Teachers Know: Pay Isn’t the Problem

My wife wants to quit her job. She told me as much on a walk this afternoon. I wasn’t overly concerned. This has become an annual ritual in the early months of every spring term. Like so many teachers, she reaches a point in her year where the demands on her time and emotional energy exceed her capacity to give. She won’t actually quit–though the desire is real–but I was reminded by a recent Quillette article just how many teachers do leave and just how facile the usual impulse to scapegoat pay really is.

This isn’t to say that teacher salaries aren’t paltry compared to the training and task we require of them (although my wife does make more at her snooty exurban school than I do at my backwoods college). It’s just that raising pay doesn’t address the real problems. The Quillette article references four areas of concern for current teachers that drive high attrition rates (citing statistics between 8% and 40% nationally): poor administration, oversized classrooms, paperwork, and discipline. Low pay is not among them–after all, teachers know what they’re getting into in that regard before they choose the career.

Administration is an easy target if only because it is so glaringly appropriate. Advocates of higher pay often note the salaries of administrators relative to teachers (a common refrain in higher education as well) to suggest where budgets might be trimmed. The problem isn’t just with pay though; it is with divergent priorities. Administrators are responsible to parents and to school boards. The former cares only about education in the very narrowest sense of ensuring a positive experience for their child. The latter cares about education only in the bureaucratic sense: test scores, attendance rates, funding. Teachers have the luxury neither of committing fully to a single student nor of abstracting all their students into numbers. They must grapple with the lived reality of the classroom. It’s unsurprising then that, as the article notes, there is so much anecdotal evidence of endemic conflict between teachers and administrators.

Overcrowding in classrooms is another familiar target and one that cannot be addressed through pay raises. In fact, as I have already suggested, one radical solution might be to pay teachers less. Alternatively, districts could work to put more non-teaching adults into a classroom. This was the approach at the school where I did my own clinical teaching, and it proved effective as long as the auxiliary staff and teachers worked deliberately together. However it is achieved, it is critical that the ratio of adults to children in a room be improved. A better paid, better educated, better qualified teacher still cannot effectively instruct 25 six-year-olds at once.

The complaint about paperwork is one I have heard floating out in the ether but not one that I have encountered from actual teachers or experienced in my own brief contact with secondary education. Professional development, peer learning communities, and staff meetings are never greeted with much enthusiasm, but neither do they consume much time or intellectual energy. I was once, during clinical teaching, made to dance around the room as part of a professional development, an approach I found demeaning (as many education professional developments often are) but not burdensome. It was enough to make me want to leave the room but not education. My wife, meanwhile, looks forward to her monthly professional development days, has never heard of a fad speaker brought in to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, and usually has something she has learned to share when she gets home.

The final point, however, on discipline has been a topic of regular discussion in our household over the last year. A new policy in my wife’s district that requires all students to be in the general classroom regardless of behavior (unless they have an IEP that excuses them from the room) has been among the greatest sources of frustration this year. A new policy of negotiating with students (I prefer to think of them as tiny little terrorists whenever I hear the policy explained) ensures that teachers who bring discipline issues to administrators get met with a refresher on how to love their little ones into submission.

I had my own Twlight Zone-esque experiences as a clinical teacher that, in large part, drove me away from secondary education as a career option. In one instance, a boy wore a pornographic sweatshirt to school–it was a mosaic of cartoon girls’ faces contorted in orgasm and covered in semen. (Cartoon semen, not real semen…although adolescent boys being what they are…) How the boy made it to my fourth period class is a mystery, but I reported it to the vice principal. Not unlike the anecdote in the article, my administrator asked me “But how do you know…” (the poor man had apparently never witnessed the female orgasm) and “Maybe he just doesn’t realize…” Fortunately, the student was all to proud to confess when confronted. He had apparently been trying to bate teachers all morning into reporting him, but a surplus of apathy or dearth of courage had gotten him all the way to lunch unscathed.

A less savory incident occurred with a licensure candidate teaching at my school. Some students took a dislike to him and decided to start a rumor that he was a sexual predator who had come to the middle school to look for a new wife. The situation that unfolded was tragic, though not as tragic as it could be. The rumor was reported to the administration, but, because it had not been discovered until close to the end of the day on a Friday, administrators decided to postpone confronting the students until the weekend. The teaching candidate in question twisted in the wind over the weekend, while the students carried on their little joke now attaching an accusatory hashtag to it on social media.

When Monday came around and the students were confronted, they all demurred that it had just been a harmless prank (and one of the central figures, a low performing students, swore he didn’t even know what a pedophile was). Because one of the students was the daughter of a teacher and the granddaughter of another teacher, the administration decided that rather than any disciplinary action they would just ensure no more contact between the students in question and the teaching candidate. When they were in his assigned class, he was banished to the teachers lounge and the cooperating teacher took over. In the end, concerns liability dictated everyone’s behavior and that prospective teacher became a casualty of attrition before he ever got his first full posting.

As with everything on that site, the sounds points in the Quillette article are mixed in with a little casual racism, a lot of self pity, and a fair helping of naïve academic idealism. The last of these is why I really gave up on teaching in public schools. I need to be able to demand more from students and assess on performance, and those are not (for better or worse) the prevailing aims of public education. In the end though, the broader point rings very true and needs to be repeated as often and as loudly as possible: the public education system is broken and more money will not fix it. It isn’t even that it is an incomplete fix. It is the wrong fix. Like giving a Band-Aid to a child with a fever, pay raises may make teachers feel better but they won’t solve the real attrition crisis.

