Saturday, May 21, 2011

Yglesias, Chomsky, Alterman, Bin Laden - Strange Bedfellows Indeed

I consider myself a rare bird in at least one respect: I consider myself, by and large, in agreement on Noam Chomsky on certain issues, and disagreement on others. Like most commentators, he gets as much right as he does wrong, and while reading him seems to be a rite of passage among many on the Left, no longer reading him after a certain point also seems to be a rite of passage. It is certainly difficult, to say the least, to keep up with all his public statements and publications. I have 10 volumes of his in my library, and that hardly scratches the surface.

It is enough to be honest and admit that, over the past decade and a half or so, Chomsky has become a bit of a cranky persona. He understands that his words will be eagerly accepted by a few, considered and dismissed by more, and ignored and vilified by the vast majority who may hear of him (the even more vast majority, in all likelihood, have no idea who Chomsky is or what he does). This crankiness expresses itself in his oft-stated insistence that, while the information he amasses to put forth his arguments is publicly available, his interpretation, while plausible to a far greater degree than most popular interpretations, will be devoutly ignored, something he seems to find frustrating.

I will also admit that, since 9/11, I have taken a pass on Chomsky. I do know that he came out, early and clearly, and called the terrorist attacks on the United States what they were - criminal acts. All the same, his seeming need to make sure a certain clarity and moral equivalency is brought to bear usually compel him to make statements that, in this context at least, I had no desire to hear. Even now, a decade later, the wound still seems raw, and I have no desire to hear someone, anyone, add to their statement on the events of that day, some qualifier that boils down to, "The United States deserved it." Whether or not he ever said it, even supposing he edged toward such a statement is enough for me to keep my distance.

It is no surprise, then, to read him being critical of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.
On May 1, 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in his virtually unprotected compound by a raiding mission of 79 Navy Seals, who entered Pakistan by helicopter. After many lurid stories were provided by the government and withdrawn, official reports made it increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law, beginning with the invasion itself.

There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 79 commandos facing no opposition - except, they report, from his wife, also unarmed, who they shot in self-defense when she “lunged” at them (according to the White House).
I disagree with this initial interpretation of events in almost every respect. Osama Bin Laden was a perpetrator of crimes against humanity, of acts of terror not just in the United States but in many parts of the world (most notably in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Indonesia being the most publicized). In attacking the non-military target of the World Trade Center with the use of irregular forces who had seized control of civilian aircraft for use as bombs, he violated multiple international ordinances as well as the laws of the a number of countries. The deaths in the World Trade Center were not just American; citizens from all over the world worked there, and died there. The attack, whether intended as such or not, was a direct assault on the citizens of many nations.

He was a legitimate military target. After the Bush Administration set aside the pursuit of Bin Laden as the central goal of our international law enforcement and civilian and military intelligence efforts, he rested in relative comfort in a large, walled property in Pakistan. The United States did what it had to do, the President ordered what any President would order, and the raid commenced and in the course of the raid, Osama Bin Laden was killed. The act itself, the raid, the political and international and domestic legal disputes, to me, are of no consequence when placed up against the reality that, as a war criminal, Osama Bin Laden enjoyed no right of protection by any nation-state, and the US was perfectly within any and all legal bounds, once his whereabouts were discovered, to act precisely as it did. No other course, certainly not capture and trial before a court of law here or elsewhere, seems to me either feasible or, given the circumstances, realistic.

This does not mean I celebrated his death. On the contrary. Death is never something to celebrate, certainly not violent death. Sad resignation, I guess, describes my feelings about the entire affair, an ending ordained by Bin Laden himself when he attacked the United States in Africa in 1998, in the waters off Aden in 2000, and here at home in 2001.

