Monday, October 31, 2005

What's Really Happening on Reformation Sunday, A.D. 2005

The iMonk talks about what's really happening on Reformation Sunday in southeast Kentucky.


I’m pretty sure that our church will die in a few years. I’m just as sure that most of the churches in our community that don’t embrace the Pentecostal-Charismatic style of worship will decline, and that many of the Pentecostal/Charismatic/Holiness churches will grow and prosper. I am certain that Biblical preaching means less and less to the average Christian every week in our community. It is a famine, and I am watching it happen in my lifetime.

. . .

In the majority -- the Holiness/Pentecostal/Charismatic majority -- the Gospel of Grace is no more likely to be heard than a review of Russian novels.

. . .

Some of the Baptist ministers here have discovered John Piper and are reading and preaching the Gospel more clearly. [You're pretty hard up for Gospel, when John Piper is the guy who opens your eyes to it.]

. . .

An educated ministry has a hard time relating to an uneducated culture. I’ve learned this many times. This is a place where feelings and emotions are the currency of religion, and the minister who seeks to emulate Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones will have a difficult time. What works at Piper’s church or Dever’s church won’t work here.

In church, we followed, as is our custom on Reformation Sunday, the order of worship of Luther's Deutsche Messe with red paraments and a banner with the Luther seal. Pastor Mitchell preached powerfully about simul justus et peccator with application to a letter he received a month ago from an LCMS pastor who just went Eastern Orthodox.

We are the conservative Reformation now. Charles Porterfield Krauth fought to have the Lutheran church's title to this recognized in face of many competitors. But now we are it, because, it seems, no one else wants to be it. With the destruction of institutional Anglicanism (with other mainline denomination soon following) by libertine ethics and modernist theology, the seeming irresistible onward rushing of praise bands (more here), and charismaticism, we're all that's left.

Well maybe quite not all of it. The occasional Presbyterian, Baptist or Methodist will preach the Gospel. But is it institutionally rooted? (Well, here's the iMonk on the trends in the Southern Baptist church.) And are they really all that faithful to the conservative Reformation idea of a magisterial church with real sacraments and a real norm of faith in the Bible? Justification by faith alone, real and substantial presence of Christ's body and blood in Communion, and the authority of the Scriptures: just require those three things and voila, your horizons are limited to LCMS and WELS-ELS.

Bible-centered preaching and teaching, hymns and psalmody, and a pastor with gravity and authority: these three things were central to the experience of being a Protestant Christian in America for four hundred years. Does anyone still want them any more?

This is an opportunity, but it is also frightening. A famine of the word. A judgment of the Lord. It's happened before and it will happen again. God give us strength for the facing of this hour.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Read It and Cringe

Ouch. Ben Yagoda talking about cliches: he's da man. (I got this from the Corner; only a more shameless man than I am could talk about "hat tips" after reading this).

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Controversy Alert: Torture Is Bad

Here is the text of an open letter which I recently sent to my congressman.

Dear Congressman Sodrel
I am writing to urge you in the strongest terms to support the recent amendment to the military spending measure passed by the US Senate. This amendment establishes a clear policy of the United States that cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment of any prisoner in our custody will not be allowed. It is imperative that the House also support this measure, and do so in numbers sufficient to overcome a possible White House veto.

I am a strong supporter of the global war on terror and on radical Islamic movements that use terrorism to advance their aims. I voted for you and for President Bush in the 2004 election in large part for this reason. Senator John McCain, who was the author and main backer of this anti-torture amendment in the US Senate, is also a strong proponent of staying the course in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, as Mr. McCain recognizes, using torture or other cruel and degrading practices to win information from terrorists is just wrong -- and it is counterproductive. In any counter-insurgency war, winning over prisoners of war, as well as the broader population, is essential. The high profile cases such as Abu Ghraib and the deaths in custody in Afghanistan have done incalculable damage to our cause.

Mr. Sodrel, I am a Christian, and I believe that God sees and hears all things, no matter how hidden and secret. The war we are engaged in is unquestionably just, but if we wish God to be on our side, we must as Lincoln said do our best to be on His side -- and torture and degradation of detainees, many of whom in the nature of war are not actually guilty of any crime, is no way to do this. The US has pledged its faith as a nation to follow the UN Convention Against Torture. The Senate amendment simply asks us to adhere to this standard we have already agreed to. To reject it is to violate not only our legacy of humanity in the treatment of prisoners, first established by General Washington in the Revolutionary War, but also violate our own given faith and word. In ancient Israel, God punished the nation of Judah for violating the treaty made with the conqueror Nebuchadnezzar (Ez. 17:12-21) to pay tribute to him. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God announced that the king of Judah "despised the oath by breaking the covenant. Because he had given his hand in pledge and yet did all these things, he shall not escape." If we despise the agreement we ourselves have freely made, we too will suffer judgment.

I am aware that this current bill is in committee now. But I hope that you will use whatever influence you have to ensure that this amendment stays in whatever version is passed, without any such exemptions such as Vice President Cheney proposed for the CIA. I hope you will also make it clear to the White House that if the resulting spending bill with the anti-torture amendment is vetoed, that you will vote to overturn that veto.

This is a defining moment in the War on Terror. Will we pursue the delusory dream of endless streams of "actionable intelligence", or will we pursue the real security of unwavering justice? Only the latter is capable of winning support, in the Islamic world, yes, but even more in the court of the God of Armies, for the hard blows that need to be struck in the field against the death-squads. You must use your vote and influence to pursue the latter course.

Chris Atwood

"Vice President for Torture"
"Cheney Plan Exempts CIA"
"Senate Supports Interrogation Limits"
"The Torture Question"



Monday, October 24, 2005

The World's First Hippies and Their Marijuana Sauna

One of my favorite ancient historians is the entertaining and garrulous old Greek Herodotus (b. 484 BC), called the "father of history" by some and the "father of lies" by others. Herodotus was famous for reporting what he heard, which was often fantastic. His book centered on the conflict of Greece and Persia, and in so doing, he took the time to explain the customs and geography of the non-Greek world, from the oldest (Egypt) to the youngest (the Scythian nomads). Throughout, his attitude is exemplified by a comment he makes on Persian customs. After describing the Magi's Zoroastrian custom of killing evil animals (those created by the devil Ahriman such as ants, snakes, cats, and so on, unlike cows, dogs, and other good animals created by the good god Ahura Mazda), he says, "Well, it is an ancient custom, so let them keep it" (p. 58).

He also gave the first ethnographic description of a pastoral nomadic people, the Scythians. The Scythians lived in today's Ukraine and Southern Russia, following their herds and living in wagons. In the 600s BC, they invaded the Near East, and so pop up in Jeremiah's prophecies as the Ashkhenaz (see Jer. 51: 24-29). Later on they became the prototypes of Gog and Magog (Ezekiel 38-39 and Revelation 20); any invasion of nomadic peoples was thus seen by medieval Christian, Jewish, and Muslim writers as a sign of the apocalypse. Some Scythians were farmers, however, and in the fifth century BC began to export grain to Greece. (With the money they earned they hired Greek goldsmiths to make the famous Scythian gold.)

When Herodotus sticks to the Scythians (as opposed to their further off neighbors), his account is remarkably accurate -- the section on royal burials has been completely confirmed by archeology (see here, with pretty pictures too). The Scythians spoke an Iranian-type language. Their closely related eastern cousins, the Sarmatians are ancestors of today's Ossetians (much more here; a.k.a. Ossetes), an embattled, mostly Christian, people in the Causasus. Like other Central Eurasian peoples, the Scythians believed that bathing in running water polluted it and so adopted a different practice:

After a burial, the Scythians go through a process of cleaning themselves; they wash their heads with soap, and their bodies in a vapor-bath, the nature of which I will describe. On a framework of three sticks, meeting at the top, they stretch pieces of woollen cloth, taking care to get the joins as perfect as they can, and inside this little tent they put a dish with red-hot stones in it. Now, hemp grows in Scythia, a plant resembling flax, but much coarser and taller. It grows wild as well as under cultivation, and the Thracians [the people of today's Bulgaria, then speaking a now-extinct, non-Slavic, language] make clothes from it very like linen ones -- indeed, one must have much experience in these matters to be able to distinguish between the two, and anybody who has never seen a piece of cloth made from hemp will suppose it to be of linen. They take some hemp seed, creep into the tent, and throw the seed on to the hot stones. At once it begins to smoke, giving off a vapor unsurpassed by any vapor-bath one could find in Greece. The Scythians enjoy it so much that they howl with pleasure. This is their substitute for an ordinary bath in water, which they never use. The women grind up cypress, cedar, and frankincense on a rough stone, and plaster it all over their bodies and faces. They leave it on for a day, and then, when they remove it, their skin is clean, glossy, and fragrant (pp. 238-39).

