Power


The Divine Name YHWH Jehovah“Theos” is a crappy translation for yhwh or elohim. Thanks a lot, Septuagint.

Comment.

And now this. Rev. Jay Scott Newman of Greenville S.C. has told his parishioners that if they voted for Barack Obama, they should not come forward for communion unless they’ve gone to confession first for participating in “intrinsic evil” by voting for a candidate who was pro-choice, “lest they eat and drink their own condemnation.”

Perhaps Rev. Newman didn’t see the debates; both candidates were (are) “pro-choice,” but they also distanced themselves from the old discourse on the issue. What to do? At least here, under Scott’s logic, this was “no-choice.” Communion, or the polls. If you voted for McCain, you also voted for a “pro-choice” candidate.

The fact of the matter is that both Obama and McCain deliberately tried to distance themselves from the issue, mostly because they knew that they were in substantial agreement on it. To wit: both said they won’t use Roe vs. Wade as the yardstick for determining justice appointments. They agreed with each other in that abortions are tragedies that are best dealt with by changing American cultural standards towards sex and pregnancy in general.

Obama: I think that abortion is a very difficult issue, and it is a moral issue and one that I think good people on both sides can disagree on…. This is an issue that — look, it divides us. And in some ways, it may be difficult to — to reconcile the two views. But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, “We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby.” Those are all things that we put in the Democratic platform for the first time this year, and I think that’s where we can find some common ground, because nobody’s pro-abortion. I think it’s always a tragic situation. We should try to reduce these circumstances.

McCain: We have to change the culture of America. Those of us who are proudly pro-life understand that. And it’s got to be courage and compassion that we show to a young woman who’s facing this terribly difficult decision. … But that does not mean that we will cease to protect the rights of the unborn. Of course, we have to come together. Of course, we have to work together, and, of course, it’s vital that we do so and help these young women who are facing such a difficult decision, with a compassion, that we’ll help them with the adoptive services, with the courage to bring that child into this world and we’ll help take care of it.

Abortion is a stump topic. In the past, candidates have lived (and died) on this issue with conservatives, especially evangelicals and catholics. But not a single candidate has, after being elected, even attempted to do anything about it. At least this time around it was a lot more marginal and got only about 15 or so minutes of time in one debate. By and large, I think Americans have moved on, because I think we’re coming to the realization that someone who is “pro-choice” is NOT “pro-death” or “anti-life.” I think we’re gradually realizing that the goal should be to reduce it and eliminate the need for it. I think we’re also realizing that “pro-life” ought to be a lot more encompassing than simply abortion. It should include, for example, the gulf war.

Which brings me back to Newman: The Church’s position on the War is as clear as it is on abortion. It is a moral evil and must be ended.

It is obviously difficult to really disentangle the relationship between Religion and State. But how one votes should not be determining church membership, whether one can take communion, or especially whether one will spend the rest of eternity in damnation.

So I’m staring blankly at this almost-but-not-quite-finished conference paper for the SBL meeting in Boston in a couple of weeks and I keep being distracted by other logismoi. Paper: Physical remains of early Christian memory. Distraction: Wendell Berry and memory. Paper: How books form part of an enculturating process that helps a group achieve some sort of hegemony. Distraction: Berry’s books as challenges to existing cultural hegemony wielded through education, the economy, and the media.

There is a connection here.

Must … resist …

(To Be Continued…)

Focus on the Family recently published a sixteen page hypothetical letter from “A Christian in 2012” that “looks back” on the first four years of the Obama presidency. The whole thing reminds me of how ancient apocalyptic works, like the Book of Revelation; paint up a vision of the future that induces mass-panic with the express aim of persuading readers to resist to the end now, before it’s too late.

Like Revelation, the letter is written from the perspective that the author and those who stand with him are the only ones who knew/know the truth, and criticizes those Christians who voted for Obama as being blind or too young to seriously look at why Obama was going to be a dangerous president who would destroy America. How? Here are some examples about what the author of the letter (who apparently doesn’t want his true identity to be known, but here’s guessing it’s Dobson himself):

  • Terrorist attacks in 4 US cities;
  • Christian professionals fired or quitting en masse;
  • Iran nukes Tel Aviv
  • Porn freely displayed
  • violent crime out of control because to too-strict gun control
  • Russia occupies 4 more nations
  • Energy blackouts all over the US
  • Gas prices are over 7 bucks a gallon
  • Christian ministries and organizations, including schools close up
  • Bush officials imprisoned
  • Taliban overrun not only Afghanistan, but Iraq as well (!)
  • Home school families emigrate en masse to Australia and New Zealand (!)
  • And all of this is because Obama’s Supreme Court appointments create a 6-3 majority of liberal justices, thus ceding the “ultimate prize” of the Court to the “far left.”
  • And these justices then promptly ruled that homosexual marriage was now legal in all 50 states, creating a chain reaction of decisions that the letter describes as curtailments of American freedom. In other words, all problems can be traced back to American tolerance of homosexuality.

