Of Gospel and Heresies: What Did I Leave Behind?

September 20, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: What Did I Leave Behind?

 

 

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

——Mark 13:32

 

 

I don’t know about you, but personally, I hate going on a trip. It’s not that I hate being away from my home more than average, or that I worry incessantly about my home or that I hate being in unfamiliar settings. In fact, while I do think about my home, I’m generally curious about being in a new place. I enjoy noticing the differences, like what animals and plants I see or don’t see, how the architecture changes from place to place, what different foods are local favorites. What I hate, really hate, is actually leaving. I am always afraid of leaving something behind. And if I pack in a hurry, or even if I don’t, I almost always do leave something behind. Once it was the charger for my electric toothbrush. Once it was my child’s favorite toy. At one gamers’ convention I left a bag with over $100 worth of games and accessories in a hotel room, and only by sheer luck did I find it again. Several times it’s been the phone charger. So I hate leaving my home for a trip, I hate checking out of a hotel, every time I have to change locations I wonder what I’m going to leave behind this time. And I get more anxious when I have to leave in a hurry. If someone is threatening to leave ME behind, yet I don’t know what I might myself be leaving behind, I simply hate it.

I sometimes wonder if this says something about my spirituality. After all, a Christian is supposed to be a sojourner and a wanderer on the earth, traveling towards a heavenly city (Hebrews 11:13-16).   What does it say about me if my heart is with my treasure that I might be leaving in a Days Inn outside Eire? (Matthew 6:21).

Other people, it seems, are always eager to hit the road, or the airways or whatever. They count the days to their next vacation, when they take off on another trip to anywhere, as long as it’s out of town. And they must be having a great time, if 5000 selfies on Facebook are any proof. And sometimes I wonder what it says about their spirituality, too. Like Yoda said of Luke Skywalker, I might say of one of these eager travelers: “All his life has he looked away to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.” They always seem to be dreaming of vacation, or of when the kids leave home, or of retirement, some future away from where they are, from the ties that bind.

While my spirit seems troubled by what I might leave behind, theirs is preoccupied that they might be “Left Behind.” Or more precisely, they’re preoccupied with the pop theology franchise “Left Behind.” It’s an interesting phenomenon, this theology. It goes back much further than the series of novels published beginning in 1995. In the 1970s we had the would-be prophecies of Hal Lindsey and movies like “A Thief in the Night.” In the 1800s we had the Great Disappointment, where more than 1 out of every 200 people sold all their property and waited for Jesus to return on October 22, 1844. Other estimates suggest as many as a half-million people were buying books, attending mass meetings and joining churches preaching this coming Rapture, at a time when the entire nation’s population was less than 20 million. That would be one out of every twenty people looking forward to the end of the world, attending sermons and lectures about the Rapture, and not putting anything on their calendar after October 21 because there wouldn’t be any point. Then and now, people search for meaning, meaning for their lives, meaning for the world, and specifically the meaning of the most obscure, colorful passages of the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

Jesus found that his followers, too, were eager to know the future. They knew the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Zechariah and of the Essenes living in the desert. So when Jesus began to speak to them of the future, and to warn them not to get too tied down to this magnificent temple Herod was building, they asked him for prophecies of what was to come. And the three Synoptic Gospels do not disappoint. Although most the teachings of Jesus deal either with ethical teachings for the here-and-now, or with teachings about sin and his own redemptive work, Mark reports that he took time in the last days of his life to give his disciples a glimpse into the future, cloaked with apocalyptic imagery of the Sun and moon and stars being blotted out, the whole cosmos undone, and the Son of Man returning in glory.

Later, as persecutions of Christians got worse, the great apocalyptic book The Revelation of John was written by a prisoner on the island of Patmos. Like past apocalyptic writing, John wrote at a time when God’s people were being persecuted and it seemed as if evil ruled the world. John wrote to reassure the faithful that God is always in charge, no matter how it appears now. Like Daniel and Zechariah and other books that didn’t make it into our bible but which were known in his day, he wrote using imagery and even symbolic code, a style that the faithful would understand but outsiders would think was gibberish.

In the 20th Century, as science and journalism developed a new standard of objective truth, passages such as these became troublesome and fascinating for many Protestants. It was not always so. For most of Christian history, the literal truth of the Bible was largely assumed but wasn’t seen as terribly important. What mattered was the spiritual lesson God was conveying through the written word. But as some Protestant evangelists started making Darwin their scapegoat for all the world’s ills, they more or less adopted the scientist’s definition of what “truth” is, making the factual claims the bedrock on which the reliability of the spiritual teachings rested. How could we trust the word that Jesus died for our sins, they asked, if we find that God did not in fact cause the shadow on Hezekiah’s step to go backwards (Isaiah 38:8)? So instead of the mutual dialogue between science and faith that had dominated much of our history, war was declared on Science. Rather than argue that religion was a different sort of truth, expressed differently than scientific textbooks because it was too big to fit in those narrow confines, the Fundamentalists put their truth on the same level as scientific and factual truth-claims, and simply declared that their science was better than the scientist’s science.

This new theological insistence on factual literalism had another effect: it elevated the apocalyptic writings to the center of Evangelical thought. The early Reformers, like Luther and Calvin, had relatively little interest in apocalypticism; they were too concerned with figuring out how the Church should live and what it should teach here and now. Luther in particular sought to focus on Christ Crucified and Risen and on the grace he offers; there’s little talk of grace in John’s apocalypse. One day the saints will wear crowns and rule with their lord; but now we live very different lives, and that is where we should pay attention. But if you believe that every word of the Bible has to be literally true in order to believe the Gospel message, then you have a mountain to climb when you read John. Monsters with seven heads and ten horns, dragons, women sprouting wings—-the whole thing sounds like a Godzilla movie! But Fundamentalism doesn’t mean literalism; as Jerry Falwell explained, it means inerrancy. So the Protestant Evangelicalism of which he was product and producer focused on harmonizing all the apocalyptic writings of the Old and New Testaments and interpreting them so that all trace of factual error was eliminated. These strange images had to be interpreted, harmonized, and brought together into one unified prophecy of the future that hadn’t come, but which was just around the corner.

There’s a problem with this. The writings of Daniel and John are not aimed at the same audience. In fact, scholars claim that the great enemy that they refer to is not even the same; for Daniel it is the Greek tyrant Antiochus, while for John it is one of the Roman emperors who persecuted Christians, likely Nero or Domitian. The language about the world ending, this argument would claim, was never intended as a literal vision of the future but rather as a theological claim that the God who made the world is still in charge, and still in command of the order and the chaos we see, and can make, unmake and remake the world in order to give justice to the faithful. For the 20th century millennialist, this is unacceptable; the world was predicted to end and rather than accept this as poetic or symbolic imagery, it has to be literally true or the Bible contains error and can’t be trusted on any point at all. So we have to keep staring and staring and staring at the Bible, and squinting and sweating over the apocalyptic writings, until we come up with a coherent timeline that ties all the events described together into a future where the world really does end and we faithful really do get to wear crowns and sit on thrones.

But the original apocalyptic writings were written to audiences that were suffering at that moment, not in the future. The message was gospel, “good news,” for the Jews under Antiochus or the Christians under Nero. There is no “Rapture” where the faithful are caught up and spared the tribulations described, because the faithful were undergoing those tribulations as they were writing and reading the books! Elsewhere in the Gospels and in Paul’s letters we do read about the faithful being caught up to Heaven in an instant, in the twinkling of the eye, to join our Lord when he returns; but those writings have no mention of a tribulation to follow. They are simply inconsistent. Any attempt to harmonize them is a human interpretation, often masquerading as divine prophecy, which is rarely good. In the hands of Evangelicals, the symbolism and poetry and artistry and reassurance of the many Biblical apocalyptic writings became a theological Rorschach ink blot, where each one sees what he or she wants to see and what one sees says more about oneself than the object one is looking at. In the millennialist theology of today, the “Left Behind” theology as it is known (sorry, Omega Code!), the theology intended to comfort the poor and persecuted becomes a message to mostly white, middle-class American Christians. Whether you’re a hotshot reporter played by Kirk Cameron, or an airline pilot, or even a black pastor of a fairly large, nice-looking church, you’re one who up until that moment in the movie was doing pretty darned well. And if you’re the sort of person who buys these books and videos and movie tickets and who believes this message, you’ll stay well-off. All the good people, the ones who call themselves “the faithful,” get raptured out of the book or movie before the Antichrist gets cooking, before the Tribulation occurs; they’re off in Heaven in comfort, watching and munching divine popcorn I assume with front-row seats to the divine drama playing out on Earth without them, until the story ends and they get to take their place on the stage with their golden crowns and white robes. The people who get persecuted, who have to endure the Tribulation, are the ones who didn’t quite believe strongly enough or correctly enough or soon enough, who are perhaps good people but who weren’t sufficiently Evangelical so now they’re stuck until the seven years of terror are ended.

That is not what the Bible says. We may disagree exactly what it does mean, but it doesn’t mean that. Every mention of the Rapture agrees that after it occurs, the world is over. Jesus returns and the Kingdom comes; there is no Tribulation during which the faithful get to finally watch the others suffer and thus avenge themselves on all the people who mocked them or ignored them or had more fun than them. The Tribulation is not a show; it is not a spectator sport. It is now. Now is the time of trial. And all of us are in it together.

One of my teachers, Diogenes Allen, wrote a very fine and very readable book, Finding Our Father, discussing the importance of humility. Humility is both the cardinal spiritual virtue and the cardinal epistemological virtue. That is, we need humility to see God and to see ourselves accurately, and really we need it to see ANYTHING accurately. Without humility, we naturally see the world as a child always sees it: revolving around ourselves, judged “good” or “evil” based on how it makes oneself feel. Allen lists five implications of the sort of humility we are to have, and one in particular seems relevant to my purpose here: “We are not to seek to live in glory before our time.”[1] When any of us realizes some spiritual truth, we naturally want to think “Well, now, I know the truth, I am freed from my old errors and sins, I’m now one of the faithful. Maybe I should seek to help others, or maybe I should just rest secure in my salvation and let God save the others; but at least I know I’ve run the good race.” But we’re not there. We never will be “there” in this life. Every momentary realization of our true place, utterly insignificant in the world and simultaneously God’s beloved, humble yet secure, is the next moment threatening to slide either towards self-importance or anxiety. The Christian life is a paradox (and if you’re a religious person who isn’t Christian, I suspect you’ve also encountered the same truth). The objective reality of the universe says each of us is just a dust-mote floating on the breeze, and accidental collection of chemicals with delusions of grandeur. The life-giving spirit assures us that we are, despite all objective evidence, of infinite worth, what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called “dignity.” But that feeling of being valued by the source of the universe tempts us to push back against the threatening message of insignificance which the universe sends us with every reminder of our weakness and mortality, by instead thinking of ourselves as more and better and more powerful than we are. And one way we do that is by seeing ourselves as already freed, as children not of this world of pain but of the Rapture. It is hard to wake up every day and remember that Christ calls us to get out of bed and go out as servants to an ungrateful and unknowing world, servants even to neighbors who fundamentally reject the truths we hold dear and which hold us. It is much more pleasant to see ourselves as the world’s rulers already, any moment to take our rightful place in Heaven to look down on those sinners around us while they finally get their comeuppance.