Like totally far out! And I dig that groovy all-natural beauty treatment the chicks use!

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Monday, October 17, 2005

What is Christian Liberty For?

Over the summer I was reminded of how central "Christian freedom" is to cultural praxis among Christians today and how carefully this intensely powerful doctrine must be used, by the notorious cremation wars on Bunnie Diehl’s weblog (see posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, all with long comment strings), and an article (now only available for pay) in Leadership discussed by the iMonk. I was reading Nick Lane’s Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World and I was struck by his refrain that oxygen as a molecule is simultaneously the most powerful energy source for life, yet also in untreated form a ferocious toxin. Handling, buffering, transporting, and yet finally releasing the awesome energy bound up in oxygen’s electron-grabbing power is what life is, chemically, almost all about. The same is true for liberty in the Christian life.

The first question is, what is Christian liberty for? Let’s go back to Paul. Paul’s teaching of Christian liberty, as enunciated in his famous chapters in Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Romans, and Colossians, is primarily occasioned by the need to integrate two different cultures in one church: Jewish and Gentile. (This is not to say that cultural integration within one church is the only possible use of Christian liberty, but that was the occasion for its scriptural enunciation.) These two cultures differed in their calendar (Jews observed lunar months and sabbaths [i.e. Saturday], while Gentiles had only the Roman solar calendar and pagan festivals), eating habits (Jews had access to kosher butchers and could eat meat, but Gentile Christians had access only to pagan butchers who dedicated their victims to the pagan gods and hence found meat-eating problematic), and bodily care (Jews circumcised, Gentiles didn’t).

Paul attacks at length the most obvious wrong "solution" to this bicultural church: take the customs of the older brothers in the faith and make them normative for the new Gentile Christians as well. This is the Judaizing trend. This is where Paul does most of his theological heavy lifting. Food, drink, calendars, rituals such as circumcision - - all of these items which together make up what anthropologists define as culture - - are declared irrelevant to righteousness. Culture is excluded not just from justification (even common human morality, known to all, is excluded from that) but also to sanctification, in which the commandments of God are central.

At the same time, however, Paul explicitly rejects the other posssible solution: impose the freer, less ritualistic cultural pattern of the majority culture on the over-scrupulous minority. He thus explicitly allows the continued observance of Jewish cultural practices by Jewish Christians: circumcision, and observance of Saturday sabbath in addition to the Sunday church meetings. But Paul’s approval is conditioned on 1) relativizing these rituals as a part of Jewish religious culture, not absolutizing it as a moral commandment, and 2) on it being practiced only by those for whom it was communally appropriate; i.e. Jewish Christians.

Thus Paul divides religion into three elements: 1) faith in Christ which is beyond culture and absolute, and which alone is involved in justification; 2) the law or works, which is likewise beyond culture, determined by the intent, not the outward act, but which is involved only in sanctification, not justification; and finally 3) religious culture. This category (a.k.a. adiaphoron in Lutheran theological debates), involves outward acts of eating or not eating meat, drinking or not drinking liquor, resting or not resting on Saturday, or circumcising or not circumcising one’s boys. Religious culture is relative to particular Christian subgroups (as defined by ethnicity), and is not part of the commandments but is - - and this is the part too often missed - - a mode of expressing in one’s bodily works the commandments of God. Thus one man may eat to the Lord, giving thanks, or abstain, giving thanks as well. Contrary to popular interpretation, Paul is not hostile to religious culture as such. Uncircumcision is no more holy than circumcision, but neither is anything in sanctification.

Since, however, each culture expresses in its religious culture these commandments in somewhat different ways, Paul had to warn against "short circuits" in which an act meant one way in one cultural context, is wrongly interpreted by other Christians according to another cultural context, and so seems to violate or misunderstand the commandments of God. Paul’s path for the bicultural church thus demanded for its working an explicit consciousness of culture as culture, as something separate from religion and the commands of God. Gentile Christians had to be aware that their Jewish brothers observing a sabbath were doing so not as an observance of the sabbath-keeping commandment, but in observance of Jewish culture (otherwise Jewish culture will be imposed on Gentile culture). Jewish Christians likewise had to be aware that Christ’s abrogation of the sabbath as a type of His rest did not mean that sabbath-keeping was inherently wrong (otherwise Gentile culture will be imposed on Jewish culture). Paul’s prime concern was not the preservation of culture for its own sake (although he certainly was a proud and patriotic Jew), but the preservation of the distinction between culture and what he calls the law of Christ or the commandments of God. Practically, a right understanding of what the Law is or isn’t required early Christians to preserve the bi-cultural nature of the Christian community.

Unfortunately by around AD 400, this sophisticated theory of culture and morality had been largely abandoned. In place of the bi-cultural model of Christian religious life that separated religious culture from the commandments of God, a new enculturated form of the commandments of God was made obligatory on all Christians. This time, however, the community doing the imposing was the Gentile Christians. The clearest sign of this new monoculture was that circumcision and Saturday sabbath-keeping were declared un-Christian. Jerome’s commentaries on Paul’s epistles codified the new reading in which Paul had really been making only temporary concessions to Jewish Christians, and that the law of Christ really meant the compulsory adoption of Gentile Christian religious culture. This religious culture, precisely because it was a religious monoculture could not longer be distinguished from the commandments of God. Since all Christians had the same ways in food, drink, time regulation, and treatment of the body, none of these things, which together make up culture, could be easily distinguished any more from God’s universal morality. Paul’s teaching of Christian freedom essentially disappeared, because in a monocultural Christian world, its original function had become obsolete.

By the late Middle Ages, however, the teaching of Christian freedom came up again, but in a new context. Here, it was the distinction between those things commanded on the authority of God and those commanded on the authority of the church, particularly the Pope. Late medieval theologians were virtually unanimous is saying that while the Pope could make rules of good order (contempt of which was a sin), he could not actually make new divine commandments (see more on this topic here). To violate what the Pope commanded was not inherently sinful in the way that violating a divine command was (such as blaspheming or stealing). The moral sin in violating the commands of the Pope was simply despising the Church as a moral authority. Despite this seeming clarity, however, the late medieval church was seeing a vast upsurge in knowledge of church history which rendered it unclear on what basis any given prohibition was based. Communion in one kind, priestly celibacy, marriage as a sacrament, the distinction of bishops and priests: papal prohibition or apostolic command? Arguments on both sides raged in the fifteenth century.

Luther’s assertion of Christian liberty thus had four primary points. First, it was part of his recovery of the Gospel to reemphasize that neither law nor religious culture had any role in justification. This well-known first step in the dethroning of religious praxis from one’s standing before God did not directly involve any distinction between the commandments of God and religious culture.

Secondly, Luther used the on-going recovery of church history and his own reading of Scripture to argue persuasively that on virtually all the disputed church issues, the party arguing for a post-apostolic innovation were correct.

Thirdly, Luther used Paul’s concept of religious culture before his excommunication to relativize papal commands and develop a way for evangelicals to live within the Catholic Church. Before 1521, he treated communion in one kind, for example, on the analogy of Paul’s treatment of circumcision: some may do it as their tradition, but it is in itself an indifferent matter. While the Hussites should be allowed to take the cup because that has become their own Czech tradition, German evangelicals should accept that they will be deprived of it. Observing or not observing such traditions was not part of God’s commandments but instead part of the religious culture in which they had grown up and as such morally indifferent. While Luther treated such observances as something to be tolerated, he saw positive church legislation on the question to be illegitimate and an usurpation of power. After his excommunication, Luther revised his opinion on some aspects of religious culture, shifting communion in two kinds, for example, into the divine command category. But the concept of religious culture (what at the time was called adiaphoron) was still relevant: Sunday rest, the liturgy, religious art all fell into this category.

Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, Luther explicitly repudiated Jerome’s reading of Paul, rejecting his assertion that circumcision for Messianic Jews had become unlawful under the New Covenant. Essential to Luther’s claim that the law which Paul had criticized as death-dealing was exactly the moral law, this avowal that the practice of Jewish customs as customs was licit in the New Covenant, was unfortunately not followed up. For historical reasons, Christian religious culture remained largely a mono-culture, to which new converts, Jewish, American Indian, or African, were expected to convert. But the doctrine of adiaphora and Christian freedom established, however theoretically, a difference between religious culture and the commandments of God, and a reestablishment of the principle that the church may recommend, but not command, the former.

Scrolling forward to the late twentieth century, one would think we are now experiencing a new birth of Christian freedom. Cultural differences and cultural preservation are being validated as an inherent good as never before. Consciousness about cultural differences and cultural relativism is at a high level. Messianic Judaism as a movement that self-consciously refuses any more to blend into the Gentile Christian mainstream has made the issues Paul raised in his letters salient once more. Yet ironically, the teaching of Christian freedom that is deployed supposedly to validate cultural diversity I contend has the practical effect of destroy cultural specificities and establish a world-wide Christian mono-culture: informal, egalitarian, democratic, and unfilial, prizing "authenticity" and "sincerity" above all. To follow the analogy I started with, something has gone wrong in our cellular chemistry, a chemical chain has been broken and the powerful yet lethal free radicals have been cut loose from their chemical holding pens and are now rampaging around inside the cell, turning long-standing cultural DNA into un-decipherable junk.

If you read the articles I linked to above, you will notice that both turn centrally on a type of issue which did not concern Luther or Paul: what happens when people within a culture (as defined by ethnicity/ancestry) begin to challenge that culture’s symbolic meanings (not church ordinances). One involved the issue of baseball caps in church: some boys, with their parents’ support, wanted to wear them into church after sports practice. The pastor assented, citing "Christian liberty", the other church members objected, the pastor eventually asked the boys to make peace by complying, and the boys’ family left the church in a huff. The other involved cremation vs. inhumation (burial) and turned on whether there was or was not some inherent link between the symbolism of inhumation and the doctrine of the resurrection. In both of these conflicts, we have a symbolic action which has traditionally been strongly linked to a belief in Christian European culture (doffing the hat signals respect, burying the body signifies "sleep until the resurrection"). We also have a party, however, who reject that symbolic equation and insist that the symbolic action does not actually have any definite meaning at all. Wearing a baseball hat in church means . . . exactly nothing. It may mean disrespect to you, but it doesn’t to me, and Christian freedom means you should not impose your scrupulous interpretation of it on me.

The practical result of this reasoning is to make cultural difference illegitimate. How so? We need to remember first that culture is inherited symbolic meanings and classifications. For examples, in American culture dogs are pets, pigs are farm animals, and pets are not eaten, while farm animals are. In Korean culture, dogs and steers are both farm animals, and farm animals are eaten, and so both are eaten. Despite what Americans think, there is no rational basis on which the allocation of the dog to the pet category can be defended. Roughly speaking, dogs and cattle are equally intelligent, social, sensitive to pain, and so on. If you ask, why can’t we eat dog meat, no answer can be given, except the we just don’t do that answer. And this appeal is essentially an appeal to antiquity understood as authority: we haven’t done it that way. In other words, a particular culture is preserved only if the younger generation can be persuaded or compelled to adopt the symbolic meanings and classifications given by the older generation.

At this point the first conclusion is clear: while Paul’s version of Christian freedom was intended specifically to allow Jewish and Gentile elders in the church to enculturate their juniors while maintaining unity as Christians, the contemporary version of Christian culture is intended to prevent elders in the church (of any culture) from enculturating their juniors, and hence preserving, their religious culture. This block on enculturation is held to be necessary for Christian unity. (Elder here is used not in any specific church office sense, but simply in the literal sense.)

Now one might think that if no culture is imposed, then won’t cultural diversity increase? But to think so would be unpardonably naive. Let’s go back to the dog and steer comparison. Recently Korean youth have begun to classify dogs as house pets and find eating dog meat repulsive. Americans have not yet, however, come to feel that steers are pets and that eating them is repulsive. One might wonder why this is so - - is it confirmation that dogs are inherently less edible than steers (in all but brute size)? Hardly: it is confirmation that the United States is bigger, richer, and has more cultural "gravity" than Korea.

This is the missing factor in the cremation and ball-cap debate. Contrary to the "play dumb" attitude of those playing the "Christian freedom" card in these cases, nobody just ups one day and says, "I see no logical reason why wearing hats equals respect; it is arbitrary and therefore it is contrary to Christian freedom for me to follow such regulations." Rather culturally significant decisions are made for reasons. Some people wear ball caps in church to project a particularly look (or to put it differently, to identify with a set of symbolic attributes associated with attractive forms of power and respect.) Some people adopt cremation because they want to show the world they don’t believe in the resurrection. Others wear ball caps because otherwise their hair would look unattractive. Others adopt cremation because burial is more expensive. For whatever reason, the fact is cultural signs are negated, dogs are treated as pets, kids wear ball caps in church, people ask to have their bodies cremated for reasons, reasons in which the assymetrical power relationship between communities (such as powerful and wealthy celebrities vs. odd, slightly goofy church people) play a key role. The cultural playing field is tilted, and to prevent the elder generation from enculturating the juniors is to ensure the domination of the wealthier, more self-confident of the cultures available. Ironically the result of this new deployment of "Christian freedom" is to create exactly the kind of Christian monoculture which Paul’s deployment of Christian freedom was intended to prevent. Whether the small culture is Lutheran liturgical worship adrift in a sea of megachurches with guitars, or Omahas trying to interest their children in their language, the cultural race will inevitably be to the strong if "Christian freedom" is deployed to abrogate any right of elders to expect their youth to conform.
So what are the lessons?

1) Christian freedom is first and foremost a freedom to conform, to conform to the powers that be in your bodies without conforming in your soul.

2) Ethnocentrism is indeed a problem—identifying one’s assimilated religious culture with the commandments of God—but not the most fundamental one: the most fundamental one is to assume that "divinely commanded" and "entirely arbitrary" are the only two possibilities. If that’s true, then the alternative to ethnocentrism is a nihilistic skepticism about cultural practice, which in turn offers no check toward gravitation to the lifestyles of the advantaged, whether by wealth, by knowledge, or by freedom. This in turn leads to the monoculture that ironically feeds a new ethnocentrism.

3) Hence, the proper deployment of Christian freedom demands awareness of culture, and especially of religious culture, as something that is not a divine command, and yet is capable of being an expression of ethical action. That cultural reflexivity is difficult, if not impossible, to nurture in the absence of multiple cultures coexisting within the Christian church.

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One More Reason to Keep Doctors on a Short Leash

Eric Rasmusen has a chilling post on how doctors never willingly admit that what they do ever causes pain. And David Bayly observes that in harvesting organs, doctors now routinely use anesthesia to remove the reactions of wincing, crying out, clutching, and more from those they have declared brain dead.

I once read "The Medical Ordeal of JFK" (in the December, 2002, issue of the Atlantic monthly. The high-minded point was supposed to be a meditation about secrecy, health, "the public's right to know" vs. "the right to privacy," and other such boilerplate. But what stuck with me was the one overwhelming lesson: keep yourself out of the hands of DOCTORS!

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Feminism vs. Egalitarianism

The very mis-named Augsburg [as in the Confession] Fortress [as in A Mighty] Press has a great new book out: The Jezebel Letters, in which King Ahab's Tyrian wife is portrayed first person, sympathetically as

a powerful, literate royal woman. . . .

a regal, wise, politically active wife, mother and queen in Israel . . .

the urbane and thoughtful Queen of Israel who gives voice to her efforts and those of her family in guiding Israel through one of its most challenging, and least understood, periods.

Russel Moore says the obvious about this here.

