People Over Principle

A number of years ago, Noam Chomsky wrote a book called Profit Over People. It was a brief polemic against neoliberalism, in which he accused corporations and western governments of valuing profits over people, both at home in the West, and in the rest of the world. It was a rousing call to value human beings over corporate profits or economic efficiency. If you haven’t read it, you should. Your nearest socialist public library might even have a copy if you don’t want to buy it.

As the 2016 presidential election has dragged on and on, and we slug our way gradually to the finish line now, I have seen a similar problem emerging on the left. I call this the Principles Over People problem. It is no surprise that the conservative Right would prioritize ideas over people—ideas have to take priority over reality because their ideas never actually touch reality—but it is a little surprising to find large numbers of people on the progressive Left doing the same thing.

What do I mean? Very simply, I mean that there are large numbers of people who call themselves progressives who seem perfectly willing to sacrifice real, actual people that are alive right now, for the sake of ideas that might come to fruition down the road, maybe. Right now these people are generally the people still adamant about voting for Jill Stein instead of Hillary Clinton.

Why are they still voting for Jill Stein? Early on in the race it looked like Stein and surrealist mime Gary Johnson might have had an opportunity to surge enough in the polls to gain access to the debates. That would have been a game-changer for party politics, and I was interested in Stein at the time for that reason (and because her platform is better than anyone else’s). But Stein never got past 4% in the polls, and quickly sank back down to around 2%. By any reasonable account the progressive base would shift back to Clinton as the best third option (after Bernie and Stein). But instead Stein’s campaign shifted rhetoric around getting “enough” support in states to get federal funding down the road. The argument changed from a short-term (she might get in the debates and become a real challenger) to the usual long-term goal (future possible viability).

This is where a substantial number of people on the Left started to advocate for the Principles Over People approach. Their argument is essentially a purity argument: Hillary is an “impure” candidate, compromised. Ideologically inconsistent. Imperfect. Therefore she must be rejected in favor of the pure candidate, Jill Stein, and the pure party, the Green Party.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I want Jill Stein’s platform. But I’m not going to get Jill Stein’s platform. Third-party voters are also right that if everybody who said third parties aren’t viable voted for a third party, that party would become viable. But at a certain point you know that a third party will not be viable this election cycle.

But here is the point: there is always an element of selfishness in voting for ideological purity over people. I want Stein’s platform, but I’m not going to get it. I can either out of sheer obstinacy vote for that anyway, in an effort to make myself feel good about my actions, or I can recognize that while far from perfect, Hillary Clinton’s platform is much better in lots of areas than Donald Trump’s platform. I can recognize that poverty is a precarious position to be in, and that even slight changes in policy can result in large numbers of people going hungry or ending up in the streets rather than in public housing. Yes, Clinton is a hawk on foreign policy. Yes, her environmental record isn’t great. But it is better than Trump’s. He wants to get rid of the EPA (or as he referred to it, the “Department of Environmental”). Clinton isn’t going to cut funding for school lunches for low income kids. She’s not going to cut public housing funds, or HUD programs. She isn’t going to try to get rid of Social Security, SSI, Disability, welfare, food stamps, or any of the other hundreds of necessary programs that are assisting poor Americans get by day to day, week to week, month to month.

To refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she isn’t perfect is, in my view, ethically obscene. It is to say to the very real, embodied poor right now, “Your suffering does not matter as much as my good feelings. It does not matter as much as my ideological purity. You do not matter as much as my ideas.” It says, “I am allowing you to suffer in the present so that maybe we can make better changes in the future.” Guaranteed suffering now, for possible benefits down the road. This is nothing more than warmed-over paternalism, privilege of the highest order, and starkly anti-democratic.

There is no way in hell that Jesus would ever endorse such a strategy. He said to clothe the naked and feed the hungry right now, not let them go hungry just another four, eight, twelve years so we can maybe help them then.