Unbelievable.

Focus on the Family’s anonymous piece trades on fear and preys on those who are afraid of change. This is, IMO, the worst piece of fear-mongering I’ve run across. It shows that the politics of fear run by the Bush administration has had its desired affect. Focus claims to represent Christians. It does no such thing. It doesn’t even represent all evangelical Christians; the letter even admits as much by blaming the “younger evangelicals” for the result of the 2008 election. All it represents is a “boomer” value system that held sway in the 50s-70s in the US, which is now just an element of cultural memory to a very specific (and increasingly diminishing) segment of the population.

And if this is what Christianity wants to become, then I’m checking out. Focus’ version of Christian ethics has become so one-dimensional, fundamentalist, dogmatic, and hatefully intolerant of dissension on what it considers non-negotiable that it misrepresents everything Christ stood for and in fact represents more of what he stood against. It completely misunderstands the First Amendment, and in fact has a “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution,” to use Dobson’s own words from another context. Once upon a time Focus on the Family focused on …. families. Now, the focus is on fear, hate, intolerance, and sectarian politics. Is there anything more un-Christian and un-American?

The letter gets one assumption right. Obama’s America is not Focus on the Family’s America. And neither would McCain’s America. I’ve got half a mind to write a “Letter from 2012 from McCain’s America” in response.

If you’re reading this, and you’ve read the “Letter from 2012,” and you are as bothered by this as I am, write to Focus through their email at citizenlink@family.org and tell it to them straight.

In the last couple of years, it seems like the rhetoric of “evil” is making an unwelcome return in politics and casual conversation. In this week’s debate, Tom Brokaw asked McCain and Obama, point blank, whether Putin’s Russia is the “Evil Empire,” invoking Reagan’s notorious comment from 1983.

To their credit, neither McCain nor Obama took the bait, for which we can only be thankful. Obama’s answer was to the effect of “No, they aren’t, but they are engaged in evil behavior.” McCain refused to answer completely, saying that affirming Reagan’s description would reignite the Cold War, and denying it would be tantamount to condoning or endorsing their present aggression in Georgia. Obama’s response, as usual, was more nuanced and I think more descriptive, but I have to ask: How is this different from us, either individually or collectively at the national level? All of us are eminently capable of evil, even – especially – when we think we’re doing the right thing or, as Gov. Palin might say, when we’re doing the work of God. At the national level, both candidates recognize the main problem in the Russian – Georgia issue: energy. Both condemn a military act against a non-agressive, non-threatening sovereign state that just happens to be significantly and strategically located to advance the aggressor’s own national interests. How is this categorically different from the US’ action towards Iraq? I think Obama knows that it isn’t, really; if you really watched him in the first debate, he suggested as much, but of course to come out and say that would hand the election to McCain/Palin. But the Bush Doctrine has an answer on why “we” are different: “they” are evil, and we’re not. “We” are doing the work of God, and they aren’t. End of discussion. (BTW, to McCain’s answer, I’d have simply pointed out that saying “No, Russia is not the Evil Empire” doesn’t condone their action, anymore than I’d condone my kids’ objectionable, even potentially evil behavior.)

I think Tom Brokaw should know better than to ask a question like this, but I guess it shows how far we’ve sunk when we can only think of people, religions, and nations who do things that are opposed to our own interests as “evil.” Maybe this is part of the “Christian nation” illusion. I’ve heard too many times that any religion other than some version of Christianity is “evil.” Any state that has its own brand of nationalism that isn’t exactly compatible with American Republocracy is “evil.” “We,” however, are exempt from evil, since we’re the Kingdom, the new Jerusalem, the Chosen People.

I’ve had enough of this rhetorical self-righteousness. Evil is resident here. And it has apartments in the individual soul. And so how about we start making sure we’re aware of this plank in our eyes, even if we can’t get it out, before accusing everyone else. Ultimately I would really prefer it if Brokaw and others would simply leave the category of “evil” to God, and let us concentrate on what “the good” entails, because we aren’t doing so well with that either.

To those of us who are a) frustrated with the realization that we double the value of our cars everytime we fill it up at the pump, or b) feel like telling the world “told you so” over the first option, and c) both of the above, I give you Wendell Berry’s latest essay.

