Saturday, November 26, 2011

People Get Ready

Tomorrow we begin a new Church Calendar year, with the First Sunday in Advent. Similar to Lent, Advent is a season of preparation. Unlike Lent, we are not called to spiritual disciplines per se during Advent, no fasting or silence. We are, instead, to prepare our lives for the coming of the Son of God.

Every good story has a prologue. The stage is set, the questions and surprises that get the ball rolling, pulling us in to the story. Advent is nothing more or less than God's prologue to the whole mystery of Salvation.

It is not just a time to look back. We are not only to consider Isaiah 40-55, Luke 1, Matthew 1. We are also to look around ourselves, in our lives here and how, hearing the words of St. Mary and St. Simeon as declaring realities here and now, realities we are to see, words in which we are to trust. Most of all, a path to follow on the way to meeting the living Lord.

We are also to look ahead. As the tradition has it, we live between the times. Between the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the inauguration of the New Creation and the return of Jesus Christ in final victory and glory, gathering all who have laid their lives before him, healing this wounded creation, so that we can sit around the table God has prepared for all of us.

In this last Spirit, then, as we move from the declaration that Christ is King, that our profession of the Divine Triune Life reaches not only in to our hearts and lives, but out to all creation, so, too should we now confess our failure to anticipate the coming promised so long ago. Setting aside the fantasies of the ignorant, or the apocalyptic visions of the pathological, the dreams of a river of blood, we should instead be living each day in the footsteps of the one who leads the Way, knowing that it brings us to an end that is greater than we can imagine. A world where all creation is in harmony. Where the God of Life sits in the Temple, and light and justice and peace and life rule.

We are to be about the business of making this reality because we believe - we do not know; we believe - that it is already a reality in the resurrected Son of the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are not to kick against the pricks of fallen creation that screams in rage and fear at the very mention of the holiness and healing brought about by Jesus Christ. Rather, we are to rejoice at the rage of the powers and principalities for that means we may yet be on the only Way that leads to true life.

Folks, in order to get ready, the first thing we need to do is set our feet on that road. We need to remember that road is long, there are all sorts of dangers and distractions, and every step will be agonizing for us.

But . . . oh, my, the promise that each of us and all of us, our communities and societies and all creation will be gathered before the Throne, washed in the blood of Christ, who stands our only advocate. While you're decorating and shopping and preparing for parties and getting those stupid year-end letters sent out, remember - none of that is real preparation. Keep looking out in the world around all of us, be looking for those signs that say, "Be of good Cheer, Christ is coming soon." Live that out in as many varieties as possible.

And be glad.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Caveat Emperor

What better day to take a moment and wonder whether or not, in the pursuit of economic stability, we aren't selling our birthright for a mess of pottage?
[C]onsider the interview that Alex Stubb, the minister of Europe for Finland’s right-wing government, gave to the Financial Times last weekend. The six euro-zone nations with AAA credit ratings, said Stubb, should have greater say in Europe’s economic affairs than the other 11 euro members. The political rights of Southern and Eastern Europe would be subordinated, essentially, to those of Germany and Scandinavia — or to credit rating agencies, which are threatening to downgrade France (thereby reducing the number of decision-making euro nations from six to five).

What Stubb is proposing, and what the markets are doing, is, in essence, extending to the realm of once-equally-sovereign nations the one-dollar-one-vote principle that our Supreme Court enshrined in its Citizens United decision last year. The requirement that one must own property to vote — abolished in this nation in the early 1800s by the Jacksonian Democrats — has been resurrected by powerful financial institutions and their political allies.
What we in America are experiencing is little more than the result of accepting the lie that our state institutions should serve the financial interests of corporate power. With the conflation of bourgeois democratic liberalism and a species of corporate capitalism, we have lost the reality that the common good is more than simple prosperity, that our institutions serve the common good, and that accumulated wealth equals massed power and is a danger to the health of our polis.

This last, in particular, was a warning cited again and again in The Federalist Papers. It also became the mantra of proponents of expanded democratic rights during the Jacksonian era. It withered during the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century when the states and the United States Senate and the Supreme Court worked in lock-step to keep growing rage at the very obvious social and economic disparity at bay. One would have thought the lessons from the Great Depression would have sunk so deep in to our collective political bones we would not need this discussion again. Alas, a combination of greed, ignorance, and collective forgetfulness has created conditions that leave us staring at the very easy, very obvious solutions, and declaring them either impossible or, what seems worse, dangerous to our political and economic order.