What we need, when thinking about ethics, especially in relationship to American and global politics, is to renew our commitment as progressives to the philosophy of John Dewey, one of the great titans of American progressivism. His work Ethics is a good place to start. He was a proponent of pragmatism in ethics; that is, of situational ethics. The needs of people in every given moment define what is good in that moment. Joseph Fletcher’s Stituation Ethics is another good place to start wrestling with this idea. Fletcher took the concept of pragmatism and showed that it was, essentially, very similar to Jesus’s own ethics. That is, Jesus’s love was defined not by an idealist system, but by a response to the immediate needs of the people in front of him. As they were in need, he acted to meet those needs. Whatever systems or principles got in the way had to be overcome for the sake of love.

A proper Christian humanism, a proper Christian ethics, would say that nothing is categorically good except love itself. This is what I call the People Over Principles approach. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Principles are only tools in God’s hands, soon to be thrown away as unserviceable,” (Ethics, p. 8). Abraham Hershel similarly wrote, “The insistence upon generalization [principles] at the price of a total disregard of the particular and concrete is something which would be alien to prophetic thinking. Prophetic words are never detached from the concrete, historic situation. Theirs is not a timeless, abstract message; it always refers to an actual situation. The general is given in the particular and the verification of the abstract is in the concrete,” (God in Search of Man, p. 204).

Did you catch that? Abraham Hershel, the great Jewish theologian, stated that those who insist upon prioritizing generalization (his term for principles) at the cost of disregarding the particular and concrete situation, and the particular and concrete individuals in that situation, is completely contrary to how the prophets thought and acted.

In the words of Paul, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” (Gal. 5:14). What, do we imagine, we are obligated to do by the command to love our neighbors as ourselves when faced with Donald Trump? Voting for Stein brings no help at all to our neighbors, because she holds no public office and will not be President. So the first question for the pragmatic ethicist who prioritizes love is: who will actually viably affect policy? The answers are either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The second question is: who wants to strip away the last vestiges of the social safety net, and who will more or less preserve it or even improve it? Whose governance will actually improve the real, embodied lives of actual, living Americans? Not Donald Trump, that’s for sure.

We fancy ourselves sophisticated thinkers. But we need to start asking ourselves more difficult questions. We need to stop prioritizing ideas over people. People are what matter, and acting in love toward those people in the situation is what matters. People over principle are people of true principle.

On Mere Orthodoxy’s Delusion

Leading evangelical ethicist David Gushee – who in 2014 came to the position of LGBTQ inclusion, to the jeers and riotous attacks of conservatives everywhere – has written a piece on the quickly-vanishing middle ground on the matter of the full rights of LGBTQ persons in the larger culture. “It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions. Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.”

I found this piece intriguing, as I have been discovering the same thing myself in the last year. Nothing about Gushee’s observations here are false or incorrect. The issue is emerging as a defining issue of our time, and the middle ground is rapidly vanishing beneath our feet. The issue will come and find you.

I am bisexual. Obviously I find this to be a good thing.

Others disagree with that assessment.

One of those others is the supposedly-moderate, deep-thinking evangelical website Mere Orthodoxy. One of their writers, Jake Meador, penned an absurd, comical post in response to Gushee. I think calling it “absurd” and “comical” is fair; he called Gushee a coward in his piece, and has more respect for the sludge he scrapes off the bottom of his shoes than for progressive Christians. “It’s all par for the course for progressive evangelicals like Gushee, of course,” he sighs, with an implied eye-roll. Yes, we’re all a bunch of dum-dums, barely able to get food the narrow distance between our plates and our mouths, woefully oblivious to nuanced debate, facts, or the noble ancients they revere over at Mere Orthodoxy, the same ancients who were cool with slavery, the oppression of women, murdering Jews, and burning witches and pagans.

But I digress. Meador was meandering.

He takes umbrage at one of Gushee’s comments in particular, a comment that has thrown a number of my conservative evangelical friends into apopleptics online since Gushee’s piece was published. “(Religious conservatives) are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty, and interpreting their plight as religious persecution.”