Perhaps that is why Jesus gave us these saving words: Of that hour no one knows, not even the Son, but only the Father. Your job is not to try to find out what God has not seen fit to reveal even to the Christ; your job is to watch, and wait. For too many Christians, the message of Christ’s sudden return becomes an excuse to not care about the world, or about our neighbors. If they’re worthy, they’ll be fine just as we are; if they’re not, that’s their choice, their problem. Why clean up the world when God is just going to end it any day now? So what if today children are drinking lead-poisoned water, if tomorrow they’ll be sipping ambrosia and eating manna in Heaven? That is pretty much the opposite of what Christ says. He says, I may return tomorrow, or the next day, or a thousand years from now; but whenever I return, you’d better look busy doing the things I told you to do: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, comforting the suffering, sharing good news, showing love and respect for the poor, the one with no family, and to the foreigner. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to your Lord.

This world is the one that God has given us as our task, our stewardship, our job. The pay isn’t always great, but the retirement package is out of this world! But for some people, waiting for that final day on the job seems to drag. They go through life as if it were Friday at 4:30. They don’t want to start working on anything new. They don’t want to help one more customer. They’re terrified of being “left behind,” but don’t worry about what they might be leaving behind: tasks undone, suffering people uncomforted, faint-hearted unencouraged, hungry unfed, or strangers unwelcomed. Millennialism wants to be done, wants the work to be over, and reduces the Christian life to simply believing that the Christian life is already concluded. There is no need to serve others as Christ did, to follow in Christ’s footsteps. All you need to do is believe in the Rapture and you will be raptured. Again and again in millennialist movies and novels there is some character who is good, loving, goes to church, believes that Jesus is Lord, but doesn’t expect a literal rapture and thus is left to suffer. The works-righteousness of the Middle Ages was replaced by thought-righteousness, so that even believing in Jesus and loving God and the Church isn’t enough if you don’t love in the right way, with the right theology. That isn’t what Jesus said. That isn’t taking up your cross and following Jesus. What that is, is not doing your job because you’re staring at the clock waiting for time to go home. We need to do the work that God told us to do, and seek to imitate the life of the actual Jesus we see in the Gospels. That is what the Bible tells the faithful people to do. Because whether there’s a literal Rapture ten minutes from now or ten thousand years, I can promise you this: each one of us will end. Your world will end, and you will find yourself alone with God. As Kierkegaard said, this is “the earnest thought of death,” which makes life so serious. It definitely will happen, and it almost certainly be a surprise, the most certain and unexpected of all things. So as Christ says: Keep watch.

[1] Diogenes Allen, Finding Our Father (John Knox Press, Atlanta GA: 1974) p. 74

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Why Were We Attacked on 9/11? Why Must We Remember? What Have We Forgotten?

September 11, 2018

https://azelin.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/abu-bakr-naji-the-management-of-savagery-the-most-critical-stage-through-which-the-umma-will-pass.pdf

This.  This is why we were attacked.

Al Qaeda was originally founded to overthrow the corrupt tyrannies in the Muslim world.  Osama bin Laden and his gang believed that the governments that they opposed were propped up by Western democracies and Communist dictatorships, and would never be removed until the influence of those outside powers was broken.  They knew they could ever do this in open war, as the Prophet had done when he led the faithful from Medina to unify the Arabian peninsula or the Caliphs had done when they led armies out of Arabia into Africa and across Asia, eventually even into parts of Europe.  Instead, they chose to rely on terrorism and attrition.  They would commit acts of terror in countries they intended to conquer, in order to destabilize them.  The government would have to commit to guarding everywhere, and still would not be able to insure peace.  People would start to turn on each other, as their government’s financial resources were drained and they had to rely on themselves for security.  Eventually, the country would collapse into anarchy, and the former national unity would fracture along tribal and ethnic lines.  This vicious infighting would be the “savagery” part of the strategy.  Then they, the terrorists who originally caused the problems, would ride in to fix the problems.  This is the “management” part.  They would restore the very social services they had destroyed, restore law and order, and bring peace.

And where would Russia, the US, and Europe be during all this time?  The plan was to lure these powers into war on Muslim soil.  This would serve as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda, and would drain the great powers of their chief advantage:  their wealth.  As they went bankrupt, they would break up and lose the ability to export their culture, their movies, their blue jeans, and their political ideas, notions about women’s rights and so on.  This is the strategy they used to shatter the USSR and, they thought, it would work against the USA too.  Big, spectacular attacks like 9/11/01 are giant, bloody recruitment posters for al Qaeda, as well as attempts to goad the West into unending war and eventual bankruptcy.

At first, it seemed like it would fail, miserably.  This is why we need to remember.  After 9/11, the entire civilized world united against the forces of barbarism and savagery.  We had more pro-USA rallies around the world in the days and weeks after the World Trade Center fell than we had at any time since the defeat of Hitler, maybe even more.  The values that our nation was founded on—that all people are created equal, that we the people should control our own government—are principles that were valued around the world, even in the Islamic world.  The Muslim world has suffered under colonization and economic exploitation, as well as centuries of economic and intellectual stagnation that had left it weak and vulnerable in the 20th Century; but even there, many people want freedom, peace and prosperity, government that works for the people and in which they have some voice, even if the form that takes is not the same as our democracy.  And even people who disagreed with us did not agree with the idea of killing men, women and children who were working, or shopping, or on school trips to the city, people who might themselves be Muslim or Jewish or Christian, American or European or Asian or African, anyone who happened to be in the World Trade Center.  And we Americans, who had been pushed apart by the Culture Wars of the 1990s, came together, despite differences in race, class or religion.  Gay and straight, atheist and faithful, rich and poor all came together to mourn as one people, and to dedicate ourselves to preserving the promise of the United States of America.  We had national prayer services, we had fundraising telethons, public expressions of patriotism surged, and military recruiters were busier than they had ever been since the end of the draft.

There were some voices of dissent to all this unity.  Culture warriors like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on the Right chose to blame feminists and progressives for the attacks, saying that God hates equal pay for women and help for the poor so much that He (sic) sent the terrorists to punish us.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/sep/19/september11.usa9  Culture warriors on the Left chose to blame the victim, saying that the terrorist attacks were just retribution for the past wrongs of colonization and the present wrongs of racism and exploitation https://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/WC091201.pdf  But the vast majority of people, from George W. Bush to Christopher Hitchens, were horrified, and we mostly saw those voices of division for what they were:  self-serving attempts to keep the Culture War Industry going and its leaders prosperous.

What we have forgotten, though, is that although we were more unified than ever, the forces of division never gave up.  Falwell and Robinson merely bided their time.  More to the point, the Republican party leaped into bin Laden’s trap.  Instead of pursuing a financially sound strategy, attacking and defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan while negotiating with other Muslim nations to side with us against this common foe, they launched a second front in Iraq, a regime that for all its despicableness had nothing to do with the terrorists who attacked us.  Yes, they supported terrorists in Israel, but not al Qaeda. They launched these wars with no realistic idea how to end them, with inadequate garrison forces to control the land and prevent them from descending into the very savagery bin Laden was seeking to create.  And worst, they did all this without paying for any of it running up huge national debts where the previous president had left a surplus that would have paid off the debt if only the Bush tax cuts hadn’t been passed.  As a result of this economic mismanagement, the world experienced an economic collapse in 2008 that much of Europe, Asia and Africa still has not recovered from.  The USA, under Obama, managed to stop the economic free-fall and slowly improve the economy, which has grown steadily for about ten years now.

Today, the United States government is pursuing national and international policies that seem to be intended to make bin Laden’s dream come true.  He could never have sabotaged the USA economy without help, which he got from Republican tax cuts.  He could never have sabotaged the world economy and alliances without help, which he got from the White House.  Bin Laden could never have turned Americans against each other and threatened to break up the United States into disunited separate nations, if it weren’t for the cooperation of Republicans who called out their state militias to watch Jade Helm exercises, or threatened to shoot Federal workers who sought to enforce health care laws, or who simultaneously worked tirelessly to deprive American citizens of the right to vote while threatening “Second Amendment Remedies” against anyone they didn’t like who had the gall to win in a free and fair election.  We have forgotten what it was that our enemies wanted, and thus have allowed them to come closer to victory than ever before.

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Addendum

August 21, 2018

As I was replying (in my usual verbose way) to Nemo, I got to thinking about an event in popular culture that maybe helps make a point about civility and humor.

The event is the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner and Roast, and the Republican reaction to it.  In this, the host, Michelle Wolf, made a comment about White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, saying she burns facts and uses the ashes to make the eye shadow for her “smokey eye” look.  “Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s lies,” Wolf said, in a parody of the classic “Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline” slogan.

The first thing I would say is that settings matter.  It was a roast.  That means that people are expected to use humor to mock others who are “big enough to take it.”  Traditionally, groups like The Friars Club used it as a form of honor between comedians.  Comedians are not eulogists; they are expected to mock others.  Wolf mocked her hosts, the assembled press, as well as political leaders.  That’s her job and her social function.  Anyone so thin-skinned that they can’t take this yearly ritual should get out of public life.  It’s like going to church and announcing publicly that you’re a worthless sinner in need of forgiveness; if you’re too self-centered to accept the idea that maybe you’re not perfect already, you shouldn’t go to church.  In Roman times, whenever a person achieved real greatness, he would be honored with a parade, called a “triumph,” with marching troops, musicians and all sorts of grandeur; but riding in the chariot beside him was a slave who would whisper repeatedly, “Remember you are mortal.”  THAT’S what a comedian at the White House Correspondents Dinner is supposed to do:  remind those in the press, in government and others, all who would walk with the gods and receive admiration and authority above all others, that they are mere mortals.

