Friday, November 04, 2011

Thoughts on Non-Violence And The Occupy Movement

[N]o one can be non-violent in an unjust society.
James Cone
I had, even without knowing it, absorbed this idea so deeply that I uttered it, two years after first discovering it, in a seminar on liberation theology.

I read James Cone's best-known works - A Black Theology of Liberation and God of the Oppressed - my first semester at Wesley. His work was deeply affecting, shaping much of my ensuing considerations on theological matters. It was not until last night, standing in my wife's office and randomly scanning God of the Oppressed that I realized just how much I had absorbed so many of the lessons he taught me.

In a chapter on Christian ethics and liberation, Cone has a section on the issue of non-violence. From the perspective of black liberation in North America, and the issue of non-violent resistance in the pursuit of justice in any context, the matter of non-violence is of particular centrality because of the prominent place it held in the thought and praxis of Martin Luther King. Far more radical segments of the African-American community disparaged King's insistence on non-violence. Some preached outright revolution, although they were a small minority. By and large, however, the impatience of many in the face of white intransigence led them to see King's approach as ineffective.

Cone's discussion, seen in the context of the larger discussion within the African-American community over the question, begins, after some introductory remarks, with the observation in the epigram above. It can be shocking, I suppose, for those who believe that America is a just society, or that non-violence as a tactic is, or perhaps should be, the norm in the pursuit of justice. By stating baldly that such views hide the reality of systemic violence, Cone challenges the entire discussion at its heart.

Over a couple years of seminary education, I had kept a special place in my heart for Cone's thought, even as I moved on to so many others. My last semester, in a seminar on liberation theology, there was a discussion of the eschatological thought of Martin Luther King, the place it held in his broader program of the pursuit of racial justice and reconciliation, and, of course, non-violence. I made a small point - despite King's best efforts, the Civil Rights movement was anything but non-violent. From the streets of Montgomery, AL during the bus boycott through Little Rock to the waves of terrorism visited upon the Freedom Riders and the volunteers during Freedom Summer when folks, black and white, went to the deep south to register African-American voters to the fire hoses and attack dogs Bull Connor unleashed on school children, violence was at the heart of legalized white supremacy in the United States, and it wouldn't give up without a bloody fight.

I recall little more than the sense that the other members of the class acted like I had farted in church. The passing of a quarter century (at that point in time) had only set King's non-violent resistance in an ever-deeper and thicker foundation of stone. Saying, in essence, that this bright shining monument to American ethical exceptionalism was wrong was, for all intents and purposes, an indication of just how wrong I would always be.

Except, well, I wasn't wrong. The facts of the matter are simple enough. An entire system of entrenched social, cultural, racial, political, and economic power depends upon the threat and use of force to maintain itself. After chipping away at the edges of the legalized dehumanization of African-Americans, the on-going demands by more and more people for dismantling not only segregation but the entire structure that propped it up, from discrimination in hiring to laws restricting the African-American franchise, would only be seen as a threat to the entire order. The gears of American economic and social progress have been lubricated for much of its history with the blood of blacks, and the poor, and immigrants. Pretending otherwise doesn't make it any less the reality with which we have to live.

Sitting around discussing non-violence, whether tactically or as an end in and for itself misses the point made most clearly by H. Rap Brown: Violence is as American as cherry pie.

I have been thinking about these matters in the wake of the rising official violence against Occupy protesters in Oakland, CA; the tentative and sporadic violence in New York against Occupy Wall Street; scattered beatings and arrests at various Occupy sites in Maine and Tennessee. I suppose I have been thinking that one can gauge the success of the perceived threat of any protest movement by the reaction of the organs of state power to it. With the rising tide of anti-Occupy violence, it should be clear that the folks in charge see the threat to their perquisites and prerogatives as very real. Thus, the attempt to stifle them through the use of police power utilizing the para-militarized weapons and tactics developed over a generation of "law and order" policies.

I have no answer to those who insist on asking what other choices folks who are protesting have. The reality is, despite the best intentions and most thorough indoctrination in the methods and ideology of non-violence, the police are going to have no worries using any and all the methods and weapons at their disposal to thwart a threat to the existing order. It would be ideal to think that such tactics would or could end systemic injustice.