This, more than anything, Meador dislikes. Presuming that Gushee has no knowledge of the lawsuits against conservatives refusing to provide service to paying LGBTQ customers, Meador reviews the (four) cases thus far. But far from not knowing about these cases, perhaps Gushee has a different perspective on them, one in which they are not actually religious persecution. This would indicate Gushee (and progressives generally) are not idiots, but simply see the situation differently, which would put the issue in the category of the pluralism to which conservatives like Meador pay lip service but don’t actually believe in.

Far from being the facts on the ground, Meador’s persecution narrative is just that – a narrative. As the smarty-pants over at Mere Orthodoxy should know, all events are interpreted. From Meador’s perspective, “if you tell a person ‘I am ordering you to choose between your conscience and your livelihood,’ you are persecuting them.”

But is this accurate? Is this a full or correct assessment of what is happening? What if, for example, the right to decline service on the basis of gender orientation is a privilege, and an unjust privilege at that? What if – just imagine for a moment – if LGBTQ people had been systematically oppressed, opposed, feared, and discriminated against from the beginning in American history? The imaginative leap is difficult, because we know how welcomed LGBTQ people have been from the founding of our nation down to the present. But just imagine. Imagine that we had a system in place that privileged certain belief systems – Christianity, for example, of a heteronormative persuasion – to have a privileged place in our political and cultural life? What if that was a violation of the first amendment and the separation of church and state? What if, say, churches didn’t have to pay taxes? What if churches were supposed to avoid political entanglements as part of their 501c3 status but regularly ignored this law and the state didn’t enforce it? And what if, just by default, most Americans thought this was totally normal and a public good.

In that case, would the state saying you can’t discriminate against people on the basis of gender orientation be persecution? Or the removal of an undeserved and unjust privilege you shouldn’t have had in the first place? Is that persecution? Really? Are you sure?

It is obvious this is the removal of a privilege to discriminate, not persecution. Nobody is telling conservative, exclusionary Christians what to think. Nobody is telling them what correct dogma is. Nobody is telling their churches what to preach, or what they can say. They are merely laying down guidelines for what a person can do, in the public square, that place of lauded pluralism which conservatives have, in the last six months, suddenly fallen in love with.

All of these supposed persecutions have come in the public square, or when private religious institutions are using public money to proselytize. The state is merely saying, “If you want state or federal money, you must abide by state and federal non-discrimination guidelines.” In an act of unspeakable arrogance and privilege, conservative religious institutions have said, “No, we (and we alone) must get special dispensation to not comply with state and federal standards.” Or, in the case of private businesses, “We must have special dispensation to discriminate on the basis of gender identity (as well as race, sex, and disability, if we want).”

If these religious persons and institutions were arguing for something they didn’t already have, something that actually took their rights away under the law, they would be persecuted. But they are fighting to preserve a special exemption from the cooperative pluralism with which the rest of us get on with our lives. And they have the audacity, the singular arrogance, to suggest that this is persecution.

That’s pretty fucked up.

Meador, though, isn’t done. He accuses Gushee of the same sin with which every social reformer is accused by every recacitrant traditionalist since the beginning of the Enlightenment period. The sin of automatic progress (gasp! orchestral sting!)

Gushee, he claims, is dishonest in his piece down to his very language, because his language forms the situation as abstract historical forces of inevitable progress verses the bigoted enemies of progress refusing to bend before the inevitable.

This is an absurd accusation, and for a couple of reasons.

1) just because Gushee is speaking of cultural movement now doesn’t mean he isn’t aware of the efforts of reformers to bring us to this place. Meador’s suggestion is so silly it almost defies words. Does he really imagine Gushee is oblivious to the blood and sweat shed by reformers to win key victories and bring about meaningful reforms? Of course not, he’s just counting on his audience to simply nod their heads at the pathetic silliness of those stupid progressives.