Second, the point of the attack was to accuse Sanders of routinely and casually lying.  Since her job is to speak for the President of the United States, it is deeply self-contradictory that she often makes statements that are provably false.  Her ostensible job is to keep people informed; in fact, she misinforms.  The joke was that she was “burning truths,” not that she wears too much make-up; the “smokey eye” reference turned her signature style into a metaphor for her misdeeds, a true incarnation for her sin against truth.

Third, Republicans immediately denounced what they said was an attack on Sanders’ looks.  Given that their leader routinely goes on Twitter to attack “Sloppy Steve” or “Little Marco,” the outrage seems even less than hollow.  More importantly, it misses the point, either deliberately or stupidly.  Some undoubtedly want to deflect attention away from the fact that Sanders’ relationship to the truth is like a Trump marriage:  fleeting, unfaithful and mostly centered around money.  But others may have been genuinely offended at making fun of Sarah’s looks, and thought that was mean-spirited.  To that I would say, again, it’s a roast.  You attack the ones you love, or at least the ones who are big enough to take it.  More to the point, that wasn’t the point.  People who were offended by the joke probably didn’t get the joke, so they’re attacking what they don’t understand by focussing on something tangential.

When Michelle Wolf said Sanders was a liar, she went after someone who is in a prominent social position and who has nothing to lose by such mockery.  When Rush Limbaugh, a prominent, powerful and rich person, attacked a private citizen and called her a “slut,” that was simple bullying.  It was also stupid and false, since his mockery revealed nothing deeper than the fact that he doesn’t know how contraception works or he’d have known that a woman has to take the pill every month regardless of how much sex she has, so a person in a committed relationship spends just as much money as one who isn’t.  It isn’t, like the condoms Limbaugh used in his trip to enjoy the prostitutes of the Dominican Republic, something that you spend more money on the more debauched you are—and I can only hope Rush did indeed use condoms in that well-publicized trip, since I’d hate to think of those poor sex workers catching STDs from him.  After all, many of them are children with their whole lives ahead of them.

See, that’s how it’s done.  You don’t beat up on people smaller than you, like Rush does and Trump does; you beat up on people who are big enough to take it, preferably whose egos are also puffed up even larger than their natural size.

“Civility” does matter.  What is “civility”?  Presumably, it is behaving in a civilized manner, as a member of a civilization.  And a civilization means there is some sort of a hierarchy, with division of labor, differing social functions and so on.  It’s one thing when a comedian makes jokes about the assembled guests at a roast; it’s another thing when a politician uses insults and deceits to dehumanize and belittle critics.  One is to entertain and, at times, to speak truth to power; the other is an aggressive self-defense, speaking power to truth to prevent legitimate critique.

And perhaps more importantly, there’s nothing socially destructive about a comedian telling jokes.  That’s what comedians do.  It doesn’t overturn the social order, at least not when it’s done in its own settings such as late-night television or a comedy club, or a roast.  But when the President of the United States abandons the dignity of that civilized office to become just another internet troll, it is as socially destructive as when Emperor Commodus took on the role of a slave to fight as a gladiator in the Arena of Rome.  It undermines the dignity of the office more thoroughly than anything any jester could possibly do.  Nietzsche said that anarchists are no threat to monarchs; if anything, the crown sits more securely on their heads due to the occasional bullet shot at them.  Likewise, authority is not threatened when a comedian lobs a couple jokes at elected leaders.  There was nothing “uncivil” about Michelle Wolf’s behavior; in a civilized society, a professional comedian telling jokes at a roast is not surprising.

From the authoritarian perspective, subordinates like us owe respect to our betters; authoritarian conservatives thus are more inclined to be offended at the disrespect of a person in authority than they are at the borderline sadism of a powerful, rich public figure tormenting and belittling a private citizen.  An authoritarian is more inclined to think that the strong person has a natural right to slap down others in order to defend the status quo.  That’s at least what psychologists like Steven Pinker have discovered:  conservatives tend to react much more negatively to jokes made at the expense of people they regard as authority figures.  It is said that conservatives have five “moral colors” with which they paint their moral landscape:  Harm, Fairness, Community, Authority and Purity.  These are instinctive moral values, coloring how an individual reacts to the social world.  They are facts of existence, and thus you cannot really say someone is “wrong” for thinking this way.  But the other fact is that liberals seem to only have three of those principles.  They agree with conservatives that it is wrong, generally, to harm others, that it is important to be fair, and that communal life and harmony are valuable; but they don’t care very much if at all about Authority or Purity.  Those values, the desire to maintain the status quo and to maintain firm boundaries between “insider” and “outsider” lest the outsider contaminate us insiders in some way, are inherent to the conservative mindset.  To liberals, the conservatives seem to be narrow-minded bigots; to conservatives, the liberal seem to be anarchists who threaten the very group (nation, family etc.) that sustains them.  But the fact is that some people see things one way and some the other; some get upset at challenging or mocking an authority figure and feel it is immoral, while others feel no discomfort so long at the mockery seems “fair” and does no real harm.  There is little sense in denying these facts.  However, it is reasonable to ask for consistency and perspective.  The people who are furious about Smokey-Eyegate are likely the same ones who laughed when Obama was President and elected Republican officials passed around e-mails with pictures of the White House garden planted with watermelons, or who agreed when an elected GOP officeholder said Michelle Obama looked like an ape in heels, because they didn’t regard the President they didn’t like as an “authority” and thus their automatic defenses against assaults on authority figures weren’t triggered.  Liberals, on the other hand, are psychologically less likely to divide the world into “outsider” and “insider” and thus were more outraged at the racism, and if anything more rather than less outraged that the racist humor was coming from elected authorities.  You can’t necessarily demand that others feel the way you feel about jokes about “your” President; but you can at least demand fairness, and say that if it was acceptable for them to laugh at your authorities then you get to do the same to theirs.  Thus, psychology tells us that what one person feels is “uncivil” may feel perfectly civil to another, and perhaps both are being honest in their judgments.  In that case, both have to also recognize that the other has a different take, and resist the temptation to see themselves as the only righteous ones.

To wrap up this already prolix essay:  Civility is, and is not in the eye of the beholder.  Often what one finds “offensive” will not offend another, sometimes simply because one respects the target of the “incivility” in one case but not the other.  But that is not what matters in the cultural debate over civility.  It matters a lot more whether the alleged incivility is a violation of social norms.  As Confucius would point out, the noble person should behave nobly, the authority figure should behave with dignity and humaneness, and the person with responsibility should behave responsibly.  This is the source of moral te.  Kierkegaard would add that the responsible person also deserves to be treated with the respect due to a responsible person—no more, but certainly no less.  If a politician holds a town hall meeting in our society, those attending have a right to speak out and air their grievances.  They don’t have a moral right to refuse to let the politician speak at all.  During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, there was a lot of incivility, and many people who objected refused to even listen to their representatives; they counted shouting him or her down as a victory.  It is no surprise that incivility has continued to spread.  And, having attended a Bush rally in the 1980s near my college, I can attest that liberals were equally disruptive and uncivil towards conservatives trying to speak their minds.  These are bad and disruptive to our political order; communication and understanding are essential in a democratic society, and you can’t have communication and understanding without basic civility.  But these are not as disruptive to our society as when authorities, who expect others to treat them with the dignity due to their office or their social status, will not themselves behave like civilized men and women, but instead turn from civilized humans into trolls.

As to Michelle Wolf:  a comedian doing her job is not disruptive to the political climate or social cohesion; if anything, she or he reinforces it.  Besides, it was a damned funny joke.

Read the rest of this entry »

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 2)

August 20, 2018

In life, Kierkegaard’s relationship with civility is complicated. He suffered badly from the incivility of the tabloid press and the tabloid public of his day. He was mocked for his physical handicaps, such as a curved spine. Whereas once he delighted in walking the streets of his beloved Copenhagen and conversing with people he met, after the tabloids had done their work he could not show his face in public without children throwing rocks at him. And it was largely a fight Kierkegaard himself started, by criticizing the tabloids for mocking people of genuine intellectual and artistic achievement; it was when he outed the anonymous owner of the local scandal-sheet that he ordered his paper to go after Kierkegaard. In Two Ages and elsewhere, Kierkegaard denounces and mourns the general boorishness and crudeness that leads people to attack one another so carelessly, and in particular the envy he saw as the moving force behind the crowd’s attack on any genuinely prominent person.

On the other hand, Kierkegaard himself could give a good burn if he wanted, and in the final weeks of his life got into a very public, very nasty fight with the State Church of Denmark. Lacking an internet, he printed his own magazine, The Instant, written entirely by him and full of his attacks on the church, its leaders, the priests, and Christendom in general. At one point, for example, he referred to the priests as “cannibals” who keep the prophets salted away in the back room, not letting them speak for themselves but slicing off bits of them to peddle on the streets for their supper. The targets of his satire were the leading intellectuals and religious leaders of his day, and they rarely found his comments to be polite or proper.

Generally, looking at his life as well as his comments, we see that Kierkegaard was actually quite conservative, despite the radical implications of his philosophy. Unlike many 20th century existentialists, who seem to follow the Cynics’ contempt for politeness, Kierkegaard considered social and personal relationships to be essential aspects of who you are. These relationships are part of the “concreteness” of the individual, without which a person would just be an undefined cipher. I am a free individual, naked before the eye of God; but I am also the very particular person I have been made to be, a father, husband, teacher, writer, churchgoer, gamer, friend, brother, citizen, taxpayer and so on. The “civility” that Kierkegaard seems to oppose to “crudeness” and “boorishness” in Two Ages is the excessive familiarity that breeds contempt in a society that does not respect such relationships. The person of dignity should behave in a dignified way, and others should treat that person with the dignity he or she deserves—–no more, and no less. I owe respect to my students, who are children of God and existing individuals just as I am; but at the same time, the student owes a sort of respect to the teacher that the teacher does not owe the student, for without a proper relationship the teacher simply can’t teach. The preacher and the congregation member owe each other respect and should treat each other civilly, but only one of them should be speaking during the sermon. The king should be treated like a king, the bishop with the honor due a bishop, even though in the eyes of God the king and the shoemaker are the same. Human rank and distinction may be a jest from the standpoint of eternity, but to appreciate the jest you have to both pay attention to the joke and know it’s a joke. This tension between our social hierarchies and our equality before God shapes Kierkegaard’s understanding of manners and civility.