Matt Yglesias notes an interesting bit of left-wing folderol, and begin by quoting from a column by The Nation's Eric Alterman:
The killing of Osama bin Laden was a just and necessary undertaking; just because he had the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands, and necessary because his continued escape from justice was an inspiration to others to try to follow in his footsteps. But it should not be occasion for joy. The Talmud tells the story of angels dancing and singing as the waters of the Red Sea close over the heads of the Egyptian troops after the Israelites have safely crossed over, only to be rebuked by their God: “How dare you dance and sing as my children drown in the sea?”
In the piece from Chomsky linked and quoted above, comes the following:
[Geoffrey] Robertson attributes the murder to “America’s obsessive belief in capital punishment—alone among advanced nations—[which] is reflected in its rejoicing at the manner of bin Laden’s demise.” For example, Nation columnist Eric Alterman writes that “The killing of Osama bin Laden was a just and necessary undertaking.”
Yglesias considers this, at the very least, duplicitous on the part of Chomsky, misconstruing the words of Eric Alterman to make it appear that Alterman was "celebrating" the death of Osama Bin Laden. Actually, this is a case where, I believe, it is Matt Yglesias, in his zeal to support a fellow not-quite-as-radical-as-Chomsky liberal, misunderstands what Chomsky is up to here. The elder critic is not claiming that Alterman is "celebrating" anything. Rather, how I read this particular passage is Chomsky quoting Alterman to support a previously quoted view regarding American attitudes toward acts of public death, state-mandated execution in this case. I do not read Chomsky claiming that Alterman is "rejoicing" over Bin Laden's death. Rather, I read Chomsky as bolstering his argument by citing a respected liberal intellectual who also defends the assassination of Bin Laden, an act that Chomsky feels was unnecessary.

So, here we have an odd thing. We have one liberal, Matt Yglesias, defending another liberal, Eric Alterman, against what he feels is the intellectual dishonesty of a left-wing anarchist, Noam Chomsky, in a longer meditation on the death of a psychopathic war criminal, Osama Bin Laden.

The only person who comes out of this looking good is me.

Marriage In America, Part II: Some Numbers And Possible Trends

In a comment yesterday, Alan said the following:
The divorce rate among conservative christians is higher than for any other faith group, and higher than for agnostics and atheists. I can only assume they're not getting much of anything from their churches regarding divorce. (Evangelicals and fundamentalists show a 34% divorce rate vs. 25% for mainline Protestants, 24% for Mormons, 21% for Catholics.)
Those numbers come from a 1999 survey by the Barna Group, a research and consulting organization that does work for religious organizations and around religious issues. From a site reporting the data:
A recent study by the Barna Research Group throws extreme doubt on these estimates. Barna released the results of their poll about divorce on 1999-DEC-21. 1 They had interviewed 3,854 adults from the 48 contiguous states. The margin of error is ±2 percentage points. The survey found:

11% of the adult population is currently divorced.

25% of adults have had at least one divorce during their lifetime.

Divorce rates among conservative Christians were significantly higher than for other faith groups, and much higher than Atheists and Agnostics experience.


Barna report: Variation in divorce rates among Christian faith groups:
Denomination (in order of decreasing divorce rate)

% who have been divorced
Non-denominational ** 34%
Baptists 29%
Mainline Protestants 25%
Mormons 24%
Catholics 21%
Lutherans 21%

** Barna uses the term "non-denominational" to refer to Evangelical Christian congregations that are not affiliated with a specific denomination. The vast majority are fundamentalist in their theological beliefs. More info.

Barna's results verified findings of earlier polls: that conservative Protestant Christians, on average, have the highest divorce rate, while mainline Christians have a much lower rate. They found some new information as well: that atheists and agnostics have the lowest divorce rate of all. George Barna commented that the results raise "questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families." The data challenge "the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriage."
Before returning to some reflections on these numbers, here's one last set of numbers, divorce by national region:
The Barna Group study found:
Area % are or have been divorced
South 27%
Midwest 27%
West 26%
Northeast 19%

The Associated Press computed divorce statistics from data supplied by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health.4 They found that Nevada had the highest divorce rate, at 8.5 divorces per 1,000 people in 1998. Nevada has had a reputation as a quickie divorce location for decades. People from other states visited Nevada, fulfilled their residency requirements, got divorced and returned home single.