I just don't think so. Which breaks my heart.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Neither Seminary Nor The Church But Tired, Stereotyped Cliches Put Forward By The Flavor Of The Week Is Our Problem

Anytime someone insists they have "the answers", that is the moment you need to change the channel. By and large, "the answers" are actually statements the person has repeated over and over again, creating questions afterward that make "the answers" sound really good. They aren't really answers, anyway; they are marketing points, ad copy for folks to show the world how smart and clever they are and why they should be paid a whole lot of money by others just to show up and talk.

Such, I would submit, is Brian McLaren. His self-description from Google for his eponymous website is "author, storyteller, and theologian". Sounds marvelous! You get to his website and you find . . . Brian's books, reviews of those books, and Brian's recommendations for books. Plus Brian's sermons, Brian's talks, links to articles Brian has written.

For someone who is ordained clergy, Brian seems to work awfully hard to make sure the world knows all about Brian.

In any event, McLaren has written an article as part of a symposium on theological education that, to my mind, does nothing to advance any agenda other than making sure Brian McLaren's name continues to circulate as the latest snake-oil salesman to tell smart folks in the church how much they need to pay him to reward them for being smart.
[T]oo many seminarians step out of seminary and straight into a brick wall. When they arrive in a local congregation, they experience nearly the opposite of their positive seminary experience. Church members seem to want:
1. A familiar closed environment where old answers to outdated questions are repeated in predictable ways, and no new questions are allowed to disturb the peace.
2. A rigid sectarian environment where the boundaries between "us" and "them" are constantly reinforced and celebrated.
3. A superficial environment where spiritual vulnerability is dangerous and where institutional and/or doctrinal maintenance trumps spiritual hunger and thirst.
4. An insular environment which maintains aloofness, fear, or disdain toward the world and its problems.
5. A demanding consumerist environment where people seek religious goods and services tailored to their exacting standards and tastes.
Except for the last item, which merely restates the obvious point that American Christians are going to act like Americans in the way they view any social or cultural institution - one among a variety of choices that are sought to fulfill certain needs or perceived wants rather than a way of being an alternative community gathered around a shared commitment to an external authority - the list above is so old and stereotyped, I'm surprised it hasn't been copyrighted.

The body of McLaren's text continues:
[R]ecalling that Jesus himself was unable to transform the Temple establishment of his day, and remembering that Paul was run out of a good many more synagogues than he was welcome in, I'm not sure that any amount of training can equip seminarians for transformation in churches that are quite happy with how they are—or were, thank you very much. It may sound harsh for me to say, but I think it is unethical to send gifted, idealistic, and high-potential young leaders into intractable, dysfunctional congregations that will grind them up, disillusion them, and damage them for life.
And I have met many who fit this description.
To the first part of this, I would say that Jesus did indeed transform the Temple establishment, just not the way they feared. Apparently, McLaren didn't quite get what Jesus said when he talked about destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days.

To the last sentence, however, I would ask just this: Who? Who are the gifted, excited clergy whose professional lives have been destroyed by churches? What are the congregations? Where are they? What denomination? What are the statistics on clergy burn-out, on overhead-versus-ministry/mission ratios in church budgets?

It is almost too tiresome to ask the simple questions. We can reward ourselves for all the marvelous things gained through a seminary education without ever considering whether or not the one thing we haven't really gained is either wisdom or perspective. The kind of disdain for the local church on display here, a disdain that forgets an important part of what it means to be church, is breathtaking.

Does McLaren not understand that the church is full of sinful, broken people? Does he not get that even at our best, local churches do a pretty piss-poor job of incarnating the Spirit of Christ in the world, yet somehow it has managed to survive, even thrive? Does He not understand that folks like St. Paul, the author of the epistles of St. Peter, and of the Revelation of St. John the Divine all addressed the fact that some local congregations just weren't up to snuff?