2) there is such a thing as the weight of history. Far from inevitable, of course, but cultural phenomenons become phenomenons because at a certain point they take on a life of their own. “Ideas have consequences,” as one conservative writer (Richard Weaver) once put it. Some call it “the long tail,” others call it “the tipping point.” Gushee is doing little more than suggest that tipping point has been reached, or will be reached very soon. Maybe he’s right and maybe he’s wrong, but his point remains. The middle ground is vanishing, and soon everyone will have to take their sides.

Reformers have forced the issue. I don’t deny that, and I doubt Gushee would deny it either. This is how change comes. A few people point out inconsistencies in the mainstream belief system. A few become a lot. The huddle of a couple voices at the outskirts become a din. The arguments which Meador is making now were the same arguments made against Martin Luther King by the conservatives of his day, and against the abolitionists in their day, against the suffragettes in their day and the feminists in theirs. “Radicals have forced this upon us,” they whined, in every generation.

Whine all you like, but the question still stands: “Are LGBTQ people actually people, and do they deserve full protection under the law?” That is the question that stands to hand right now, and the culture is increasingly cool with saying “Yes” to both aspects of the question. Not because radicals have duped the unthinking masses into changing their philosophical worldview, but because reformers have pointed out the fundamental inconsistency at the heart of what has passed for mainstream thought for the last several hundred years.

You see, all people are given inalienable rights by the Declaration of Independence, and all people are granted full production under the Constitution. If LGBTQ people are really people, then if we really believe “all men are created equal,” then we don’t get to discriminate against LGBTQ people in America. Not in our public life, not by our government.

Conservatives are unable to answer both sides of that question with yes. They must find a way to answer with “Yes” to the first part (because the weight of history has passed the tipping point on calling LGBTQ people less than human or not deserving of being treated like human beings) but “no” to the second (because it is the last line of defense for preserving their privileged discrimination).

Of course, by answering no to the second part of the question (“do LGBTQ people deserve full protection under the law”), the conservative must internally answer no to the first part of the question (“Are LGBTQ people actually people”). If we are people, we deserve full protections against discrimination. If we do not deserve full productions against discrimination, we must not really be people, not in the full, healthy, teleological sense. Disordered people, like women with their small brains and frail natures, like slaves with their need for white masters to care for them because they cannot govern themselves, don’t have full rights, because they are somehow full of wrongs.

Meador’s post is full of further absurdities. Like the suggestion that progressives are somehow tied in their ideological agenda to capitalism – I rarely laughed harder at a suggestion. But let’s end on Meador’s beloved pluralism. Gushee’s piece, you might recall, begins with the loss of the middle ground. The middle ground is all I have heard conservatives talking about in the last year, the disappearing middle ground and why can’t we get back to it. But what middle ground is there between full personhood and full protection under the law, and some personhood and some protection under the law? Or perhaps, more starkly, what difference is there between some personhood and some protection and no personhood and no protection at all? When the issue revolves around how much discrimination should be allowed, there is little room for compromise. It isn’t that we’re losing the middle ground, it is that we’re realizing there never was any to start with.

We’ve tried the middle ground between full exclusion and full inclusion before. The answer of the conservatives was telling at that time, because it is the same compromise they are offering now. “Separate, but equal.”

 

 

My Top 14 Nonfiction Books of 2015

These were my favorite nonfiction works of 2015. They don’t have to have been published in 2015 (most of them weren’t), but I did read them in 2015. (Yes, I am getting around to this late.)

“Some-men-see-things-the-way-they-are-and-ask-‘Why’-I-dream-things-that-never-were-and-ask-‘Why-not”-—-George-Bernard-ShawAllah: A Christian Response (Miroslav Volf)

In this solidly researched book on Islam, Volf proves once again that he is one of the most thoughtful and clear writers in western Christian theology. Here he deals with the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and finds that they do. He finds a lot more than that as well, however; he discovers that what the Qur’an condemns about Jesus and the Trinity are actually heterodox presentations of Christian doctrines. That is, what the Qur’an condemns about the Trinity, Christians also condemn as misunderstandings of the doctrine.