The data showed that the highest divorce rates were found in the Bible Belt. "Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma round out the Top Five in frequency of divorce...the divorce rates in these conservative states are roughly 50 percent above the national average" of 4.2/1000 people.
Reflecting on the higher divorce rate among self-declared evangelicals, the group's leader, George Barna, said the following:
While it may be alarming to discover that born again Christians are more likely than others to experience a divorce, that pattern has been in place for quite some time. Even more disturbing, perhaps, is that when those individuals experience a divorce many of them feel their community of faith provides rejection rather than support and healing. But the research also raises questions regarding the effectiveness of how churches minister to families. The ultimate responsibility for a marriage belongs to the husband and wife, but the high incidence of divorce within the Christian community challenges the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriages.(emphasis added)
Against this background, more recent research has found a general social trend away from marriage:
Between 2000 and 2009, the share of young adults ages 25 to 34 who are married dropped 10 percentage points, from 55 percent to 45 percent, according to ACS data.1 During the same period, the percentage who have never been married increased sharply, from 34 percent to 46 percent. In a dramatic reversal, the proportion of young adults in the United States who have never been married now exceeds those who are married.


Many people who are classified as single are actually in cohabiting relationships with opposite- or same-sex partners. In fact, the sharp decline in marriage has been accompanied by a rapid increase in the number of cohabiting couples, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in September, 2010.4 Cohabitation has been on the rise for several decades, but the Census Bureau links the recent increase in cohabiting couples to rising unemployment rates and growing economic uncertainty, especially among young men. Given the scope of the recent recession, many more couples are likely to choose cohabitation over marriage in the coming years.


Marriage used to be a near-universal phenomenon in the United States. Estimates from the mid-1960s show marriage levels of 80 percent or more among young adults ages 25 to 34. Starting in the 1970s, several factors contributed to a steady decline in marriage, including rising divorce rates, an increase in women's educational attainment and labor force participation, and a rise in cohabitation as an alternative or precursor to marriage. Although marriage rates have dropped among young adults, it is important to note that most young adults will go on to marry later in life. The probability of an adult getting married at some point during their lifetime is still nearly 90 percent.7

Another factor contributing to the decline in marriage rates, especially for less educated groups, is the rise in women's earnings relative to men. Family demographers point out that as women's wages have increased, fewer women rely on a spouse or partner to provide a weekly paycheck. Women now outnumber men in U.S. colleges, and a recent report by the Pew Research Center showed that there is a rapidly growing number of women who outearn their husbands.8 Demographer Andrew Cherlin argues that women's higher earning capacity, and the declining economic prospects of young men without a college degree, are key factors contributing to the decline in marriage in recent years.9 The recession has exacerbated this trend because of its disproportionate impact on men with fewer job skills and less education.10


These trends are significant because marriage is associated with many benefits for families and individuals, including higher income, better health, and longer life expectancy. One reason for these benefits may be that people with higher potential earnings and better health are "selected" into marriage, resulting in better outcomes for married couples. However, most researchers agree that marriage also has an independent, positive effect on well-being.11 Therefore, the recent decline in marriage may contribute to worse outcomes for less educated individuals, beyond those resulting from the recent recession.

The decline in marriage may also affect conditions for the younger generation, because of the growing number of children born to unmarried parents. In 2008, nonmarital births accounted for 41 percent of all births in the United States. Although roughly half of these nonmarital births are to cohabiting couples, these unions tend to be less stable and have fewer economic resources compared with married couples.12 Therefore, declining marriage rates put more children at risk of growing up poor, which can have lasting consequences for their health and future economic prospects.13
So, marriage seems to be going the way of the horse-drawn-carriage, the street car, and the rotary-dial phone. While I question some of the assumptions in the last two quoted paragraphs - in particular, if couples cohabit and raise children together, it seems to me considering these children as part of "single-parent households" with a greater tendency toward social dysfunction is questionable - overall, the general trend away from marriage as the heart of our social glue is important. Before we start whining about how destructive same-sex marriage may be, it would be nice if we could at least make ourselves aware of the already precarious state of the institution.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Adiaphora Extended III: Marriage In America, Part I

Since the end of the Second World War, with the creation of the legal scheme known as "no-fault" divorce, in which a marriage could be ended without some other cause other than mutual agreement between the two parties, the institution has been in trouble, socially. With the rise of an activist brand of conservative Christianity we had the odd specter, in the midst of on-going social change in which the institution of marriage continued to lose its grip, the insistence that it was the very heart of American civilization. This continues to be claimed, even as the delay of marriage, even considering marriage optional for long-term relationships, also continues.

