Saturday, September 08, 2012

Christianity And Our Nasty Political Moment

A friend of mine shared this article this morning on Facebook.  While the author's intentions are good, the article itself is a mush of good feeling and misplaced earnestness, such as the following:
Rather than engage in the political process, Christians have a duty to elevate it. Like any other sin, we are called to stand above the partisan dissension and demonstrate a better way. Should we have an opinion? Yes. Should we care about our country? Yes. Should we vote? Yes. But it’s time we talk politics in a way that models the teachings of Jesus rather than mocks them.
The piece goes on to list seven things that while true in some general sense are also irrelevant to the specifics of our virulent public debate.  I tend to be wary of general principles, although I do have my own unexamined and unfalsifiable ones.  They can serve us in certain situations, but are wholly inappropriate for others.

Since I had a discussion on this very subject not that long ago with my dear preacher-lady wife, I think it only fair to make clear my own position on this particular reality within which we all live.  I am doing so by altering, ever so slightly, the wording and thoughts behind the seven points.

1.  Neither party cares about religious faith.  Whether it's Christianity in its many varieties, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, or no religion, political parties exist not to encourage and foster people of faith, but to promote and advance particular agendas for attaining and maintaining power.  At heart, that is what politics is about.  How that is achieved includes manipulating symbols and the emotional responses to various institutions from the family through racial and ethnic groups to religious organizations and their principles.  Neither party is innocent of this particular amoral failing; the Democratic Party's rush to make sure there was a statement about belief in God demonstrates the silly lengths to which they will go to assuage the feelings people express.

2. The things about which we argue, sometimes with heat and vitriol, are important.  Reducing our public discourse to entertainment and commerce has lowered the quality of how independent journalists cover the process.  Rather than important matters that impact all our lives, the notion that all this stuff is little different from "Casey Kasem's Top 40" or "Real Housewives of Atlanta" has made it impossible to communicate to people that politics as a means of gaining and maintaining power in order to do some things and not do other things for the country as a whole.  Instead, our journalists all act as if our politicians are celebrities, Congress is a game show hosted by some guy named Boehner, and there is little need to be either serious or thoughtful because "everyone knows" none of it matters.

3.  Patriotism is not the point.  The next time you see someone driving down the road in a car with one of those "These Colors Don't Run" bumper stickers, remember: Anyone who feels a need to express such a position must, somewhere deep, have far more ambivalent feelings about the United States.  Indeed, as a practical matter, looking at the actions of various figures in power from the parties, I sometimes wonder how it is possible the myth of hyper-patriotism has any strength left, what with all the oxygen stolen from that particular room by all the people talking without actually doing anything.  If you want to know what it means to be a patriotic American, read the Constitution (it's short) and The Federalist Papers (longer, but still doable).  Anyone says anything else, well, they're just ignorant.

4.  If you insist on agreeing with every position your party takes on any particular issue, you're not a Christian.  For all those who blather on about "sin", invoking the Old Testament as if there weren't a New Testament that clarified what the stuff in the Old Testament meant for us Christians, you'd think idolatry would be something they understood.  Apparently not, though.  If you identify with either major party in the United States to the extent that you keep pointing out things in the party platform as reasons, then you are a member of the Republican Church or Democratic Church, rather than the Church of Jesus Christ.

5.  Jesus prayed for everyone.  Jesus also took sides with the powerless and outcast.  Any good and honest Christian reflection begins not with this or that verse of the Bible.  It begins with the reality of the crucified, dead, and risen Jesus Christ.  We aren't "the Body of Paul", or "The Congregation of Leviticus."  We are called by the risen Christ to be His Body in this broken world.  Incarnational living, through the Spirit, brings us back to the Jesus who ignored the social and religious and political mores and laws for the sake of the people outside polite society.  He didn't turn down invitations from folks in positions of power and authority; he did not privilege them, their ideas, or practices, however.  Taking refuge in the admonition to "Pray for your leaders," ignores the reality that we are also called, first, to live out the ministry of Jesus.  That means taking sides, ticking off the folks who hold the keys to the earthly kingdom, and getting our hands and feet and reputations dirty by being known as drunkards and people who would be with prostitutes.

6.  Fear Not.  This is, actually, the only one of the seven with which I agree whole-heartedly.  I don't subscribe to the kind of nonchalance about the repercussions of who gets elected; I would insist, however, that we Christians remember that our God has many titles in the Bible and President just isn't one of them.  Even more, remember that God transformed Divine leadership in the person of the risen Christ from the earthly line of the old Kings of Israel to create a new Kingdom embodying the reality that was and is and will be Jesus Christ.  Just because they are not in any way ultimate decisions, however, does not make them unimportant; how we vote, the positions we take and candidates we support do have important, life-changing and history-changing consequences.  They just don't have anything to do with God's Providential governance of creation.