This tension perhaps best comes out in his discourse on the text, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above.” [1] Kierkegaard reminds the well-off person, who is able and willing to give a charitable gift, that in fact all gifts come from God. The money you give to the poor came to you from God, and the money you give to the poor comes to him or her from God through you; so you are “even more insignificant than the gift.”[2] Kierkegaard repeats this five times, six if you count the variation “you yourself were more insignificant than your admonition.”[3] When giving charity, the giver is to remain humble, not to think himself or herself superior (or the recipient as socially, morally or spiritually inferior), and to as far as possible to remain invisible to the one who receives, lest he or she be humiliated and compelled to make a show of gratitude. Clearly, Kierkegaard’s primary concern is to address the well-off, and to limit self-serving public displays of charitableness. But Kierkegaard follows this message with a shorter but still important one to the poor person who receives the gift. He or she is not to treat the giver as a mere servant, as if the rich exist only as servants to the poor even if they take that role in service to God. Rather, the one who receives the gift is called upon to receive it gratefully, from God’s hand but also from the person whom God used to give the gift. Just as the giver is told to seek to be invisible, the receiver is called to seek out the giver and to thank him or her. Both are, we might say, called to be civil, even exceedingly polite, to the point where one is trying to hide his or her charity out of politeness while the other seeks to uncover the charity for the same reason. In thus showing mutual concern for the other’s feelings and dignity, they each express their own equality before God and the other’s essential equality. At the same time, the one who is in a position to give and thus could lord it over the other seeks to avoid making a show of this supposed social superiority, while the one who receives and could be bitter at his or her status instead accepts the social relationships as they are. In each case, Kierkegaard expresses concern that each person be treated with dignity, and how we threat the other is an expression of respect for the other’s personhood; but the multiple admonitions to the powerful one shows that the concern for the dignity of the vulnerable takes first place.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, “Every Good Gift and Every Perfect Gift is From Above,” in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, translated with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) pp. 141-58

[2] “Every Good Gift” pp. 147ff

[3] “Every Good Gift,” pp. 149-50. All italics are Kierkegaard’s.

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard (pt. 1)

August 1, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Kierkegaard

 

 

…(I)f individuals relate to an idea merely en masse (consequently without the individual separation of inwardness), we get violence, anarchy, riotousness; but if there is no idea for the individuals en masse and no individually separating essential inwardness, either, the we have crudeness.

 

—-Søren Kierkegaard

 

 

The stereotypical “existentialist” is supposed to be deliberately rude, partly to challenge human conventions and the falsity of most social discourse and partly out of pretension. However, this “existentialist” is a lot rarer than those thinkers who are often called “existentialists.” Kierkegaard is often called an “existentialist” or perhaps “the grandfather of existentialism,” but he himself never used the term. He referred to himself as an “existential thinker:” one who thinks deeply about existence, particularly his (or her) own existence and what it reveals about the nature of human existence as such. It is therefore not surprising that his view is not the same as that expressed by either Diogenes or Confucius. His actual views on civility need to be teased out from his writings on more focused topics, as well as his personal practice, for he is an existential thinker, and they seek to express their thoughts in their own personal existence.

It is said that today’s culture, and particularly its political culture, is increasingly crude. What is “crudeness”?[1] For Kierkegaard, it means something quite particular. The ideal human relationship, he claims, is when people relate to each other while passionately related to an idea. Again, because of the differences of time, language and Kierkegaard’s own unique perspective, we are apt to misunderstand. We are inclined to think that being “passionate” means to be swept away by emotion, so that a rioting mob of sports fans would be “passionate.” For Kierkegaard, “passion” includes emotion, but goes deeper than passing feelings, no matter how strong. A passion reaches to the core of one’s being. As a young man, Kierkegaard wrote in his journal that he sought “a cause I can live and die for.” That is a “passionate relation to an idea.” It includes heart and mind, and it defines and orients one through time. The ultimate “passionate relationship to an idea” would be faith, an ongoing relationship to God, in which the idea of one’s personal, individual presence in the sight of God was allowed to penetrate all of one’s other relationships and values. Such a passion does not swallow up one’s sense of individuality, as does the “passion” of a mob; it defines and reinforces one’s individuality, giving the individual an orienting goal, a telos, beyond his or her natural self-centeredness.

The “passion” of the mob is that where people relate to the idea en masse. In this case, people are drawn together, but without any personal appropriation of the idea that unites them; so they are swallowed up in the collective consciousness of the mob. In the French Revolution, an entire nation, and to some extent all of Europe was caught up in its relationship to the idea of liberté, egalité et fraternité. The wider culture was asking, what does it mean to be a citizen? What does it mean for me to be a citizen? What is the proper relationship between Church and State, God and Nation, ruler and ruled? What should I do in this time? Hegel, looking out his window in Germany and seeing a victorious Napoleon ride into the city with his army behind him, wrote, “I have just seen Absolute Spirit ride into town on a white horse.” The whole of human history, of human development, of human spirit was represented in the spirit of the Revolution, and in the man who had become its head. In the early days of the Revolution, people were talking and writing and reading and thinking about the ideas of the recent American rebellion and the gathering clouds in France, and each had to think about how he or she stood in relation to those ideas and to their neighbors. In The Terror, that individual relationship to the Idea vanished, and people were caught up in the mob mentality; they still lived in the light or shadow of the idea, but without the sense of individual responsibility. But in the complacent modernity of Kierkegaard’s own time, any passionate relationship to any idea had largely faded, and now there was only crudeness. “Individuals do not in inwardness turn away from each other, do not turn outward in unanimity for an idea, but mutually turn to each other in a frustrating and suspicious, aggressive, leveling reciprocity.”[2] Unable to build themselves up by relating their lives to something larger than themselves, they settle instead for tearing down their neighbors or anyone who seems to represent a higher spiritual existence. They are too close to each other, Kierkegaard says; they have no sense of self, no core to their personality, and so are swept along by whatever social currents swirl around them; but those currents in turn have no steering power but simply swirl each into the other like leaves in the street, chasing each other around in a circle briefly and then falling to the ground again to await the next breeze.

Civility would be to relate to the other with “decorum,” one individual to another. Each would have his or her own inward core, and treat the other as an individual as well. Because each individual has his or her own inwardness, there is a psychological distance that preserves the sense of self, and one relates to the other in terms of that inwardness. Lose the inwardness but keep the passion, and civility will falter as people get swept up in the anonymous emotion of the mob. Lose even the passion as well as the inwardness, and you get general crudeness, a breakdown of interpersonal relations. If the mob passion is like being swept down the street by a crowd, perhaps without even realizing where we’re all going but either unable to resist or too involved to think about it, then crudeness is like being caught in a crowd that is going nowhere, has no purpose, no goal, just a stifling atmosphere and frustration. A mob can at least be joyful and friendly among itself; if you want to see human nature at its worst, look for a crowd that is just stuck, waiting for some sign of movement. The only ones you’ll find in there with any shred of joy or civility are those who have something else to think about, some inward value or idea.

To be continued….

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a literary review; translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) pp, 62ff

[2] Two Ages p. 63

A Gamer Looks at US Foreign Policy under Donald J. Trump

July 19, 2018

A Gamer Looks at US Foreign Policy under Donald J. Trump

 

 

Some of the articles I’ve written have drawn primarily from my experience as a philosopher and student/teacher of philosophy. Others have drawn mostly from my background as a theologian and former candidate for the Presbyterian ministry. And some have been written primarily as a geek. This will be one of those.

Gamers and geeks don’t care much about what you do in your “job” or what degrees you have, so they have that in common with the popular culture. However, they also don’t care much how much money you have or how good you look, at least not when in their official capacity as geeks. If you want to give a gamer advice on how to play a game, you don’t say “I’m really rich” or “Look at my bikini selfie;” we’ll be happy to let you buy the pizza or show off your body but we won’t let you tell us how to play our game. Tell us about what you’ve played, what you’ve won, what you’ve learned, and what your strategy is and whether it’s logical. So I will begin with a brief resumé. I have been a hard-core board gamer since 1973. I was a demon on the chessboard and at Stratego well before then, as a child beating adults, but in 1973 I found Avalon Hill’s “Blitzkrieg” and started studying WWII strategies to win military simulation games comparable to the ones used by military academies and the Pentagon to train strategic leaders. Later I also started on role-playing games, which I played consistently for decades but have been more hit-and-miss the last several years. These also often involve strategic and tactical simulations as well as psychology and history; serious gamers will read books about Roman history to role-play their legionnaire character or read Beowulf to be a more convincing barbarian, just as serious actors do historical research.   Do I win much? As an MIB I focus more on teaching, so I don’t go around beating weak players. When I play good players, I win some and I lose some but they always know they’ve been in a fight. I rate myself as “experienced” and “competent.” And as I like to say, I can read a f@cking map. When you can read a battle map or a game board, you can tell what the other side’s strategy is by their moves, and often predict their future moves as well. This ends the unavoidably pretentious recitation of my qualifications. Geeks can often seem unduly boastful of their mad gaming skills or obscure knowledge, but there’s a reason; it’s how we know how much credence to give the other’s opinion, as well as providing a sort of bonding.

As a gamer, someone who can read a board and has engaged in a lot of military, political and economic simulations of varying complexity and realism with players of widely varying ages and skill levels, I think Trump’s strategy makes a sort of sense. I will leave out the psychological elements, such as the fact that he himself has stated that he judges people on appearances and that someone who “looks” like a general or leader awes him, as well as his stated preference for people who says nice things about him. These are legitimate because they are not based on psychoanalysis but simply Trump’s own words; but I want to focus first on the strategy, so I’ll assume it is rational even if the player is not. There are a variety of games that reflect, with varying realism, the world situation. In different ways, Monopoly and Risk (two you non-geeks may have played) can give you some idea. Diplomacy is another obvious choice. My personal favorite, because it combines elements of all of these, is Avalon Hill’s Advanced Civilization. What these games have in common is that they are all multi-player games where control of the board gives resources which, in turn, allow more control and so on. Picking too many fights or focusing only on bashing people (or worse yet, on bashing one opponent and ignoring another) leads to defeat, as the wiser player who stays out of the fight can swoop in and pick up the pieces.

In multiplayer games like these, young players (even very good ones) and adults tend to follow different strategies. A young player, say 13, who is currently first or second out of six will generally suggest to the other leader that they join forces, crush all the weaker ones, then settle things among themselves one-on-one. Part of this is that it is fun to crush another player; part may be impatience, that wants an immediate “victory” rather than wait until the game is actually over; and part probably relates to the fact that a young brain can’t handle too many details at once and deals with the overload by simplifying the board. This may seem like a reasonable strategy, and sometimes it is. This seems to be Trump’s approach. He took over a game the US has been playing since 1945. We were winning that game, slowly but surely. In that game, the top player was allied with the others against the second and third place players, keeping them in check and slowly squeezing. This required a lot of coordination among allies, a lot of patience, and at times compromise to keep the others in the alliance. Trump has decided to simplify the game by declaring the other players “foes,” his nearest rivals “competitors—and I think that is a compliment,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5riwiNTzck) join forces with the #2 guy and sweep the board.