 

51WvO2MyFwL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity (Dianna Anderson)

Anderson comes out of the post-evangelical world of Rachel Held Evans and Benjamin Corey, and her book is a live grenade lobbed into the evangelical world of Pharisaical sexuality. Rather than condemning one another’s sexual choices, she argues that the church must focus on real purity; that is, that sexual mistakes do not “ruin” us or turn us into damaged goods, that enthusiastic consent must be the absolute rule for all sexual encounters (rather than non-consent, dubious consent, and consent against conscience), and that issues of justice and love of neighbor still apply in the sexual realm. She highlights the ways in which modern evangelicalism fails on these points.

 

51RLXuU414L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (Linda Tirado)

This was a surprise book for me; I heard about it on NPR. Tirado is a woman who has lived in poverty her whole life, and in this brutally-honest book she tells all about what it is like to live in what she calls “bootstrap America,” highlighting the stress and intense pressure that comes with life on the bottom, the injustices in the workplace that prevent them from moving up out of the bottom, and the psychology of poverty. I will never look at poverty the same way again.

 

111217No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Alfie Kohn)

This is the classic defense of cooperation over competition, originally published in 1988. Kohn is another master of clarity, able to clear vast swaths of “common sense” in a few short paragraphs. In this book he highlights the vast amounts of documentation which show how bad competition is for children, adults, the press, political elections, schools, sports, women, minorities, and literally everyone. You won’t believe what the science tells us until you work through this delightful, and freeing, book.

 

41pmy6SUmkLThe Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting (Alfie Kohn)

Another book by Kohn, this one published in 2014. Here he takes his characteristic clarity and insight to the notion of the “spoiled millennial.” Even in the respected, popular press you will find people lamenting about all of these spoiled millennials and the terrible parenting practices that produce them. He goes on to show in this book that older generations have lamented the “moral collapse” of younger generations since the time of Plato, that there is no real evidence that millennials are any more narcissistic, selfish, arrogant, or spoiled than any other generation in American history, and in fact that they tend to be more altruistic, volunteering more and being more open and interested in issues of justice than their parents. Another mind-blowing and ground-clearing book by Kohn.

51t8qZqd4WL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (Steve Fraser)

In this free-wheeling economic history, Fraser manages to take something that might have been very dull, and turns it into something compelling. He documents the long American tradition of resistance to organized wealth and power, beginning even before the American Revolution and continuing up until the 1960s. From that point the people virtually gave up and have allowed the wealthy to take our money and kill our economy, and offers suggestions on how to revitalize the populist resistance once again.

513lQScdtPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Jennifer Harvey)

Harvey’s book was one I just stumbled across because it looked interesting. She argues that if we really want to see genuine racial reconciliation in the church, we must abandon our white privilege and instead practice radical solidarity. She documents how the white church abandoned the black church during the end of the civil rights era when African Americans began to demand reparations. This was a bridge too far for white America, says Harvey, and the civil rights movement splintered and died an ignoble death shortly thereafter. We abandoned them, she says. The only way forward, thus, is to start with justice and restitution, not reconciliation. Reconciliation can only come after repentance, and the only acceptable act of repentance is to make reparations. I pray the church will heed her words.

41TPRJ9JDJL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (George Lakoff)

Lakoff is a respected cognitive scientist, and in this book he explores what makes liberals different from conservatives. He finds that the different policy positions that define liberalism and conservatism have nothing in common except for their root cognitive metaphors. Once we see that Americans view their government and their nation as a family, we can look at how conservatives and liberals envision the ideal family. What he discovers is that conservatives operate on a “hierarchical father model,” and liberals on an “egalitarian parent model.” The various specific policy proposals get support or opposition depending on how they fit into these central, governing metaphors about national life.