The health of the American economy is not the gauge by which we determine the health of our polity. Giving free reign to private institutions to determine our public policy at the expense of the common good has been a recipe for disaster. Continuing this trend in the face of disastrous failure; continuing to listen to the voices of those who created the conditions in which we live long after these voices have lost any credibility; continuing to insist that supporting the private good of some large private institutions is key to advancing the public good, regardless of any evidence to support it; all these create the false political stalemate that is, in fact, the on-going stranglehold by large private institutions over the public sector whose mandate is to serve all of us. With a strength enhanced by fear and rage, the result is our current malaise and legislative deadlock that is easily overcome, given only slightly more backbone.

Our democratic institutions have always been frail; in the face of concerted effort by private interests who have amassed the kind of power and influence we see here and abroad, they seem to teeter on the brink of collapse. Funny enough, the answers are simple enough and easy enough, and fully in line with the best of our traditions. That we just cannot find the wherewithal to force them through reluctant legislatures should be enough evidence for even the biggest skeptic that our democracy, like our economy, is sick. It isn't a mortal illness by any means. We should take care, however, not to delay doing what really needs to be done in order to return it to robust health.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

No Turning Back

Along with leading a class called Christian Believer, I am also taking the Invitation to Romans, part of the short-form Disciple Bible Study series. Tuesday evening, we were discussing the typological use of Adam in Chapter 5, the question of original sin, death, and the sticky wicket of the universal efficacy of Christ's sacrifice and the penalty for Adam's sin.

The grace of Jesus Christ being the subtext of so much of Romans, mention was made of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. The leader of the class asked me to read a famous passage from the Introduction:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buyw hich the merchant will sel all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought, again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.
The book is, in essence, an elaboration of this passage. The movement between the costliness of the sacrifice of Christ, and the graciousness of the sacrifice; from the way we are called, called to leave all we have, venturing forth only because our names have been called, following without knowing whence the road will lead; from the fear and rejection and death that awaits us, to the joy and peace and life that is the essence of being a disciple of Jesus Christ - this is what the book concerns itself with.

I was reminded of the reality of the depth and power of Bonhoeffer's message - similar in so many ways to our own Wesleyan heritage of disciplined discipleship as a signifier of the mark of the cross on our lives - when I discovered my name brought up in a discussion elsewhere. Apart from so much else I find . . . troubling . . . about all of this, the lack of any understanding that we are to begin our understanding of what it is to follow Jesus Christ within a context of already having heard that call and answered it, of setting aside our nets, our tax collector's rolls, leaving our family and friends behind without condition or question or desire to fulfill some other obligation prior to setting our feet squarely behind those of the one who calls us.

It isn't the bigotry, which should be assumed. It isn't the quite palpable hatred, either. Rather, there is not a single mention of Jesus Christ. Not one. Somehow, a bunch of folks are talking about God and God's will and doing it without a single reference to Jesus Christ, who embodies God's will for us, a will for life, for freedom; a life of death and single-minded devotion and submission to the discipline of the one who's Way we follow.

It breaks my heart to consider the magnificent pearl of the Gospel cast before these swine. I am saddened to think that it is so easy to answer this call. To set aside all that was, all that made them who they are, to erase from their lives all that would cause them to stumble, and just start walking. Sure, the journey isn't easy. Good Lord, anyone thinking that should have their head examined! But, in the following, keeping one's eye fixed on the one whose lead we follow, whose voice first stirred us from our slumber, what could be easier? What else could make sense?

Having heard the voice of Christ in my own life, I have stopped hemming and hawing, making excuses and tripping over my fear. Way leads on to way, as Tolkien said, and the road ahead is dusty, and long, and the only thing I can do, the only thing that makes sense, is to see the one who called me walking along in front of me, casting the occasional grin over his shoulder at me. I know he knows I'm back here, and I glance away when his eyes flash at me. I keep going because, I see him walking, the holes through his feet not slowing him one bit, the fact that my life is responsible for those holes not dimming the love in his eyes.

Why make mountains out of non-existent molehills? Why not just sing the old refrain, "I have decided to follow Jesus/No turning back, no turning back"?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


As you all probably know, Facebook has invited people to spend each day of November giving thanks for something. In principle, this is a wonderful thing. In practice, it seems to be appalling, awful.