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Kipnis and the Advance of an Unwanted Argument

Kipnis-3D-UnwantedAdvances.pngLaura Kipnis is provocative, and there’s a degree to which the deliberateness of her provocation and the joy she takes framing her argument in the most provocative way that makes her a provocateur. Nevertheless, in Unwanted Advances Kipnis offers an incisive diagnosis of, among other contemporary cultural issues, the bloated Title IX bureaucracy and the backdoor anti-feminism it sustains under the guise of feminism. The book jacket blasts this broadside at contemporary feminism with the forceful lack of nuance that characterizes her entire book: “If this is feminism, it’s feminism hijacked by melodrama.” The point is made at greater length and with a bit more precision in the final thoughts.

Women want to have sexual adventures and make mistakes, but there’s a growing tendency, at the moment, to offload the responsibility, to make other people pay for those mistakes–namely, guys. Women don’t drink; men get them drunk. Women don’t have sex; sex is done to them. This isn’t feminism, it’s a return to the most traditional conceptions of female sexuality.

As evidence for this diagnosis, Kipnis offers two broad case studies. The first is that of Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern University professor of philosophy who resigned over issues related to sexual activities with two students. The official narrative (which you can read at length here) is that Ludlow abused his power as a professor to varying degrees to harass or assault these two students. Kipnis argues that this narrative is only believable as long as the secrecy of Title IX tribunals is held as sacrosanct, as is the “mantra” that “survivors must be believed.” (“The problem is the unacknowledged slippage between ‘survivors’ and ‘accusers.’) When the confidential evidence of the Title IX investigation is brought to light–which Kipnis takes almost puckish relish in doing–and when people are given the epistemic space to evaluate harassment or assault allegations the way they evaluate other truth claims, the story crumbles (or at least wobbles).

The other case study is Kipnis’ own Title IX investigation, the result of two Northwestern students who objected to an article Kipnis wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education (and a subsequent tweet about the outrage it sparked). The students charged that Kipnis had created a “chilling effect” on the ability of students to report sexual misconduct and that the very act of mentioning the charges against Ludlow “was retaliatory and created a hostile environment” for the accuser.

Perhaps unwittingly–though doubtless not as unwittingly as she makes out–Kipnis had found herself in the middle of a larger cultural battle raging around campus sexual assault, one that people of her perspective and temperament had already functionally lost in the public discourse even as they continued to fight it out in front of Congress and the courts. On the one hand, the loudest voices in campus politics and on Twitter and in the culture at large, belong to a camp that Kipnis calls “primary preventionists.” These are people “who believe in targeting potential offenders [men] while promoting overall cultural change.” On the other hand, there are the “risk” or “harm reductionists,” the people “who want to educate potential victims about how to decrease their chance of victimhood–using a buddy system at parties, not falling asleep with male study partners, and so on.”

It’s really a debate about the relationship between agency and blame (or, as I’ve written recently with reference to Kipnis, causality and culpability). Risk reductionists worry that primary preventionists are so busy blaming men that they give them all the power and, in Kipnis’ words, “replicate the supposedly passé social idea that men have agency and women are people to whom things just happen.” Meanwhile, primary preventionists believe that the stress on women’s agency is a cover for (or at least tantamount to) blaming victims. Kipnis quotes one expert as saying, “Society needs to establish a zero tolerance for sexual violence. Instead of saying, ‘don’t get raped,’ which shifts the responsibility onto a potential victim, the message should be ‘don’t rape’ and focus on holding perpetrators accountable.”

Both characterizations (blaming victims vs. disempowering women) are parodies of the intent of the respective positions, and the students Kipnis talks to show clear signs that, in real life, their response to the sexual culture on campus are less ideologically pure and more mingled. Yet Kipnis offers a level of pragmatism and cynicism that resonates, at least with those who of us who are not naively optimistic about human nature.

Yes, there’s an excess of masculine power in the world, and women have to be educated to contest it in real time, instead of waiting around for men to reach some new stage of heightened consciousness–just in case that day never comes….Teaching affirmative consent is great–sure, keep doing it until it works. (It’s not going to.) Yes, harassment and assault are structural problems; yes society has to change….Nobody thinks self-defense training will be effective in every case. But it would change the outcome in plenty of cases, and we’re doing women no favors by not training them in how to deal with the range of situations they’re likely to face.

These are precisely the things policy makers and public intellectuals struggle to say. The idea of “training women to have more agency is somehow taboo,” Kipnis laments. This particularly true if you accept the statistics offered by Kipnis, from the New York Times, about the success of some risk reduction programs in reducing assaults by as much as 50%. There are, according to the author, no comparable statistics for the success of the currently en vogue primary prevention programs. If there is a campus epidemic of sexual assault (and Kipnis expresses measured skepticism), then women have a right to the best tools for preventing those assaults–not sometime in the bright and glorious future but now when it is happening. “‘I’m not excusing the male’s behavior by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think that young women are part of the solution.'”

I came in to Unwanted Advances already both a cynic and a pragmatist (on this and many other issues), so Kipnis provided a wealth of new insights and anecdotal support for positions I already essentially held. This is perhaps the greatest flaw in her case, that it is entirely in the form of a diatribe argued from anecdote. As a feminist intellectual and academic cultural critic, Kipnis provides an unusual voice for a position normally stereotyped as fitting only for a “huffing and puffing…bow-tied neocon.” That in itself was reassuring for me, both personally and intellectually. But for every story of Title IX injustice, there is certainly a case of an assault victim who received no justice, a harasser who escaped both scrutiny and consequence. What then is the takeaway from Kipnis’ book even for those who do not, who cannot agree with her.

More than anything, Kipnis argues for transparency, epistemic honesty, education, and dialogue.

