations where one can move around, there is an easy tendency to defend yourself against any doubts about whether you should become an atheist, or whether an atheist should become a Christian, by supremely deprecatory views of the other. “I mean, I could change my mind, but their view is so ridiculous,” or horrifying or whatever. So the side of all this that clears away the deprecatory images is very important to one’s spiritual development — but it’s more than that. It’s a sense that (one is tempted to use one’s own language, naturally, so let me use the Christian language) you can see the Spirit moving in all these different lives, and that is something both very inspiring and furthering of one’s own spiritual development. I think a lot of that is coming to exist.
The interview is interesting precisely because there is an almost total failure to grasp the complexities of Taylor's argument. Like so many in today's world, there is the search for easy answers, for direct political or social implications from a certain intellectual stance. The interview is odd, and interesting, and worth a read, although at times, I wonder if Taylor isn't treating the interviewer like an undergraduate who hasn't quite got the point.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"[I]f you hate America, you have a great future in the Methodist church"

After linking to this story this morning on Facebook, I've been hesitant to say much more, not wanting to draw attention to Judson Phillips' stupidity. I decided, however, that I should at least make some folks who aren't with me on FB aware I saw it, and how I really feel.
Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips has a dream: "No more Methodist Church."

A blog post on his Tea Party Nation page says that on Friday he walked by the United Methodist Building in Washington D.C., which had a sign that said, "Pass the DREAM Act." Phillips wrote: " I have a DREAM. That is, no more United Methodist Church."


Phillips explains that he was formerly a member of the church, but he left because it's "the first Church of Karl Marx," and "little more than the "religious" arm of socialism."
The United Methodist Church's Board of Church and Society has prime office space, right across the street from the Capitol building, hard up between the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. They have been working hard to educate church members on the DREAM Act - originally introduced seven years ago by that Marxist Orrin Hatch and co-sponsored by the American Politburo consisting of Charles Grassley, John McCain, Susan Collins, and Sam Brownback - and urging them to contact legislators in support of it.

That is perfectly legal. It is in keeping with the UMC Social Principles. It continues the lived witness of John Wesley, who, along with fighting off personal attacks and the rejection of the C of E establishment, worked with Members of Parliament to pass legislation.

Beyond that, I really have nothing more to say. Mr. Phillips is certainly entitled to his opinion, as insane as it may be. He may be upset with the UMC for urging passage of the DREAM Act. Shoot, he can even work toward ending the denomination, although right now we are doing a nice job of suicide, really.

Mr. Phillips is also invited to Cornerstone UMC in Plato Center, IL for Christmas Eve candlelight service on Friday night, should he be in the area. My guess is the clergy - my wife, Rev. Lisa Kruse-Safford, and Associate Pastor Rev. Calvin Culpepper - will not even whisper St. Karl's name that night, mention the DREAM Act, or anything else. Instead, there will be the singing of carols, a recollection of the birth story by reading the first section of the second chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, the lighting of the Christ Candle, which will burn until Good Friday, and a whole lot of folks wishing one another Merry Christmas.

I also would add, as my first reaction as I read the sentence which is this post's title:

Merry Christmas, Mr. Phillips. Many blessings during this season of hope and in to the new year.

Republicans In House Love Marriage So Much They Want To Protect Minors Forced Into It

Summarizing a large, now deleted, preface to this post, I am hesitant to cast aspersions on one political party over and against another. In regard to specific actions, however, it seems to me that aspersions need to be cast, particularly when they are egregious.

TPM noted an otherwise passed-over bill fail in the House.
On Thursday night, hours before passing the tax cut compromise, House Republicans thwarted a bill that aimed to protect girls around the world from being coerced into child marriage. They opposed it because, they claimed, it might fund abortions.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), was blindsided. After the Child Marriage Protection Act passed the Senate with zero objection on Dec. 1 -- a rare feat these days -- it didn't seem like there was much to worry about.

But just before the vote began, Republican leadership blasted out a "whip alert" to GOP staffers with a message: Vote no. The alert claimed the bill cost too much and that a competing bill, introduced just the day before, would be better.

"There are also concerns that funding will be directed to NGOs that promote and perform abortion and efforts to combat child marriage could be usurped as a way to overturn pro-life laws," the alert read.


The text of the bill does not mention abortion, contraception or family planning. Instead, it directs the president to make preventing child marriage a priority, especially in countries where more than 40 percent of girls under the age of 18 are married. The ways to do that, according to the bill: support educating communities on the dangers and health effects of child marriage, keep young girls in school, support female mentoring programs and make sure girls have access to health care services.
Apparently, it's that whole "health care services" provision. Some folks see that, they read "abortion!!! contraception!!!" and they just fear that some fetus might be harmed at some future point in time.

