Sunday, January 27, 2013

Time and Place

Disclaimer the first: The title of this blog post probably doesn't mean what you think it means.

Disclaimer the second: It is entirely possible that some of you will think I'm a hypocrite by the time you reach the end of this post.  You are justified in so thinking.  I will do my best to keep the hypocrisy limited to the footnotes.  "Hypocrisy" may also be a proxy for "snark."

Among the several Major Life Changes I am going through right now, my girlfriend and I are "church shopping."  Every Sunday, we visit one of several churches in our neighborhood.  Eventually, we will tell all but one of them that we're really just not that into them.  We thought we'd narrowed it down to two finalists.  Then we discovered that both of them are currently led by interim/imminently retiring pastors.  We have not decided if we are going to expand our list.

One of the finalists is a Lutheran church.  One part of Lutheran worship (and maybe the worship of other denominations; I'm not sure) is the Prayers of the People.  The celebrant reads a list of standard petitions to which the congregation replies "Lord, hear our prayer" (or some variant thereof).  These are usually pithy yet general enough to be unequivocally good things (e.g., "We pray for there to be less starvation in the world with a preference for no starvation").  The floor is then opened for members of the congregation to spontaneously offer their own petitions, which are then also given general sanction.  We're all Christians.  We should pray for each other.  Maybe someone's aunt is sick.  How can you know?

Today, one of the spontaneous petitions was "Help return our nation to what our founding father's intended."*  A similar petition was made the Sunday after the election (we were attending the same church that particular Sunday).  Today, the petition was immediately followed by a prayer for a Federal ban on assault weapons.  This particular turn of awkward events has prompted several reflections which I present in no particular order.

1) NOT COOL.  As I said, the way the Prayers of the People work is that someone asks for a prayer and everyone responds "Lord, hear our prayer."  I did not say that everyone has the option of responding "Lord, hear our prayer."  Everyone responds "Lord, hear our prayer."  That places a particular onus on the petitioner to ask himself (both were men in this case) "is what I'm asking for really something that all Christians (or, at least, all Lutherans) agree upon?  Is it a part of Lewis' 'Mere Christianity'?"  I want to believe that the "no assault weapons" advocate only said what he said to counterbalance the "founding fathers" prayer (I also want to believe that God is not in favor of assault weapons as a general rule), but maybe he was going to ask God to ban assault weapons, anyway.  Regardless, these gentlemen should have realized that these were issues that can (and should) be debated without committing heresy and saved their prayers for a time when we wouldn't all look rude for not agreeing (full-disclosure: I did not say "Lord, hear our prayer," to restore the founding fathers' vision; I muttered it to get assault weapons banned).

1b) I guess this is a good stand-in for the school prayer debate (or at least an explanation for why there still is a school prayer debate).  These gentlemen assumed everyone in the room was exactly like them and therefore saw no problem in foisting our approbation upon their views.  If Lutherans (Lutherans!) cannot see how that is problematic when surrounded by other Lutherans (LUTHERANS!), how can we expect Christians writ large to see how it is problematic when they are leading a classroom full of 30 children whom they assume are Christian except that two of them are actually Jews, three are Hindu, and one is an atheist?

2) All of that being said... there has to be a time and place for these conversations.  If churchgoers actually believe what they say they believe, it should probably have a fundamental influence on how they live the rest of their lives.  Does God want us to return to the founding fathers' vision*?  Does He want us to ban assault weapons?  If we're not going to ask these questions, what is the point of faith?  As a friend once said when I was in earshot "church can legally affect the state; it's just that the state cannot legally affect the church."  The problem is less that the gentlemen in question brought their politics to their house of worship.  The problem is that they brought it at a time when we are supposed to give thanks to God, support one another, and not raise any hackles.  We all (most of us) said "Lord, hear our prayer," and moved on.  I'm not a pastor.  I don't know what pastors think about such things, but in my imagination, if I were, I would have stopped the service right there and asked the congregation: "What do we think about that?"

2b) The first two-thirds of episode #456 of "This American Life" examine the "self-deportation" movement: the idea that states can solve the problem** of illegal immigration by making life so miserable for illegal immigrants that they will elect to leave.  Specifically, the episode focuses on an Alabama bill that allows state law enforcement to ask people to produce their immigration papers and arrest them if something is amiss.  It also makes it a crime to employ an illegal immigrant (that part may be redundant). Around the 34 minute mark, they interview State Senator Gerald Dial of Alabama, a self-described "devout Christian" working to amend the bill (which he originally voted for) so that providing charitable help to an illegal immigrant is not, itself, a crime.  The interview culminates in this exchange.