We’re never going to decrease sexual assault on campus–a goal I assume everyone shares–if we can’t have open conversations about it. Having control over your body is, especially for women, a learned skill; it requires education. It also requires a lot more honesty about the complicated sexual realities hiding behind the slogans than is currently permissible.

Unfortunately, our current climate of purity tests and public denunciations allows no space for any of this. It isn’t that I know I’m right–though I necessarily believe that I am. Conservatives have been wrong before. Men have certainly been wrong before. I’ve personally be wrong before. Kipnis, I hope, would have the humility to say the same about women, feminists, and herself as well. The problem is that campus administrators, politicians, and activities have come to the conclusion that wrong ideas can be legislated out of existence. They cannot be. Racism and sexism have found ways to resurrect and replicate in every generation without regard for laws and regulations.

Wrong ideas only go away when they cease to be useful, when the paradigm no longer functions meaningfully to interpret the world. In other words, if risk reduction (or pragmatism or cynicism) are wrong, the only way to rid the world of them is through suasion or obsolescence. They cannot be shouted down. They cannot be legislated away. If you want a bad belief to disappear, you must–and we stress the titular metaphor beyond the breaking point now–allow the unwanted argument to continue to advance until it becomes so absurd that not even its most staunch proponents will employ it anymore.

In the meantime, all Kipnis asks–all I ask–is that we do whatever needs to be done to stop some sexual assaults along the way.

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A new year begins, and I find myself (coincidentally) engaged in my regular ritual of remembrance as I pass yet another milestone here. Once more, my screaming into the void have seen me safely and sanely through another one hundred meandering thoughts. The last fourteen months or so since my six hundredth post has given me more opportunities to write about my own interests–books I’ve read, research I’ve done, problems I’ve grappled with–and to ignore, as best I can, the constant state of ritual panic and outrage that dominates our public discourse. From all of that, I have culled the ten best quotes from the last one hundred posts.

10) The journey began with Walrussia Day (only slightly more commonly known as Alaska Day), in which we commemorated the purchase of Alaska by recalling the unflattering portmanteau of “walrus” and “Russia” by which the territory was known by opponents of the purchase.

The icy cold colors of Russia will give place to the Stars and Stripes, and Walrussia will henceforth become the north star of the republic….The hoisting of the Stars and Stripes will be a great event for Walrussia. She will launch into new life. All the Esquimaux [Eskimo] will be at the gathering; the Common Council of Sitka will make appropriation to celebrate the occasion; roast walrus, boiled walrus, fried walrus, walrus a la mode, whale scraps, whale blubber and whale oil will be served up in abundance; the choicest wines from the Arctic vineyards will be furnished; the Esquimaux girls will be in at the first national ball; all around the harbor of Sitka the seals, the polar bears and the walruses will turn out en masse to see what’s up, and finding that it is the American flag and Brother Jonathan, will join in the general Jubilee.

Thus we nationalize our new purchase of real estate. Where is the next slice, Mr. Seward!

9) The amusing anecdotes of history continued with a series drawing on the late nineteenth century Book of Christmas to explore a “very Victorian” holiday season. Perhaps my favorite tradition–transfigured but carried on today–was the copious drinking. On Twelfth Night, even the foliage imbibed:

The merry bowl which, notwithstanding that it had been so often drained, was still kept brimming throughout all the Christmas holidays, was now when they were drawing to a close actually flowing over; and the warm heart and jovial spirit of the season, not content with pledging all those who could drink in return, proceeded to an excess of boon-companionship, and after quaffing a wassail-draft to the health and abundant bearing of some favorite fruit-tree, poured what remained in the cup upon the root, as a libation to its strength and vitality.

8) Other historical topics were less cheery and much nearer to my own research interests. Such was the case with a series of homework assignments from Japanese students under the tutelage of the American William Elliot Griffis. Griffis had assigned his students the task of writing about their impressions of foreigners, almost certainly seeking and (at times) eliciting effusive praise of the West. One student, however, didn’t take the bait, dismissing western triumphalism thus:

Everyone’s residence is the best place in the world. So every nation thinks itself to be better than others in many respects…

7) Every teacher has contrary students like that–or at least, I hope that Griffis and I aren’t alone. The last fourteen months have coincided with a significant increase in my own teaching load that prompted more reflection on pedagogical theory. Among my many readings was Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools. I was generally unsparing in my chapter-by-chapter blog-along criticism of Robinson, but if all his talk of “revolution” was empty, at least some of it was inspirational. This paean about localism particularly resonated:

[T]he best place to start thinking about how to change education is exactly where you are in it. If you change the experience of education for those you work with, you can change the world for them and in doing so become part of a wider, more complex process of change in education as a whole.

6) I was significantly more laudatory when it came to John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism, which, though it also did not live up to its state purpose, offered dozens of interesting insights and quotes. Especially useful were his thoughts (significantly abbreviated here) on Genesis 1-3, which he defends as an atheist from the scorn of atheists:

The primitive character of the new atheism shows itself in the notion that religions are erroneous hypotheses. The Genesis story is not an early theory of the origin of species….The story of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge is a mythical imagining of the ambiguous impact of knowledge on human freedom. Rather than being inherently liberating, knowledge can be used for purposes of enslavement….Unlike scientific theories, myths cannot be true or false. But myths can be more or less truthful to human experience. The Genesis myth is a more truthful rendition of enduring human conflicts than anything in Greek philosophy, which is founded on the myth that knowledge and goodness are inseparably connected.