Seriously, dude. You want to comment on the future of theological education, don't set up straw arguments about straw congregations, insist you know some of this first-hand, and then not even have balls enough to name some names. You could comment on Edward Farley or David Kelsey. You could talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the professional graduate school model as applied to ministry. You could look at a sampling of seminary curricula from denominationally affiliated schools versus non-denominational (say Duke Divinity School versus Harvard or Vanderbilt). You could examine the relationships between theological schools and local churches, forged through student-pastor relationships that allow students attending seminary to also serve local churches.

You could do a whole lot of things you didn't do. Instead, you rewarded seminarians for going to seminaries and chastised local churches for being congregations of sinners. Without actually providing any data to back up any of the claims you make. Not even a single anecdote. For a self-professed storyteller, that's pretty lame.

There are many challenges the churches face. Seminaries, too, struggle to come to terms with shifting paradigms in education, as well as the fundamental relationship of theological higher education in service to the traditions both of free inquiry in a research university and the church which called the seminary in to being. There is the general decline in religious affiliation in America, and the decline in particular among the old mainline Protestant churches, who nevertheless continue to fill seminary desks with students and pulpits with clergy.

McLaren didn't address any of these things. Instead, he made up some stuff that folks have been saying for years about all those energized seminary graduates getting chewed up and spit out by dysfunctional local churches, without once putting a face or a name or some numbers to the claim. He told seminarians they were just too good for the local church. He told local congregations they weren't good enough for the wonderful people coming out of seminaries.

Honest to God. What a crock of shit. The only thing that makes it worse is some folks whom I respect think McLaren's take is right on target.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A Message To Some Folks I've Encountered On The Internet

If you think this is addressed to you unfairly, you might well be wrong.

Starving The Beast

It is a column tailor-made for the blogosphere. Dana Millbank's piece in today's Washington Post is a parody of blog writing, an example in "Blog Writing 101 - How To Be Outraged, Lesson 4: Sarcasm and Superiority":
After preaching for weeks about the urgency of Washington taking action to create jobs, lawmakers decided to put their mammon where their mouths are. And so on Tuesday evening they descended from the mountaintop and came forth to anoint a jobs bill of biblical proportions:

“H.Con.Res 13 — Reaffirming ‘In God We Trust’ as the official motto of the United States.”

The grace of this legislation, taken up on the House floor, was not immediately revealed to all. “In God We Trust” has been the nation’s official motto for 55 years, engraved on the currency and public buildings. There is no emerging movement to change that. But House Republicans chose to look beyond the absence of immediate threats and instead protect the motto against yet-unimagined threats in the future.
It's all right there. The smug superiority, the condescending tone, the sarcastic aside that our national motto, whatever its merits or demerits, is not a fit topic for symbolic legislating in these perilous times.

What should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent more than a day or so perusing the internet's political corners is that less than a few hours after posting, the column already has over 300 comments. SageThrasher wrote:
This piety posing could have come straight out of Machiavelli, see: "How to keep the rabble quiet: act holy." A motto that actually confirms something about American values is "E pluribus unum," which worked just fine until 1956. It certainly inspires higher ideals than the Talibanesque nod to passive fatalism and religious supremacy over secular politics implied by "In God We Trust." It also hints at genuine cooperation as necessary to succeed--something else worth thinking about.
andrew23boyle wrote:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"

It doesn't say "A religion". It says "religion" in general. It is no better to officially endorse a number of "religions" than it is to endorse only one.

The phrase "In God We Trust" does just that because it endorse and lends official validation to any number of philosophies or ideologies that believe in a "god" while excluding others that do not. Since it is not the Republic's business to declare for this or that "religion" , the Republic has no business making such declarations.

Furthermore, Congress has MUCH better things to do with its time.

This is why I can never call myself a Republican. They talk a good game about personal liberties but then turn around and try to use the state to force their religion on everyone else. We need a "Mind you own business party". The radical wing can be the "Mind your own g-dd-amn business!" party.
So, from a nonsensical bit about a meaningless resolution come forth the frothing masses to denounce an overt danger to our secular Constitution and multicultural, multireligious society. While I doubt the commenters really get too worked up about it all, even taking the time necessary to think through such sentences, reaching such conclusions, seems like far more work than the event itself deserves. Yet, it serves its purpose of feeding the beast.