But what's a little less obvious is the dissonance between this feminist revisionism and the older liberation-theological agenda. Those familiar with the work of liberation Biblical scholars such as Norman Gottwald, who dedicated his classic Tribes of Yahweh to the Vietnamese people, or with the more moderate evangelical reflections of the same trend, such as Christopher Wright (his dissertation book here and a more popular exposition here), will know that Ahab and Jezebel are the Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the Donald and Ivana Trump, the Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of ancient Israel's proto-capitalist dynasty of greed.

The whole liberation-theological reading of the Old Testament works with the following story line: Israel was designed by God in the Mosaic law to be a land-locked, agrarian, anti-commercial, community of egalitarian clans (mishpaha), each provided hereditarily with a plot of land guarded by redemption laws and cancellation of debts from the kind of primitive accumulation of land that could have created a new class of the wealthy. Economic egalitarianism was to underpin the rejection of idolatry, and the sole kingship of YHWH.

But, with the rise of kingship, the expansion of the royal household and its officials sparked the creation of a class of new rich. The old redemption and debt-cancellation laws were rendered an empty letter as landlords joined fields to fields. Trade expanded as Israel's big-scale commercial farmers became suppliers of grain, oil, and other goods to Phoenicia's sea faring emporia, such as Tyre and Sidon. Meanwhile, the dispossessed small farmers fell in destitution, selling off their children to slave traders in Tyre for resale in Greece and Anatolia.

This development reached its peak in the luxury of Samaria, the new capital of Israel's Omrid dynasty of the 800s BC: Omri, his son Ahab, and Ahaziah their son. The full integration of Israel into the Near Eastern economy of large-scale plantation agriculture and slaves being sold for luxury goods in ivory, and precious metals was consummated when the Omrids tied themselves to Tyre by marrying Jezebel, daughter of the Tyrian king, to Ahab. Spiritually, the introduction of the idolatrous Tyrian cult of Baal into Israel with the attendant sexual immorality, drunkenness, and profligacy, was only the superstructural reflection of this infrastructural reduction of the common Israelite from a owner-proprietor into a mere means of producing surplus value for increasingly wealthy landlord class.

Now there is much to be said for this reading of the course of ancient Israelite history. While one might dispute the Marxist-style primacy of economics over theology, there is no question that the prophetic denunciations assume that idolatry and decline in personal ethics are advancing hand in hand with overall wealth, polarization of rich and poor, concentration of land holding, commercialization, and royal prerogatives. Now, even in the Mosaic model Israel was by no means as egalitarian as Gottwald would have us believe (I have posted something on this here). And there is also the tradition of kingship as positive, seen most clearly in the Psalms and the Davidic messianic theme. Even the empires of the Middle East can be viewed as generally benevolent patrons of the true Yahwistic state (see here). But overall, particularly in the divided monarchy, idolatry and personal immorality are viewed as part of one package with the disintegration of the old agrarian ideal.

So it is fascinating to see the feminists taking as a model this Jezebel, about whom the liberation scholars could agree with the evangelical and fundamentalist writers in seeing as the exemplar of everything wrong in Israel.

But this isn't anything surprising, I think. Contrary to popular belief, the prophets appear to be right, and modern thought wrong: social tolerance is generally linked to extremes of wealth and poverty. Small-scale egalitarian societies detest deviance of any sort, but in big cities where beggars crowd on the street corners, all forms of sexual and social non-conformism go unnoticed, and even applauded.

The 1950s is remembered as a drab, "family values," conformist era, unlike the exciting revolutionary 1960s, but it was one in which every indicator showed positive trends for the poorest in society. These trends towards diminishing the gap of rich and poor actually began to reverse in the supposedly more "egalitarian" 1960s. In the US today, the four states with the most equal distribution of wealth are Wyoming, Utah, New Hampshire, and Indiana: and all of them have a reputation as stodgy, Republican, conservative places, that artists, feminists, and other creative types flee on their way to New York or Los Angeles, where inequality is through the roof. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out long ago, of course, that art and egalitarianism don't mix: that a powerful class of confident holders of wealth, whether aristocratic or bourgeois, is essential to nourish free thinking and combat the narrow-minded conformism endemic to societies all on one level.

So when the feminists laud Jezebel, they are in fact responding to deep cues in the Biblical text. They sense indeed that Ahab and Jezebel's Samaria, despite the destitute farmers offering their children for sale at the markets, would be a more comfortable environment for them than the egalitarian but fiercely Yahwistic shepherds of Tekoa. By the same token, however, this points out how unnatural the alliance of the newer cultural libertarian lobbies (gay rights, feminism, abortion, shock art, etc.) is with the old social democratic constituency (the unions, advocates of income equality).

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"I walk a tension between profound respect for a culture and their language--and divine orders to make disciples of that nation"

I just discovered an fascinating new blog, Spirit and Life 4.0, by "Preacherman" (Jeffery Warner) a Lutheran missionary to the Omaha Indians in Nebraska.

I was involved in a debate over terms at Here We Stand, and Preacherman, who was on the other side of the debate said this:

Another, exclusively cultural angle, the Omaha are on the verge of losing their language, because the Presbyterians and the Reformed (RCA, thank you) literally beat it out of them and intimidated them (such as "you don't want to appear stupid do you?") into forsaking their heathen tongue and speaking God's perfect English. The elderly generation I serve are the last which grew up in a house that spoke it. I am not of the opinion that one ought EVER be browbeaten or fisticuffed into forsaking their traditional tongue--not even Lutherans.

The largest part of Omaha language that remains *commonly* grasped by the Omaha might be termed their "liturgical" language--the songs, the dances, the rubrics--the things they hear at pow-wow and native ceremonies.I think the Omaha can keep the language God gave them. I think the Lutherans can too, if they want to.

I walk a tension between profound respect for a culture and their language--and divine orders to make disciples of that nation. I don't think either purpose is well served by my declaring the terms they use are "moronic."

Well, as an Augsburg Evangelical who loves and respects the culture of once shamanist and now Buddhist Mongolia, I walk that same tension. And like preacherman, I am often impelled to turn around and say that the same imperative of "cultural survival," of "respecting the paths of our ancestors" is something we ought to hear more about, not just about distant "tribes," but also about ourselves.

Not to mention that there are many parallels (along with many differences, of course) between the cultural and historical experiences of the Mongols and other peoples of Northeast Asia, and the Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos. There is the fact that the Indians (at least most of them) are descended from Siberians, the facets of similarity in shamanism (for example the use of cedar in censing he mentions in common to Mongols as well), the horse nomadism (ancient or recent) on the great plains following flocks of herbivores (domestic stock, wild bison), the involvement of the forest peoples in fur trades (Russian, French, English, American), and there is massive loss of land suffered as farming peoples (Americans, Canadians, Russians, Chinese) discovered the fertility of the plains. So I have built up a smallish library of ethnohistory and folklore of the North American Indians, as well as about the fascinating Russian Orthodox mission work among the Aleuts, Alutiqs, and Tlingits of Alaska. That my brother-in-law is also Indian, of the Chippewa nation, only adds to the sense of connection.

His most recent post* on the reality and daily-ness of spirits in Omaha life is very much worth reading. It reminded of this very interesting book, How About Demons? by a former academic, Felicitas Goodman, who studied spirit possession and voodoo so much, she was incapable of understanding them any more as socially constructed expression of anxiety about capitalism and the cash nexus, or as ways of the socially marginalized to achieve agency, or all that. No, spirits and demons are real, and they have a very interesting typology -- those of Eurasia are rather different from those of Africa, for example. And spirit possession in Christian communities has its own distinctive features. Of course this point of view made her an odd duck in academia, and she now has her own independent institute.

So, Preacherman, I hope to read more about the mission field, about culture and religion, and about Omaha life. And I hope you might find posts about Mongolia and related topics interesting as well.

*He doesn't seem to have permalinks, but if you go to his site and click on Mission Stuff, you should find it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

What the Mongols Thought About Looking Into People's Hearts

It is curious that in the decrees of Ghazan Khan (1271-1304), Mongol ruler of the Middle East, "looking into people's hearts" was a watchword for damaging, sentimental softness.