The things for which I give thanks, the things in my life for which I am grateful are few. First and foremost, for life itself, the daily surprise and challenge. For my lovely wife, who only grows more beautiful each day. For my daughters, a constant source of surprise and joy and laughter. The three of them together are evidence of the reality of grace in my life, and I tell them this as often as possible.

I am thankful for the animals who share our home, for the ways I see different creatures living (well, usually sleeping, eating, or pooping) out their days, and the occasional nuttiness of the cats, and the simple, unadorned love our dog has for all of us and each of us.

I am thankful for the ability to appreciate beauty. Whether it's the beauty of my daughters' smiles, of my wife's come-hither look, a painting, a photograph, or a piece of music, wouldn't our lives be empty if we couldn't take in an experience and see that glimmer of transcendence we choose to call "the beautiful" within it?

These are the things for which I give thanks, in private, in silence or in inadequate words, to God. Everything else I have in this life is just so much stuff, really. Junk that can clutter up the mind and heart.

I wish you all, and each of you, a wonderful Thanksgiving. Enjoy the fellowship with family and friends around the table. Please, for God's sake, don't muck it up by trying to talk politics. Spend tomorrow, rather, in relative peace and quiet, listening to others, to their lives and experiences. Revel in the tumult of a busy house full of people. And in and through it all, give thanks, whether to God - however you might call the deity you name - or to one another, for the simple, most important joys in life.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Cult Of The Cop

I have a feeling some of what I'm going to write is going to upset some folks.

I couldn't care less.

You see it on TV cop shows. You hear it in news reports. You get it from currently serving police officers.

Cops have a tough job. They're out there, putting their lives on the line. Every day could bring a situation that puts their lives, the lives of their fellow officers, or the lives of members of the public at risk. They have to make split-second decisions, and are trained to make the right ones. No one who isn't a cop can possibly understand.

To all of this I really have only one response - Phooey.

Can we chat here? Just for a moment? A quick scan of the Wikipedia article on the history of municipal policing in the United States (I know that Wikipedia isn't the most reliable source, but this particular article is well-sourced) reminds readers that, for most of the time we've had publicly-funded police departments (less than two hundred years now) they were viewed with suspicion by the public. As in most societies, the police served the interests of power. Their attitude toward the poor, toward various marginalized populations in general, was hostile. Violence, while uncoordinated, was rampant.

The professionalization of police departments, including specialized training, an emphasis on community relations, coincided with an increase in the para-militarization of police tactics. By the time we reached the 1990's, rather than one or two specialized units (modeled after the Special Weapons And Tactics, or SWAT, units of Los Angeles), most police forces had some training in military tactics, increased firepower which included military style weapons, and the hierarchy of police forces became much more rigid, similar to military practice.

At the same time, there was an increase in the belief that this was necessary. The 1970's and 1980's saw a rapid rise in violent crime, and a general sense of social decay, particularly in urban areas. Rather than address these matters proactively, city authorities relied upon their newest tool, paramilitary police departments, to control their unruly populations.

Events on September 11, 2001 sealed, in many ways, the cult of the heroic cop. Which is not to deny that police officers that day, and every day, act in ways that are, indeed, heroic. It is not to deny that many communities, in particular those in areas most effected by high crime, want a police presence. After 9/11, however, being anything other than nearly worshipful of police officers became something more than counter-cultural. It seemed an insult to the men and women who died that day trying to help so many people escape the terrible events in New York.

We are living in different times. Violent crime is down, and has been on a downward trend, for over a decade now. In the mid- to late 1990's, it was thought this was a product of better economic times. Even as our economy has burbled and broiled since the collapse first of the tech bubble, then the housing bubble, those rates have fallen and other explanations have been floated, with no definitive answers*.

The various videos and photos of events at the University of California at Davis, symbolized by this photo of University Police Officer John Pike calmly and methodically pepper-spraying a group of students who are sitting down, posing a threat to no one, is starting a discussion, long overdo, on the increased use of military tactics and the overuse of violent reactions on the part of police.

A group of writers at Atlantic magazine is addressing the whole matter of police tactics in the wake of what is, quite clearly, a misuse of official violence.

We have to be able to talk about this issue without (a) insulting or alienating the thousands of police officers who go about their jobs with dignity and professionalism; or (b) forgetting that the institutions of the municipal, county, state, and federal police force exist to maintain the social and economic status quo. Which is not to claim in any way that there aren't really people out there who are dangerous, a threat to others, to society at large, or to the communities in which they live. Rather, we need to make sure we keep focused on the matter of police tactics, in particular the overemphasis on paramilitary training and response.

