Category Archives: News

We Have a Moral Duty to Panic

Panic may be too strong a word, but overreact isn’t. My response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has, like so many people’s, evolved as the situation has changed, a process that seems to take hours or days rather than weeks or months. Back at the end of February, a friend with significant comorbidities asked me to help her gauge how much to worry. In a world before community transmission, before confirmed US deaths, before the disease had left the coasts, my attitude was very much “if we stop doing [x], then the terrorists win”–child of 9/11 that I am. Now that friend is “hunkered down” with us in our small town hideaway because her county in her metropolis has the highest infection rate in the region. And I’m committing to my intellectual archive the official advice that it is time to start overreacting.kazan27s_panic_in_the_street_trailer_screenshot_282529

I am aware that “social distancing”—which, in practice, is a euphemism for becoming a functional recluse, crossing to the other side of the street when you pass other neighborhood pedestrians out on a walk, glowering at anyone who wants to elbow bump (or, heaven forbid, shake hands), and alcohol wiping down anything that anyone touches—is an irrational overreaction to my degree of personal risk. I’m reasonably young (an affirmation that rings with less truth and more bitter nostalgia every year) and reasonably healthy. My wife is reasonably young and reasonably healthy. If either of us was to catch the disease, it is unlikely that we would develop severe symptoms, unlikely that we would face death or even substantial ill effects. It’s even possible that we could get it (or already have) without realizing, thinking it was the regular winter yuck that all educators inevitably get. We have the luxury of going out, shaking hands, licking doorknobs, etc.

We also have the luxury of financial security. We are not, of course, particularly well off, but, as educators, we have a high degree of job security and the benefit of consistent pay checks, whether or not we are actually going to work. For my wife, in the public school system, that means that when schools closed last week, she was given all the time in the world to do with as she pleased without any of the responsibilities of her job, all without the slightest modification to her monthly income. In higher education, my responsibilities didn’t decrease so much as shifted online, but I too was freed to be where I wanted, when I wanted without fear of losing my paycheck. The world is now our oyster. We get to do far less work for the same pay and do it all with nearly no obligation to be anywhere at any time. Last week, in a brief moment of blissful abandon, I even greedily eyed dirt-cheap tickets to East Asia. After all, the sakura are in bloom in Japan.

Yet it is precisely because we have so many of those luxuries that we also have a moral obligation to overreact to the current pandemic. It is both because we don’t need to and because we can that we have a responsibility to stay home, stay hygienic, and stay healthy. Far from being about the calculus of personal risk, our actions in society, our moral duties as Christians, revolve around the fallout of our actions for those without these luxuries. There are plenty of people in our society who cannot stay home and still draw a check. Essential members of the American supply chain must go to work, not only to make a living but also to provide the means of living to people who have forgotten how to provide it to ourselves. I owe it to them not to go out if I don’t need to and to take abundant precautions when I do go out. My callousness has the potential to ramify into their lives, and so I overreact as an act of compassion. I stay home because they cannot.

There are also plenty of people in our society who are not reasonably young, who are not reasonably healthy. It would be wonderfully convenient if we could vacuum seal these individuals away until the outbreak is over or until we find effective treatments or vaccines. That’s obviously not possible, and so all of us who do not need to dream of hermetically sealed bubbles to feel secure in our tomorrow need to begin living as though every precaution we take is a precaution taken on behalf of these people, every risk a risk with their lives. My boss is immunocompromised from chemotherapy. My father-in-law has an autoimmune disorder. My father lost part of his lungs to pneumonia a few years ago. When these people wear masks, self-quarantine, and obsessively clean, it is a rational response to their personal risk. When I do it, it’s an overreaction to mine. It is, nevertheless, the morally appropriate response to my obligation to them as fellow Christians, as fellow humans.

All of this strikes me as a fairly obvious extension of the “least of these” principle in Christian ethics, but it seems to be one that a certain subset of Christians cannot seem to grasp. I have been pleasantly (but genuinely) surprised by how well some of our churches have responded to the pandemic. The measures are at times half-hearted and usually too long delayed, but in general the churches in my orbit have made a real effort to do their part in stemming the tide–in flattening the curve. Too many Christians, however, distracted by the politics of the disease or confused by a diet of misinformation from partisan and social media, refuse to reflect on their response from the perspective of love, compassion, and self-sacrifice. They talk about how, if we had faith, we wouldn’t pay the disease any mind. They remind us, disingenuously that, God did not give us a spirit of fear, as though precautions equaled fear and without any regard for the fact that the spirit that was given to us in one of “love and self-control.”