Ghazan Khan was the first Mongol khan in the Middle East to rule as a Muslim. At first, in 1295, as a young man under the influence of his Ahithophel, the Muslim Nawroz, he plundered and sacked Christian monasteries, and treated Buddhist temples even worse. Later on, after executing Nawroz as a threat to the throne, he became friends with the Catholicus of Baghdad (head of the Christian Church of the East) and his administrative reforms won praise even from Christian monks. Perhaps he was becoming Luther's "Wise Turk."

Trying to restrict the practice of plunder, he ordered:

Every evil that has happened to any army has happened mostly because of taking booty [yes, my students have told me this has a funny meaning today]. When the battle is over [i.e. and not before] you can see to where booty and plunder are to go. As for discipline, one must not look into people's hearts and restrain oneself from killing, for if two or three persons are not executed, ten or twenty thousand may perish instead, and the whole kingdom lost on that account (Rashiduddin, trans. W.M. Thackston, Compendium of Chronicles, vol. III, p. 679).

About the widespread abuse of written documents he ordered:

Great precaution should be exercised in cases pertaining to the writing of deeds, documents, various letters, and all kinds of written decisions and records, for few situations in which writing is involved are devoid of breaches of justice, and it often happens that the end result of the breach is upholding falsehood and deprivation of rights. These breaches of justice stem from the writers' ignorance of the conditions of writing, looking into people's hearts, or partiality (p. 696).

And dealing with the rampant breakdown in law and order throughout Mongol-ruled Iran and Iraq, he applied the following policy:

Next he ordered that if it was discovered that anyone -- Mongol or Muslim -- in a khaylkhana, village, or city had colluded with thieves, that person would be executed without remorse. To this task was assigned Amir Inqul, a confidant at court [there's that cronyism again!] who was renowned for not looking at faces or hearts and having absolutely no pity. He captured many of the robbers and executed most of them, although some were brought in under restraint (p. 719).

Now that's the Law in its full severity!

It All Started with Vladimir Putin

I must be getting old. Whenever some controversy comes up, the first thing I want to say is, "I remember when . . ." and give some anecdote. Of course in the Lutheran layman's blog world, I am actually almost a geezer, so I can be excused, I hope. But even when I know it's something other bloggers have been around to experience it, I still want to say, "I remember when . . ."

What I want to remember this time is President Bush meeting Vladimir Putin and famously saying he looked into his heart and found a good man there. And for that reason we should trust him.

Since then the record has been at best mixed. Vladimir Putin has been fairly amenable to American foreign policy under President Bush. Domestically, he has effectively eliminated the open society of Boris Yeltsin, whatever its faults, and created a fine model of democratic forms and authoritarian substance. And he has continued to intimidate countries in the "near abroad."

If we had a similar sort of record on a Supreme Court nominee, would we be impressed?

You know where this is going: Harriet Miers. I am going to stipulate now that the record indicates that Harriet Miers is temperamentally and cultural conservative, yes, but not ideologically or doctrinally in any way a strict constructionist. A micro-manager and indecisive, my money is on her being another O'Connor, always starting off with conservative instincts, but at least half the time, and on all the big issues, going with the liberal consensus rather than risk being "extremist" and "divisive." (If you wonder where I get this stuff, well just go here and here, and scroll down.)

But even if that's true, there might be a silver lining in the long run.

Harriet Miers is, as everyone now knows, an "evangelical," that is a pietist, revivalist, low church, or non-denominational Christian, what have you. The media battle for and against her has been painted as polarized into ordinary joes (for) vs. elitists (against), evangelicals (for) vs. Catholics and seculars (against).

Maybe the issue is looking into hearts (something the president does a lot) vs. looking at the record and the facts. Many have suggested that the President really does know she's a conservative, as she is his good friend (for example here). I'm not so sure people really do know even their friends all that well. Maybe it's because many of my friends and colleagues are liberal, but I doubt that if I put my friends into high office, they would create policies I believe in. I think Bush may well have had the kind of reasoning described, but I am getting convinced that he has mistaken Harriet Miers' politico-legal thinking. He has mistaken her personal admiration for him, a battle-tested conservative (more or less), for real, battle-tested conservative convictions. The two are not the same, unfortunately.

One big point of confessional Lutheranism is that doctrine matters. That you can't trust a "good heart" because the heart is indeed desperately wicked -- who can know it? That fine distinctions need to be made by our heads if we want to hold on to the things our hearts know are important. That a good Christian and a good magistrate aren't the same thing. That sin and error remain in a believer and aren't obliterated by being "born again" or "spirit filled," even if God does not count our sins against us. That the ancient tradition of Christendom needs to be worked through, not just ignored or mocked. That it's not just what you do, it's why you do it, that counts. That anti-elitist "just folks" aren't inherently any betterthan the "elites" -- because all have sinned and fallen short of theglory of God, not just the people with more degrees and a higherincome than me.

In response to criticism, the Harriet Miers nomination and its defenders have adopted the stance of anti-confessional, anti-intellectual, populist, activist, deeds not creeds, WWJD revivalist evangelicalism. She'll do the right thing, even if she doesn't have a lot of fancy pants theory and theology behind it.

Well, if she does the right thing: great, it will be worth it, and I'll be happy to see her and her Christian tradition have its moment in the sun.

But if she does the wrong thing: maybe some of the adherents of anti-confessional, activist, deeds not creeds evangelicalism will wonder why it is that their viewpoint cannot seem to produce people who when it really counts can stand the heat of the intellectual kitchen. People do wonder that after all; why if so many Americans are "born-again" it makes no difference, what happened to Christianity Today and Billy Graham and so on. And so if what us annoying doctrinal types worry about with Harriet Miers comes to pass, the silver lining is this: some deeds not creeds evangelicals might reconsider their adherence to that style of evangelicalism.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Over the summer, our church had an adult Sunday school series featuring videos by Marva Dawn, author of Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, A Royal "Waste" of Time, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly and other works on church and worship.

Now, once you got past some of her off-putting statements, the most annoying of which is her delusion that she is in fact a pastor in God's church (raised in the LCMS, she heard some bogus "call" and was "ordained" in the ELCA), there was quite a lot of good material in the series. Perhaps the best point was her repeated emphasis that worship is not evangelism. Worship is what we say to God, not what we say to each other. Worship forms us as evangelists, but it is a great error of the "seeker-sensitive" service idea, which she respectfully but firmly rejected, to think that in worship we are addressing other people. She also emphasized that personal taste and style should not be the issue; when the worship wars focus on musical style, they are ignoring more fundamental questions of whether the music is in fact correct for that type of service. Similarly, she had a good walk-through of the liturgy and the church year. The series is in fact primarily addressed to "post-modern" revivalist evangelicals who want to rebuild what they tore down (Gal. 2:18) and bring back into the revivalist tradition the liturgy they once excluded.

But at the last few sessions, I began to put together a number of aspects that seriously bothered me, and I think for reasons that go beyond style or mannerisms. The part that rang false about her presentation was the self-consciousness, the tendency in much of it to observe yourself and your actions and feelings, not to observe the facts of God's work. In short, I would say she commits in a more subtle form much the same error of the "seeker-sensitive" service: really talking about one thing (herself, ourselves) when she was supposedly talking about another (God).

Let me unpack this:

1) Marva Dawn focused quite a bit on "community". The "search for community" and "building community" were common buzz words. One of her guidelines for music in worship is "Is the music appropriate for building community in this place?" Now, the substance of her comments on this topic were not bad: if music alienates the elderly or youth that's bad, etc. But I hate and abhor the "search for community" because community, in itself, is not a good thing. Community is the natural outcome of two things, common belief and common obedience, working on time spent together. When people believe the same thing and spent their time together with a common loyalty to the same person(s), they will form a community. If on the other hand, they don't have common belief and don't share the same loyalties, then "community" can only be a kind of social pressure not to "rock the boat," not to "be difficult," and instead to "get along by going along." The issue of community is "what is the right belief?" and "who are the person(s) worthy of my allegiance and obedience?" Get these questions right -- and the first is confessionalism, while the second is concerned successively with allegiance to Christ, allegiance to His church, the pastor, and the natural internal structure of the church as a society, especially the deference of young men and women to the older men and women of the church -- and community will take care of itself. The Pastoral Epistles, not "communitarianism" are what is needed here.