5) My favorite reads in the past fourteen months have been mostly fiction, an unusual departure for me. Perhaps the best modern literature I have read in recent time is Nakamura Fuminori’s acclaimed novel The Thief. I shared here a comment from one character who, though more de Sade than Camus, gives a wonderful account of the  kind of total engagement with being at the heart of existentialism. He says, in part:

In this life, the proper way of living is to make use of both joy and suffering. They are both merely stimuli that the world presents to us. So by blending them skillfully within you, you can use them in a completely different way…Taste everything in the whole world. Even if you should fail at these tasks, taste the emotion that comes with failure. Savor with all your senses the fear of death.

4) For all the joy of reading and thinking, though, it is now 2020 and impossible to ignore politics altogether (at least not if you intend to stay engaged with the public discourse). Back in March of last year, I engaged in a kind of archival experiment, creating for myself a record of what people thought about the Democratic presidential candidates in the white hot heat of the moment when everything was still possibility and nothing had been settled yet. Much of what was said continues to be said, showing the intractability of political narratives (though the high praise for Harris and low blows for Klobuchar have largely dissipated). This comment about Beto O’Rourke (who featured here more than once) seems particularly prescient now:

It’s hard to distrust the state, even performatively, and then actively try to participate in it.

3) Politics are not the only, or even the most heated, battle grounds in our culture at the moment, and debates about race and gender intruded here more often even than electoral politics. (Probably because of the whole no voting thing.) I have been particularly productive–to my own benefit–filtering debates about cultural appropriation through the logic of “going native” and about creator vs. product through the history of Donatism, nothing has offered up a better quote than my frequent returns to the question of causality vs. moral culpability. Laura Kipnis’ book, Unwanted Advances (soon to be reviewed at length here), was particularly useful in this. Kipnis offers this confirmatory gem:

No one’s saying women get assaulted because they pass out in dicey locales: I fully believe that women should be able to pass out wherever they want–naked, even–and be inviolable. One hopes such social conditions someday arrive. The issue is that acting as if things were different from how they are isn’t, thus far, working out….(Self-induced helplessness isn’t gender progress.) Two different things can be true at once: men are responsible for sexual assault; and women who act as if sexual assault weren’t a reality are acting incoherently.

2) I’m never sure how I’ve managed to endear myself to any of the women in my life, particularly my wife. I try not to think about it too hard, particularly given my choice this year of a Valentine’s message (taken from Merve Emre’s Personality Brokers):

[A man] thinks it is obvious when he marries a woman he has demonstrated once and for all that he esteems her above all other women, and that when he works hard and provides for her he is demonstrating day by day a fundamental concern for her well-being (it would probably be a little sentimental to refer to it as happiness), and that therefore it is superfluous to mention either fact. So he doesn’t. He only mentions what he considers worthy of note–the respects in which she depart from the ideal, and respects in which their well-being (hers as often as his) would be greater if she would do differently from the way she naturally does.

1) As always, though, the best post of any cycle has to do with God’s greatest creatures, who scientists in Japan painted up like zebras to prove (successfully) that stripes deter flies:

If it works for wild horses in Africa, why not cows in a Japanese pasture?



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Rumors of War: A Sword and a Gospel

The recent assassination of Qasem Soleimani has filled my news feed (and my WordPress reader) with stories about wars and rumors of wars. The nature of war having changed so dramatically in my lifetime, it is hard to imagine war will truly come, at least not anything like war as history has usually described with the armies of one states squaring off against the armies of another. Even so, the heightened consciousness about war provides a good occasion to meditate on the subject once again.

I began these thoughts with a quote from just before the start of World War I (though Apcar dealt with broader conflicts than that). I’ll round them out with reference to a different war: the American Civil War. With the possible exception of World War II, no war has so unblemished a reputation in American memory as a just war, a necessary war, a “good” war–if there be such a thing.

Yet in 1860 there were still Christians at Boston’s Advocate for Peace who understood that–no matter how pure the motives, no matter how desirable the outcomes, no matter how just the cause–there could be no reconciling Christianity and war:

Let us put the main aspects of the two side by side, and see how far they agree.

Christianity saves men; war destroys them. Christianity elevates men; war debases and degrades them. Christianity purifies men; war corrupts and defiles them. Christianity blesses men; war curses them. God says, thou shalt not kill; war says, thou shalt kill. God says, blessed are the peace-makers; war says, blessed are the war-makers. God says, love your enemies; war says, hate them. God says, forgive men their trespasses; war says, forgive them not. God enjoins forgiveness, and forbids revenge; while war scorns the former, and commands the latter.

God says, resist not evil; war says, you may and must resist evil. God says, if any man smite thee on one cheek, turn to him the other also; war says, turn not the other cheek, but knock the smiter down. God says, bless those who curse you, bless and curse not; war says, curse those who curse you, curse and bless not. God says, pray for those who despitefullv use you; war says, pray against them, and seek their destruction. God says, see that none render evil for evil unto any man; war says, be sure to render evil for evil unto all that injure you. God says, overcome evil with good; war says, overcome evil with evil.

God says, if thine enemy hunger, feed him, if he thirst, give him drink; war says, if you do supply your enemies with food and clothing, you shall be shot as a traitor.

God says, do good unto all men; war says, do as much evil as you can to your enemies. God says to all men, love one another; war says, hate and kill one another. God says, they that take the sword, shall perish by the sword; war says, they that take the sword, shall be saved by the sword. God says, blessed is’ he that trusteth in the Lord; war says, cursed is such a man, and blessed is he who trusteth in swords and guns.

God says, beat your swords into ploughshares, your spears into pruning-hooks, and learn war no more; war says, make swords and spears still, and continue to learn war — until all mankind have ceased from learning it, i. e., fight, all of you, until all of you stop fighting!