To these Christians are added too many people in society at large who have yet to be convinced of the severity of what may be before us. They talk about comparisons to the seasonal flu, make unfounded and irresponsible predictions about the future, and then go on with their lives with as much normalcy as they can muster while the rest of the world tries desperately to cobble together a coordinated response. Whatever the government may do, whatever our neighbors may do, it is Christians’ responsibility to urge one another to “overreact” for the sake of everyone else.

170px-sant_basil_the_prayerA story trickled back to me from a minister friend of an elder at her church, arguing against modifying services, who worried aloud that when this outbreak turns out not to be as bad as we all thought, Christians don’t want to be embarrassed. Maybe he’s right, and it won’t be so bad. I hope it won’t be. I hope I look back on this post and sincerely feel that I reacted entirely out of proportion with the real threat COVID-19 posed. But, even if I do, I won’t be embarrassed. As long as Christians continue to act out of love for one another and love for God’s world, nothing should make us ashamed. Let the virtue of self-sacrifice and an overflowing of compassion be our guiding principles in this time of crisis. If it turns out that we became fool’s for Christ’s sake, so be it. We are in good company.

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Elizabeth Warren in Global Perspective

Today Elizabeth Warren ended her once promising bid to be the Democratic nominee or the presidency. There are fewer national political ramifications than might have been expected, given her high profile, message discipline, and extensive operation. There will certainly be fewer national political ramifications than Bernie Sanders’s supporters seem to hope. In fact, the only enduring legacy of her campaign may be the serious post mortem debate that talking heads are now having about whether or not her failure to break out is in any way related to her sex. The NY Daily News says no: “Apologies in advance for mansplaining, but it isn’t about sexism. Warren didn’t lose; she ran a good race, much better than many other men and women in the field….But ultimately she couldn’t out-Sanders Sanders.” Many others say the influence of sexism is unmistakable. Nancy Pelosi can’t help but see a “certain element of misogyny” in Warren’s loss, noting that “every time I get introduced as the most powerful woman, I almost cry, because I wish that were not true.”  Others were quick to pile on. Perhaps now, in the absence of a viable woman in the race, it is safe to decry the pernicious effects of sexism without risking having to actually support a woman.800px-Announcement_Day_-_Lawrence,_MA_(1)

To understand whether or not sexism really worked against Warren, it might help to take the question out of the particular details of this race (that the NY Daily News is hung up on) and even out of our national context. Instead, we should consider it in a global perspective. Fortunately–and utterly by coincidence–a new study is getting press today about perceptions of women around the world. Any article summarizing its findings is probably a good read (and here’s the BBC one if you care to get a fuller report), but here are just a few key findings:

  •  Roughly half of all men in the world believe they are more entitled to a job than a woman.
  •  Roughly one third of all people believe it is acceptable for a man to hit his partner.
  •  Two fifths of all people in the world believe that men make better executives.
  •  Roughly half of all people (that’s men and women) believe that men make better political leaders.

That last one is significant because it suggests that the perception crosses boundaries of nation, culture, and sex. The US seems to be more or less on par with global trends. Over half of all US women have a gender based bias; the number for men is higher at 60%. More than one quarter of women in the US harbor multiple gender biases, as do more than one third of men. For both men and women in the US, political bias is the most common–more common even than biases about “physical integrity.” In other words, apparently there are more people in the US of both sexes who believe that men are better at governing than there are people who believe men are better at lifting heavy objects. All of which suggests pretty strongly that Warren faced stiffer odds than male candidates not (as the NY Daily News suggests) because Sanders was a better revolutionary.

The study tells us what people believe, and it seems clear that around the world most people of both sexes believe that men and women are different and that those differences are socially, economically, and/or politically significant. As a complementarian, I agree with the basic premise (if never always with its application). As such, I think it is important to point out that the study cannot tell us is if these beliefs are right or wrong, valid or ridiculous–though the clear implication of both the study and the coverage of it is that this is an error that needs to be corrected globally. For many specific issues, this too is absolutely correct.