This is not to call in to question the need for police officers, police forces, or even, on occasion, the need for a strong response in the face of violent activity. Rather, it is to raise the issue of what we, as communities, as a larger society, want to be, how we wish to have those who work to protect legitimate public ends, legitimate matters of public safety and security, act in response to various situations.

Walking along and pepper spraying a bunch of college students who are sitting on the ground, posing a threat to no one, isn't the answer. I hope these recent events, and their widespread witness thanks to the ubiquity of video cameras, cell phones, and the Internet may well begin the process of talking about policing without falling in to the trap of the cult of the cop.

*Personally, I lean toward the demographic explanation. The population cohort that commits most crimes, rather than being far larger than others, as it was through the 1970's and 1980's, is relatively even with others. A smaller number of people who tend to commit crimes means a smaller number of crimes is being committed.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Contra Newt, Part 2

This is kind of turning in to a theme. I really don't want to pick on the guy. It isn't like he's gonna get the nomination. Still, a commenter wanted to know a few things:
The sick hatred you have for Gingrich is well known. What is NOT well known is any commentary on any of his ideas and why you disagree. Nothing from your "brilliance" indicating any flaw in any of his ideas. I doubt you've taken even a cursory look at anything he's proposed.

I hate repeating myself, but I do not "hate" Gingrich. I know you don't quite understand this idea that political differences aren't something I consider as personal. I know you insisted, despite my repeated claims to the contrary, that I "hated" Pres. George W. Bush. I am not maniacal in my feelings about Gingrich, or anyone else in public life. As I say toward the end, I actually enjoy his presence in public life, because he adds a breath of crazed fun to it. My reasons for the things I saw about Gingrich are numerous, as I detail, with sources available to anyone who knows how to use a search engine.

Google, Art. It's this thing you use on the computing machine.

A good introduction to the life and times of Newton Leroy Gingrich is this profile in the New York Review of Books by Joan Didion. It was later collected in Political Fictions, an anthology of her political writings in NYRB from the 1988 Presdential elections through the 2000 elections. In this comment, I linked to a Frontline Online piece on Gingrich's personal peccadilloes, which, I was quick to point out, I do not believe counts in the balance against any candidate for the Presidency.

As for Newt's "ideas", he has published many books - he claims 24, with 13 bestsellers to his credit; it may be that high, I'm not sure - and I have actually perused several of them, read excerpts and synopses of others. It isn't difficult to do, when browsing in a bookstore, to pick up a random volume and pick through a few pages. I must say his turgid prose style is more than balanced for a fondness for the telling anecdote that, when given the tiniest bit of scrutiny turns out to have emerged from the land of Newt's ass. One of my favorites concerned an example he gave of the stifling effects of American federal bureaucracy. In one of Al Franken's books from the 1990's, he details a long claim by Gingrich that a man had invented a machine that had proved, through extensive field testing, to be superior in its outcomes in giving CPR to patients needing it. He dropped plans, so said the then-Speaker, because the process of applying for a patent, testing the effectiveness of it, having it vetted by various federal agencies became not only expensive, but seemed to the person who had invented it, delaying quick delivery of a device to the public.

The only problem with this little morality tale? It never happened. Furthermore, it actually becomes counter-productive to make stuff up. There are, to be sure, plenty of anecdotes about the stupidity of various government regulations, of the way socially beneficial new ideas are stymied and even killed by the mountains of red tape and the maze of agencies one navigates in order to achieve success. Why not rely on a real example? Why go to the trouble of making stuff up? That is the far more troubling question this raises. One would think conservatives, dedicated to truth uber alles would understand that.

Finally, in today's Washington Post, we have the other side of an argument on whether or not there is an anti-intellectual streak in the Tea Party. Friday had Kathleen Parker weighing in on what was called, in the column headline, the Palinization of the Republican Party. Today it's Nia-Malika Henderson and Perry Bacon Jr., two political reporters, making the case that Perry and Cain are falling and Newt is rising because of the Tea Party's understanding that the Republican candidate for President needs to have a bit more pepperoni between his or her ears than either Perry or Cain.