Untangling the messy knot of social and theological attitudes toward the institution of marriage is not easy. By and large, for most the country's history, churches could pretend there was a rough equivalence between the establishment of marriage as a social institution and the theological defense of marriage contained in the Biblical witness. There is little doubt that, with the advent of the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century, the family and the marital institution became the backbone of society. Where better to inculcate and pass on the virtues and assumptions of bourgeois life than hearth and home, after all?

As capitalism spread, however, it became pretty clear that the family and marriage were increasingly a hazard to the social needs of a rising class. It created lasting emotional and legal ties that inhibited the possibility of a mobile, and easily cowed, working and managerial class. As the managerial revolution of the 20th century spread, the need for a co-opted proletariat - offered the promise of social mobility in exchange for setting to one side personal needs and wishes - increased. The lie buried within the promise is clear enough, and the resulting social disintegration is part and parcel of the destructive nature of industrial capitalism, providing weak social ties in order to strengthen the hold of dominant class.

Ignoring the socio-economic roots of the demise of marriage, however, politically active conservative Christians made common cause with the enemy of the family - industrial capitalism - out of either ignorance or naivete. The results, of course, have been the total apathy toward what is commonly referred to as "social issues" by the dominant political party of the past generation, in favor of the needs of industry for a labor force easily manipulated.

The mainline churches, meanwhile, have fared little better than the more conservative ones. Refusing to consider the possibility that our society is structured in such a way as to erode marriage as an institution, relying by and large upon a traditional view of themselves working in tandem with the state to uphold an institution the state, in fact, has neither the need nor desire to uphold, there has been little serious reflection on our current state of affairs. The mainline churches continue blithely on, writing and talking about marriage without any reference to the reality that it is dying on the vine. Because of political considerations, which should be the least of their worries, I believe many mainline denominations have been wary to go too far out and talk about marriage in theological terms that might set themselves in some kind of theological alliance with their more conservative brothers and sisters. There are also the contingent but very real needs to make sure few folks in the pews are either insulted or angered by any mention that marriage is dying, and that we need to get serious about defending the institution as believers, quite apart from any role as citizens of this country.

This, I believe, is where the heart of our confusion lies, as well as the heart of our troubles. We Christians in America are a bit too comfortable switching the modifier, considering ourselves American Christians rather than Christians living in America. With the former description, we find ourselves easily led to uphold certain secular, national values at the expense of the inheritance of faith. Not the least of these is the belief that, in "defending" something called "traditional marriage" we are helping to support the social fabric of the country at its most important, and most vulnerable, point. On the contrary, however, we are finding ourselves increasingly incoherent, as well as marginalized, precisely because, just like our conservative fellow Christians, we refuse to begin discussing marriage as a faithful, grace-imbued possibility, something that couples can discover for themselves over a lifetime of work and prayer. Setting aside matters of romance (not to mention Romance) and law, the church might find itself better able to address the decline of marriage if it began, as the writer of the Epistle to the Ephesians did, considering marriage in the light of the crucified and risen Christ. This transformative approach, I would argue, is a far better starting point for defending marriage than quibbles about gender.

More Fun Than Should Be Allowed By Law (UPDATE)

Newton Leroy Gingrich is running for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. For anyone this side of deranged, this is a gift, a bit of grace that history has bestowed in this hour of economic stagnation and shallow public discourse. After all, the guy is the defender of civilization, right?
In one note, written as a prep for a two-day Republican conference in December 1992, Newt described himself as an "advocate of civilization, defender of civilization, teacher of the rules of civilization, arouser of those who form civilization, organizer of the pro- civilization activists, and leader 'possibly' of the civilizing forces."
Just the other day, Newt returned to this theme.
The literati sent out their minions to do their bidding. Washington cannot tolerate threats from outsiders who might disrupt their comfortable world. The firefight started when the cowardly sensed weakness. They fired timidly at first, then the sheep not wanting to be dropped from the establishment's cocktail party invite list unloaded their entire clip, firing without taking aim their distortions and falsehoods. Now they are left exposed by their bylines and handles. But surely they had killed him off. This is the way it always worked. A lesser person could not have survived the first few minutes of the onslaught. But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich, once again ready to lead those who won't be intimated by the political elite and are ready to take on the challenges America faces.
Anyone reading this would be quite right to wonder why the prescription wasn't renewed.