There are no good wars for Christians. They may be profitable, legal, and just according to the conventions of secular society (though I would venture that the present conflict is not), but Christians are called to a higher logic. God has given to governments a sword of vengeance and to Christians a Gospel of peace. Let us not be confused into thinking we can take up the one without surrendering the other.

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Rumors of War: Peering through the Fog (Pt. 2)

The recent assassination of Qasem Soleimani has filled my news feed (and my WordPress reader) with stories about wars and rumors of wars. The nature of war having changed so dramatically in my lifetime, it is hard to imagine war will truly come, at least not anything like war as history has usually described with the armies of one states squaring off against the armies of another. Even so, the heightened consciousness about war provides a good occasion to meditate on the subject once again.

Few people when presented with a simple choice–war or not war–would choose war. It is generally agreed that, all other things being equal, the absence of war is a preferable state, materially and morally. Yet there never seems to be a shortage of support for nearly any war once it arrives, as if the entire affair is obscured always by a fog of cognitive dissonance and dissimulation. Fortunately, Russell Johnson has provided a clear guide for understanding “How War Bypasses Morality” and, in so doing, created a road map for staying engaged with our moral core in times of militaristic rhetoric and heightened conflict.

War Keeps Its Distance

When a country goes to war, particularly in our present post-conscription times in the US, there is usually a strong sense of disassociation. Whether one favors the war or opposes the war, there is a feeling of insulation–the choices are being made elsewhere by other people, the blood is being shed elsewhere by other people, the cost is being levied elsewhere by other people. There is no need to reflect morally on war because it is not something that you are doing or even that is happening in your orbit, except when it intrudes into your news or social media feeds. This disassociation multiples and magnifies until it consumes whole countries:

Tragically, an entire society can rely on displacement of responsibility to shield themselves from moral scrutiny. Citizens shift the responsibility to the president, the president shifts it to advisors, advisors shift it to constituents, and so on. Decisions are made and justified without anyone ever having the sense of a moral threshold being crossed.

This sort of collective buck passing is reassuring but indefensible in a democracy. As Tolstoy noted, “The misdeeds of our rulers become our own if we, knowing that they are misdeeds, assist in carrying them out.” Though we feel as though, not taking up arms, we are not assisting in war, as citizens in a democracy every form of legitimizing engagement with the government is an assistance. If you vote for a government that goes to war, then that is your war because those people have been elected to represent your interests. And don’t delude yourself if you did not vote for this particular president or this particular governing party; all governments are war governments. Moreover, even opposing votes are legitimizing, reflecting a commitment to and investment in a system that allows for this or other wars to persist in all our names.

If you are an active citizen in a democracy, then you cannot displace your responsibility for its actions. If that active citizenship does not violate your conscience (as I feel it should), then you must assess every moral outcome as if it was being wrought by your own hand and vote or protest or petition accordingly. For the rest of us, we must serve as a prophetic voice announcing those “moral thresholds” that are being otherwise ignored.

War Has Only Victims

No modern war is proactive, at least not if those who wage it are allowed to frame the narrative. There is a trite old adage that “history is written by the victors.” Though true, it is worth adding how often the “victors” paint themselves as anything but the writers of history. They are always reactive, victims of outside aggression rising (usually heroically) to overcome other forces that have interrupted the peace of the nation or the world. We say the Nazis started World War II (which they did) and never bother to ask where they came from. We say the US got involved because Japan attacked Hawaii, but never ask why. When he had the audacity to suggest that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 had some casual relationship to prior US action, Ron Paul was pilloried as a traitor (which he is–if not to the country than to the narrative that undergirds its national identity).

In the lead-up, course, and aftermath of the war, we escape moral responsibility by depicting ourselves as perpetual victims reacting to outside forces and incapable of shaping our own destinies on the moral grounds we profess to prefer.

We see this happening in the justifications some Americans, Iraqis, and Iranians have given for the escalating threats and violence in the past few weeks. Each action is described as a response to prior aggression; Iranian president Hassan Rouhani tweeted, “the path of resistance to US excesses will continue. The great nation of Iran will take revenge for this heinous crime,” while [the US] President tweeted, “They attacked us, & we hit back.” In wartime, this reciprocal blame ultimately leads to an erosion of responsibility.

It is as though world leaders desperately need a mother in the room to shout in sheer exasperation, “I don’t care who started it!” Parents learn quickly what politicians never seem to have internalized, that obsessing over the origins of a conflict distracts from resolving that conflict. Never in our childhoods did “he started it” serve to excuse bad behavior on our parts, and yet that is precisely the logic that now commands armies in the vast fields of international relations.

As Christians consider the justifications for and course of war, we must always be wary of anyone who cares more about asking “what did they do” than “what should we do.” Our moral responsibility is for our own  behavior. Let others choose whom they will serve; Christians must choose to serve the Lord.

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Rumors of War: Peering through the Fog (Pt. 1)

The recent assassination of Qasem Soleimani has filled my news feed (and my WordPress reader) with stories about wars and rumors of wars. The nature of war having changed so dramatically in my lifetime, it is hard to imagine war will truly come, at least not anything like war as history has usually described with the armies of one states squaring off against the armies of another. Even so, the heightened consciousness about war provides a good occasion to meditate on the subject once again.

Few people when presented with a simple choice–war or not war–would choose war. It is generally agreed that, all other things being equal, the absence of war is a preferable state, materially and morally. Yet there never seems to be a shortage of support for nearly any war once it arrives, as if the entire affair is obscured always by a fog of cognitive dissonance and dissimulation. Fortunately, Russell Johnson has provided a clear guide for understanding “How War Bypasses Morality” and, in so doing, created a road map for staying engaged with our moral core in times of militaristic rhetoric and heightened conflict.