Whatever else it may say, though, this information does make clear that Americans discount the role of sex in their political processes at their own peril. Sex matters, even for those who for political reasons choose to believe it doesn’t.

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Clean Monday Cancelled

COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the world. It’s already unseated my travel plans for this summer, not to mention coming up in classes and among friends who (for whatever reason) see in a history professor an authority figure who can be trusted on matters of epidemiology. Those are pretty petty complaints, given that people are dying, economies are sputtering, and fear is becoming a disease almost as pernicious as the virus.

In general, I have been counseling calm to people around me, partly because I think panic is pointless and partly because I have the privilege of living in a country that has barely been touched, in a state that hasn’t been touched, and in a rural area where community transmission is less probable. Even so, this story this week as Lent begins couldn’t help but speak to the extent to which the virus is shaping our world:

 Greece has cancelled all its annual Aporkies (carnival) festivities that were planned for this weekend as two coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Thessaloniki and one in Athens, raising the total to three, officials said.

“Based on the experts’ recommendation, and to protect public health, we have decided to cancel carnival events in all of Greece, as other European countries have done,” Greece’s Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias said during a news conference.

Piraeus, which is one of the largest Carnival festivals in Greece officially cancelled the carnival celebrations on Thursday, shortly after the Health Ministry ordered the cancellation of all carnival events through to Clean Monday (March 2).

This is probably a wise, if abundantly cautious call. If nothing else, perhaps this virus at this moment will help to remind us in this season of preparation to come penitent before God as if we may not always have the opportunity to repent in the future.

 

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Remembering Kobe. Imperfectly. On Purpose.

800px-Kobe_Bryant_Staples_Center_Memorial-01_2020-01-28The world was shocked on Sunday by the news that former NBA star Kobe Bryant had died, with his daughter, in a helicopter crash. There was an immediate and collective public mourning–at the Grammy’s, on social media, on several billboards on my way to and from work. Shock and mourning, however, were followed all to predictably by countervailing outrages when a Washington Post reporter posted a link to a story (2006) about an old sexual assault allegation (2003). The information wasn’t new–the criminal charges were dropped, Kobe admitted some measure of fault (if not criminal liability) in what he considered mostly a misunderstanding about consent, and a civil settlement was reached. What was suspect was the timing of the reporter’s post, just hours after Kobe’s death. Mourners were outraged at the reporter, the Washington Post tried to assuage that anger by suspending the reporter, and then (of course) a new group was outraged on behalf of the reporter. It quickly ceased to be about Kobe.

The reporter was certainly within her rights (and her job description) to share factual information about a public figure in the aftermath of his death, even if she was shamelessly and needlessly trolling grief stricken mourners. When the Westboro Baptists did it, the rest of us hated it but dismissed it evil provocation for the sake of provocation. What this reporter has done is the same, or at least it should be except that she is hiding behind a more culturally acceptable form of self-righteousness than the Westboro Baptists had.

Her defense of her post was that “any public figure is worth remembering in their totality.” That’s pretty feeble, if for no other reason than that is not how memory works. Studies consistently show that memory is selective, incomplete, and inaccurate. We choose what to remember. This is not because our minds are broken or incapable of holding the fullness of facts; it’s because the narratives we construct through memory give our experiences meaning. Memory is not the process of recording information. Memory is the process of assigning significance.

In selecting what facts to retain and to foreground and by emplotting those facts into a comprehensible narrative, our memories serve to explain to us why past events matter. What’s more, the reporter knows all of this, at least unconsciously. What she is really saying is not that public figures should be remembered in their totality or else she would have linked to every story ever written about Kobe. She would be concerned with making sure we remember his fifth grade teacher’s name (which most of us don’t know) alongside his sports exploits (which most of us are at least aware of). She’s not.

She does what she does deliberately to remind us that this assault allegation is at least as important as his inspirational athleticism. She intends here to say something about Kobe–that no amount of basketball success should dilute sexual misconduct in any way . (And she’s right in this, as far as it goes.) But she is also saying something about herself, since disclosing how Kobe fits into the plot of her constructed universe gives the rest of us a clear picture of her (and her now defenders’) hierarchy of significance. The message is that any one transgression, provided it is the right kind of transgression, nullifies any amount of good. That’s an impossible standard for any of us to live up to–including that reporter–unless each of us gets to decide for ourselves what kinds of sins are forgivable and what kinds aren’t.