51D6lUfiR8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (Gabor Mate)

Gabor Mate worked as a medical doctor and therapist to low-income and addicted persons in Canada for a number of years. This book is the fruit of his research into addiction, and it is groundbreaking. In it he shows that addiction has its root in early-childhood development, when children suffer emotional stress, distress, or lack of proper attachment to their parents. He documents how this lack of emotional balance results in neurological damage, and how addicts use drugs or alcohol (or sugar, binge television, unhealthy foods, obsessive collecting or hoarding) as a means of self-medication and self-comfort, to address the howling emptiness inside. They quite literally cannot help it, he argues, from the overwhelming conclusions of the medical science and psychological research. He ends the book with some great suggestions for reform of national drug policies.

51Phsoq5N3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love (Ilio Delio)

Delio is a theologian working to extend Teilhard de Chardin’s work and bring it up-to-date for the 21st century. This book was my first exposure to her work, and to the work of Teilhard de Chardin. A breathtaking book about integrating evolution into the Christian narrative.

51CyqS68sOL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Journey to the Common Good (Walter Brueggemann)

Brueggemann remains a favorite writer of mine, and this little book is an argument for reclaiming Christian efforts for the common good of the world. He works through the exodus liberation, the Jubilee, and then through the sweep of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and shows how the issues of solidarity with the poor, justice, and mercy are the central themes throughout. The clarity of this short work is ideal for handing out to friends or family who might not yet have discovered the Christian journey to the common good.

51rgMM+4KcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (Chris Hedges)

Hedges’ latest work is a series of essays on two interconnected subjects: 1) the moral necessity of standing up against injustice, oppression, and hate, and 2) the high price that reformers generally pay for doing so. In so doing, he recovers the old Norse model of the hero, the one who stands in the breach and fights to the death not because he necessarily believes he can win, but because it is the right thing to do. I found the book wonderfully inspiring. It does not do what many books about justice do, which is try to frame justice in terms of its pragmatic or utilitarian ends. Hedges is agnostic on whether justice can win its fight, but he insists the battle is no less worth fighting because of that.

51ZTVN94m5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Walter Wink)

Wink’s careful and well-documented work is an inspiring piece of theology which explores what the phrase “the principalities and powers” means in the New Testament. He concludes that the powers are the inward spirit in any form of organization, structure, business, school, nation, or government, which becomes its own “essence,” invisible and unspoken. Thus, the New Testament’s call to wage war against principalities and powers is a call to expose the invisible gods of our world, our social constructs, our privileges, our hidden rules that exist beyond human intentionality or consciousness, and by exposing them, exorcise them as demonic forces, and construct new systems built around the call of the gospel.

2374980The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind (Cynthia Bourgeault)

This was a fascinating and inspiring book that seeks to reclaim Jesus as a mystical teacher of wisdom, not a political cynic or a first century Zealot or any of the various proposals that have been made about him. The book carries an endorsement by Richard Rohr, which is what drew me to it in the first place, and I found it powerful and stirring. One of the most interesting things about the book is her argument that Jesus was not an ignorant peasant, but rather spoke at least three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and probably Greek as well) and that Galilee, where he grew up, was actually a highly cosmopolitan area, due to the fact that the Silk Road from the far east passed directly through it, where Jesus would have been exposed to a lot of wisdom theology.

Daily Office Scriptures (April 28, 2016)

Psalm 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us
    and make his face to shine upon us,Selah
that your way may be known upon earth,
    your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you.

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations upon earth.Selah
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
    let all the peoples praise you.

The earth has yielded its increase;
    God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us;
    let all the ends of the earth revere him

In this psalm, the poet begins with the request for blessing, which is fairly common. The request is then seen to be granted  already in v. 6, and a request for continued blessing ends the meditation (v. 7). The psalmist’s view moves from asking for blessing to accepting that the community had already been blessed. There’s no time passage here, or anticipation of future blessings. It is almost as if the poet, in reflecting on how God needs to bless them comes to realize that they have already been blessed. “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us,” (v. 6). They already possess blessing, in the harvest season.