War Conquers Language First

Johnson notes that among the first casualties of war is the language we use to talk about the military actions being undertaken. He calls this “moral framing and euphemistic labelling.” It is the rebranding of acts that might trigger our moral compunctions merely by changing what we call them. Torture isn’t torture if it’s “enhanced interrogation.” Civilians aren’t civilians if they’re “collateral damage.” Kidnapping isn’t kidnapping if it’s “rendition.”

This tendency causes problems because an action can be described in many different ways, each of which carries different moral significance. G.E.M. Anscombe gives as an example the self-deception that occurred when Nazi executioners framed their actions in morally positive terms like “following orders.” Similarly, many Americans did not fully grapple with the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Japan because the bombings were framed in terms of “ending the war.”

…Because the terminology is different, people are not confronted with the fact that they are approving and disapproving of the same behavior at the same time. When people (like Soleimani) are described only as “terrorists,” our usual moral inhibitions about killing foreign leaders might not activate.

To combat this, Christians must be careful to think about and refer to actions by their plain names. If all assassinations are wrong, then this assassination was wrong. If you’re of the opinion that they’re not all wrong, you must still grapple with what separates a good killing from a bad killing. Semantic veils are not sufficient of themselves to parse moral truth. We must at least muster the courage to confront our choices unveiled by euphemism.

War Makes Everything Relative

Key to justifying actions in war is the ability to construct an “advantageous comparison.” War invites us to moralize not in absolute terms of right and wrong but in relative terms with various references–as many as might appeal to our desire for justification. Johnson names three particularly common comparisons used to justify war.

First there is the tendency to compare a present action with a past one: “If an action is seen as in line with one’s previous actions, it’s less likely to provoke self-examination. When a course of action is seen as standard operating procedure, people typically refrain from considering its morality.”

Next, war invites comparison of positive (even extreme) action with equally extreme inaction. The “something” in “doing something” is not evaluated on its own merits but in contrast to the almost always unsavory “doing nothing.” “These comparisons serve to make a morally objectionable action seem like the only viable option. This makes the act of choosing to pursue this action feel like it is not a real choice; in the absence of a felt decision, it does not activate moral self-examination.”

In the final (and most common) comparison, advocates of war turn to the behavior of their enemies as a way to justify their behavior. This rudimentary yet effective logic says that the enemy has done truly horrible things justifying our less than ideal (i.e. horrible lite) military choices. It appears in often totally unfiltered form and can lead to unsettling proclamations, like “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn’t work that way.” Johnson notes that “because of self-selecting bias, each side sees its enemies’ actions as unjustified aggression but sees its own actions as justified responses.”

None of these comparative approaches survives Christian scrutiny. Our past actions are not the guide of our moral trajectory; they are a pattern to be broken and overcome as we are transformed “from one degree of glory to another.” We do not look back and reassure ourselves that “if it was good enough before, it’s probably fine now;” we look back and ask “how can I do better.” Similarly, ours is never a perspective that allows only for the choice between two evils, a greater and lesser. As long as the One who is Good exists as an absolute measure of righteousness, we are never consigned to evil exigency. Our choices may be between the difficult good and the easy evil, but we must excuse ourselves from the hard work of doing righteousness because it is hard.

Most importantly, as we listen to the resonating drumbeat of looming war, Christians must remember that the evils of our enemies should not, must not provoke our own evils (even if we judge them lesser). A common (and recently reiterated) theme here has been that God demands we meet evil with good, hatred with love, scorn with blessing. The Christian answer to “they kill our people” is “we preserve theirs,” to “they torture and maim our people” is “we provide for theirs.” This principle may never work as a governing philosophy in this world of sin, but it must govern our behavior as Christians nevertheless.

So when we hear easy comparisons marshalled to justify war, we must remember that Christ alone is our moral exemplar, that good is available to us so long as God is Good, and that the example and command we have to follow is love.

[To be concluded in a second part]

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Rumors of War: Diana Agabeg Apcar on Peace

The recent assassination of Qasem Soleimani has filled my news feed (and my WordPress reader) with stories about wars and rumors of wars. The nature of war having changed so dramatically in my lifetime, it is hard to imagine war will truly come, at least not anything like war as history has usually described with the armies of one states squaring off against the armies of another. Even so, the heightened consciousness about war provides a good occasion to meditate on the subject once again.

Perhaps the signal profession of Christian bloggers in moments like these is to dredge the depths for inspirational and authoritative quotes from the past meant to focus our minds on the imperative of peace. I appreciated in particular this selection from an 1897 Anglican Encyclical shared by Joel Watts:

There is nothing which more tends to promote general employment and consequently genuine comfort among the people than the maintenance of peace among the nations of mankind. But besides and above all considerations of material comfort stands the value of Peace itself as the great characteristic of the Kingdom of our Lord, the word which heralded His entrance into the world, the title which specially distinguishes Him from all earthly princes.

For my own contribution, I turn to Diana Agabeg Apcar, a figure so remarkable in her own right that it’s a little surprising that she hasn’t made an appearance here before. Apcar was a member of the Armenian diaspora, born in the 1850s in British-controlled Burma. I know her from her time spent living in Yokohama. Taken there by her husband’s family’s booming business trade, Apcar eventually became instrumental in securing Japan’s early recognition of the independence of Armenia and served as an honorary consul to Japan–one of the first women in the twentieth century to occupy a major diplomatic post.

Apcar lived in perhaps the darkest period of Armenian history, when constant conflict with the ruling Ottomans culminated in the deaths of roughly one million people in the Armenian genocide. This gave Apcar a keen understanding of the atrocity of war, a subject she wrote frequently about to the Japan Gazette while living in Yokohama. In 1912, as the genocide was just beginning to take shape, the Japan Gazette collected many of her contributions and published them under the title Peace and No Peace.