So, rather than help children, the Republicans are saying they want to prevent any potential fetus from some scenario that might threaten it, or might not.

The fetishization of the fetus has reached alarming, ridiculous proportions.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Poor Beleaguered Ross Douthat

I posted a link to Ross Douthat's column from today's Times, and its has sparked quite a bit of comment. I think it best to clarify why I don't like it.

The very first sentence of Douthat's column tells a perceptive reader that it is not going to go well.
Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.
How is Christmas hard? How is it hard for everyone? How, on God's green earth, could anyone who is a Christian claim that it is especially difficult for them, compared to others?

Now, perhaps for non-Christians, the season is difficult. For Jews and Muslims, Hindus and others the saturation of cultural Christmas (which some folks on FB have dubbed Consumermas, a marvelous name) probably causes enough confusion. Is this a religious celebration or some kind of socio-cultural event? Are we remembering the birth of the Christian savior and also anticipating his return? Are we, rather, celebrating the triumph of consumer capitalism by buying a whole lot of crap, signifying that buying in and of itself is some kind of national liturgical rite?

For Christians, regardless of the depth of their faith, this is a marvelous time. For Americans generally - at least those with a lick of sense - it is a time for families to get together, to take a moment from the imposition of so much busyness and be together. Even more than Thanksgiving, the parties and meals around Christmas are a means to an end, rather than the reason for the day.

Yet, let us take for granted that Douthat is right, that Christmas is tough, most especially for Christians. Why is that so?
[T]his is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”
The "multiculturalism" jab is a bit dated. The attitude toward Christmas-only church-goers is a large reason why they only go once a year.
These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes. (Think of the annual “war on Christmas” drumbeat, or last week’s complaints from Republican senators about the supposed “sacrilege” of keeping Congress in session through the holiday.) But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.
Ross, you certainly aren't one of those "overdrawing" a Christian's anxiety about his or her place in our national life, are you? I thought not.
In the last 50 years, the Christian churches have undergone what “American Grace” describes as a shock and two aftershocks. The initial earthquake was the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which undercut religious authority as it did all authority, while dealing a particular blow to Christian sexual ethics. The first aftershock was the rise of religious conservatism, and particularly evangelical faith, as a backlash against the cultural revolution’s excesses. But now we’re living through the second aftershock, a backlash to that backlash — a revolt against the association between Christian faith and conservative politics, Putnam and Campbell argue, in which millions of Americans (younger Americans, especially) may be abandoning organized Christianity altogether.
I wondered how long it would be before those horrid 1960's reared their radical heads. As I write this, I'm listening to CSNY's Deja Vu, which should tell anyone where my sympathies lie.

I also find it amusing for Douthat to write about "sexual ethics", considering part of his internet fame/notoriety stems from a piece he did on-line a few years back detailing an encounter with a young woman he described as "a chunky Reese Witherspoon." Readers of that particular piece are unanimous the young lady in question dodged a bullet.

As for young people leaving the Church in droves, that might well be a good thing. Particularly since our churches are far more well known for what we are against, rather than what we support and actually do, is it any wonder? Douthat barely mentions the fact that conservative Christians spend quite a bit of their time in public ranting about how gays are destroying our country.

This should provide an opportunity for the various denominations to talk about what being a Christian means. It means living in love toward others - all others. It means talking to those in the pews, for all their various reasons, about the possibilities of the Christian life, about living in faith and hope and love with and for others. Instead of whining about it, we should be celebrating this chance for clarification.

Douthat chooses the path of victimization and whining.
Their argument is complemented by the University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World,” an often withering account of recent Christian attempts to influence American politics and society. Having popularized the term “culture war” two decades ago, Hunter now argues that the “war” footing has led American Christians into a cul-de-sac. It has encouraged both conservative and liberal believers to frame their mission primarily in terms of conflict, and to express themselves almost exclusively in the “language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment and desire for conquest.”

Thanks in part to this bunker mentality, American Christianity has become what Hunter calls a “weak culture” — one that mobilizes but doesn’t convert, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backward toward a lost past instead of forward to a vibrant future. In spite of their numerical strength and reserves of social capital, he argues, the Christian churches are mainly influential only in the “peripheral areas” of our common life. In the commanding heights of culture, Christianity punches way below its weight.
I have always maintained the "culture wars" were largely a distraction, a fake way for the powers-that-be to keep us occupied with peripheral issues with which politics is ill-equipped to deal. Rather than get incensed at out-sourcing jobs and cutting wages, we have Churches talking about how gays are a threat to the fabric of American society. Instead of talking about how we need to work together to feed the homeless, we get lectures on dirty art and sex education in our schools. Is it any wonder why the culture wars have rendered the Church's incapable of returning to the message of loving service to the world? Does Douthat even mention that core of who the Church is to be, those who bear witness to the Gospel?