More experienced players, however, see the danger in this sort of strategy. If you neutralize all the other players, you have no possible allies if you need them. Suppose 1st Place and 2nd Place cripple or destroy 4th-6th, and then 2 & 3 gang up on #1? Is it better to have allies who have a reason and the means to defeat you, or to have allies who are too weak to be a threat but strong enough to be a help?  True, there are times in a game when it is best to just finish off the weaker players as quickly as possible regardless of whether they would be loyal friends. For example, games like Monopoly or Risk not only allow only one winner, but give rewards to whomever delivers the death blow to another. These games force a ruthless, even bullying behavior. Other games may make it more optional or even undesireable. I’ve observed that in Munchkin or Illuminati there is a real hesitancy to eliminate any one player too utterly, at least among my players. In Munchkin it’s because it is expensive, and if you commit too many resources to beating one player you just weaken both of you and aid the others. In Illuminati players generally have their own plans for victory, and would rather try to play the other players off against one another; eliminating another can mean killing off either an ally or an enemy, or perhaps just creating chaos that another player can exploit better. In a multiplayer game, experienced players who can handle treaties and schmoozing allies will often seek to build a network of alliances which they can dominate, while treating their strongest rivals as their foes. They will often, as we say, pick on someone their own size. If they can make deals with others that allow them to save their resources for fighting the other tougher players, or better still if they can turn the weaker players into allies against their toughest rivals, that is much better than simply crushing the little guys in the hopes that you can crush them fast enough to overwhelm not only them, but also the toughest players whom you now must face without allies. That is the difference between an adult and a juvenile player: the adult will attack and try to eliminate a rival for a strategic reason, while the juvenile needs little more motivation than “because I could.” If the adult can win without fighting anyone, the adult will; an inexperienced or immature player may attack out of boredom, or just to beat someone else, without a long-term plan.

To begin to put this in more real-world term: Germany, Japan, Great Britain, France are strong nations, but none entertains the illusion that it can eliminate the US. They’re just happy to stay in the game and do the best they can. The situation is perhaps more like Illuminati or one of those other games where players have different goals that are not mutually exclusive; maybe more than one can win, or maybe one can achieve its personal goal without having to directly confront a stronger power. In Third Reich, a WWII simulation, France or Italy win a decisive victory simply by surviving to the end of the game; they don’t have to beat up anyone else if they can get Russia, America and Germany to beat on each other and leave them alone. That makes Italy and France great allies; they have very little reason to try to stab their partner in the back, and little means to do so.

The “real world” current history is a lot like that game. Currently, Germany, France, Great Britain and most other NATO nations want to provide good lives for their citizens and to continue existing; in short, they want to stay in the game, but don’t need to “beat” the U.S. or anyone else to do so. They are thus perfect defensive allies for the U.S. China has long-term plans to dominate the world, avoiding pitched battles but maneuvering economically and geopolitically to extend its power. Russia has seen its power slipping and is taking ever greater risks to try to regain lost territories and extend its power. And the United States has, until 2017, relied on NATO and similar multilateral military and trade structures to build a bulwark to keep Russia and China in check. Sometimes this meant treating Germany or Japan or South Korea a bit nicer than we would have if they were “foes,” rather than simply crushing them militarily or economically. Sometimes it even meant giving them economic or military support, rather than hoarding our resources for ourselves. To a juvenile player, such an arrangement would seem silly. Why give away anything? But an adult might see greater long-term benefits. For example, we spent much to rebuild Europe after World War II, virtually creating or recreating some countries,. But after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, NATO was activated, for the first time, to help protect us from the threat of terrorism. The resources spent over the decades building up NATO has paid off handsomely, creating a world where we became and remain the sole superpower, wealthy and secure from existential threats. Terrorists may kill some people, but they can’t conquer us unless we help them by spending ourselves bankrupt or falling into paranoid tribalism.

To summarize, I think Donald Trump is playing the Foreign Policy Game rather like a game of Risk where the previous player was pursuing a long-term strategy of slowly building their forces, gathering resources, cultivating allies to contain the only two other possible rivals. But the new player, Trump, does not understand the game or the strategy of his predecessor(s), and prefers a simpler, one-on-one conflict; so he is tearing up old agreements and aiming to sweep away all his former allies to divide the board between himself and the player who controls everything from Kamchatka to Ukraine. Eventually this would lead to a 1984 board with three powers: Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania, with the ever-present danger that either of the other two might decide to join forces and divide the other one. Given the similar agendas of Eurasia and Eastasia, is there any reason to think they won’t divide Oceania (that is, the United States and its allies) between them given the chance?

Personally, I say that if you’re winning, aim for stability. Why fix what isn’t broken? The problem is that we’ve been doing so well for so long that many Americans don’t even realize how well we’re doing, and as a result they are risking losing everything. We have a military larger than the next seven nations COMBINED. We have the largest economy and, judging by how many Nobel Prizes we win, how many entrepreneurs and inventors come to live here, how many people travel here to attend college and university, and so on, we have the most innovative one as well. The average American uses as much of the planet’s resources as 53 Chinese. From a gamer point of view, that means we dominate the world and its resources by an almost insane margin. Leaving aside the moral and other implications of that and simply looking at it from a game perspective, that is another measure of our total dominance. We were winning. More Attention to the Game, A-Holes; we were winning, and you MAGAs are screwing up a good plan!

The MAGA claim that all these other nations are taking advantage of us in trade means, basically, that the new plan is going to be to try to grab even larger portions of the world’s resources while simultaneously attacking former allies. This inevitably will drive those allies to find help elsewhere. And in fact, that is what is happening; in response to the USA’s withdrawal from TPP and threats to free trade with Europe, the EU and Japan are concluding new trade agreements and cutting us out (https://money.cnn.com/2018/07/17/news/economy/eu-japan-trade-deal/index.html). China also has been moving into the vacuum left by American withdrawal from the Pacific economic treaty. If we ditch NAFTA, we should expect the EU and China to make deals with Canada and Mexico, so they can trade among themselves without tariffs while we isolate ourselves with a trade war against the world.

We went from a 70 year strategy of engaging the world and building alliances to bottle up our nearest rivals and only national existential threats to a strategy of cozying up to those national threats while casting aside those old alliances, thus unleashing our rivals against us. The result is a simpler board for simpler minds, with fewer moving pieces and fewer commitments to others, plus the ego boost of being able to pat oneself on the back for having “beaten” those “loser” nations who were stupid enough to trust us and too weak to stop us. It would be wise to remember, though, that a chaotic diplomatic world leads inevitably to a chaotic military world—in short, the risk of war and the danger of fighting all our former allies as well as our long-time foes is greater every day. And real war is no game. What we need is a little less Risk and more Pandemic or Flash Point, less chaos and backstabbing and more cooperation; or at least, more Catan with limited conflict and more economic competition, trying to beat your opponent by building better cities instead of destroying someone else’s.

PS:  The same warnings about not starting actual wars, cultivating allies etc. apply to trade wars; you don’t want to destroy your friends just to feel like a “winner,” you don’t want to be left only with hostile rivals, and if you’re #1 with the status quo you don’t screw it up by starting fights.  Play Merchant of Venus and maybe you’ll understand.

Of Gospel and Heresies: Hmm…. Needs More Salt

July 14, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: Hmm…. Needs More Salt

 

 

22 So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[f] 23 Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

—Genesis 18:22-33

 

Before anyone asks, no, this is not going to lead into a silly comment about Lot’s wife.

There is a popular theology these days. I say “popular” because it dominates many of the largest churches in the United States, the most prominent Christian colleges, politicians travel to seek its blessing and, when they are elected, they bring its preachers to their offices to pray with them, so that the preachers in turn receive the blessing politicians have to give—-prestige, visibility, pride, and worldly influence. In this popular theology, the United States does not have to be a particularly just nation. It does not have to be a particularly good nation. In this popular theology, it does not have to be a particularly wise or smart nation. It does not have to be a particularly hard-working nation. No, in this popular theology, the only thing that the United States has to do is put “Christians” in charge—but not just any Christians, no: only a special kind of Christians. Christians who pay attention to the 92 times the Bible tells us to show kindness to immigrants—we don’t need those. Christians who pay attention to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers”—- away with them! Only Christians who know that even though Jesus never mentioned abortion or homosexuality, these are the sum and substance of the Gospel—-those are the sort of Christians who need to run the nation and make its laws. If we make laws that require the rich to pay taxes to provide food for the hungry, we rob charity of its moral worth; but if we make laws requiring people to be straight or to never have sex without risking disease or pregnancy, then we not only support the moral worth of those things but we deserve an extra reward—for forcing others to be good. And the extra reward for those who force those others to obey and be good, while not forcing the rich and powerful to do anything at all, is that God will reward them by making them rich and powerful themselves, giving the crowns of the world to the saints. This popular theology is called “Christian Reconstructionism,” or more broadly, “Christian Dominionism.” It’s no wonder it’s so popular. In the Middle Ages you had to pay money to buy indulgences to get out of living according to the Gospel; now, you don’t even have to do that. Simply by seeking to rule over other people, you get the blessing of God, who gives you the power you seek, so long as you agree to never use it against those who already have wealth and power or use it to make others do anything Jesus actually asked them to do. And not only will the individual Dominionist be rewarded, but the nation itself will be magically blessed. God will give the nation military power, without scientists to design weapons; God will give them wealth, without economists to understand how tax policies affect the nation; God will give the nation influence in the world, without the hard work of diplomats trying to listen to and understand other nations to find common ground. Close some abortion clinics, round up some immigrants, throw the gays on an island and watch them die out, and Jesus will fly up on a magic sleigh drawn by Peter, Paul, and the other reindeer, to give everyone toys—I’m sorry, I got a little confused there for a moment.

The Reconstructionist theology names itself for its claim that Christians must reconstruct society. Democracy, they say, is flawed because it doesn’t put Christians in charge; we need to get rid of democracy, get rid of the social safety net, get rid of public schools and public hospitals and rely solely on Jesus and the churches—but of course, we also need to close all those “progressive” churches, so only the right sort of churches, the ones that don’t think society should help the poor, are available help the poor? I think I got confused again. Let me back up and start over.