Though the cruelties of the Ottomans are never far from view for her, Apcar focuses heavily on the hypocrisy of European powers, where peace was an empty mantra as they continued to press their imperial interests around the world. Though Europe has now been eclipsed by the United States as the global meddlers, much of what Apcar has to say resonates still with eerie relevance for the present crisis.

“Peace! Peace! when there is no Peace.” Never in the history of the world has the cry of the prophet of Israel been verified as in our day: for never have the nations voiced the cry for Peace, as now, and never have the foreign policies of the governments of Europe worked so systematically to destroy Peace in the world. Let the nations cry out Peace! Peace! but the Damocles’ sword of war must ever hang over the world, ready to fall at any time, so long as the governments of Europe pursue their un righteous policies, so long as they continue to make misery and desolation outside of their own fences.

The whole argument against war was clinched for us nineteen hundred years ago in the condemnation. “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence even of your lusts that war in your members?”

The lust of power and the lust of gold and the lust of territory have been the altars on which human flesh and blood, and the happiness of human life, have ever been sacrificed in our world.

If the nations will have Peace let them break the altars of ambition and greed in their own countries, and let them say to their own politicians and their own capitalists: “We will have Peace!”

The nations of Europe have cried out Peace! Peace but the cry has proceeded from their throats only, and not from their hearts; they have each and every one of them been desirous only to see the altars of greed and ambition broken down in the other men’s countries, whilst eagerly stipulating to keep their own; and if Peace must come to the world, it can only come when the cry has gone forth from the hearts of the nation.

The equation is simple. If Americans want peace, they must stop making war. They must stop feeding those dark parts themselves–the fear and the greed and the pride–that make war seem necessary and inevitable. But, since I know universal peace won’t be achieved until Christ returns, at the very least Christians must resist these impulses in themselves, cutting them away as with an offending limb. The prophetic voice of the church must declare, while the world goes to war, “We will have Peace!”

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Would Jesus Return Fire?

Like a lot of people in the Churches of Christ, I sat down Sunday evening to hear a service and a sermon that had been clearly reworked in light of the shooting yesterday morning at West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, TX. We sang songs about the sweet repose of heaven and heard a sermon on how this is a cruel, dangerous world that doesn’t share our values and can never be our home. Both the songs and the message seemed appropriate chords to strike in a time of tragedy for the church. Generally speaking, of course. Something in the particulars just didn’t sit well.

There is still a lot that isn’t known about the specifics of the shooting, an odd reminder of the limits of our knowledge given that the act was live streamed. Here’s what we do know. A gunman entered the church shortly before the Lord’s Supper and opened fire. Members of the “volunteer security team” (i.e. parishioners who come church with a gun and with the will and know-how to use it) returned fire, killing the gunman. At least three people are dead altogether, though the identities of the dead–gunman and churchgoers–remain undisclosed.

The prevailing sentiment, unsurprisingly in Texas, has been praise and relief that there was the proverbial “good guy with a gun” around to prevent further harm. Gov. Greg Abbott made his tactfully subliminal plug for the Second Amendment, saying “I am grateful for the church members who acted quickly to take down the shooter and help prevent further loss of life.” Police Chief J.P. Bevering had similar praise: ““The threat has stopped thanks to the heroic actions of those two parishioners at the church.” The “pastor” of West Freeway was less circumspect. “I’m thankful that our government has allowed us the opportunity to protect ourselves.” (I read that to the tune of the Doxology: “Praise government from whom all blessings flow…”)

For once, my issue is not really with the logic of gun rights or with the ever elusive cure to mass shootings in the United States. What unsettles me most about the response on the scene, the response in the press, and the response in my own congregation is the unexamined premise that Christians killing people at the Sunday assembly can be, in any circumstances, heroic. My own preacher chose, quite un-ironically, Romans 12 as his passage for meditating on the shooting:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The preacher’s point, as far as I could tell, is that the shooting is evidence of our persecution by the world and that we can look forward to God settling the final score. Only, we aren’t waiting on God. We aren’t leaving it to the divine wrath. We’re taking matters into our own hands and avenging our own losses. An enemy walked into the assembly, and we did not feed him or give him drink. We set aside the higher path to which we are called in Jesus Christ and went straight for the burning coals.

It’s worth noting that the injunction to “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” is not followed with a “but if they won’t have peace, cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” The resolution of that command is much harder to swallow: if they won’t have peace meet their hatred with love, their discord with harmony, their violence with charity. Yet, in the churches today, we actively plan to overcome evil with its own tools–the bad guy with the gun vs. the good guy with the gun–in direct contradiction to the command to overcome evil with good.

This is not an indictment of anyone at West Freeway. With almost liturgical ritualism, the men of our congregation huddled around after service last night and took an inventory of who was carrying a concealed weapon and who was trusted to take action if the worst should happen. (Correctional officer at the state prison, trusted. Pistol packing grandma on the second row, not as much.) One deacon even shared his Rambo-esque fantasy about clubbing with the mic stand any shooter dastardly enough to sneak in the back while he was leading singing (before hastily reassuring everyone that the back door remained locked). This is the standard posture of all churches; West Freeway just lived out what the rest of us fear or darkly fantasize about.

It is also not a self-righteous statement about my own expectations. If a gunman came into our congregation, I would not go to him with refreshments asking “are you hungry or thirsty” and “do you feel the metaphorical coals of my love being heaped over your head.” I would be on the floor praying for it to end by any means necessary. The outer limits of my imagined heroism might include throwing my wife down under a pew before taking cover, but I hope for the sake of my marriage I’m never asked to make a split second decision between her life and my sorry skin.