7.  Every election is important.  Treat the reality of politics with the respect it deserves.  The first election in which I cast a ballot for President was 1984.  To say I was "excited" is an understatement.  I was thrilled.  I also had no illusions about who was going to win.  By the time I filled out the absentee ballot, it was clear that Walter Mondale had all but surrendered the Presidency to Ronald Reagan, despite demonstrating in the first of the two debates between them that he could knock the President off his game pretty well and people responded to it.  1996 was much the same, only in reverse.  The Republican Party, true to form, chose as their candidate "the next in line", an elder statesman of their party who, for all we should all be grateful for his long life of service to our country, was just outmatched by the younger, vigorous incumbent.  By the time 2000 rolled around, so many voices were shouting from every source possible that we were entering some Fairytale Land of Peace and Prosperity Forever (Bill Clinton's presence at the Democratic Convention this past week brought a passel of folks reminding us How Wonderful We Were Back Then; we weren't but there were moments it certainly felt that way even then), and the next President need only be a semi-competent manager of the marvelous Machine of Prosperity.  Thus it was that we ended up not with a capable manager of the status quo but a set of reactionaries intent of dismantling the last remnants of the social and financial safety net the kept the wolves from breaking down the door; we ended up with war-monger-turned-war-criminals, thousands upon thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghans as we over-reacted to the events of September 11.

Politics is about acquiring, maintaining, and using power.  The religious life, at its best regardless of the particulars of doctrine and creed and claim about deity and humanity, is about setting aside power for the good of the larger community.  Christianity in particular is about living out a life in which human power is set aside for the power of God incarnate in the dead and risen Jesus of Nazareth.  God's power was revealed in that Act as powerlessness by any human definition.  We are dealing with two very different realms of human action, with very different presuppositions and assumptions and goals.  It is possible to be a faithful Christian and stand up for one's political and policy aspirations with strength and determination even in our historical moment of deep distrust and verbal vitriol, as long as we remember politics and parties do not define us.

We are marked by the Cross at our baptism, rather than the letters "R" or "D" after our name in the county clerk's voter rolls.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Making Elections Interesting

I have long thought that we need to change the way Electoral votes are apportioned in this country.  All the states except Nebraska send all their electors for a particular candidate if that candidate won the popular vote in that state.  In Nebraska, if a candidate wins the state, that candidate wins the two Electors apportioned from the US Senate.  The rest are apportioned according to which one was victorious in each House district.

Picture the Electoral college map in such a scenario in, say, Texas.  Mitt Romney might have the two electors  from the US Senate.  Barack Obama, however, might just win a few in and around, say, Houston or San Antonio.  On the other hand, Barack Obama would easily take New York, but venture outside the concrete halls of New York City to the mostly empty spaces of western and northern New York, and Mitt Romney might just do well enough to sneak a couple Electors in to his pocket.  Except, of course, for the cities of Rochester and Buffalo (although Buffalo is a pretty Republican town, so who knows?).

Obama might even have had to campaign in his home state, convincing down-state Illinoisans that he deserves four more years.  As it is, the Prairie State is a lock and the President will be conspicuous in his absence as will Gov. Romney.

There would be a few states, to be sure, that would be off the Electoral radar, like Wyoming and, perhaps, Alaska.  New Hampshire might get a visit or two, as might Vermont.  California would be the real prize, with over fifty House seats, and most of them needed to keep the election out of the House of Representatives.

I suppose I'm dreaming here, because no part is going to pass a law in any state that would disadvantage its candidate in the Electoral College.  It would, however, steal elections away from consultants and the drone about "swing states".

Thursday, September 06, 2012

If My Grandma Had Wheels She'd Be A Wagon

Let me just say that I agree, in principle, with the policy positions outlined by Green Party Presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein.  The problem I have is the remarkably silly ideas in the following snippet:
The emotionally inflammatory issues that divide us are promulgated by the media, politicians, and even some religious leaders.  These red herring issues draw us away from the basic issues that unite us: our economy and a vibrant democracy
If we the 99% were able to stay focused on these issues basic issues and vote for candidates who would address them when they were in office, we would change our nation in one election by electing candidates who represent us and not the corporations, the lobbyists, or the military-industrial establishment. There are moments when our ability as a mega-majority to change our nation to serve our needs seems so obvious that I marvel that we haven’t already done so.
"Red herring issues" include things like abortion rights and women's rights; civil rights and the politics of the culture wars.  Why are these red herrings for Dr. Stein?  For the millions who care about them, who shape their approach to selecting a candidate for whom to vote they are hardly red herrings.  For the millions who work to ensure women's rights to quality health care, or for whom matters of school choice are a deeply personal, family matter, these are not red herrings but matters of utmost importance.