Yet, this isn't just "someone". This is Newton Leroy Gingrich.

Along with the delusional rambling above, he has also done the legwork, attempting to walk back his criticisms of Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his plan to end Medicare, showing up on Rush, then going after mild-mannered David Gregory, even going so far as to claim an innocence in the face of Sunday talkshows that is laughable in the extreme. Newt's first week has not been stellar, to be sure, but we do have the joy of his flowering psychosis to soothe our withered nerves.

Hazarding a guess, Newt's candidacy will probably last a bit longer than The Donald's, but end just the same, a flameout as he realizes that the crowds have come to laugh at him. His second trophy wife, no doubt one of many candidates for the position, who no doubt went through a lengthy recruitment process, should be worried, as Newt may well seek to console his shattered ego by searching for yet another arm-decoration. All in all, the only harm done to anyone will be to poor Callista Gingrich, who should know better.

It will be fun, though. I can't help myself in thinking that.

UPDATE: It is better than I could have imagined.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Adiaphora Extended II: Ephesians 5:21-33

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.
Context is everything. Each of these links provides various contexts within which one should consider what the author of the above passage is saying. First, a general look at marriage in the Greco-Roman world; then, a look at marriage (roughly) in Second Temple Judaism; finally the preceding long passage on the Christian life of which the teachings on marriage are a part.

In general, the author of Ephesians (I am setting to one side, for the nonce, the question of the authorship of this epistle; my very non-expert opinion is that its author is not St. Paul, but certainly someone writing under his theological influence, and perhaps even under his authority) sees the common life of Christians as something wholly distinct from the rest of the world (which the author calls "evil"). There are admonitions against sexual immorality, against gluttony and drunkenness, all as markers not of a moral life lived for its own sake, but as markers of the new creation of all things in which they participate through baptism (and here, the author makes a direct link to the descent and ascension of Christ).

The passage on marriage is interesting in any number of ways. First, it takes marriage for granted as an already-existing institution the fundamental nature of which has been altered, as are all things in light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Before the author says anything specifically about the differing roles in marriage comes the following: "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." This sets a further context for considering the passage that follows. Furthermore, consider the construction in light of the general comments on marriage in pagan and Jewish antiquity. Here, the author is quite clearly distinguishing Christian marriage from other known and accepted practices. Because of the patriarchal nature of Greco-Roman society as well as Second Temple Judaism, the admonition to be subject to one another already sets up a contrast with the surrounding cultures (if, indeed, this letter was written for Ephesus, this would have been even more of a contrast because of the pagan population of the city; my annotated Bible notes that earliest manuscripts omit "to Ephesus", so its original destination may well be in some doubt). Rather than the man completely dominating the marriage contract, with the woman viewed as property to be paid for (the bride-price) and picked up by the husband on her wedding night like a delivery (not to mention the absence of any legal protection for the wife in either legal setting), the author sets up marriage as a relationship of mutual submission in which both husband and wife are fully engaged subjects. This mutuality is called for not out of any inherent integrity the husband and wife have in and for themselves. Nor is it a part of marriage as it is, or should be. Rather, this mutuality is to be done for the sake of Christ.

The opening lines of the marriage service in the United Methodist Book of Worship reads as follows:
Friends, we are gathered together in the sight of God to witness and bless the joining together of - and - in Christian marriage. The covenant of marriage was established by God, who created us male and female for each other. With his presence and power Jesus graced a wedding at Cana of Galilee, and in his sacrificial love gave us the example for the love of husband and wife. - and - come to give themselves to one another in this holy covenant.(emphasis added)
The italicized portion of this greeting is, taking this passage as one's starting point for a uniquely Christian view of marriage, unbiblical. Rather than an institution created by God, marriage is an institution that has always existed, and is transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Right here, at the very beginning of the Christian era, the institution is being reimagined in light of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. While any good feminist - and some not-feminists, too! - would point out that beginning with the submission of the wife leaves the overlying structure of patriarchy intact (and would be quite right so to do), I maintain that this is a revisioned patriarchy, reinterpreted in the light of the patriarchy of God, revealed as graceful kenosis, rather than arbitrary and capricious dominance.