Yesterday, a story broke on TPM that Ann Coulter, who manages to eliminate any sexiness her image might dredge up the moment her mouth opens, said something that sounds pretty racist. I'll be perfectly honest. I neither know nor care whether Coulter is a bigot. By and large, Coulter wants only one thing - attention. Stuff like this is designed to drag out even the most casual reader of the day's events. We can all feel better about ourselves that we don't associate ourselves with someone whose public persona is, to say the least, horrible.

Then there's the latest wankfest at Dan Trabue's blog. No disrespect to Dan, who seems like a really nice guy, thoughtful, tentative. Sadly, Dan feeds the trolls, so they keep coming back. A modest observation that there are links between Hebrew prophetic announcements regarding the LORD's justice and the OWS protests becomes yet another 100+-comment wankathon. Instead of telling folks like Doug and Art that his observations are just that, they are entitled to their views, but please go away and stop bothering me, Dan still believes, long after such behavior should have been as discredited as negotiating with Republicans on taxes, it is possible to have a discussion with them.

They aren't interested in discussion. By and large, they demonstrate little understanding of the topics involved. They get off on pissing off folks by saying outrageous things. Like Coulter. Like House Republicans. Not to say that there are not some among House Republicans who believe legislative action reaffirming our national motto is a good thing. They probably do. The reason the leadership allowed it come up and take up time on the floor is simple - it is a slab of meat to the lions, some bread and circuses for the masses. Meaningless in any substantive way, it is a political gesture of the most transparent, crass sort. Rather than spend 800 words in the precious op-ed space of one of the nation's leading newspapers, Millbank might have spent 800 words on what happened to former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine Mutual Fund, or the obvious anti-democratic sentiment among the leaders of the EU as they shout in rage over the Greeks determination to vote on the latest round of austerity.

As you may have noticed, I've been mailing it in with the whole music-thingy. Bored bored bored would best describe my feeling about that. Rather than be bored, I gave it up, which is fine with me. All the same, I'm not going to sit around here and feed the beast of internet nonsense, showing how more outraged I can be than the next person over meaningless drivel. Spending even a few minutes showing the world how much smarter I am than everyone else does little more than demonstrate I have way too much time on my hands.

So, I'm not gonna feed the beast. Observing the various rituals of the political internet, I believe that was once a promising venture in new ways of doing national dialogue has become, and been for a while, a ritualized dance rather than a serious attempt at informing or persuading anyone. Far better to be constructive in one's pursuits than end up being the liberal version of Ann Coulter - saying stuff just to get attention.

Monday, October 31, 2011

My Little Town

Trying to find a song that describes my hometown has been difficult. My first instinct was something bland - "On the Border" by Al Stewart, say. Because Waverly sits right on the border of New York and Pennsylvania.


Then, I thought back to the Paul Simon chestnut, "My Little Town". That song resonated with me for a long time.

It's unfair, though, because "my little town" isn't really that town.

Would I end up using "My Hometown" by Bruce Springsteen? How sad would that be?

Then I got to thinking about the reality that I actually have many fond memories of growing up there. It was a good place to grow up, a great place to be a kid because we had the run of the place. As a kid you could start your day right after breakfast and go until after dark, just checking in enough so the parents knew where you were.

I also got to thinking about all the folks I knew growing up who married their childhood sweethearts and now, decades later, are still together, enjoying their middle years and the rewards that come with it. Which, of course, led me to thinking of the girl or two I dated in high school. Nothing big, and rest assured those women are much better off having moved on fairly quickly. All the same . . . yeah, those memories are nice.

So, in honor of being reminded that my childhood and youth were actually a really good time; that the people with whom I grew up have, by and large, turned in to really interesting adults; that I am so happy for those I knew who found their life's partner right there in the middle of nowhere . . .

Sunday, October 30, 2011

It's Only Real When Glenn Greenwald Discovers It

I have had a long-term love-hate relationship with Glenn Greenwald. By and large, I agree with much of what he says. At the same time, he is the first person who would tell you how important Glenn Greenwald is, how intelligent, insightful, and most of all correct Glenn Greenwald is.