In sum, Douthat's entire column is a pose. He writes of two recent books on the place of Christianity in America without really engaging the questions raised by these books. He does not set to one side the issue of the status of the Christian believer in the United States today, because he, like far too many, are invested in the long-lost inculturation of the churches, when priests and preachers were the voice of bourgeois conscience in small towns and commanded a presence in the halls of power. Far better to my mind that we are in the situation of social and cultural decline. This is an opportunity for us, not a reason to play the victim card.

John Wesley, Karl Marx, And The Full Life

One of the more important decisions my wife and I made this past year was that I would no longer work full time. After moving from Poplar Grove to the outskirts of Elgin, the commute to Belvidere was longer, my time with my family much shorter. Worse, from my own point of view, was the sense of disconnect, not just from my family, but myself, that I experienced. We looked over things, and realized that we could continue to make ends meet, albeit perhaps without some extra treats and gee-gaws, if I moved to part-time rather than full-time. We have made it work just fine.

To say that I experience my employment, in any time capacity, as alienation, would be an understatement. Were I a bit more confident, were our family situation more secure, leaving work completely would be marvelous. The compromise we reached, however, is satisfactory enough.

I find the connection between Marx's discussion of alienation in capitalist societies, in many ways, to have an affinity with John Wesley's discussion of the necessity for the New Birth. Marx is speaking of a socio-economic condition that leaves us strangers to that which most makes us human. Wesley is speaking of a spiritual condition that leaves us estranged from God. In both cases, there is, indeed, a solution. For Marx, it is a reordering of society so that labor, that which makes us most human, is no longer opposed to but rather supports a fully human life. For Wesley, the experience of the New Birth, acknowledging what God has done for and in us, awakens us to our new life in Christ, a new life lived in community with God and our fellow Christians, a life lived toward holiness, which Wesley understood as the further work of Divine Grace in the community of believers.

Both men saw the sad state of their fellow human beings. Both men felt compassion for the very real human suffering. Both men offered a diagnosis of the underlying condition - alienation, original sin - that cut through all the social and religious hype that helped so many rest uneasy with their truncated lives. The pabulum of the capitalist, the cheap grace of the State Church with its assurances that baptism was sufficient unto salvation are little more than the rhetoric of the powerful who offer us nothing but sickly-sweet bromides, veils for our eyes and blocks for our ears so that we cannot even see or hear the reality around us. We are lost. We know it. We cannot, however, define or understand what this lostness is, let alone what to do about it.

For Wesley, the New Birth was the work of God. With this "moment", as he calls it, we now have the opportunity to work toward that holiness of life and heart, as he calls it, that leads to eternal life. For Marx, the revolution leads to the control of the means of production, giving to the working class the power to make work, that which makes us human (he borrows from Feuerbach the term "species-being" to clarify the understanding of work as that which differentiates us from other animals), no longer alien to us, a power over us, but something fully human.

St. Paul wrote that Christ came not only so that we might have life, but that we might have it more abundantly. Wesley was working through his own understanding of what that meant. In much the same way, albeit in different language, with different concerns, Marx, too, was working through what it might mean, in a situation where an entire class of human beings is estranged from that which makes them most human, what it would mean to have a full life, an abundant life, a truly human life.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The God Who Never Gives Up

This is the second in what some might call a series of (probably) rambling posts on the topics of salvation and grace.
In the spirit also [Jesus] went and made his proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, those who had refused to bey in the past, while God waited patiently in the days when Noah was building the ark; in it a few people, eight in all, were brought to safety through the water. 1 Peter 3:19-20
I once heard someone who, in answer to a skeptical question whether grace was akin to electricity responded by saying, "No, it's like vulnerability." That has stuck with me for all these many years as I have tried to come to terms with grace, the call to holy living, the ethical life, and other such matters.

If God could be said to have a weakness, it's us. Oh, I don't mean "us" as in "us Christians", or "us Americans", or some other subset. Rather, "us" includes all of creation. Karl Barth was correct; God is the God who loves in freedom. As Terry Eagelton points out, that there is something rather than nothing at all is a sacrament of God's superabundant, prodigal capacity for love. Creation is a sign that God chooses to be with, with us, with creation. With rocks and planets and stellar clusters and blue whales and E. coli and even Germans. The unfolding meta-narrative of the Bible, buried beneath all the confounding tales, the brutality, the contradictions, the fantastic stories, is this simple reality - God wants nothing more or less than two things: to be loved by those God has created; for God's creatures to love and care for one another as God has loved and sustained them in being through love. As Jesus himself said, all the Law and Prophets is summed up here.