For those who are genuinely mourning Kobe at this moment, allegations of assault do not erase who he was. Whether it was as a father, a husband, or an inspirational public figure, Kobe’s meaning exceeds any individual wrong. And that’s alright. I assume that his children and his wife, in particular, haven’t forgotten about the allegations in 2003, but neither is this the necessary or appropriate time to call them to mind. When I die, my loved ones will not forget every shortcoming of mine, but I also hope they don’t feel the need to list them in my eulogy. I assume the Washington Post reporter would hope the same for herself.

In the end, the Washington Post probably shouldn’t have “cancelled” the reporter in response to public outrage, but I’m much more concerned about the opposite reaction that would lionize her as a hero of the free press. He goal was never anything but to antagonize a grieving public into remembering Kobe her way, prioritizing her structures of signification. She’s a First Amendment warrior the way the Westboro Baptists were–reminding us that the First Amendment’s limits include space for distasteful individuals. Try to ignore them and move on.

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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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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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In Other News

I woke up this morning fully prepared to spend all my free time reading and thinking about what was far and away the most entertaining debate yet of the primary season last night. It was full of, among other things, deeply cringe-worthy moments. When Warren went on a fairly standard tangent about wealth corrupting political candidates, Mayor Pete felt the need to self-identify as that corrupt politician (“Well, can’t help but feel that might have been directed at me”), pausing for laughter or applause, getting none, and looking very much like a school boy whose class presentation isn’t going as well as he expected. When the moderator pointed out that Bernie that he was the oldest candidate on stage, he thought the appropriate response was, “And I’m white, as well. Yes.” (It was a subtler, if equally unflattering, look later on when he said that the white candidates “have an obligation up here, if there are not any of our African-American brothers and sisters up here, to speak” on behalf of African Americans. White Savior Sanders to the rescue.)

But as much as I would like to make an exhaustive list of every obviously pre-rehearsed punchline straight out of Amy Klobuchar’s big book of folksy Midwestern humor, when I woke up this morning my news feed and reader and inbox were all full of the news that evangelical flagship publication Christianity Today had called for the president to be removed from office. In fairness, that is at least as dramatic and as probably inconsequential as the Democratic debate.

Most of the coverage has willfully ignored the scrupulous ambiguity of that word “removed.” The editors of Christianity Today leave open whether the president “should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election,” calling it a “matter of prudential judgment.” That he should be removed, however, is not in question, and the editors go so far as to make it an article of faith: “not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.”

I obviously don’t join Christianity Today in endorsing political activism as a manifestation of faith, but I applaud their consistency both theologically and historically. If evangelicals believe that governments should be moral and guided, insofar as possible, by Christian principles–as most do–then it is baffling how they could continue to support this president, uncontested as his status is as a liar and an adulterer (to say nothing of other alleged failings). Christianity Today has taken what will undoubtedly be an unpopular stand among much of its readership, but it is in line with their earlier condemnations of a president’s personal moral failings, specifically those of Bill Clinton:

This concern for the character of our national leader is not new in CT. In 1998, we wrote this:

Unsavory dealings and immoral acts by the President and those close to him have rendered this administration morally unable to lead.

Unfortunately, the words that we applied to Mr. Clinton 20 years ago apply almost perfectly to our current president.

I’ll leave aside the fact that all presidents are engaged in “unsavory dealings and immoral acts” and that these are the predicates of political leadership rather than disqualifications. For now, I’m just happy to welcome Christianity Today into the Moral Minority.

Finally, I was struck by a story in my news feed about an Iowa man who received sixteen years in prison for burning an LGBT flag in front of a strip club. It caught my eye in no small part because one of the last lessons I teach to my US history students each term is about civil religion and the totemism of revering the American flag. The easiest example to illustrate this to the class is through reference to debates about flag burning, a topic about which some of my students inevitably have strong opinions. In that context, it’s hard to ignore the hypocrisy of a typically pro-American flag burning left being eager to criminalize other symbolic flag burning, unless its through the special pleading that often results from a superficial analysis of unequal power dynamics. (The same reason why the revolutionary left holds that violence from the state is oppressive but violence from the people is liberating.)