2) Marva Dawn frequently described "the world" outside the church in terms which, while common enough in church discourse, are really a disgraceful example of obscurantism and dishonesty. When some one says (as she did, in paraphrase): "What's the world telling us? It tells us to get as much as we can and don't care who you step on in the process. It tells us that the purpose of our lives is to consume the things we see advertised on TV, etc." they are, on any reasonable definition of "the world" lying through their teeth in ways that are obvious to anyone who thinks. Now, "the world" here must be taken as, those who do not confess Christ the son of God and their savior. OK, now I happen to know quite a bit about such people, having been raised by one, my mother. And I know for a fact, that she never told me that success was the only thing. She never told me to measure my worth in things. And going around the world, looking at my colleagues and friends, I see that some do (more or less) act as Marva Dawn says "the world" does. But I see that many, indeed probably the majority, abhor careerism and materialism quite as much as Marva Dawn. So this message of "careerism is bad," "materialism is bad," "competitiveness is bad" cannot be what distinguishes the world from the church.

It is very bad to pretend that it is, for three reasons: a) Because it's just plain wrong, and a slander on many non-Christians. We cannot give false testimony against our neighbors, even if it does make us feel good about ourselves. b) I'm not sure that it would be good for the church if we all conformed to Marva Dawn's obviously favored particular personality type (frumpy, bookish but not ambitious, risk averse, terribly afraid to give offense). I am not sure that my daughter, for example, would feel comfortable in an environment dominated by Marva Dawn's idea of church. c) And finally, this vision of church reeks of works righteousness, of a new monkery. What makes the church different from the world is not some anti-capitalist version of civic righteousness (any more than it is a capitalist version of it), it is the forgiveness of sins on account of the death of Christ. There is no "kill your TV, give to Katrina victims" righteousness which the world cannot do as well as (or better than) the church. But the world cannot proclaim the full and free pardon given in the church because the world doesn't believe in it (there's that confessionalism rearing its ugly head once more).

3) And finally this focus on the liturgy as a performance raises the specter of theatricality in the church's work. One thing that struck me about Dix's Shape of the Liturgy was his high appreciation of the uniquely focused nature of the Roman liturgy, above that of the East. The Roman liturgy in the first millennium was the most conservative, yes, but more importantly the most focused on the issue at hand: the work of Christ coming to us. The liturgical actions were done without any description of how we feel about them, only with a recitation of the works of God in Christ within which our actions make sense. By contrast too often in the East, especially after that great showman Cyril of Jerusalem, the liturgy was something made to impress the people as a performance. So it was with many of the suggestions Marva Dawn made. For example, reading the Gospel from the center of the church shows that the Gospel is among us. Oh it does, does it? What is annoying here is both the crudeness of the symbolism, as well as the focus on outward show and pomp, which even in the eyes of those advocating them, have no independent power. What Christ instituted in the church was not rituals, but sacraments, things that have true power regardless of what we think about them, and yet are the more amazing the more we think about them. Yet the theatrical imagination constantly wishes to bury them under rituals that have meaning only when "seen through" as man-made symbols.

One unfortunate innovation adopted in our church's liturgy after the series illustrates the problem with theatricality. It's not a big deal, only one line in an otherwise Christian and reverent service, but before we recite the Creed, the pastor or his assistant states: "We boldly confess our faith." Boldly, huh? Sometimes it sounds that way, but sometimes it's more like "anemically" or "absent-mindedly." But apart from any such comic juxtaposition, it is the distinctive feature of Lutheran spirituality to focus on the facts. Thank God, we reduce moral exhortation to the will to the minimum -- because the will is, absent the facts of the Gospel, bound and gagged. If one understands the Creed, as the Gospel deliverance from the Law, one will be bold. If we are not bold, then it is because we have not understood, or more likely temporarily forgotten, the Creed. So don't tell us to be bold -- instead tell us the Creed! These facts are more powerful than any exhortation to the will to "Come on, get with the program and be bold!" Liturgy is Lutheran when it rightly proclaims the facts, in the confidence that these facts, proclaimed with the Spirit, are enough to change anyone's attitude. This sober, Roman aversion to theatricality and excess gestures expresses well the Lutheran theological aversion to asking for self-consciously manufactured feelings apart from the facts that motivate them spontaneously.

UPDATE: I had a snarky comment about Marva Dawn's "mannerisms" but as Bob Waters pointed out in the comment, she is in severe pain from cancer. Thank you, Bob, for telling me that; my bad.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Iraq Isn't Vietnam, It's Reconstruction

The debate about Iraq has swirled around the search for an analogy. Vietnam is of course the favorite for those against the war: a war against an insurgency that we cannot win (let's leave aside the fact that the Vietnam War as actually won by the regular army of North Vietnam in a conventional assault on the South). Others might say, the Central American wars in the 1980s. This analogy has been used to emphasize that US-allied governments were able to defeat guerrillas on the ground and then incorporate into a democratic political process. Others point to the widespread massacres and killings that accompanied this victory and use the analogy to excoriate the whole idea of counter-insurgency.

What both of these analogies lack is the ethnic divide situation so obvious in Iraq. In Iraq, Anglo-American goals have, willy-nilly, come to be associated with defending an ethnic revolution in Iraq, one in which the formerly despised Shiites are assuming their position as the leaders. Meanwhile the Kurds in the mountains are poised between two strategies: separation or exercising power in the center. At the same time, having already seen their favored regime turned into a watchword of brutal tyranny (at least in some circles), the Sunni Arabs fighting the new Iraqi government are very cagey about what it is they are actually fighting for.

The Union's attempt at Reconstruction in the South is a powerful analogy with our current situation in Iraq. In both cases,

1) the United States military successfully toppled a government whose very existence was seen as incompatible with our security. This war was, however, highly controversial from the beginning and had a large block of domestic opposition.
2) Our war goals had both a security slogan (union, terrorism/WMD's) and an idealistic slogan (emancipation, democracy), but while it was being fought little thought was given to how the relations between the newly emancipated community (Afro-American slaves, Shiites) and their former rulers (White Southerners, Sunni Arabs) would work out. Even among supporters of the war, more than a few assumed the old ruling group would just hold power in a somewhat more moderate, humane way.
3) Meanwhile, up in the mountains, a separate community (Appalachians, Kurds) formed the hard core of support for the US, but also proposed a problem with their desire to political break away entirely from the lowland troubles (West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky Unionism), something which would raise all kinds of constitutional problems and also make them useless in the pacification of the lowland.
4) Also, the ethnic group supporting the toppled government had lost militarily, but were ideologically undefeated. Opposition to the US war effort had been widespread, including famous humanitarian and religious figures such as the Pope, and casual denigration of the old subject group was widespread as well.
5) At first the US government simply assumed the formerly dominant ethnic group was whipped and would acquiesce in our victory. Early examples of civil violence and the high-profile infiltrating of new post-war governments by those supporting the old regime in spirit led to a reversal of policy and a hardening of policy toward the defeated ruling group.
6) In the mountains, the post-war situation was simple in terms of security, but complicated constitutionally, and eventually a kind of separation was granted (West Virginia, Kurdish autonomous zone).
7) In the lowlands, the turning point came when the US military authorities realized they had to face a choice: either really enfranchise the group liberated by the war (Afro-Americans, Shiites) and bring on a social revolution they could hardly control or else face the possibility that the old rulers would come back. The issue was joined over the exclusion of fighters for the old regimes (Confederate officials and officers/Ba'athist party members), and in the end the categorical refusal of the old group to admit defeat and play according to the new (anti-slavery, democracy) rules forced the US administration toward the revolutionary alternative.
8) Once the old oppressed group was put in power, then the nightmare of the ruling group was complete, and that completion called forth the demand to resist. Since government was in the hands of the US and their domestic allies, resistance had to take the form of anti-government terrorism (Ku Klux Klan, al-Qaida in Mesopotamia), not the legal, state-enforced rule that had worked previously. The terrorists were well aware, however, that their ragged bands had no chance of defeating the US army that had previously crushed them in their prime. Their aim was to create chaos, sow terror, and so block the ability of the new local governments to function. The US military could guard polling places and courthouses, but if the terrorists could kill enough of the newly emancipated people, they would refuse to exercise their rights. The old ruling race (White Southerners, Sunni Arabs) was making it clear to the US that they were fully prepared to ruin, if they could not rule, any government in their homeland.
9) The old ruling race also realized that without regaining control over their former subjects, their chief resource (cotton, oil) would pass out of their hands, leaving them not only humiliated but plunged into permanent economic ruin. [NB: the oil in Iraq is all in Shiite or Kurdish territory, which is at the root of the Sunni Arabs' hostility to any form of federalism; they need to keep control over those revenues].
10) Not surprisingly, the governments formed from people who had never ruled for centuries proved to be fairly inexperienced and ineffective. Much "hand-holding" by the US military governors was necessary to get them to really function effectively. This incompetence only increased the confidence of the old "Bourbons" that if US troops were withdrawn, their uppity opponents could easily be terrorized into submission.
11) Meanwhile, opponents of the war in the first place looked at the chaos and violence and said, truthfully enough, "There wasn't any terrorism and racial/ethnic conflict before this war. Al-Qaida/the Ku Klux Klan simply didn't exist in Iraq/the South under Saddam/slavery. We should admit that it was our ill-conceived intervention that created this chaos, and pull out our troops." Few admitted, even to themselves, that the result of withdrawal would mark the wholesale return of mono-racial/religious rule. And they never asked the simple question, do the freely elected leaders of the emancipated communities actually support our continued military presence? Because of course the answer was always, yes, desperately.