Reconstructionist theology reconstructs the Gospel in its own image. According to Reconstructionist theology, Sodom was destroyed because godly men like Lot weren’t in charge. Only if Lot and Abraham had conquered the city and imposed laws banning homosexuality could Sodom and Gomorrah been saved. And unless conservatives can overthrow the pluralistic, democratic society that weakens us now and impose their views on the majority, God will destroy the U.S. the same way; but if conservatives do take over, and impose strict laws controlling everyone’s sex lives, every other problem will be solved without effort.

That’s one vision of how Christians can save the world: by taking over and making everyone else live like them. That is NOT the vision presented by Abraham. Abraham prays for Sodom. He does not say, “Spare them, and I’ll take over and run things right.” He says, “LORD, will you destroy the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? What if there are only ten? Will you spare the whole wicked, wretched city for ten people?” And God says, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” We don’t have to run the world to save it. We don’t have to outnumber the wicked or to dominate them. We can’t. There will always be more wicked; being wicked is just too damned easy. And they will always have political power. Satan said to Jesus that he had the ability to give thrones and kingdoms to whomever he wanted, and Jesus did not dispute that; he simply rejected that sort of power. But as long as there are a righteous few, judgment will be delayed, and more will have time to hear the good news and repent.

How can so few people do any good, if they aren’t rich or powerful leaders but just ten righteous people out of thousands? Abraham’s prayer appeals to God’s justice. God, it seems, doesn’t accept “collateral damage;” God practices collateral healing. Rather than destroy a few good people in order to punish the wicked, God would spare the wicked to save the few good ones.

Jesus echoes this idea. He tells the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds to say that God will not root out the wicked from the world immediately, lest this injure some of the righteous as well; rather, the wheat and the weeds grow together until the end of things. That is one way to say that Christians should participate in society; just by being in society, they help it since God will preserve the society for the sake of the faithful. But that doesn’t suggest much in the way of a positive contribution. It doesn’t suggest that the society is improved or helped. Sodom would still have been Sodom even if ten righteous persons had been found in it.

Jesus uses other models to suggest how we should live in the world and participate in society. You are the light of the world, he says. It isn’t enough to just be in the world, hiding your goodness away like a precious gem, afraid to risk losing or tarnishing it. You have to let it shine like a lamp in the darkness that everyone can see and use to guide their own steps as well            You are like salt. Salt was so precious in the days of Jesus that people were paid in salt; our word “salary” comes from the Latin word for “salt.” Salt is necessary for human life. It also preserves food, which is one of its most valuable characteristics in the warm Mediterranean climate without a nice cold fridge around. And even a little can flavor a whole lot of food. It lends its nature to what is around it. It doesn’t, as they say, dominate the taste of the food; it enhances and preserves it, bringing out what is best and perhaps covering up what is not.

Jesus even says we should be holy like God is holy. In the Books of Moses, God’s holiness is a separation. God is so holy and powerful that when God gave the Law to Moses, it was forbidden for anyone else to approach the mountain; even animals that wandered onto the holy mountain were to be killed. But Jesus says we should be perfect as God is perfect, who allows the sun to shine on good and bad alike, and sends rain to the just and the unjust. God’s holiness is his omnipresence, not withdrawing from those in need but providing even for those who do not acknowledge their need for God.

God doesn’t demand that Christians should strive to dominate human politics. God also doesn’t ask us to withdraw from the world. We are told to teach the world, to help the world, to do good and show kindness and love mercy and walk humbly with God. It is a narrow road for sure, neither going too far into politics or not enough. Jesus says we are to be salt; and if the salt has lost its distinctive nature, lost its saltiness, then what good is it? It is fit only to be cast out. As Christians in the world but not of the world, we are forced daily to be involved with things and people that do not follow our ways. We are told we cannot serve God and Money, but we must have money to survive. We are told to serve the world, but often that means working with politicians who have the power to help or stop us, and who have little regard for God or people. No doubt we would be safer to live as monastic communities, apart from the world. Many days I think the Amish are on to something. But that is not, I think, what Jesus intends for us, his disciples. We need the church as a place of rest where we can renew our faith and energy from time to time, but we then need to go out and continue being salt. One day Christ will return. We pray every week, Lord, thy kingdom come. But God has told us that in the meantime, we are not kings yet. We are salt. We are servants. We are preachers and teachers. We are the ten righteous people in the city who can save the whole from destruction for another day. That is our call, and that is the Gospel.

Commentary Upon the Declaration of Independence

July 4, 2018

Have you ever read the whole thing?  Take a few minutes and do it now:  http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/

Of, if you aren’t into reading, listen:  https://www.npr.org/2018/07/04/623836154/a-july-4-tradition-npr-reads-the-declaration-of-independence

I don’t want to try to do a line-by-line commentary, but over the years teaching ethics and American religion I have come back to these words many times.  I have often heard them quoted or misquoted with reverence  but also at times with malice towards other Americans for whom these words were also written; for these words were written not just for those few alive to hear them the first time, but for all nations and all ages. 

In these times, I want to offer my own commentary, and what these words say to me now.

When in the Course of human events it become necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

These are often treated as throwaway lines, like the instrumental introduction to a favorite song, and we only start paying attention when the “real” text starts with “We hold these truths….”  That is a shame.  There is a lot in this paragraph that helps us understand what comes next.  First, they are clearly speaking to the world, not just other Americans.  It’s a big deal.  People didn’t just declare independence willy-nilly.  We’ve gotten rather blasé about redrawing lines on a map, but in 1776 this was seen by some to be tampering with the order of Creation.  God established the nations and fixed their boundaries, and the royal families inherited their right to rule through Adam.  Locke’s First Treatise on Civil Government was devoted to refuting this claim, which would not have been necessary if it were not powerful.  And even if that sort of absolute “divine right of kings” was not always fully embraced by the English, there was still a strong reverence for the established borders and political powers.

The Declaration states that the former English citizens will “…assume…the separate and equal nation to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…”  This shows the deep roots our nation has in John Locke’s philosophy, so it is worth the time to unpack it.  Locke belongs to that political tradition known as “social contract theory.”  It asks us to imagine all people as free and independent individuals, for that is what each of us is essentially even if we’ve never actually lived as free creature outside of a social structure.  What would life be like?  What is it about living as citizens in a society that makes it better than living in anarchy?  What is it that we can be asked to give up in order to be citizens of a civil state or commonwealth, and what is it that the state owes us citizens?  We are. Locke says, essentially free and equal, separate from one another unless we choose to be part of a community.  That is how Nature and Nature’s God created us.  “Nature” and “Nature’s God” are, for Locke, and for Jefferson (the primary author of the Declaration), and for most of the founding fathers, more or less the same thing.  Jefferson, like many of the Founding Fathers, was a religious liberal.  Some were liberal Christians, while others were more Deists.  Deism believed that God created the world to be good and rational, and that everything we needed to know about God could be found through using our human reason to understand the world that God created.  Deists like Jefferson and Franklin did not see any good from supposing that God regularly rips open the Heavens to help His favorites with miracles, that a guy dying on a cross could pay for your moral failures, or any of that supernatural stuff.  Study Nature, and you will understand Nature’s God.  Live a moral life as your human reason reveals it, guided by the religious and philosophical heritage of Moses and Jesus but also Socrates and Plato and (for Jefferson) even Mohammed and other sages, and you will do what God wanted you to do.  God gave us what we needed to live in the world, and left us and it to work things out.

Not everyone who signed that Declaration agreed with Jefferson’s liberal religion.  Thirteen were Presbyterians and one even a Presbyterian pastor, and the British referred to the Revolution as “that Presbyterian revolt.”  But that is who the Founding Fathers were:  religious liberals and conservatives, seculars and devout, aristocrats and plebeians, North and South, joining together despite their differences to risk their lives for a common cause. 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—-“  If they were “self-evident,” it wasn’t to everyone, or there wouldn’t have been a war.  Later peoples have wondered how Jefferson could have written these words while himself owning slaves, and while in fact women were legally little better than slaves themselves with no right to own property, to vote, or to pursue most of the activities we assume are natural for adult citizens without male permission.  The fact is, he was deeply conflicted.  His original Declaration included attacks on slavery, which were stripped from the final version to get Southern colonies to sign on.  Some, like John Adams’ wife Abigail, urged that women’s rights be respected, but it took another 145 years for that to happen.  To many, it seemed “self-evident” that nonwhites and non-males were NOT “created equal.”  History has slowly moved to catch up with the true promise of Jefferson’s words.

“That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—-“ Again I say, “Creator” does not mean “The God of Moses.”  It is Nature and Nature’s God that gave us these rights, not a supernatural voice thundering from a mountaintop; these rights are discovered by the light of Nature and Reason, not from reading them off a stone tablet.  That’s what he meant, and if you disagree that’s fine but don’t quote this document to back you up.  “Unalienable rights:”  what does that mean?  It means that you have certain rights that you CANNOT ever be said to have given up.  You always have those rights, even if you think you don’t.  Among those is the right to liberty.  “Liberty” is the right to live as you want.  You may voluntarily agree to limits on your freedom, but only in ways that enhance your overall ability to do what you want.  For example, you can agree to live according to laws and to let courts punish those who wrong you, but only if those laws protect you and others equally and only if you had a part in making those laws by voting for legislators who would write them and vote on them.  By agreeing to live as part of a group, each individual agrees to respect the will of the majority; if you don’t like it, you should leave if it is intolerable, or stay and try to persuade the majority to change its mind if you possibly can. 

This is a vitally important point today.  There is a powerful movement today called “Christian Reconstructionism.”  It was founded by Rousas Rushdoony in the early 20th Century, and had profoundly influenced Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the so-called “Religious Right,” as well as many conservative politicians such as Mike Pence.  It believes that this was a Christian nation, that its laws were not discovered by natural reason and natural religion but supernaturally revealed by God, that Christians should run it and should use the tools provided by democracy to overthrow democracy, denying most people the right to vote (and thus denying most of them their basic liberty) so that only fundamentalist Christians who endorse laissez-faire capitalism should be allowed any voice in government.  This violates the principles of the Declaration on several fronts.  As we’ve seen, it distorts the words “Creator” and “Nature’s God” to mean something they did not mean in the original document; it denies the idea that “all” people are created equal, since only Christians who subscribe to a particular theology which was not endorsed even by the most conservative Founding Fathers; and it treats liberty as something that is in fact “alienable,” capable of being lost or given away.  And this assault on everything for which our Founding Fathers fought is said to be justified because we were “endowed by our Creator”!