The case is complicated by the fact that the man appears to be a little deranged–“It’s my honor. It is written. It is a judgment and it’s written to execute vengeance on the heathen and punishments on the people”–and that the flag he burned was stolen. Sure, theft is a crime. I can even understand the charge of “reckless use of fire or explosives.” But all these charges against him amount to only thirteen months incarceration. The other fifteen years are for a “hate crime” charge. Hate crime laws are already highly controversial because they often amount to criminalizing thought or speech (which many countries, including the US, consider flag burning to be). Whatever you feel about penalty-enhancement for hate-motivated violence, this seems like a particularly egregious case of overreach. The state attorney general, Jessica Reynolds, justified the charge thus:

The hard reality is there are people who target individuals and commit crimes against individuals because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, and when that happens it’s so important that as a society we stand up and people have severe consequences for those actions.

The problem is, this man didn’t commit a crime against any individuals. He perhaps committed crimes against organizations–the church he stole the flag from or the strip club that he burned it in front of–but nothing in the article suggests that any individuals were targeted or personally harmed. What this man did was despicable and, in some petty ways, criminal. But advocates of social justice can’t have it both ways. Either the First Amendment is their great stronghold, the last bastion of a free and democratic society, or it is disposable and can be contorted or set aside to bar speech (or press or religious ideas) that are out of public favor. This man seems to me to be an ideal candidate for the “treatment not incarceration” rule of contemporary criminal justice reform debate. Surely that would be better than surrendering even an inch to the Orwellian idea that bad thoughts and bad speech are crimes.

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Muslims Love Their Families More than Christians

As the holidays approach, our minds often turn to families. Late night comedians make abundant fodder of the Thanksgiving and Christmas rituals of arguing politics or religion around the dinner table. For those families who agree on politics and religion, there always seems to be something else to bicker about. My own annual pilgrimage to spend time with my in laws speaks to the underlying truth of these comic stereotypes. As my own parents age, my wife and I have begun to weigh the competing desires to live near and take care of them versus the joy of having a thousand miles of insulating distance to keep the relationship safe and enjoyable.

All of this is going through my head as I read the results of a new Pew Study about how Christians and Jews tend to live in much smaller families than Muslims and Hindus. It’s not just a matter of having fewer children either. The study finds that:

  • Muslims across the globe live in the biggest households, with the average Muslim residing in a home of 6.4 people.
  • A majority of the world’s Hindus live with extended family, such as grandparents, uncles and in-laws.
  • One in 10 Jews worldwide live alone — more than members of any other religious group.
  • Buddhists are least likely to live in two-parent families. Though even in single-parent households, Buddhists are more likely to have extended family in the home.

Admittedly, religion alone cannot account for this, but the analysis claims that “religion still seems to have an impact.” The primary alternative explanation has to do with economic geography, with affluent North America and Europe showing the smallest family living groups (presumably because when people can afford not to live with their parents, they choose not to) and Sub-Saharan Africa and Southwest Asia showing the largest family living groups.

Nigeria is offered as a counterpoint to demonstrate the significance of religion even when accounting for economic geography.

A good example is Nigeria. Africa’s most populous nation is almost evenly split between Christians living in the country’s south and Muslims living in the country’s north. But even in the same country, Nigerian Muslims have an average household of 8.7 people; Nigerian Christians just 5.9. (A similar pattern within a country is true for Senegal: Muslims there live in 14-person households on average, while Christians live in homes of about nine members.)

The problem with this example is that it betrays an ignorance of the relationship between economics, geography, and religion in Nigeria. The North-South division in Nigeria is really a coastal-Sahel division, and that geography has influenced the economic development of each region. The wealthier coastal regions were (logically) the primary focus of British colonialism and, in consequence, the primary zone for Christian missionary activity–not to mention the main locus for passive, cultural conversion pressures as locals sought to accommodate to and advance in the British colonial system. The result is not just that the south is more Christian but also that it is wealthier and more (though obviously never fully) accommodated to the cultural norms and expectations that prevail in the North Atlantic.

A couple of maps illustrate the overlap among geography, wealth, and religion in Nigeria that parallels the relationship elsewhere.

The first map shows roughly the religious division between the Christian coast and the Muslim Sahel, the second between the oil rich, commerce friendly Niger Delta and the subsistence agriculture and husbandry borders of the Sahara. I would pretend any expertise about Senegal, but as a post-colonial state it would stand to reason that the patterns prevail there as well, with the Roman Catholic minority concentrated in old French colonial centers and the Muslim majority relegated–disproportionately though not completely–to the geographic and economic margins. That the global model of Euro-Christian affluence should replicate (or perhaps parody) itself outside of Europe and North America shouldn’t surprise us.