Of course there are many differences. Sunni rule was never as wholesale and extreme in Iraq as slavery and white supremacy was in the South. On the other hand, the Shiites are an actual majority in lowland Iraq, so the social revolution involved in giving them equality is all the more dramatic. The Union officers understood the Southern terrain much better than Anglo-American commanders do the Iraqi terrain. Foreign support (as opposed to mere sympathy) for the defeated regime was non-existent in the South, but widespread for the old Sunni rule in Iraq.

But there is one big similarity: withdrawal from the South discredited racial equality as a public policy all over the nation. Withdrawal occurred because people didn't care that much about it and they certainly weren't going to stand up to terrorists to enforce it. It was an unequivocal strategic defeat for the idea that had animated much (if not all) of the Union effort. Similarly, retreat from Iraq will thoroughly discredit "changing Islam" as a public policy all over the world. The argument of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq is simple: we are the true Muslims, and we are Arabs so we should rule, even if we're only 15% of the people: we cannot and will not accept a rafidi ("rejecters", i.e. Shiites) infidel or a non-Arab in our state as an equal. Do we accept that? Do we believe that religiously-based minority rule is as offensive as racially-based minority rule? Withdrawal means one thing: yes, Sunni Arabs cannot not be asked to treat people of other religions and ethnic groups as equals, at least not in the Middle East.

And anyone who thinks that we can accept that principle and still fight radical Islam is dreaming.
(Reference: This article by Fouad Ajami is a must read).

Friday, October 07, 2005

Who Should Have Won the Nobel Peace Prize

So the word is in -- Mohammed el-Baradei and the Internaional Atomic Energy Agency have won this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Too bad a big opportunity was missed, an opportunity to reward a man and a community that have consistently held to peace and rule of law in the face of the most horrific and extreme provocations. Awarding the peace prize to him would have also demoralized the forces of religious fanaticism and encouraged beleaguered proponents of majority rule, constitutionalism, and unity. And in so doing it would have encouraged an early withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

Unfortunately to think of this man, one would have to look beyond the headlines and the group think.

The one who should have gotten the Peace Prize is Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, the leading Shi'ite religious figure in Iraq (official web-site here, BBC bio here). During the initial invasion, his decision to not support the Saddam Hussein regime was crucial in speeding the advance on Baghdad. When radical clerics like Muqtada al-Sadr were demanding that he back down and sanction his pathetic Mahdi army, he refused. And when the Paul Bremer pushed a policy of simply handing over power to an unelected government, he insisted on elections. If you were inspired by the Iraqi election last January, you have Ayatullah Sistani to thank.

And in spite of the most ghastly suicide bombings, directed against Shi'ites in their mosques, against Shi'ite day laborers seeking work, and against children on the streets, and in spite of massacres of Shi'ite school teachers, and the open declaration of "merciless war" on the Shi'ites by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi, Sistani and the Shi'ites have resolutely refused to advocate vigilante retaliation. This, even though Shi'ites, the majority in their own county, were denied rule for centuries in Iraq and were massacred in the scores of thousands by Saddam Hussein's willing Sunni Arab executioners, who even now visibly hanker after a return to their previous rule of blood. Instead Sistani has kept his eyes on the prize, which is a stable Iraq with majority rule and minority rights. And the Shi'ite people, with very few exceptions, have lived up magnificently to the ideal he set for them. "Embittered Shi'ite militiamen massacred Sunni Arabs in a mosque yesterday"; "Sunnis in Baghdad flee Shi'ite rioters enraged by the latest suicide car bombing"--these are the headlines you don't see because of his leadership. (You can see 'em all the time in the short squibs in the back pages about the latest riot in Pakistan, where the lack of such leadership is fueling a cycle of killings and revenge killings.)

Sistani is not a "moderate Muslim" if by moderate one means someone who guts the Sharia in the name of advancing into the twentieth century. He has kept the American forces at arms length, refusing to meet with any of our military commanders. Precisely for these reasons, his strong support of constitutional government in Iraq and his position that the US is not the enemy has won respect among his people.

Iraq is never going to be like America, and all reasonable people in America and Iraq recognize that. At best we can be only "business partners" who agree to disagree about much of our "private life." American soldiers, even though they we can and should finish the job, would certainly like to come home as soon as possible. But they are there now to prevent death-squadders openly pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda from taking over and imposing their rule on the "infidels" (by which they mean Iraq's Shi'ite majority, not to mention the more secular Kurds). The sooner the world decides that al-Qaeda terrorism really is a bad thing (I mean, bad enough to be worth fighting, not just denouncing), that majority rule really is a good thing -- even when Sunni Arabs are the ones losing their position as ruling race -- the sooner Iraq will see a decent peace and the Americans can come home.

So I say, Ali Sistani for the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe due to his restraint and patience, the Sunni Arabs will finally give up their mad ambition to restore minority rule. And when they do, the "world community" will, of course, once the fight is over, rush in to take credit. And maybe then, they'll recognize his courageous stand and that of his people -- tested in the fire, blood, and chaos of terrorism -- for peace, majority rule, and reconciliation.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Communions Aren't Theologies and Increasingly Aren't Denominations

In surfing the various theological blogs out there, I've suddenly come to realize explicitly what I suppose most people have understood implicitly: that denominations these days aren't really communions as they have been traditionally understood, and that they also increasingly aren't theologies either.

Let's take something simple, like "the Lutherans". Traditionally this means ELCA, LCMS, WELS, ELS, etc., the whole alphabet soup. The traditional way to look at this is that within the first order approximation of "the Lutherans" we have more liberal and more conservative bodies within that overall tradition. But when we look at this as a communion, that is, who shares altar and pulpit fellowship, the Lutherans in the ELCA like most of the worldwide bodies in the Lutheran World Federation, are actually no longer part of a "communion" that could be called genuinely Lutheran. (Sasse emphasized this point for Germany in Here We Stand, and his hope that the American Lutherans would resist unionism. Some did and some didn't.) Since the decision to enter altar and pulpit fellowship with the Reformed (mainline Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed, etc.) , the ELCA is from the point of view of communion no longer part of a distinctive Lutheran world.

Similarly, the conservatives in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) may seem very different from the liberals in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). And they really are theologically. But since both actual commune anyone who is baptized, they are in a very meaningful sense simply branches of one communion (kind of like the Jesuits vs. Opus Dei). And the PCA itself is socially and even in the pulpit, joined at the hip to Calvinist-style Baptist churches, who in turn in most denominations are in full communion with Free-Will Baptists and so on. The LCMS is quite distinctive in refusing to play these "six degrees of separation" games.