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—-“  Governments are human institutions, established by humans, for humans, according to human reason and traditions.  It might surprise you to hear that even the great Christian theologian John Calvin, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion was the most influential theological treatise of the Colonial period, said the same thing.  In his view, while Israel received its laws directly from God, other peoples were taught general moral principles by God but left to work out the details of justice and social welfare according to their own understanding and historical heritage.  Ultimately, the signers of the Declaration of Independence say, all governments derive their power and legitimacy from the consent of the governed, not from the endorsement of a small body of clerics or hereditary nobles.  And because government is justified by the will of the people, it can be deposed and replaced by those same people.

What are the reasons for taking this extreme action now?  As the Declaration says, people generally will endure a lot of abuse from their government, rather than take the risk (not only of war but also lawlessness) of overthrowing it.  (This again is straight out of Locke’s political writings.)  Things must be pretty awful to make a large group of people rise up in rebellion, throwing aside the law-and-order of their established government to try to hopefully replace it with something better.  After all, until the revolution succeeds, there is really nothing in its place but the absence of government:  so what makes the government of King George III worse than nothing?

“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good…  He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance…”  Who could imagine such a thing?  Would any government, say, criminalize the use of marijuana, a naturally-occurring plant, even when the people and governments of a state think it would be wholesome and necessary for the public good to legalize and tax this substance?  Would any tyrant refuse to allow a state to require non-medical “abortion counselors” to tell their patients truthfully that they are not doctors or medically trained, but merely religious advocates for a peculiar and untraditional interpretation of Christianity?  Would any despot pledge to overturn laws established for forty-five years, even when a vast majority of the people support those laws? 

“He has endeavored to prevent the population of the States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, ….”  The Founding Fathers fought against King George III because he restricted immigration!  That may sound like a total non sequitur, but one of the common justifications for limiting immigration is because “Democrats” just want to import voters who will vote a certain way.  Or, to put it another way, we need to restrict immigration to prevent the increased populations even if, or especially if the people who live in that area now want those immigrants, just because the despot and his party want to limit the numbers of people who aren’t partisans of their group.  The Founding Fathers thought that particular regions and local governments should be allowed to recruit new residents if they wished. 

“For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:  For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment of any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of the States…”  LIke, say, Philando Castile?  We may not have “soldiers” living in our homes, but we do have armed people in neighborhoods who are not answerable to the people who they are sent to control, who kill some who are unarmed, unresisting and sometimes not even breaking any laws, and often those killers are acquitted in what seem to the people to be sham trials; and when the national government is asked to intervene to help prevent these killings, they refuse and even support the right of the armed forces to kill at their discretion.  And when some peacefully protest in an orderly manner by kneeling during the National Anthem at a commercial sporting exhibition, the tyrant calls them “sons of bitches” and says they should be stripped of citizenship and deported.  It’s not exactly the same as quartering soldiers in people’s homes, but it must feel the same for those who feel threatened and abandoned by their leaders’ abrupt reversal of policy from protecting unarmed people to protecting the armed ones

“For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:”  This is the important one.  This is the biggie.  This is the one that could quite likely lead to civil war.  Our country was literally founded on the principle that while taxes are acceptable and even in a sense good, they MUST be made with the will of the people.  And ever since leading Republican activist and leader Paul Weyrich said over thirty years ago that the conservative cause was better supported by stopping people from voting, the GOP has pursued a concerted, conscious and deceptive strategy of stopping as many American citizens from voting as possible.  It has done this by voter ID laws that refuse to look at the identifications that are known to be carried by young people or nonwhites, while accepting other forms of identification (such as gun licenses) that are more likely carried by conservatives.  In North Carolina the state legislature quite openly discussed what sorts of ID black people were likely to have, so they could ban those.  Conservatives have talked about raising the age required for voting and have said quite openly that it’s because they think young people don’t vote conservative.  There has been talk of taking voting rights away from people to protest in favor of “liberal” causes or who were once immigrants but have become citizens.  And our Declaration of Independence makes it clear:  when a government takes your money without giving you the right to vote for the people who write the laws to raise those taxes or decide how the money is spent, that is tyranny and you have a right, even a duty, to fight back.  Conservatives had a right to vote, they lost in 2008 due to their own incompetent destruction of the economy, and they still threatened to take up arms because they didn’t like the Democratic government chosen by the majority.  Now, thanks to gerrymandering and voter suppression laws, we have a government that received a minority of the votes imposing taxes on the majority, not helping even when some are murdered, praising the killers as “very fine people” while protestors are “sons of bitches,” cutting taxes for a small minority of wealthy people while the vast majority either are seeing their taxes rise or are seeing insignificant cuts at best.  If the majority is being taxed without consent, that is a recipe for revolt.  Now, many in the minority party which controls the government are talking about cutting Social Security, which was paid for with payroll taxes paid only by working people, to pay for the tax cuts given to rich people who don’t draw a paycheck and have never paid payroll taxes.  That would mean that the payroll taxes are being collected to give to the rich employers, not to the employees who were counting on using those to retire. 

  “For depriving us in many cases of, of the benefit of Trial by Jury…” Increasingly, people are finding themselves forced into binding arbitration to settle not just civil disputes but even criminal cases.  During the Iraq War an American contractor was gang-raped by several of her male coworkers, and told that she could not sue them under the terms of her work contract; the case had to be resolved through arbitration.  (https://www.thenation.com/article/kbrs-rape-problem/)  The company was well-connected, having previously been led by the then Vice President of the United States.  People who are injured or killed while on the job are regularly stripped of their legal protections by a government that is more concerned with protecting employers from bad publicity. 

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us…”  I went to school in Charlottesville.  Having out-of-state neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate paramilitary thugs supporting the tyrant parade through the city where my children were born, having them kill one and injure many more people, and having to listen to them being praised and defended as “very fine people” by someone who is paid by my tax money despite receiving fewer votes than his opponent is beyond offensive.  If anyone can be said to have encouraged and excited domestic insurrections among the American people, it is the despot who praises murderers and who attacks professional journalists while praising and being interviewed by right-wing agitators who urge their followers to take up arms against “liberals” whom they accuse, with total disregard for the truth of their words or the consequences of their deeds, of plotting civil war, child molestation or other nonsense—-while the supporters of the tyrant have been shown again and again, to have actually engaged in those deeds.

As Jefferson said, breaking away from one’s government is not a matter to be contemplated lightly, and thus prudence dictates that we should seek every possible other remedy first.  I am not calling for the violent overthrow of the American government, as some conservative governors and other politicians did when Obama was elected.  Despite the fact that the current occupant of the White House has hinted that he would delay national elections and a majority of his party said they would support him, that has not yet happened, and thus there are still peaceful ways to dissent and to struggle for justice.  But the stated goals, the policies and the actions of the Republican Party in its local, state and national chapters has for thirty years been to subvert the election process, to block legal citizens from voting if they seemed likely to vote Democratic, to oppose the rights of cities and states to enforce their own laws regarding marijuana, immigration or weapons if those conflicted with the desires of the GOP donor base, and generally to seek to undermine democracy under the guidance of pastors and politicians who have stated their goal of imposing a “fundamentalist” Christian theocracy.  It is ironic that a fictional television program about a Christian patriarchal dystopia should be so popular when millions of people are so intent on imposing it in reality, and when, with the financial and political support of foreign adversaries, they are so close to achieving their long-held goal. 

Today, the Fourth of July 2018, is the day that the insurrectionist agitator Alex Jones said that “liberals” intended to launch a second Civil War.  This was, of course, a lie.  Other lies told by Jones have led to the parents of murdered children being harassed and threatened.  Jones pushed one of his followers to fire a gun in a pizza parlor by repeatedly claiming that the DNC ran a pedophile ring in the basement.  The restaurant doesn’t even have a basement, much less a pedophile ring, but Jones didn’t care so long as some liberals got killed.  He promotes lies about racial crimes that have pushed his white Christian male listeners to massacre black church members and others.  And this insurrectionist and traitor is heavily promoted and praised by the tyrant occupying the White House.  He “warns” his followers that “liberals” will start a civil war to encourage them to attack the liberals first——and to spend money buying weapons and other products sold by his advertisers, thus making a multimillion dollar profit by “exciting insurrection amongst the people” with the support of the Despot of DC.  People could die from this.  It is as irresponsible and criminal as a mullah calling for jihad, except that the paramilitaries and insurrectionists who agitate for violence against “liberals” and against “feminists” and against ethnic or sexual minorities have the full support and backing of the Republican Party and the Religious Right.  We are on a road that leads to civil war, and the Republican Party is pushing hard on the accelerator.  There are still exits from this highway to disaster, but we the people need to take them. Start right now by making sure you are registered to vote.  You can check online and register in 37 states (https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote).  While state and local governments have made it more difficult in recent years to try to discourage people’s participation in their government, it is still legal and possible.  Remember that your parents and grandparents in some cases risked their lives so you could have this chance.  For others, like myself, the fight was further back, but my mother was in the DAR.  My family fought for freedom.  Now there are people who have sworn to take it away.  Let’s not let them.

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Confucius

July 1, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: Confucius

 

The Master said, Yen P’ing Chung is a good example of what one’s intercourse with one’s fellow-men should be. However long he has known anyone he always maintains the same scrupulous courtesy.

—–Confucius, Analects Book V, #16

 

 

It would seem there could not be more difference between Cynicism and Confucianism. The Greek Cynics, like the Taoist philosophers in China, embraced the natural and unsophisticated. Good manners, social status, rituals—-all of these the Cynics mocked.[1] Confucius taught in opposition both to the Taoist drop-outs and the unscrupulous, often brutal rulers and politicians of his day. Little regarded in his lifetime, his philosophy became the moral foundation for the Chinese empire that stood supreme for two thousand years, and still provides much of the ethical philosophy for East Asia.

While Taoism treated the natural order and the social order as different and in a sense opposed, for Confucius the social order, moral order and cosmic order were all part of the Tao, the Way, Goodness itself. Goodness inheres in right relationships, and right relationships are expressed through right rituals. In the family, each member has duties and responsibilities to the others depending on their place: the parents are to provide for and teach their children, the children are to respect and obey when they are young, to care for their parents when they are old, and to properly mourn them when they pass away. The rituals that guide the family relationships can include wearing certain clothes when mourning the dead, giving a proper greeting upon entering a room, or much of what we might call “common courtesy.” Other rituals cover the respectful way to approach a social superior or ruler, or how a social leader is to interact with the spirits, and so on; so “rituals” can include things like the equivalent of saying “God bless you” after a sneeze all the way up to the nation’s leader laying a wreath at the tomb honoring the nation’s war dead. The Chinese did not distinguish between “religious” and “secular” rituals; they didn’t even have a word to distinguish “religion” from other rituals until European missionaries started arriving and asking them to describe their “religion.” Spiritual, social and familial rituals were all part of the Way, or Tao, and all had real power to affect the world.