So, we are the unhealed wound in God's heart, the source of Divine pain and rage and long-suffering, and finally decision to join us in the vicissitudes of this life, going the full mile to death, only to take up in the Divine life this ending of all things so that the terror it holds over us could be broken. By breaking death's capacity to instill fear, we no longer need worry about such fleeting things as power and riches; we need no longer be concerned whether we have enough to sustain us through tomorrow. This worry is rooted in the fear of death, and in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we now know that death's victory is fleeting, momentary.

In 1 Peter, we hear of the dead Jesus, preaching to those trapped - in hell? in Sheol? In limbo? In Wyoming? - because they rebelled against this profligate love. Even the dead hear the Good News so they, too, can escape the natural cycle of fear and death, and the silence the grave imposes upon all our hopes.

Could this story be true? I honestly have no opinion. What this story tells me, regardless of whether or not "it actually happened" is this. God never gives up on us. Never. Never. Never-ever. Even in death, these who so long before had rejected the pleas of God embodied in Noah building the Ark are offered the opportunity to hear of real salvation, of God's never-ending love and grace poured out for all creation. Even the dead.

Grace is like vulnerability because God is willing, freely, lovingly willing, to make a fool of God by going to the dead who long before rejected God's pleas for love and community - with God and one another - so that they, too, can join the blessed community.

When dealing with moral scolds who insist that God's law entails certain narrow understandings of human behavior, or social conformity, or what have you, I think about who God is as testified in Scripture. God was more than willing to demean the Divine Persons in order to rescue even those who are dead; how on earth is it possible that I, or anyone else, can make any judgments about who is in and who is out of the running for Divine grace?

The year after my wife and I were married, the state of Illinois executed John Wayne Gacey. Even now, I shudder when I consider the horrors this man visited upon the lives of so many families; I want to weep when I consider the fear, the pain, of the boys he tortured and killed.

My wife, who had been a child, and grew up not far from where Gacey preyed on young boys, turning his suburban home in to a grisly combination of mausoleum and abattoir, was adamant that she did not want to see Gacey executed. I was dumb-founed. Back then, the few folks I thought were deserving of this last full measure of state justice were people like Gacey. Yet, Lisa told me that, by stating that some people, even those who committed acts as foul as Gacey's, we were making a claim that some people existed outside God's grace.

Over the years, I have thought about this again, and again, and again. I realized that Lisa was right. The Biblical meta-narrative concerns a God who, quite simply put, never gives up. Those whom God does not surrender to the cruelties of apathy are . . . everything. All creation. There is a fungus that uses the digestive systems of birds to survive; in part of its life cycle, it invades the bodies of land snails, and set off a chemical reaction that make the snails both visible and edible to birds. There is something horrible about this. There is also something awe-inspiring about them, too. That some creatures have evolved to propagate themselves in this extreme way shows how powerful is the force of life, that same force that God redeemed in the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ.

It may be true that there are individuals so broken in this life they need to be removed from society. People like John Wayne Gacey. This does not mean, however, they exist in some way outside the grace of God, while the rest of us are embrace to the Divine bosom. All of us - every single individual human being, all creation that is either apathetic to existence, or participates in the great alimentary canal/reproductive act of life - are invited by God, no matter how far we may have wandered, no matter how broken our lives, no matter how adamantly we refuse to hear of God's prodigal love for us, nevertheless to reconsider our decision in regard to God's insistence that we are all precious in the Divine sight.


With the passage yesterday of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, some good news peaked through the cloudy political season. I heard a portion of John McCain's speech yesterday, and was flabbergasted that no journalists pointed out that, quite contrary to the claims of "real harm" to the military, it has been demonstrated that the services are pretty open to the prospect of serving with openly gay and lesbian fellow service members. So, he's either ignorant of the study the committee on which he serves reviewed and had hearings on, or he's lying.

While Congress deserves applause, there's a part of me that has to wonder. This stand-alone bill passed with relative ease, which makes me wonder why the lengthy Sturm un Drang, years and years of hand-wringing and back-and-forth, fed mostly by ignorance and bigotry, as well as underestimating both the humanity and professionalism of our military.

We are a far better country today than we were yesterday. Now, all we need is to get rid of marriage discrimination, as well as laws on the books in multiple states that allow employers to fire people for their sexual orientation. A big step forward needs some recognition, though.

Virtual Tin Cup

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