The psalmist also has an agenda for requesting blessings from YAHWEH: “that your way may be known upon the earth, your saving power among all nations,” (v. 2). This is not entirely, or not really, a call for blessings as the relief of need. This is a call for blessing that the nations will notice. There is a selfless orientation to the request. God, they hope, will show forth his blessings in such a way that the nations will desire those blessings too. Later this is connected to justice. The nations should be “glad and sing for joy” because YAHWEH evaluates communities in “equity.” Equity here is mishor, which means “fairness” or “equality.” God is fair, but he is also interested in equality. This means he doesn’t play favorites (how? Doesn’t he play favorites with Israel?), but it also speaks to the Old Testament’s vision of justice as solidarity, redistribution, and activism on behalf of those forgotten or left behind. God will not merely deal equally, but will make all nations equal.

Proverbs 2:1-5

My child, if you accept my words
    and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
    and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight,
    and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver,
    and search for it as for hidden treasures—
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
    and find the knowledge of God.

Proverbs, as a book of aphorisms and wisdom sayings, is meant to shape the hearer in certain ways. Its purpose is to cultivate wisdom, so for all those who want to treat it as a list of things that are absolutely true in the world, or as a collection of natural laws, are not merely reading it incorrectly, they are not letting the text mess with them. Here the author advises the reader/hearer, as a father would to a child, to approach the book with an open mind and an open spirit. The meaning is not simple, but must be sought carefully and deliberately, over time. The one who yearns for wisdom must “seek it like silver” and “search for it as for hidden treasures,” (v. 4). In such pursuits there are many attempts and false starts where no silver or treasures are to be found. Only those who really want it will persist long enough to “strike gold,” as it were. This should be our approach to all of Scripture in any case, open and receptive, though not passive. God wishes us to wrestle with the text and with the Spirit, not limply accept whatever a leader or charismatic person says it means on the basis of authoritarian fiat alone.

The Psychology of Evangelicalism

Philip Greven is a respected historian, and his book Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse addresses the issue of corporal punishment against children in its historical context and what light this can lend to the consequences of hitting, striking, and spanking children today.

In one particularly illuminating passage, he describes the psychological temperament of evangelicals, Calvinists, and fundamentalists, all of whom teach the suppression of self-will and spank their children form an early age as part of their religious framework.

Melancholy and depression have been persistent themes in the family history, religious experience, and emotional lives of Puritans, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals for centuries. Assaults on the self and self-will are the central obsession of vast numbers of men and women from the early seventeenth century to the present. Suicidal impulses frequently appear in these Protestants’ self-portraits as well, although those who write memoirs and autobiographies are usually survivors, not suicides. They may have successfully thwarted their inner impulses toward self-destruction, but the experience of conversion and the new birth rarely relieved them fully of their depressive symptoms. Michael Wigglesworth, whose apocalyptic “Day of Doom” was one of the best-selling publications in early New England, suffered from profound melancholy from his early twenties through at least his early fifties. Punishment was central to both his psyche and his theology. Many evangelicals, generation after generation, voiced their anxiety and depression in their diaries, letters, and autobiographies. In some families, such as the Mathers, melancholy afflicted fathers and sons for at least three successive generations. The persistence and, indeed, the centrality of menacholy and depression for an understanding of religious and secular experience in America, from early-seventeenth-century Puritans to lat-nineteenth-century Victorians, has been explored brilliantly by John Owen King in his illuminating book, The Iron of Melancholy. Some of the most compelling historical evidence we possess concerning the nature and history of depression comes from the religious tradition associated most directly with Calvinism and evangelical Protestantism over the last four centuries.