I’m consistently amazed by Berry’s knack for finding parallels to the crises we find ourselves in today in the canon of world literature; in this case, he compares our burning passion for preserving the AWOL (my term for “American Way Of Life”) at all costs with the desire for unlimited power and knowledge of Faust. We the people are Faust; Mephistopheles is the guardian of the AWOL; and concerning Hell,

When Faustus asks, “How comes it then that thou art out of hell?” Mephistophilis replies, “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.” And a few pages later he explains:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we [the damned] are is hell,
And where hell is must we ever be.

For those who reject heaven, hell is everywhere, and thus is limitless. For them, even the thought of heaven is hell.

I leave it to you to finish the analogy.

James Dobson!

What, maybe you were expecting Bill Clinton? That is so yesterday.

On his Tuesday radio program, Dobson took time out from his no doubt very busy schedule as a professional Child Psychologist, complete with Ph.D, to address the masses with a blistering attack on Barack Obama. The target of his ire? Obama’s Christianity. Unbelievable. Some gems from this diatribe:

Barack Obama “deliberately distorts the Bible…”

Obama is “…dragging biblical understanding through the gutter…”

… in order to “wilfully confuse people…”

and who has a “fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, James Dobson, Biblical Scholar, Theologian, Lawyer, and Pontiff of American Evangelicalism!

In all seriousness, I suppose I should be grateful for the fact that I do not know by what authority Dobson believes he can go off like this. Certainly not on his authority as a child psychologist. He rightly claims he has no religious or theological credentials other than whe he himself believes. But the fact is that millions of Christians have listened to him promote his version of Christianity now for over 30 years. Among evangelicals, perhaps only Billy Graham has spent more time and exercised more evangelical influence in Washington than Dobson.

But Dobson is not a politician. Child psychologists, even if they exercise influence over a lot of people (primarily Boomers, from what I can tell… the largest voting bloc), don’t belong in partisan politics the way Dobson and so many other evangelicals with a little influence, a healthy dash of media savvy, and a lot of cash have done. Personally I don’t care what Dobson thinks politically. One of the great things about the US is exactly the freedom to disagree over politics, policy, religion, and so on, without fear of imperial repercussions. But I find it absolutely reprehensible that Dobson and others of his ilk attack Obama’s faith for what can only be interpreted as political dream of evangelical theocracy.

Dobson’s diatribe, in fact, says very little about Obama’s current campaign. Instead, Dobson and his henchman Tom Minnery go after Obama’s 2006 Call to Renewal Speech, which deserves to be in the canon of great American speeches. If Obama is distorting the Bible, as Dobson alleges (being the biblical expert and all that he seems to be), Dobson has distorted Obama’s Call to Renewal speech in such a way that strains credibility. (Maybe that will prove to be a good thing.)

And so it is with great disgust that I present the 2008 Just Shut Up! Award to Dr. James Dobson.

I’m supposed to be working on the dissertation, but I’ve gotten bogged down in some nasty German linguistics. Last night I was doing some reading designed to kind of “wind me down” and came across what I see as a prophetic comment from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison. So much for winding down. I’d love to hear some thoughts on the implications of this for the church today. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

“And we cannot be honest unless we recognise that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [even if there were no God]. And this is just what we do recognise – before God! God himself compels us to recognise it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering”.

PS – Thanks Jack.

Jon LesterI am a sports fan. Not simply a fan of my hometown Boston teams, which I am, but of the sports that these teams play. I love the games of baseball and football, and I’ve watched my fair share of the Celtics and Bruins in basketball and hockey while I was growing up. Sport inspires me, and occasionally you hear great stories of athletes who overcome incredible odds to do something they love. One of the most powerful moments for me last baseball season, for example, was the return of Jon Lester to the mound after beating cancer (at least for the time being). I remember Mario Lemieux’s triumphant return to the ice after his own battle with cancer. Josh Hamilton’s story is one of an all-world talent, drafted out of high school, who was led to the depths of potential suicide, only to make his major league debut on the baseball diamond for the Cincinnati Reds last season after battling demons of drugs and depression. This past football season, I watched on TV as Kevin Everett nearly lost his life on the football field and who was supposedly not ever going to be able to walk again, let alone play football. And it was only a few months later, in the same season, that Everett was able to walk onto the field at Giants Stadium, inspiring the Bills, the Gians, and football fans nationwide.