Jack Hick (interviewer): "Once you've amended the bill, do you think Jesus would vote for the bill?"

State Senator Dial: "Gosh... you've asked me a tough question you know, uh... I would hope that He would understand that... I would, I would say that.... would He vote for the bill?  Probably not."

This makes no sense to me.  If you are a lawmaker who believes in God and you are presented with a law that you believe God would not support (and I would say it's pretty safe theology that God does not support making people's lives miserable), how can you, in good conscience, vote for it yourself?  I worry that this is one of the direct consequences of our refusal as a society to discuss "tough issues."  It is impolite to talk about politics.  It is impolite to talk about religion.  We just say "Lord, hear our prayer" and go about our days with all kinds of self-contradictory nonsense living in our brains.  To quote Ray Bradbury (by way of 'The West Wing') "If you hide your ignorance, no one will ever hit you, and you will never learn."

I started out annoyed that politics were injected into the church service I attended.  I have pretty strong views about what my religion says about my politics, but I'm still annoyed.  I'm annoyed because the politics were injected, not by reasoned debate, but by fiat.  "I believe X, and therefore, you're all going to pray for X with me."


I'm really not.

*Never mind that our founding fathers intended to leave slavery legal in half the country.  Also, isn't one of the points of Christianity supposed to be that exactly one infallible person has ever been born?

**I didn't want to overcrowd that sentence with scare quotes, so let me just say that the idea that illegal immigration is a problem (unless you are talking about people dying in the desert trying to get to Arizona, because that is a problem) is... problematic to me.  The people and institutions responsible for the financial crisis all had their papers in order.

Friday, October 19, 2012

That word... I don't think it means what you think it means.

These are the words of a US Senator

“I don’t think the people of Wisconsin discriminate against anybody, but I think we also hold the traditional view that marriage is between a man and a woman,” says Johnson. “I don’t find that contradictory at all. I’d favor civil unions. I have no problem with that.”

I just.... I can't.... There aren't..... gah!


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Grace, Courage, and Wisdom

Sometime around the 2004 election, I harumphed in loud approval as a friend of mine railed against single-issue voters.  The single-issue voters specifically elected for my friend's ridicule were the members of the so-called "pro-life" faction (scare quotes in honor of the mind-boggling number of people who oppose abortion, support capital punishment, and have somehow managed to convince themselves that giving poor people food and education was not what Jesus had in mind).  My friend thought it irresponsible bordering on silly to decide anything as important as one's vote for President, Senator, or Congressperson based solely on the candidates' views about the appropriate relationship between the Federal Government, fetuses, and womens' internal organs.  As I said: I harumphed.  What I did not understand/was not willing to face at the time was that I was and am a single-issue voter myself.

Five years later, as America debated the appropriate relationship between the Federal Government, sick people, and doctors, a different friend -- a life long Republican perpetually terrified that his vote might a) swing Democrat and b) ever actually matter -- asked "why are you so loyal to the Blue Team?"  I hemmed, I hawed, and the only thing intelligible that came out of my mouth was this:  For my entire political life, one party has used gay people as boogey-folk around which to mobilize its base.  I will never ever ever vote for such a party.

It is now 2012.  In two months, America will elect a President and Washington state will elect a governor.  Two cycles ago, Washington's gubernatorial race wasn't decided until January.  I think I know something about where Barack Obama and Mitt Romney stand on most issues (though not with the subtlety I think I should).  I know the names of the men running for governor of my fair state.  I feel no compulsion to learn anything more.  Five months ago, our current governor and state legislature legalized same-sex marriage.  The opponents of that move have gathered enough signatures to bring that decision before the voters as a referendum.  Rob McKenna is on the record opposing same-sex marriage.  For no other reason, I am going to vote for Jay Inslee.

Many of the problems faced by our government are hard.  Intelligent people can have intelligent, unresolved discussions about how to fix the economy.  These people are called "experts."  You will find them listed in the modern lexicon of the American language under "enemies of Western civilization."  Discrimination is the opposite of that.  It's the political equivalent of the joke

Patient: "Doctor, it hurts when I move my arm like this!"