Religion, may in the end, amount to a poor explanation for these differences, and the researchers admit that it is neither the only nor self-evidently the most important factor. “‘It’s interwoven and bidirectional and we can’t parse the main cause,’ said Stephanie Kramer, a Pew researcher. ‘The causal arrows are going in so many directions.'” Still, I can’t help but be suspicious of claims that something inherent to Christianity (or Judaism) explain smaller family size.

Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said it may be that Christianity, in particular, lends itself to a more individualistic worldview.

“Part of the story here is that Christianity and perhaps Judaism have a deeper emphasis on the individual conscience,” said Wilcox. “That may express itself in more nuclear families and single-parent households.”

That seems both self-serving and willfully blind about more compelling–not to mention more obvious–explanations. (“The vast majority of the world’s Jews live in two countries: Israel and the U.S., both highly developed, affluent and educated. That more than anything may explain the higher number of Jewish people living alone.”) In the end, it may merely be that both Judaism and Christianity are so intricately intertwined with Euro-American history and values that the culture and affluence of those societies now often act as a gloss for the faith itself, even in places outside of Europe and North America.

Then again, I’m a Christian, and I share a roof (even temporarily) with my in-laws only and always under duress. I always thought that made me a yet-imperfect Christian, but if Pew says I’m doing Christianity right, who am I to argue?

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In Hiroshima, Time Destroys What the Bomb Could Not

Two buildings that survived the atomic bombing in Hiroshima are slated for demolition. In spite of local resistance, the government is determined to tear them down:

In 2017, authorities found the structures – now publicly-owned – were highly likely to collapse in a strong earthquake.

And – as the buildings are not in use, and are not open to the public – the local government decided they should be demolished by 2022.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the government’s position is fairly reasonable. These buildings are not part of the public memorial to the bombing (the Peace Park) and pose a safety risk to surrounding buildings and residents in earthquake-prone Japan. They were not previously the focus of the public memory, so why shouldn’t they come down?

On the other hand, I understand in an infinitesimally small way the feeling these can evoke. Visiting the Peace Park was unquestionably one of the most evocative experiences of my life, and seeing the demolished structures–particularly the famous Genbaku Dome–gave perhaps the most real sense of the scope and scale of the destruction.

1920px-HiroshimaPeaceMemorialPanorama-2

Whatever I felt is undoubtedly magnified for the residents of Hiroshima, particularly the few remaining hibakusha (survivors). One has come out forcefully in favor of preservation:

Iwao Nakanishi, 89, was in one of the buildings when the city was bombed. He is now the head of a local group demanding the preservation of the buildings.

“Considering the historical significance of telling the tragedy to the future generation, we can no way accept the demolition,” he told the Mainichi newspaper. “We strongly oppose it.”

Mr Nakanishi said the buildings could be used to promote “the abolition of nuclear weapons.”

…”These are valuable buildings that are telling us the horror of the atomic bomb,” one 69-year-old who visited the site told Hiroshima paper Yomiuri.

“I felt strongly after looking at them directly for the first time so I want all of them to be preserved.”

In a way, these buildings are hibakusha too. They function to symbolize not only the horror of the bomb but the resilience of the Japanese people. They also provide a launching point to challenge the over-simplistic and self-congratulatory Allied remembrances of the bombing. Like the summary included at the end of the BBC article linked above, public memory in the US often involves some pretty egregious assumptions about how the US was owed an unconditional surrender and how it was somehow fair, just, or even noble to trade the lives of Japanese civilians for Allied soldiers. The hibakusha are human testaments to the errors in this kind of thinking, but soon they will all be gone. Who will stand to tell their story then?

If the structural hibakusha are to be their voices in perpetuity, the citizens of Hiroshima are right to resist any effort to circumscribe or quarantine them into the neatly packaged confines of the Peace Park. The more structures that remain, the more public use there is of them, and the more visible they are, the more public memory will continue to turn constructively to the lessons of the past. Even though these two buildings will certainly come down, I hope that the people of Hiroshima continue to fight to preserve the others that remain.

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