The first and most obvious function of these rituals was to show respect for the other. To speak with appropriate politeness to a guest, parent or teacher, or to someone on the street, was to show respect for the dignity of that person and that person’s particular relationship to you. It is written that once a man came to Confucius and complained that the traditional three years of mourning for a dead father was too much; he couldn’t pursue normal career activities during that time and he thought it was too great a handicap. Confucius told him that if he thought he’d shown proper respect for this father, then fine; but after the young man left Confucius remarked on how ungrateful he was. After all, he said, for three years he had been the apple of his parents’ eye; the least he could do was mourn for that same period. But Confucius also knew that ritual should express and guide the true feelings of the heart; it should be more than just going through the motions. If we have the humaneness that a good person should have, we will want to express it by treating others well and not offending their dignity; so we will diligently fulfill the proper social rituals and courtesies.

Ritual also structures and limits how the powerful should act, and thus gives some distance between leader and led, some protection for the powerless. Confucius stresses that the “gentleman,” the noble person fit for public service in the government, should praise and support those with less status. “The demands that a gentleman makes are upon himself; those that a small man makes are upon others.” (Book XV #20) A good person will criticize his (or her) own faults, but look for the good in others; a small-minded person will look for the failings of others. (Book XII #16) “To demand much from oneself and little from others is the way (for a ruler) to banish discontent.” (Book XV #14) Or to say it in more detail:

 

            Jan Jung asked about Goodness. The Master said, Behave when away from home as though you were in the presence of an important guest. Deal with the common people as though you were officiating at an important sacrifice. Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no feelings of opposition to you, whether it is in the affairs of a State that you are handling or the affairs of a Family. (Analects book XII, #2

 

So strict adherence to courtesy and other ritual is important when dealing with someone of higher rank or power, but also in dealing with the “common people.” Even in this highly hierarchical society, the most important thing is to treat others, all others, as you would wish to be treated. Ritual is there to govern the expression of this goodwill towards others, and the teachings of Confucius are primarily addressed to those who have the power (or seek the power) to lead others; we are not merely to show respect for those in authority over us, but to all people.

This passage points to a third important element in Confucian thought: that strict observance of ritual by those at the top of society will have “moral force,” and this moral force is a much more stable and effective method of leadership than is physical force and fear. If people have trust in their leaders and see that their leaders strive to fulfill all their ritual responsibilities, they themselves will be moved to obey. When leaders rely on moral force, the commoners will spontaneously love their country; but if they rely on threats and punishments, the people will think only of how to evade them. (Book IV, #11) When the leader loves and strictly follows ritual, Confucius says, the State will be well-ordered even if he issues no orders; people will see him, know that he loves the nation and people, and be moved by his adherence to his duty to in turn love the nation and work for its welfare. Or contrariwise, if the people see their leaders care more for themselves than for others, more for pointing out their own glory and the faults of others, and show contempt for others and for the nation by neglecting rituals, the rest of society will follow this bad example and become disordered, resentful and selfish, distrustful of their leaders and with no strong loyalty to the nation.

Diogenes and Confucius do seem to agree on some points. Both think our actions should reflect our hearts; showing “courtesy” without real human concern is pointless and hollow. Confucius says, for example, that some would say a good son makes sure his elderly parents are fed and sheltered, but we do that much for a dog; if care is given without respect, he asks, of what value is it? The difference between them is that the Cynic, or the Taoist philosopher, would say that getting rid of rituals would make for more natural human relationships and a more natural, and thus morally better society. For Confucius, the moral world is created, structured and sustained by rituals. To be “civil” towards others is to live in and to help sustain an ordered universe. And Confucius supports a hierarchical society, where duties to others are defined by their relationships and status.[2] Presumptuousness is frowned upon; Confucius even goes so far as to say that those who are not part of government should keep quiet about political affairs. Clearly this is inconsistent with a democratic society, although it seems not too alien to some of our leaders today in our supposedly democratic republic.

To put things in today’s words, to the Confucian, civility matters a lot. The people should be civil towards each other, to show they respect one another as human beings. They should be civil towards those in authority, to express respect for that authority, for the institutions and for the knowledge of those above them. But more important, the leaders must, absolutely must show civility in all they do. When the leaders speak and act with civility, the people will themselves imitate this; they will respect their leaders and from that learn to love their society and thus their neighbors as well. But when the leaders fail to show civility, the people will feel the same contempt for their leaders that the leaders show for the institutions and traditions of the nation. In that circumstance, demanding civility from your underlings while refusing to demand it of yourself is simply to weaponize it, to turn what should have been an engine for moral force into a mere exercise in power; and when the people are governed by power, they naturally resist and rebel.

 

To be continued….

[1] and Chuang Tzu was not much more impressed even if he was a bit more light-hearted about it

[2] I had an experience as a teen that suggests that this notion is present, to a lesser degree perhaps, in Western culture as well. In France I made the mistake of using “vous” when talking to a child; the French seemed to find this hilarious. I had been taught it was the “polite” form, but not that the adult-child relationship requires “tu” even when being “polite.”

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

June 30, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

 

Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?

—–Diogenes of Sinope

 

 

There has been much thought and more said about the need for civility and the deplorable lack of it today. There has been much outrage over the lack of common decency between strangers and between rivals, so much outrage that it would seem mathematically inevitable that some small portion of it must actually be sincere. But there has been little discussion as to what it is, why we need it, whether we can manage without it or whether we should. Part of a philosopher’s job is to discuss things everyone else thinks they know (or says they know) but really don’t, to clarify concepts, to untangle knotted thoughts. This seems like a good time for some of that. This is the first in a series of essays looking at some thoughts from philosophers who had different views on manners and civility, to see if the wisdom of the past can help us clean up some of the present follies.

There are many stories about the Greek philosopher known today as Diogenes the Cynic. Sometimes he seems more like a shock comic than a teacher of wisdom, as if Mel Brooks’ blurring of the distinction with his character of the “stand-up philosopher” had come to life mixed with some Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. And this is fitting, since “Cynic” is from the Greek word for “dog.” So here’s an anecdote: One day Diogenes was invited to the house of a rich man. He wasn’t used to polite company, and his public behavior was notoriously boorish. His host therefore sternly instructed him not to spit on anything, as he often did: not the nice furnishings, expensive tapestries, or even the elegant floor. Diogenes instead spit in the man’s face, saying everything else looked so nice he didn’t know where else to spit.

Cynicism is not, as commonly supposed, just not giving a fu—- oops, almost got a little too much like my subject! In fact, it was and is a very serious and challenging philosophy of life. Diogenes said that dogs live more natural and better lives than people; people are phonies, liars, cheats, fools, flatterers, chasing after money and status, while dogs just do what comes naturally. Diogenes famously walked around Athens in broad daylight with a lit lantern. When asked why, he said he was looking for an honest man, and not having much luck. So now he’s not only an insult comic, he’s a prop comedian. As Mark Twain, put it, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”[1] Centuries earlier, Diogenes had taken that lesson and pushed it beyond all bounds. For him, the natural was the real and true, and dogs and other animals better role-models than any people. Dogs don’t care if you see them mating or licking their genitals, and Diogenes thought this shamelessness was a lesson for people too; nothing is wrong in public if it isn’t wrong in private. Dogs don’t love you more if you wear fancy clothes or if you’re famous; if you feed them and scratch their heads you’ve probably made a new friend for life.[2] This is actually a very hard way for a human to live, however. Cynicism teaches that first each person has to be honest with himself or herself. It has no tolerance for hypocrisy. It embraces poverty as a virtue and is utterly indifferent to social status, since materialism and social climbing drag one away from the pursuit of Truth. There are several versions of this story; here’s the one that seems right to me. The philosopher Aristippus had sucked up to powerful people and won himself a place in the court of the ruler. He saw Diogenes cooking a bowl of lentils for his dinner. He said, “You know, Diogenes, if you’d just be a little more polite and tell the dictator what he wants to hear, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.” He replied, “And if you would live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to flatter the tyrant.” THAT’s cynicism in a nutshell! Live life honestly; don’t compromise just to get ahead or win a popularity contest. Phony etiquette and politeness just block honest conversation between real people.

The most famous American philosopher who comes closest to Greek cynicism is Henry David Thoreau. Although Thoreau is more commonly known as a Transendentalist, in his personal ethics he shows many of the traits of cynicism: belief that voluntary poverty is a virtue, social climbing a vice, honesty matters above all. The Greek cynics lived shocking lives by a human perspective, but did so in the name of a deeper devotion to God. Thoreau too lived his life in opposition to what he saw as false human values, even going so far as to break the law (he invented “civil disobedience”), largely because he put his moral principles and spiritual beliefs ahead of the expectations of society. He was not as deliberately offensive as Diogenes had been, but he did reject the common rules of etiquette that we use to avoid actual human contact. In his day as in ours, people would say “How are you doing?” and the expected response was a perfunctory “fine” or something like that. Thoreau was notorious for taking that sort of question seriously; if you asked him how things were going, you were likely to get a half-hour summation.[3] While Diogenes had a reputation as a misanthrope, Thoreau was more sociable; but he was similarly inclined to ignore the social rituals of civility and cut straight to an honest response in his devotion to his principles.

This is certainly one way of thinking about civility, and it reappears in persons and cultures as different as Diogenes in ancient Greece, Chuang Tzu in ancient China or Thoreau in 19th century America.  Honest dialogue between human beings is valuable, maybe the only thing that is; adherence to good manners over honesty is not respect, but simple fraud. If someone is being a jerk, a fool or a villain, you do that person a service if you point this out to him or her; if you smile and compliment out of politeness, you cheat the other of the chance to learn and improve himself or herself.

To be continued…

[1] What would Twain say about this current president* who famously hates dogs, the first inhabitant of the White House in generations to have no dog or any other pet?

[2] Trump’s first wife had a dog that hated him.

[3] I’ve tried answering the “How’re you doing?” question honestly, and it often unsettles people if they listen at all; some just respond to “Kinda sick, actually,” with a mindless “That’s nice,” which seems to prove the claim that this politeness blocks actual communication.