To call the abundance of issues outside socio-economic matters "red herrings" is, in a trite yet ignorant turn of phrase, to dismiss the concerns of one's fellow citizens as irrelevant.  It is to announce to potential voters they are too ignorant, too easily led by "media, politicians, and even some religious leaders," to understand what's really important.

Like the now-infamous book What's The Matter With Kansas?, the assumption here is that the politics of the culture wars are a dodge used by conservatives to play upon the fears of ignorant voters so they will vote against their own economic best interests.  The argument has the single virtue of the economic numbers on its side; what it dismisses is the fact that all those folks voting against what is, objectively, their own economic interests might be voting for other reasons, with matters of economics far down the list.

To say, "Geez, if everyone else understood things the way I understand them, we wouldn't be in this mess," is no less authoritarian than the current Republican push to restrict voting rights for the poor and minorities because they fear those people would vote Democratic.  It is an expression of fear of democracy, fear of the people, and the assumption that those who really know what's important and not a red herring should be given the keys to power.

It would be nice, I suppose, if folks set to one side their preference for particular issues that are less important to others.  It would be nice, for example, if at least some Republicans understood that the elected officials with "R" after their names don't really care about restricting abortion rights (God knows they've had plenty of opportunities to do so and haven't).  They won't though, and that's OK.

I would much rather have an electorate like the one we really have, one that concerns itself with all sorts of issues some believe are red herrings, than have politicians who come to the people and tell them they're too stupid to understand what's really important.  Politics isn't like that.  People aren't like that.

I agree with Jill Stein and the Green's when it comes to some matters of policy.  Their wishes - If people thought like we do, the world would be sunshine and fluffy kittens! - demonstrate an ignorance of the reality of politics and a dismissal of real democratic values.  It's kind of sad, because a Green Party President would at least have the virtue of offering an interesting four years.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

I Am A Woman: From Sojourner Truth To Michelle Obama

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them. - Sojourner Truth, 1851
 So maybe Michelle Obama was supposed to humanize her on Tuesday night, in her big speech. Maybe she was even supposed to humanize herself. But she wound up doing something very different, and something far more rare, and something that not only answered the people who insist that she is not like them but also had to shame them: She was simply human, and so as American as any of us could hope or dare to be. - Tom Junod
So Michelle Obama gave a speech last night, and like many politicians, she became a blank sheet of paper upon which the audience could create an image from their hopes and fears.  That she did what she did is a testament to the rise in prominence of the First Lady since Nancy Reagan; somehow it seems necessary, at least to political consultants, that the American people be reminded the President is above all else a person within some kind of relationship.  Thus it is we have Presidential candidates' wives trotted out to speak on behalf of their husbands, testifying to their basic goodness (regardless of the facts; Reagan was a pretty lousy Dad, according to the testimony of his children; the basic soundness of a Presidential parent becomes irrelevant the moment myth-making is needed).

Yet, at Tom Junod's piece at Esquire, we see a further hurdle Mrs. Obama is forced not so much to leap but clamber over: Even here, at a titularly "liberal" site, Michelle Obama must first demonstrate her fundamental humanity to many for who skepticism on this point continues to matter.  'Twas ever thus, one could say, in particular for women of color who have had to establish not only their bona fides as women, but their humanity as well.  Thus it is that even an accomplished, intelligent, attractive, thoughtful person such as Mrs. Obama has, in the words of Mr. Junod, to make herself look human.

Were I married to Mrs. Obama, I'd smack him up side his head for such presumptuousness.

Thankfully, the First Lady demonstrated not only through her poise but also her courage, standing in front of an in-house crowd of thousands and a television crowd of millions doing what most of those watching could never do; she also demonstrated that she feels no desire to assuage the doubts of people like Junod who think that it is always incumbent upon minorities to calm the fears of the majority.

In 2008, there were wild rumors abounding that a video existed . . . somewhere . . . of a speech Mrs. Obama allegedly gave . . . somewhere . . . in which she spoke of her hatred of white people.  Of course, no such thing exists, yet the rumors continue, and there are many on the right who believe this video has disappeared through some wild machinations by the President.  Even those who don't believe crap like this, however, still think Mrs. Obama had some task to perform to settle their good liberal fears that she might just be that Angry Black Woman of American mythology.  Instead, of course, she told a typical American story that resonated with those in attendance in Charlotte because Mrs. Obama has answered Sojourner Truth's question in the affirmative, demonstrating that, indeed, as an African-American female she is every bit a woman, and an American woman at that.