Of course defining communion is difficult. We have baptismal communion (recognize each other's baptism), we have altar communion (allow each other to commune), and altar and pulpit communion (allow those ordained in one body to preach in the other without special procedures). Even more complex is that some of these are not symmetrical. Lutherans recognize all Baptists' baptisms, but Baptists do not recognize at least some (infant baptisms) or often all (non-immersion baptisms, or baptisms done on the belief in baptismal regeneration) Lutherans' baptisms. Likewise Catholic and Reformation churches recognize all Orthodox baptisms, but a certain number of Orthodox don't recognize non-Orthodox baptisms.

Despite these complications at the level of altar communion the picture is quite interesting in its simplicity. We have the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, the LCMS, the WELS-ELS, and then . . . the vast tribes of the Reformed in two types, pedobaptist and credobaptist. (There is also a fringe of small communions among the credobaptists; Plymouth Brethren, Amish, and so on.) Equally strikingly is the fact that the majority of people calling themselves "Lutherans" are, communion-wise, actually part of the pedobaptist Reformed. Likewise Anglicanism which universally communes on the basis of valid baptism simply is not a "communion" in any deep sense; it's just an option within the pedobaptist Reformed communion. There may be Wesleyan theology out there, but in the sense of a communion with clear borders there is, as far as I know, no Wesleyan communion, only one that straddles the pedo-credo divide.

And theologically the picture looks different as well. There is a large stream of "traditional" theologies that reject justification by faith alone, teach the Mass as a sacrifice, and the necessity of apostolic succession, but within that my observation is today that theologies often don't follow communions neatly. The classic Latin Scholasticism or Neo-Thomism is only one of many modern-day Catholic theologies, for example; many Catholic theologians prefer to work in Greek and patristic streams, or even quote Luther to defend Catholic doctrines. Likewise Dispensationalism is a distinctive and clearcut theological current that has pretty no one denomination to call home. "Ecumenical" theology likewise seems to be found in numerous denominations. Theologically, we might speak of six main currents: Traditional (in Latin and Eastern varieties), Lutheran, Calvinist, Wesleyan, Dispensational, and Liberal/Ecumenical. None can be neatly matched with a communion.

A map of communions showing the symmetrical and non-symmetrical relations of each body (who baptizes/communes/preaches to whom according to what rules) would be a fascinating and complex diagram.

S.T. Coleridge on the Moral Effect of Economic Crashes

In 1817, as Britain languished in the post-war depression that followed the successful conclusion of her titanic struggle against first Jacobin and then Napoleonic France, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his A Lay Sermon, describing the want and poverty that accompanied this depression, one of the many "panics" that would accompany the early development of capitalism.

Peace has come without the advantages expected from Peace, and on the contrary, with many of the severest inconveniences usually attributable to War . . . Where was has produced no repentance, and the cessation of war has brought neither concord nor tranquillity, we may safely cry aloud with the Prophet: "They have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying peace, peace, when there is no peace." (p. 103)

In it, he offered some reminders about the costs of boom-and-bust economic growth, and issued a reminder that economic growth should serve peoples' lives, not the other way around. Whether due to modern economic regulation and management or else due to the maturity of the new economic system, this boom and bust syndrome is vastly less violent today than it was. If the problems he describes seem like something from the past, then let's be grateful for the progress made, but if they seem like contemporary warnings, then let's pay attention:

Within the last sixty years . . . there have occurred at intervals of about 12 or 13 years each, certain periodical Revolutions of Credit . . . [that is] certain gradual expansions of credit ending in sudden contractions . . . For a short time this Icarian Credit, or rather this illegitimate offspring of CONFIDENCE . . . seems to lie stunned by the fall; but soon recovering, again it strives upward . . . Alarm and suspicicion [following the Crash] gradually diminish into a judicious circumspectness; but by little and little, circumspection gives way to the desire and emulous ambition of doing business; till Impatience and Incaution on one side, tempting and encouraging headlong Adventure, Want of principle, and Confederacies of false credit on the other, the movements of Trade become yearly gayer and gidier, and end at length in a vortex of hopes and hazards, of blinding passions and blind practices, which should have been left where alone they ought ever to have been found, among the wicked lunacies of the Gaming Table.

I am not ignorant that the power and circumstantial prosperity of the Nation has been increasing during the same period, with an accelerated force unprecedented in any county, the population of which bore the same proportion to its productive soil: and partly, perhaps, even in consequence of this system. By facilitating the means of enterprize it must have called into activity a multitude of enterprizing Individuals and a variety of Talent that would otherwise have lain dormant: while by the same ready supply of excitements to Labor, together with its materials and instruments, even an unsound credit has been able within a short time to substantiate itself. We shall perhaps be told too, tht the very Evils of this System, even the periodical crash itself, are to be regarded but as so much superfluous steam ejected by the Escape Pipes and Safety Valves of a self-regulating Machine: and lastly, that in a free and trading country all things find their level.

. . . It would be less equivocal and far more descriptive of the fact to say, the Things are always finding their level: which might be taken as the paraphrase or ionical definition of a storm . . . But Persons are not Things - - but Man does not find his level. Neither in body nor in soul does the Man find his level! After a hard and calamitous season, during which the thousand Wheels of some vast manufactory had remained silent as a frozen waterfall, be it that plenty has returned and that Trade has once more become brisk and stirring: go, ask the overseer, and question the parish doctor, whether the workman's health and temperance with the staid and respectful Manners best taught by the inward dignity of conscious self-support, have found their level again. Alas! I have more than once seen a group of children in Dorsetshire, during the heat of the dog-days, each with its little shoulders up to its ears, and its chest pinched inward, the very habit and fixtures, as it were, that had been impressed on their frames by the former ill-fed, ill-clothed, and unfuelled winters. But as with the Body, so or still worse with the Mind. Nor is the effect confined to the laboring classes, whom by an ominous but too appropriate a change in our phraseology we are now accustomed to call the Laboring Poor. I cannot persuade myself, that the frequency of Failures with all the disgraceful secrets of Fraud and Folly, of unprincipled Vanity in expending and desperate Speculation in retrieving, can be familiarized to the thoughts and experiences of Men, as matters of daily occurrence, without serious injury to the Moral Sense: more especially in times when Bankruptcies spread, like a fever, at once contagious and epidemic . . . Worst of all, in its moral influences as well as in the cruelty of suffering, when the old Laborer's Savings, the precious robberies of self-denial from every day's comfort; when the Orphan's funds; the Widow's Livelihood; the fond confiding Sister's humble Fortune are found among the victims to the remorseless mania of dishonest Speculation, or to the desperate cowardice of Embarrassment, and the drunken stupor of a usurious Selfishness that for a few months respite dares incur a debt of guilt and infamy, for which the grave itself can plead no statute of limitation. Name to me any Revolution recorded in History, that was not followed by a depravation of the national Morals. The Roman character during the Triumvirate, and under Tiberius; the reign of Charles the Second; and Paris at the present moment are obvious instances. What is their main cause? The sense of Insecurity. On what ground then dare we hope, that with the same accompaniment Commercial Revolutions should not produce the same effect, in proportion to the extent of their sphere.

But these Blessings -- with all the specific terms, into which this most comprehensive Phrase is to be resolved? Dare we unpack the bales and cases so marked, and look at the articles, one by one? Increase of human Life and increase in the means of Life are, it is true, reciprocally cause and effect: and both the Genius of Commerce and Manufactory has been the cause of both to a degree that may well excite our wonder. But do the last results justify our exultation likewise? Human Life, alas! is but the malleable Metal, out of which the thievish Picklock, the Slave's Collar, and the Assassin's Stiletto are formed as well as the clearing Axe, the feeding Plough-share, the defensive Sword, and the mechanic Tool (pp. 135-38; bolding mine).

Time has shown that indeed wealth can be increased far beyond what even Coleridge admitted should cause wonder. But it is worth emphasizing again that there is something other than more maximization of wealth at issue in the economy. What kind of character is bred by the economic situation as it functions? Is it the temperate, staid, and respectful character of one with a stable living or else the type of callous gambler or resentful rebel produced by too rapid economic ups and downs? This aim, this ideal of personality, is what should be at the forefront of our thinking about the economy: does it, to the extent that we can foresee, bring into existence the kind of person we want to be?