I would immediately follow that observation with the qualifier that, in actual practice, this verse concerning wifely submission, ripped out of any and all contexts, has become a very large stick with which to beat (often quite literally) women down, both within marriage itself, and in society at large. Which is all the more reason to do a couple things here. First, consider it in light of the cross-currents of contexts in which it occurs; second, to take the lead on how we think about marriage as Christians not from anything specific that the author of Ephesians says about the roles of husband and wife (although I maintain there is still much good here to be mined), but rather to consider the theological setting in which the author wishes married couples to see themselves - to live their lives out of the faith granted in the grace of crucified and risen Christ.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Adiaphora Extended I: Some General Thoughts

The initial reaction to my post yesterday, in which I suggested that it is possible to consider the matter of marriage - straight or gay - as a matter of little consequence (one can support either "traditional" marriage or same-sex marriage as a matter of no consequence relative to matters central to the faith) - has been positive. By and large, however, I think the main thrust has been misunderstood, so I thought I would take a couple posts to clarify my position.

A naive biblicism seems to rule the church's attitude toward this single institution, over and above others - the state, the family - that have been reimagined in light of contemporary and modern reality. Few, I think, would begin any consideration of the relationship between the church and the state with Romans 13:1. One cannot and should not avoid this verse. I should, however, be approached via other Biblical passages, placing it in a set of assumptions that make any literal appropriation of this particular passage problematic. Consider Barth's classic "Justice and Justification" (or "The Church in its Relations to the State", depending). He begins his consideration of the question with Jesus' trial before Pilate. Liberation Theology, of course, begins with the reality of political violence as the context for any appropriation of the faith, using it as the hermeneutic through which "forgiveness of sins" is understood, in the relevant phrase, from below.

On the one hand, the Hebrew Scriptures contain the commandment to honor one's parents. On the other, in the Gospel of St. Mark, Jesus insists "family" be reinterpreted in light of his own life and ministry, and starts with his own family - whoever does his will is his brother and sister. He claims not to have "a mother" when his mother comes to bring him home to Nazareth, fearing for his sanity. The church understands the family as the heart of our social life, yet is certainly not dogmatic in defining "family" outside the lived reality of the variety of ways that reality exists.

Any discussion of marriage, at least in North American churches, seems to me to be muddled. We support a simplistic biblicism that would be denied in other contexts, and we do not acknowledge the dual role a clergyperson has when performing a marriage ritual as both a representative of the Body of Christ as well as an agent of the state. A minister performs a state function, with the ad extra of a spiritual definition of marriage that is too often placed front and center of the ceremony itself, even as most churches perform marriages in which the couples usually have little investment in such an understanding. In the United Methodist Church, there is little to no requirement for a wedding performed within any particular local church, although most churches do have some minimum requirements. Yet, if marriage is indeed an institution inaugurated by God that serves as an allegory for the relationship between Christ and the Church, it seems to me three one hour meetings talking about finances and setting up the ceremony itself hardly qualify as a serious attempt to teach people about deeper significance of marriage.

We need a wholesale rethinking of the way churches understand their role in performing marriage. If, indeed, marriage is a vital expression of God's love, then we need to be serious, more thoughtful, in our approach. The matter of performing a function easily done by a state representative - a judge, a magistrate - should be set to one side.

It seems to me that the reality of gay marriage offers churches the opportunity to think more seriously, more prayerfully, more honestly about what it is we believe marriage is, and what the church's relationship to this institution is, and can, and should be. Rejecting gay marriage with a combination of proof-texting (and bad proof-texting at that) and bigotry is just not an answer. Neither is adding same-sex marriage to a list of pro forma rituals - graduation benedictions; prayers at Memorial Day ceremonies - that clergy perform as representatives equally of the both state and church. We should get our exegetical, doctrinal, and pastoral houses in order on this matter in order to serve the people of God with integrity and faith.