Doctor: "Don't move your arm like that."


Government: "Doctor, we are treating gay people like second-class citizens!"

Doctor: "Stop treating gay people like second-class citizens."

In McKenna's defense, not legalizing same-sex marriage will leave Washingtonian same-sex couples in their current position, often referred to as "marriage in everything but name only."  However, America has been down the "separate but equal" road before and I think I know what is at the end of it.  Nothing will change my opinion on this question.  I just worry that what I'm doing (casting my vote for governor based on the mono-syllabic answer to a five word question) is irresponsible bordering on silly.

Of course, I worry even more that if I don't, the answer to the related question "when will we start treating gay people like people?" will perpetually be "after...."

PS While I have you here, there's something I've been hearing on the radio all day:
Take Wyoming-based businessman Foster Friess. He’s a conservative Christian who prominently backed Rick Santorum for president. Like McKenna, Friess is no fan of government mandated healthcare.

“This whole idea is health care a right?" Friess said in a 2009 speech. “That issue shouldn’t even come up because we know for those who embrace the Christian values systems, health care is a responsibility. We are our brother’s keeper.”
Does anyone have any idea what this means?  To my untrained ear, being "our brother's keeper" means that we should take care of our brother if he doesn't have healthcare.  Given that the United States Federal Government is the ultimate embodiment of our collective action (at least, that is what Abraham Lincoln tried to convince us of with that "of the people, by the people, and for the people" nonsense), and given that "we are all brothers and sisters in Christ," shouldn't these implied "Christian values" be an argument for some kind of government-provided health care?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Christian Nation

The more I think about it, the more I really do wish that the Blue Team would concede the terms of the game and actually wage an election on the question "which party is more Christian?" I know we couldn't actually change anyone's votes, but I think it would be valuable to have that discussion out in the open. It would rehabilitate Christianity in the minds of those who, like me, have come to see religion as just another bludgeon used to beat the Other into submission.

There are many arguments I would mobilize were I the chair of the DNC. I'm sure you can imagine most of them. But, like Felix, I like the sight of my own words, so I'm going to explicitly state one upon which I recently stumbled. Feel free to be bored.

At the end of my third year at Whitman College, I took a seminar course in the religion department entitled "Religion and Science." It remains one of the most exciting intellectual experiences of my life. I have recently (well, not recently, but I'm slow, so I'm still not done) re-reading the central texts we read over the course of that semester. I am currently 85% through Ian Barbour's "Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues." In one of the many paragraphs on the Christian view of human nature, Barbour writes:

"Paul Tillich identifies sin with three dimensions of estrangement. Sin is estrangement from other persons in self-centeredness and lovelessness. It is estrangement from our true selves in pursuing fragmented and inauthentic goals. It is estrangement from God, the ground of our being, in attempted self-sufficiency. For Tillich, estrangement, brokenness, and division can be overcome only in reconciliation, healing, and wholeness. To Tillich's three forms of sin I would add a fourth: estrangement from nonhuman nature by denying its intrinsic value and violating our interdependence. I suggest that sin, in all its forms, is a violation of relatedness."

This idea of sin (focusing on the four types of estrangement) calls into question the assertion that the United States is a "Christian nation." Usually, that assertion is countered with the argument: "no; the First Amendment and 222 years of legal interpretation establish ours as a secular government." In my Fantasy Election, I would counter it with "no; we are not a Christian nation; we in no way act like one."

I do not think I misspeak when I say that most interpretations of Christianity hold that humans are wholly dependent on Jesus for their spiritual salvation. You cannot earn your way into heaven. Nothing you do can ever be good enough. You are wholly dependent on God's forgiveness. Hence Tillich's idea of sin as "estrangement from attempted self-sufficiency." Contrast that with the American mythology of the self-made person, succeeding exclusively by the sweat of his or her own brow without relying on anyone else. These self-made people are the ideal to which we must all aspire, and if you find yourself dependent on social institutions like Welfare or Medicare/aid, it is because you have failed and are in some way inferior. There are, of course, secular reasons that this myth is a falsehood. Elizabeth Warren does a particularly good job of laying one out (in my mind, she does a particularly good job of most things...). Religiously, I would ask: why the cognitive dissonance? Why is it a sign of inferiority (or even sin?) to be dependent in our Earthly lives but a definitional aspect of humanity that we are dependent spiritually? Are we fallen, or not? Are we broken, or not? Maybe you can have it both ways, but not without first having the discussion. Politicians like Rick Santorum make their bread and butter talking about "equality of outcome" versus "equality of opportunity," but there's a lot of distance between true "equality of outcome" and making sure poverty and unemployment are not death sentences*. We can achieve the latter. All we have to do is act like Christians (or Jews, or Muslims, or Buddhists...really, anyone who believes there is something more important than self).