But the impulses of our hearts, so conditioned as they are with sin, are not the measure of our calling. That was, after all, the point of the now trite question, “What would Jesus do?”–to force us to look beyond what our own instinctive response to our mortal condition is and fashion our behavior after a higher exemplar. Whatever we do or don’t do, we should at least acknowledge when our sins are sins, when we fall short of the command of Scripture and the model of the Savior. Before we praise the armed heroes of the church, we should ask ourselves about the hero who never bore arms, who “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” And before we give thanks to the government that gave us the right to preserve our lives, we should pause to give thanks to the God who gave us the freedom to lose them without fear.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.


1 Peter 4.12-19


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Christmas on the South China Sea (1865)

The following selection is taken from the writings of James B. Lawrence of the United States Marine Corps. His “Account of a Cruise in the Waters Of The East Indies, China, and Japan” (1870) consists of letters and reports “from remote regions, which, while any information respecting them is intensely interesting, there is yet comparatively little known.” (He had a secondary purpose of promoting interest in and reform of the US Navy.) The trip itself lasted from 1865 to 1868 and took Lawrence from the East Coast around Cape Horn to China and Japan before coming back by the same route.

In the course of his travels, Lawrence has occasion to describe a great many things (not all of them, mind you, with great accuracy or impartiality), including this description of what his first Christmas of the journey was like from the South China Sea:

The day before Christmas the crew had double rations of whatever they wished served out to them, and the cooks were busy from morning until night in making preparations for the Christmas dinner. After hammocks were piped down, they were piled up upon the hatches, and the berth-deck brilliantly illuminated. The band were then collected and, seated upon the hammocks, they discoursed sweet and feet-stirring music to all that were of a dancing turn. This together with singing and other sports, was kept up until nearly midnight, one and all enjoying themselves “hugely.” I did not feel very well, and consequently did not join in the festivities to any, great extent; still, I enjoyed myself very much in looking at the rest.

Christmas was made as much of a holiday as possible, having no quarters, and no more work than was absolutely necessary, with the privilege of smoking all day, which is granted only on rare occasions. Then the dinner ! It was the best we had tasted for many a day, and much better than I thought it was possible to get up under the circumstances. There were plumb puddings, chicken pies, mince pies, cakes, and any amount of ale and wines which were sent forward from the ward-room.

This Christmas, however, was far from being a merry one to me ; for up forward in the sick bay, swinging in a cot, I was tossing restlessly about, with the pains of scarlet fever. Up to this time the holidays had been associated in my mind with snow, sleigh rides, and certain frozen ears and noses, but this Christmas will ever be remembered in connection with sweltering heat, as- the thermometer stood in the neighborhood of 100° above zero on that day and for many days afterwards. During this time the wind entirely died away, so that it was almost suffocating on the berth deck.

It is unpleasant to be sick under the best of circumstances, but how much more sad it is thus to be far away from home, in a foreign country, or in foreign waters, amongst strangers, with no one caring whether you live or not ; more than that, ” I hope the poor fellow will get well, but I am afraid he never will;”—a passing remark from some Jack Tar, the subject of the remark speedily dropping from his mind. Sick at sea ! No one can know the force of those words, unless he has had the experience, has been sick on a man-of-war, out at sea, where those many little delicacies that a sick man naturally craves cannot be obtained, without the comforting and tender care of mother, sister, or some female friend, and surrounded by the discomforts and unpleasantnesses which are hard enough to bear when one is in the best of health….

The. truth is, a sailor in a little while learns to look upon sickness and death with contempt, or utter indifference, and to expect the sickness and death of some near friend as a matter of course. I am sure that I have no reason to complain, for I had as good and ten4er care as could be expected
under the circumstances ; yes, and far better.

Here’s hoping that your holiday has all the foot-stirring music and none of the scarlet fever of a Christmas at sea.

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It’s War on Christmas Time

This is the time of year when someone on Fox News or some Fox News proxy becomes apoplectic about the “War on Christmas,” and I post something snarky and self-satisfying about the stupidity and/or hypocrisy of that. So I was drawn immediately in by the title of this Peter Laarman post: “Yes, Virginia: There IS a War on Christmas.” Ready to revisit my annual ritual, I actually found that Laarman was making my usual point for me:

I am troubled…by the way in which the greatest beneficiaries of a season that is supposed to be all about exalting valleys and leveling mountains—about social reversal and about good news for the poor—are invariably not the poor at all but rather the comfortable rich: i.e., people like me, and people situated well above me in the economic pyramid.

What this means is that we have an inverted Christmas, one that exalts the rich while further humiliating the poor. This as true in our time as it was in Charles Dickens’ time. But unlike the Victorians who read Dickens and pressed for reform, we appear incapable of becoming outraged about it.

Laarman rightly points out that the war on Christmas is actually the continued pillaging of the poor by the rich at precisely the moment we should be celebrating and acknowledging the world-shattering, society-inverting in-breaking  of the Kingdom of God. Real wars call Christmas truces, but this war only intensifies as the pressure to consume reaches a fever pitch at the holidays. Those who have devour, those who barely have struggle to keep up, and those who have not are reminded, as Laarman indicates, of their humiliated position in the socio-economic pyramid.

This Christmas, when you read a trite bumper sticker or wall placard about the “reason for the season,” try to remember that buying a nativity instead of a Santa or signing a religious carol instead of Jingle Bells is not sufficient to the calling we have received. Jesus came into the world to do something more, and he left us here to continue his work until he comes to call us home.

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