Harmonic Divergence

Facebook has a rare thing - a little challenge I'm enjoying! It's called "The 30 Day Song Challenge", and it really isn't much of a challenge (with one exception so far; a song that makes me feel guilty?). Day one was my favorite song - "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye, easy enough - and day two was "least favorite song". For that I picked Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water", but I got so many great bad suggestions I feel bad for being so precipitous. After all, there's this:

And my sister offered the following suggestion:

Anyway, here's some stuff I like a bit better:

Helpless Dancer - The Who
Symphony No. 2 in A - William Boyce
Everybody's Talking - Crosby, Stills, and Nash
Passage to Bangkok (Live) - Rush
The Journey - Rick Wakeman
Laudate Dominum, from Vesperea Solennes - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Sing a Simple Song - Budos Band
Casey Jones - Grateful Dead
Sparks of the Tempest - Kansas
Burning Sky - Porcupine Tree

That should be enough to clear Starship out of my head.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


The discussion here has reached the point of silliness, really. Which is why I am going to go out on a limb and suggest something that might sound radical, but I don't think it really is.

Gay marriage, issues surrounding sexual identity in general, are in that class of things that, going back to St. Paul's discussion over whether to eat meat dedicated to idols, has been called adiaphora, things of no consequence.

St. Paul had to deal with a whole lot of silliness in the churches with which he corresponded. Some of it was not just silly, but reflected a kind of practical blindness in the face of the call of the Gospel to be the new creation. One of the things with which he dealt was the way huge controversies in various congregations arose over matters of little consequence relative to the central concerns of the Gospel. He was patient, really and made clear that this was just not an issue about which anyone should care. You want to eat meat dedicated to idols? OK. You would prefer not to do so? That's OK, too. Just as long as the entire question didn't create confusion among those who were not as advanced spiritually as others. Don't do anything to make some folks stumble, is all.

While marriage is often discussed, in particular in the New Testament, it is used as a metaphor for the relationship between God and the Church. Over the course of two millennia, the terms have become switched, and what was originally considered an allegory became, in the Roman Church, a sacrament. While its sacramental status was dropped by the Reformation (it was not something instituted by Jesus Christ), it remains, in many ways, a sacrament-by-default. All one has to do is listen to the opening words of the marriage rite in any Protestant Church ("Marriage is an institution created by God . . . ") to understand how muddled is our thinking on this subject.

To me, however, the question over the status of marriage in general isn't settled, but rather begged, by this state of affairs. If the Christian west, or Christendom in general, were the only society in which marriage existed, I might be persuaded that are dealing with something vital to our spiritual as well as secular lives. It just isn't the case; marriage exists pretty much across most cultures in some form or other as the legal recognition of particular procreative relationships. It is, in other words, merely a way to control both breeding and the passing on of personal property. Making of this rather mundane, legally binding contract between two persons and the state something spiritual is lovely, but creates more problems than it is worth. Not least of these problems, of course, are matters of what kinds of marriages are or should be legally recognized. With changes in social attitudes toward women and sexual minorities, eventually the whole question of marriage becomes fraught with hazards.

While there can certainly be a spiritual dimension to marriage, it isn't inherent in the institution itself. Again, across most societies, marriage is little more than a contract with the state for regulating property disposition and procreation. You want to make more of it than that, why go right ahead. As things change, however, we should not be tied to two-thousand year old allegories that have become misunderstood, had the terms reversed, and used to beat down interracial marriages, keep and trade women as property, and now refuse to recognize that two persons of the same gender can and do enjoy the practical realities of a life lived together, without however, enjoying the benefits of state (let alone religious) sanction, to which might accrue the benefits and responsibilities inherent in such sanctioning.

Since there are, as a practical matter, several states and a couple Christian denominations that recognize same-sex unions, either by marriage or another name (Illinois' legalizing of same-sex unions goes in to effect soon, thank God), it seems to me churches in general would be far better off treating this entire matter as adiaphora. As there is so little Scriptural support for any position regarding same-sex marriage, and the entire matter does not at all impact the central issue of the Gospel - salvation by faith through grace - is seems to me that, rather than sit around and denounce one another as heretics, it might be better to set these matters to one side. People of good faith can disagree. As far as I'm concerned, it seems to me of little consequence whether or not any particular denomination or church wishes to recognize same-sex unions or not; if not, OK. If so, OK.

It is, in a word, adiaphora.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Why I Prefer Really Existing Things To Principles

With his quadrennial pledge drive disguised as a Presidential run, Ron Paul is getting pounded by folks who, last time around, gave him a bit of a pass because he opposed the Iraq War and occupation. For some reason - call it political expediency that makes strange bedfellows - liberals and progressives were all misty-eyed over Ron Paul's denunciations of Bush's wars, said mist clouding their vision when it came to other, less attractive (or intelligent) aspects of his political philosophy. This time around, however, the gloves are off, and while liberals and progressives tend not to have iron fists inside those velvet gloves, they seem to be making up for that by making it plain that Ron Paul, whatever tiny virtues he may have, is nuts.