Closely linked to the recurrent depression evident in so many individuals is the theme of buried and smoldering anger–more often suppressed and denied, disguised and obscured, than openly acknowledged and expressed–visible in many of the most subtle studies of the life histories of Puritan, Calvinist, and evangelical individuals. The depression that manifests itself consistently throughout their lives is nearly always associated with the suppression of anger throughout their adulthood. Cotton Mather, for example, was one of the angriest men living in New England during the colonial period. His words and actions betrayed his inner rage however much he sought to deny it and obscure it from himself and others. Kenneth Silverman has noted that the preacher’s early stuttering was rooted in anger; Silverman observes the continuous impact of the “muffled rage” that Mather simultaneously vented and denied. Throughout his life, this rage underpinned his apocalyptic fantasies of the end of time. Mather “projected personal anger into visions of a world consumed, and hopes for personal vindication into sights of Christ returned to punish the wicked and avenge the virtuous.” The violence suffusing his language and his religious experience, including his intense apocalypticism, is exceptionally clear. (pp. 132-133)

What Justice Means

I am a fan of Walter Bruggemann, and I recently read his little book, Journey to the Common Good. This is an amazing primer on the central themes of the Bible. Along the way in this book, Bruggemann defines what the Hebrew words for “justice” are, and the definition might be the best I’ve ever read.

So here is YHWH’s triad, which we first might state in Hebrew: hesed, mispat, sedeqah.

Steadfast love (hesed) is to stand in solidarity, to honor commitments, to be reliable toward all the partners.

Justice (mispat) in the Old Testament concerns distribution in order to make sure that all members of the community have access to resources and goods for the sake of a viable life of dignity. In covenantal tradition the particular subject of YHWH’s justice is the triad “widow, orphan, immigrant,” those without leverage or muscle to sustain their own legitimate place in society.

Righteousness (sedeqah) concerns active intervention in social affairs, taking an initiative to intervene effectively in order to rehabilitate society, to respond to social grievance, and to correct every humanity-diminishing activity (pp. 62-63).

So the Old Testament’s words for justice mean solidarity, redistribution, and activism.

 

Troubles in Little Anglicanism

I have been drawn to the Episcopal church for a variety of reasons, but its inherent calm, ecumenical spirit, and tempered reasonableness have been among those reasons. Its heart for an inclusive gospel that sees us all as children of God has been another.

I am about two months away from being confirmed in The Episcopal Church.

Today at the global gathering of the Primates (Bishops) of the global Anglican Communion, the bishops did two horrifying things.

First, they voted overwhelmingly (by a two-thirds majority) to reaffirm and uphold the exclusionary tradition of exclusive heterosexual marriage as “between one man and one woman.”

Second, they voted to punish The Episcopal Church for changing its church laws on marriage to include marriage equality by suspending them from membership in the global Anglican Communion for three years. Basically, this means that TEC is now only an “observer” in the communion, not a full participant. They cannot vote on doctrinal or polity matters, nor represent the AC in ecumenical or interfaith discussions. Further, a Task Force will be appointed to “rebuild trust and healing” from the hurt that apparently refusing to discriminate against God’s LGBTQ children has caused the bristly global Bishops.

This whole process is a circus show and it is insulting, not to mention a shameless power-grab by the hierarchy of the church, which conservatives have been fighting to reclaim for at least 40 years. A lot of people don’t know this, but in the Episcopal Church there are two voting bodies, one of which represents the Bishops and the other represents the laity. No doctrinal decisions can be made without both of these houses agreeing with one another (similar to the House of Lords and House of Commons in the British Parliament). In the TEC, both of these bodies agreed to change the Canon on marriage to support marriage equality. By suspending the TEC, the AC is trying to discipline the TEC for a decision that was the will not just of the Bishops but of the people. It is an attempt by the hierarchy to claim power over this democratic process.

But this will also not change the TEC’s mind on the matter of same-sex marriage. We will not be threatened, we will not be bullied, and we will not be broken. We will cling to the gospel, which demands all people be welcome and proclaims liberation to those laboring under abusive tradition for centuries. As Jim Naughton, former canon of the Archdiocese of Washington, said:

“We can accept these actions with grace and humility but the Episcopal Church is not going back,” Naughton said. “We can’t repent what is not sin.”