That kind of courage, to set to one side the expectations so many white men seem to demand in their silent looks of expectation, demonstrates the necessity of remembering Truth's question.  It also shows that Mrs. Obama knows to her bones this is the reality she faces and doesn't care.  She is who she is, a woman indeed with strength and ability, and she just doesn't care whether or not some folks are nervous or upset about that.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A Couple Things

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet.  My promise is to help you and your family. - Mitt Romney, August 30, 2012
Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth - Barack Obama, June 8, 2008
The line got all sorts of cheers at the expense of Barack Obama.  "He's going to stop the oceans from rising, isn't that funny?!?  The guy thinks he's the Messiah or something!"  Then, Romney turned it around, the single most clever moment of his Presidential campaign yet: He made a simple promise that people could understand.  No grand vision of world-changing events; just simple, honest hard work for the American family.

Let me just say I admire this, the best rhetorical moment in Romney's acceptance speech.  Playing off the ridiculous idea that Barack Obama considers himself some kind of Messiah, it lets folks who oppose the President get that particular freak on, all the while making Mitt Romney's candidacy (and potential Presidency) look all the more down to earth.

All the same, if you actually look at what then-candidate Obama said, it becomes clear that Romney, yet again, gets it wrong.  In fact, he gets it wrong in a really important, substantive fashion.  He gets it wrong the same way all those who insist Pres. Obama suffers from megalomania get it wrong.  Whether as a candidate or as President, one word Obama rarely uses in speeches is "I".  In particular during campaign mode, candidate Obama was and is very careful to use the plural "we".  Obama is very clear that the vision he outlined in the speech after clinching the nomination four June's ago is not a vision of what "he" will do.  Quite the contrary.  The speech is about his hope and belief and vision that the American people - "we"; remember it's plural here - will do the hard work and make the tough choices and sacrifices to make America a great and good land.

Now, we can argue about these matters on the merits.  What we cannot do is say, "Obama said x," when in fact, he never did.  We cannot pretend that Obama's saying x indicates something about his personality when he did not in fact say x.  Indeed, insisting he did say x actually says more about the people who insist he did so than about the person who never said it.  So, Gov. Romney . . . why do you believe Pres. Obama said he'd heal the oceans when there is no record he ever said any such thing?

Furthermore, I would like to know what is wrong with what candidate Obama said in 2008.  Is it bad to tell the American people that working together we can make a difference?  Is it wrong to tell the American people that the specter of the looming effects of global warming - something with which we have become all too familiar the past year - need not be inevitable if we work together to change it?  Is it wrong to tell American families that serving and helping them includes making sure their homes aren't washed away in the rising tides, or their farms burned to a crisp in the scorching drought?  Is it wrong to let the American people know that all of us can, indeed, do great things despite what the nay-sayers and doom-preachers insist is so?

Because, Gov. Romney, I have to tell you, I much prefer a President who challenges us - us, now; in case you've forgotten again, that's the plural meaning a whole bunch of us - to face our problems to one who invents quotes from his opponents, then insists these quotes contain some kind of political or moral or personal error by making of them some kind of punchline to a really clever rhetorical move.  I admire the rhetoric, Governor.  I don't admire what's behind it.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Peace, Love, And Understanding

There was something implacable about all this, above all; it seemed inanimate. . . .  You could see nothing of the agony and passion that gave each little moving human dot its own individual character and made them all so many worlds.  All you saw was the material development of a clash between two huge material forces. - Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, letter to his sister from the front, 1918

This generation has no future, and deserves none.  Anyone who belongs to it lives no more. - German Lt. Rudolf Binding, A Fatalist At War 
Having finally made my way through the essays in Stephen Jay Gould's Dinosaur In A Haystack, borrowed from my parents' house after my visit in late July, I have begun a long-delayed re-read of Gregor Dallas's 1918: War and Peace.  With many thoughts still on our troops in Afghanistan as well as the thousands of veterans from there and Iraq and their myriad problems (especially the suicide rate among both active duty and veteran troops from the wars), I have been wondering to myself about the inner strength of our military personnel.  Not in a detrimental way, certainly.  Our troops have been fighting under conditions that are unique in our history: they continue to carry out their missions with an invisibility - except when their names pop up on casualty lists - that is remarkable.  Had Johnson and Nixon managed to wage their wars in southeast Asia with the kind of opacity Bush and Obama have managed, the history of the last quarter of the 20th century would have been very different, to say the least.  No, my concern was whether our troops, professional volunteers from a land of opulent abundance, comfort, and security, experienced the shock of warfare in ways that stripped them of the psychological defenses needed to remain sane in insane situations, then return to their normal lives without widespread psychic damage.  The numbers certainly aren't encouraging, and while the military is certainly continuing to improve the assistance given our troops, I guess I'm a little worried that we are forgetting our own responsibilities to our returning veterans.  How do we here back home not only make the invisible visible again, but hear them in a way that helps them return home?