I am not a fan of libertarianism in general, and Ron Paul, the most mainstream of the breed, provides ample reasons to show why. Color me unimpressed, for example, by his discussion of why he would have not voted for the Civil Rights Act. I realize this is a 57-year-old piece of legislation, yet it continues to crop up in discussions because, as a commenter in the above-link discussion at Crooked Timber points out, conservatives continue to desire its disappearance. They do not like it, in total or its various parts (college sports fans bewail Title IX, for example, so the law seems to tick off just about everyone). There is evidence enough that, rather than any principled Constitutional stand, Paul's dislike of the CRA is rooted far more in his racism. Even Barry Goldwater's "principled opposition" to CRA led him to dabble in political alliances with the ugliest parts of white supremacist southerners during the 1964 Presidential election. While many may cry, "Old news! Ancient history!", it isn't we who brings this stuff up; it is they, and they need to make clear why it is we should ignore their racism when they claim principle.

This is all by way of an aside. Paul carried on concerning the alleged unconstitutionality of various federal programs - something one reads all the time by conservatives on the internet - and it was pointed out to him that, in fact, some of the things he was claiming were not constitutional were found to be so by the Supreme Court. His response?
[CHRIS] WALLACE: Congressman, it’s not just a liberal view. It was the decision of the Supreme Court in 1937 when they said that Social Security was constitutional under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.

PAUL: And the Constitution and the courts said slavery was legal to, and we had to reverse that.
Unraveling what passes for thought here is difficult. Were I in Christ Wallace's chair, I might have taken a moment to point out that is irrelevant. He is not claiming that a federal program continues to exist after having been found to be unconstitutional. Rather, he is claiming that a federal program, found to be wholly constitutional by the United States Supreme Court, nevertheless is unconstitutional. He further is claiming that it is a misinterpretation of the commerce clause that is at fault. Yet, this reading has a long and illustrious history in Supreme Court constitutional jurisprudence. What, specifically about these cases is that with which he disagrees? Is he aware, for example, that it is the commerce clause, rather than the "general welfare clause" that is the controlling phrase in the Constitution? This isn't "taught in our schools" except as how the Supreme Court understands the Constitution. Unless, of course, he means taught in our law schools, in which case, sure it's taught so that lawyers, you know, understand the law.

In other words, Paul is demonstrating an interesting factoid about libertarians - almost pure ignorance about the Constitution, constitutional law, even law in general. I have yet to read one who has any real familiarity with the real constitution as it actually functions and is interpreted. I have yet to read one who hasn't declared, absent any evidence whatsoever, that this or that or the other thing is unconstitutional, usually asking the rhetorical, "Where in the constitution does it say to do 'X'"? The whole point in particular of the first Article of the Constitution is make clear that there is a legislative body, some basic structural rules, and certain definitions of its function and limitations. Beyond that, there is a wide space for Congress to do all sorts of things.

The question of the Constitutionality of this or that particular law or program is not a theoretical or academic exercise. It is, rather, a reference to an operative document and an existent body of case law. Those who insist upon a libertarian interpretation are, at the very least, in need of a basic acquaintance with that body of law and why it errs. I am unimpressed with any alleged philosophical consistency that might lead Ron Paul to claim Social Security is unconstitutional if he cannot even acknowledge that the Supreme Court has declared the opposite and why that is so. Since that is the case, and since he believes the interpretation is wrong, he could at the very least acknowledge that the reason it is "taught in our schools" is because it is, in fact, the controlling interpretation of the Constitution.

Libertarians toss around the phrase "unconstitutional" far too often to impress me; I tried to find the comment on another site where one actually used the phrase "sovereign property", to which I replied I hoped he would invite me to a court when he used that phrase so I could see the expression on the judge's face. It isn't enough to be attached to a particular political philosophy. One needs, I would think, to be aware that it opposes actually existing legal and political practice, and as such needs more than just nay-saying and the appearance of adherence to principle to appear impressive.

Virtual Tin Cup

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