I am not alone here, of course. Millions of sports fans worldwide likely feel the same way. But here in America, our passion for sport has created a monster of idolatrous proportions. Here, right in our midst, is our very own golden statue, one that Nebuchadnezzar himself would have been proud of. And the ramifications of that statue’s presence is on full display today on Capitol Hill. One of my childhood idols, Roger Clemens, will almost certainly face perjury charges for lying under oath in a Congressional hearing over his reported use of performance enhancing drugs. Not far from this, Sen. Arlen Specter is grilling the commissioner of the National Football League over its handling of the now-notorious “Spygate” incident that involves my hometown New England Patriots. All this while the same government is passing new surveillance laws, is unable to do anything about healthcare, and is unable or unwilling to stand up against the Iraq war. But against cheating in professional sports? Call in the bastards! This is America! There’s no cheating or blackmarking our great pasttimes! They’re not going to get away with this!

The golden statue of American Sport is casting a very, very long shadow. For years, I have looked forward to spring training. It is a sign of hope, of forgiveness of the past, of looking to the future. But I’m finding it awfully hard to embrace the upcoming season. I wish that Roger Clemens would have just come clean, as so many other athletes are doing when caught using PEDs. His career would still be over. His reputation would still have taken a massive hit. Now, however, Clemens is adding his own shadow to that of the Golden Statue. Between the two of them, its getting hard to see the light from a game that many of us have loved our whole lives. A GAME.

Jayson Stark of ESPN notes that he thinks this is bigger than Watergate, of Oliver North, even of McCarthy hearings. Over GAMES.

The darkest shadow of all is that he may very well be right.

ashuramain01.jpgRan across this in today’s Washington Post online: “Bloody Ritual, Modern Meaning.” Check it out; it’s a short take on the passion of Imam Husain (a grandson of Prophet Muhammad) as observed and commemorated during the week of the tenth of Muharram. The Ashura festival, as it is also called, combines extensive liturgies and dramatic passion plays re-enacting Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala (in Iraq) at the hands of Umayyad caliphs from Damascus in 680 AD/CE, or in Islamic reckoning, 61 AH. The WashPost piece focuses on its ritual observance in Kabul.

Like most universal rites of commemoration, the Ashura practices vary from location to location, but there are always passion plays of the event, and there are always ritual displays of mourning for Husain, and it is this that studies and documentaries tend to highlight, condemn, and criticize as being offensive to modern sensibilities. The mourning rites involve symbolic mortification of the body, and the methods involve everything from rhythmic beating of the chest to serious flagellation using knives whipped over the back. Religion scholars have long noted the similarities of these types of practices to medieval Christian ritual processions of penance.

But such comparisons miss the point of Ashura. It is true that there are some similarities between the martyrdom of Jesus and the martyrdom of Husain, and both have come to have cosmic significance in Christian and Muslim (especially Shi’a Muslim) ethos and worldview. Both stories likewise served as identity markers and the memory of them are celebrated as foundational for the community memory. Still, the point is not the blood-letting in itself, but rather to protest an unjust death brought about by the injustice of spreading tyranny.

In the class I’m teaching on Holidays, one of the points we’re discussing now is the inherent and latent power of holidays to function in the service of the status quo AND to protest and challenge it. And in fact, when we dig deep enough to the narratives underlying many of our holidays, the story is, more often than not, a story that challenges power, and that in succeeding generations, that story is smothered over with re-interpretations to maintain the social order and try to minimize the potential that holidays have to upset the status quo of those in power. In other words, holidays and ritual celebrations in holidays are extremely dangerous, and the more visible the expression of this the ritual is, the greater the potential for the latent and suppressed power to challenge tyranny, empire, exploitation, consumption, and so on, is feared. It is for this reason that many holidays throughout history have been outlawed by governments or at least severely restricted and monitored (e.g., the Passover in the first century).

The WashPost article highlights this by electing to point out the Ashura observance in Kabul, which is one of the most bloody and violent locations for the annual commemoration of the 10th of Muharram. The effect is to stir up fear, and judging from the comments on the site by other readers, it seems to work. Unfortunately. Because Ashura and Muharram have a lot to teach those of us outside of Islam. Our Muslim brothers and sisters here provide us with an example analoguous to the passion of Jesus as a righteous act that symbolizes the rejection of the abuse of power and empire in a way that our (meaning, my own tradition of Christian) lame passion plays have totally lost. Understand, I don’t advocate self-flagellation with sharp instruments, as in Muslim practices of matam or medieval flagellant movements, any more than I advocate self-crucifixion as an acceptable imitation of Christ. Instead, I advocate recognizing the ability of our religious observance of holidays to challenge the abuses of imperialism, and I can think of no better public example of this than the rites of Ashura on the 10th of Muharram. It is a demonstration of a passion for justice. Prophetic justice.