It is with something like relief, in a sad way, that I turn to this first horrid total war of the past century to discover that British, French, German, Russian, and American troops were no different in kind from their American great-great-grandchildren.  While our social and political and economic and cultural realities are far different, the suffering our troops endure after their tours are over and they return to the quiet and safety of civilian life, that front-line veterans recognize a near-infinite distance between themselves and any who has not experienced the horrors of their recent lives is a constant refrain.

The First World War occurred in the midst of many social revolutions, including a steadily rising standard of living, the expansion of literacy and education, and the beginnings of clinical psychology that all blended together to create a literature that was different from other post-war memoirs.  Going all the way back to Julius Caesar's The Conquest of Gaul, generals have sought to justify their actions to people by presenting their case for the conduct of military operations.  The 20th century saw a flowering of these kinds of writings, to be sure.  It also saw the emergence of literature from the front-line soldier.

Not just memoirs, but novels and, in the case of the First World War, poetry.  The great, tragic Wilfred Owen.  The high moral dudgeon in the midst of contradiction that was the poetry of Sigfried Sassoon.  These poems shaped the way many came to understand the lives of troops in the trenches, the horrors of that war of mud and gas and mass death.  There were the novels of Ernest Hemingway, such as The Sun Also Rises. The most famous novel about the First World War was Erich Maria Remarque's All's Quiet On The Western Front, presenting to the world the realization that, regardless of the uniform or cause, at least in that horrible war the experiences of soldiers differed little.

A constant refrain from our returning troops, suddenly visible to the public after a twelve month or eighteen month absence, is the inability of any save those in the midst of the surrealism of front-line combat to have any grasp or understanding of their time.  Friends and loved one seek out this information, I think, not only to reconnect with their loved one, but to remind them that the reality of life in war, life at war, is not the only reality; that there is, indeed peace and love to be had with family and friends, but only through understanding.  While civilians have, I believe in no small part thanks to the literature that has flowed from veterans of previous wars, a grasp at the very least of the reality of the distance between troops at the front and their own lives, we are still waiting for those first real confessions and poems and novels from troops from our decade of war.  In the meantime, far too many of our American soldiers and sailors, our Marines and airmen and pilots suffer not just from post-traumatic stress, but the seeming inability to bridge the gap back to their non-combat lives; perhaps they should learn the lessons their not-so-distant ancestors learned, and take what they experienced and write it down.

Will we understand?  Of course not; not in the way those who have lived and been wounded or died there understood it.  We will, however, understand our lack of understanding, and hear in the voices of our combat veterans the reality of the unreality that is war in its most immediate experience.  In that sharing, the mutual need to understand and be understood, to love and receive love, to come together by communicating the reality of the distances between us, we might yet have some peace, love and understanding.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Something For Everyone

I've read quite a few complaints recently, not directed at anyone in particular, about the abundance of political status updates on Facebook.  There's even a meme going around making the obvious point that these things don't change anyone's mind.

I have a FB friend really into knitting and sewing.  Reading about her discovery of an old sewing machine, then remembering a conversation my sister and cousin had about our mothers' sewing clothes for us (like what I am wearing in this picture, around the time I was four years old)
I decided to write a post about my Mom, that old Necchi sewing machine, and what it meant for us as a family, and how those musings led to thoughts about what is and is not real in this world, and how those relationships work themselves out for us.

I'm not capable of sewing.  I cannot and would not even try to knit.  I would never, however, be so forthright as to write something on Facebook to the effect that I'm quite tired of being forced to read all these posts about yarn and quilting and sewing and needlepoint because, God Almighty, I couldn't care less.

The fact is, it's an election year.  There are folks who find this stuff interesting and important.  No one is forcing anyone to read anything.  You don't like to read about politics?  Feel free to skip right over it and move on to someone's latest grandchildren pics or the meme about women scolding men for being men.

Please, however, don't pretend that Facebook is "about" anything other than folks connecting and OMG LOOK AT THESE BABY RED PANDAS!!!!!

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