He has a new book out. With Liberty And Justice For Some: How The Law Is Used To Destroy Equality And Protect The Powerful is a book whose topic is important, timely, and I would urge everyone concerned over matters of justice under the law to purchase it, read it, and share it with friends.

All the same, reading some of Greenwald's promotional posts in his Salon column leaves me with just one question: Does Greenwald really believe he's stumbled on to something new here?
The book focuses on what I began realizing several years ago is the crucial theme tying together most of the topics I write about: America’s two-tiered justice system – specifically, the way political and financial elites are now vested with virtually absolute immunity from the rule of law even when they are caught committing egregious crimes, while ordinary Americans are subjected to the world’s largest and one of its harshest and most merciless penal states even for trivial offenses. As a result, law has been completely perverted from what it was intended to be – the guarantor of an equal playing field which would legitimize outcome inequalities – into its precise antithesis: a weapon used by the most powerful to protect their ill-gotten gains, strengthen their unearned prerogatives, and ensure ever-expanding opportunity inequality.


The past decade has witnessed the most severe crimes imaginable by political and financial elites: the construction of a worldwide torture regime, domestic spying perpetrated jointly by the government and the telecom industry without the warrants required by the criminal law, an aggressive war waged on another country that killed hundreds of thousands of people, massive financial fraud that came close to collapsing the world economy and which destroyed the economic security of tens of millions, and systematic foreclosure fraud that, by design, bombarded courts with fraudulent documents in order to seize homes without legal entitlement. These are not bad policies or mere immoral acts. They are plainly criminal, and yet – due to the precepts of elite immunity which were first explicitly embraced during Ford’s pardon of Nixon — none of those crimes has produced legal punishments.(italics added)
Seriously? Greenwald's a really smart guy, the kind of lawyer I would want if my back were up against the wall, not least because of that personality quirk that seems to come across so clearly in both his column and his tweets - he's kind of a jerk, convinced as he is of his own purity and righteousness.

The American legal system has, by and large, always existed to protect the prerogatives of the powerful. This isn't something that only came to pass with the pardoning of Nixon, or was only embraced during the 1970's. Even a cursory understanding of American history makes one familiar with the myriad ways the courts and the law work to maintain the socio-economic status quo. In the middle of the 19th century, there was a German observer of rising bourgeois democratic institutions who noted that they seemed geared toward the protection of privilege. Which is why he didn't really have much faith in democratic and republican institutions to protect the rights of the oppressed classes in society. Marx understood that they were designed and worked precisely the way they were supposed to - to protect the powerful and privileged.

It's the kind of breathless, earnest insistence that he has discovered something new, something that has suddenly burst to full flower around us, rather than the latest iteration of a long-running struggle that bugs me. Again, get the book, read the book, pass on the book. Remember, however, that the phenomena Greenwald discusses is as old as human society, a problem with which any society struggles, a struggle we are currently still losing. Having the information Greenwald provides, the perspective of one dedicated not to any ideology or part but the Constitution is important. He hasn't discovered something new, however, all his pretense to the contrary.

My First Time

Doing something you love always begins at some point. Unlike the fantasies we all have, whether that's walking up to the plate, swinging the bat at the first pitch ever to come our way, and smacking it over the fence, or throwing/receiving a forty-yard pass then running for a touchdown as defenders peel off because we're just too fast, the reality is usually much different.

So, too, with starting a record collection. I would love to tell you that my first purchases included Never Mind The Bollocks or The Ramones' first album; I would be so happy to let you know that The Jazz Messengers and Al DiMeola were on my want-list when I was 14.

I'd be lying.

I grew up surrounded by music. And records. It seemed natural enough, when I turned eleven or so, to decide I wanted to buy some music. I didn't really give it much thought. I went out and bought what I really wanted to hear. One of the really big albums for teens at the time was Destroyer, by KISS. So, here I am admitting my first conscious album purchase was this bit of cheesy schlock that, all in all, had some really good songs on it. Their radio hit "Beth". The opening track, "Detroit Rock City", one of their better arranged songs. And their anthemic follow-up to "Rock And Roll All Night", "Shout It Out Loud".

At least I remember my first time. As in so many of life's most important things, I would like to believe I've become better at buying music with practice.

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