Someday I may repeat my frustration with the whole "anti-intellectualism" nonsense, a canard the liberals love because it allows them to pretend to be smarter than everyone else, which is usually annoying. Which is why this discussion is so vacuous to me. I wouldn't have commented on it at all, except I found a delicious Newtism at the very end, something that demonstrates Newt's lack of self-awareness, to be generous:
“One of the Republican weaknesses is that we rely too much on consultants and too much on talking points, and we don’t rely enough on actually knowing things,” he said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. “If you’re going to lead the country and change history, you better know a heck of a lot before you start, because there’s not much time for learning on the job.”(emphasis added)
The portion in italics is what leaped off the screen, smacked me in the face, then proceeded to tickle me until I had to pee. The same man who said this, once upon a time wrote the following:
Language: A Key Mechanism of Control

Newt Gingrich's 1996 GOPAC memo
Can we stop right here for just a moment? Please note both the title of this memo and who wrote it. Are you with me on this so far?
As you know, one of the key points in the GOPAC tapes is that "language matters." In the video "We are a Majority," Language is listed as a key mechanism of control used by a majority party, along with Agenda, Rules, Attitude and Learning. As the tapes have been used in training sessions across the country and mailed to candidates we have heard a plaintive plea: "I wish I could speak like Newt."

That takes years of practice. But, we believe that you could have a significant impact on your campaign and the way you communicate if we help a little. That is why we have created this list of words and phrases.

This list is prepared so that you might have a directory of words to use in writing literature and mail, in preparing speeches, and in producing electronic media. The words and phrases are powerful. Read them. Memorize as many as possible. And remember that like any tool, these words will not help if they are not used.

While the list could be the size of the latest "College Edition" dictionary, we have attempted to keep it small enough to be readily useful yet large enough to be broadly functional. The list is divided into two sections: Optimistic Positive Governing words and phrases to help describe your vision for the future of your community (your message) and Contrasting words to help you clearly define the policies and record of your opponent and the Democratic party.
This is the bulk of the preamble. In essence this memo is a piece of political consulting, and actually produces a list of talking points, rooted in the idea that, as the title says, language is a key mechanism of control. About that list . . .:
Optimistic Positive Governing Words

Use the list below to help define your campaign and your vision of public service. These words can help give extra power to your message. In addition, these words help develop the positive side of the contrast you should create with your opponent, giving your community something to vote for!
common sense
eliminate good-time in prison
hard work
pro- (issue): flag, children, environment, reform

Contrasting Words

Often we search hard for words to define our opponents. Sometimes we are hesitant to use contrast. Remember that creating a difference helps you. These are powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party.
abuse of power
anti- (issue): flag, family, child, jobs
"compassion" is not enough
criminal rights
failure (fail)
permissive attitude
punish (poor ...)
red tape
status quo
urgent (cy)
So, the guy who complains about political consultants and talking points once upon a time offered political consultation and talking points.

This might seem a small matter. It probably is. With Gingrich, however, there is such a large volume of these little things, they have added up over the decades to give a good impression to folks who follow stuff like this (I first heard his name and read a profile in a major news weekly about Gingrich in 1985 or so; some folks pay attention and remember stuff even longer than the internet, Art). That impression is easy enough to spell out clearly - for Newt, reality, like truth, like intellectual integrity and merit, is a tool to be used to force whatever outcome Newt desires.

I called Newt megalomaniacal, and I think that's fair. Not because I am any kind of psychologist; if I were, especially if I were, it would certainly be unethical to claim some kind of diagnosis of Gingrich. Rather, I think there is an abundance of evidence available to say with a certain amount of confidence that he has displayed a more-than-normal (even for a politician, for whom a healthy ego is necessary) sense of the grandiose when it comes to his abilities, his potential, the intellectual merit of his ideas and thoughts, and the potential impact upon our national life they, and he, represent. This, in and of itself, is hardly a disqualification for office anymore than a predilection for extracurricular sex is, or at least should be. It is the substance of Gingrich's bloated sense of self. In different historical circumstances, Newt would have spun out his life one of those mediocrities that populate higher education the way moles populate my backyard. He would set up guest speakers at whatever cow college he landed at, produce all sorts of events for students and faculty to engage at an intellectual level; all of them would be poorly attended, and he would rail against the unfairness of it all. All the while treating his female graduate assistants as repositories for his seminal fluid.

I am not picking on Newt. In fact, I enjoy the attention he receives. It adds a certain amount of levity to what is otherwise a pretty dull political season. I know quite a bit about Newt, about his ideas, the history of his career in public life, and even some of his personal history. Even if I didn't, I have provided links here, and a good guide to finding out more if you, Art, wish to do so - Google. Seriously, man, I've told you many times that it's your friend.

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