*Don't get me started on how a nation that claims to follow the teachings of an innocent victim of capital punishment routinely fights tooth-and-claw to defend its right to execute people.

I suspect things like this are going to become the new gist of this blog. Be forewarned.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

It's not a principle if you're willing to compromise on it...

...which must mean that "this blog is no longer about how Scott is an angry Democrat" isn't a principle. Quelle dommage.

Perry's running a "War on Christmas" ad in Iowa.

The way religion gets wielded in elections has always bothered me. Democrats put their butts on the line to pass healthcare reform because we think poor people should have some kind of access to medicine, and yet, for some reason, we roll over and take it whenever anyone tells us we are the less Christian of the two major political parties.

That's all I'm going to say about that.

What I am going to continue talking about is this: I'm still trying to figure out what I believe writ large, but I am quite certain that if I am a Christian, Easter is by far more important than Christmas, doctrinally speaking. Christmas celebrates Jesus' birth. Easter celebrates Jesus' willing sacrifice as an example to God (who is also him... like I said: not yet sure what I actually believe) that humans are a worthy creation and shouldn't just be tossed into the cosmic trash bin. If the claim truly is that we are a Christian nation and should remain a Christian nation, it seems to me there should be an outcry that "our kids aren't allowed to openly celebrate Easter... in schools" (by the way, did you notice how Perry inserted other words between "Christmas" and "in schools" so that it sounds like kids aren't able to openly celebrate Christmas anywhere?). My feeble mind can only come up with two possible explanations that I have never heard anyone bemoan the "War on Easter":

1) Easter's secular component is much weaker than (to quote my hometown pastor) the Santa Claus festival. Even Republicans can't make a claim that everyone should have to celebrate the resurrection of a man/God whom they don't necessarily believe was resurrected. In other words, they know this is a fight that they cannot and should not win. This, to me, means that they don't actually believe in or care about the "War on Christmas" and are just using it as a wedge issue (which they obviously are, so why am I wasting your time on this....)

2) The people who whine about the "War on Christmas" actually believe Christmas is the central holiday in the Christian tradition. Christmas emphasizes Jesus' Superman-like qualities (birth heralded by angels, turned water into wine, that sort of thing). Easter forces us to remember that, in the end, he still died the most miserable death humans have figured out how to inflict on one another. It's the difference between the Prosperity Gospel and the actual Gospel. Is God concerned about showering his followers with wealth? or is He concerned about the fact that somewhere, right now, someone is suffering from hunger, or a curable disease, or civil war, or.....

This brings me back to that thing I wasn't going to talk about ("Rule number 1: [this] doctor lies"). The left should stop cowering in the face of accusations that they are "unChristian" and instead employ more of an "I'm rubber and you're glue" defense. I think we could actually win that argument (something about rich men and camels and the eye of a needle comes to mind). I suppose the fear is that we would lose most of our principles and some of our heroes (I'm going to miss you, Barney Frank).

I just wanted to point this out (to people who probably already noticed it...)

If anyone wants to have a discussion about it, though: so do I.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What about you? Do you have any hobbies?

I was recently told that my last post was too disturbing to watch. I found this amusing because the woman telling me this had recently posted a video to her blog. It was 30 seconds of her 8-month-pregnant belly undulating as her unborn child did whatever it is that unborn children do. I guess that makes the score

Chthulhu: 1

fetus: 0

Don't mess with Chthulhu. Like water, he always wins. [Apologies to those who get that joke. As the title of this blog implies, I should know better.]

Two weeks ago, I used half a block of tofu in a stir fry. The other half languored in my fridge until tonight. In that time, it turned from white to orange.

I actually managed to convince myself (through poking rather than anything you could call research) that this was a sign of drying out rather than any malicious growth and was about to cut it into tonight's meal, when I noticed this.

I'm not sure I've seen that color in nature before. I think it's pretty (though not in a way that food should be). I opened a new pack of tofu.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In lost R'lyeh, dead Chthulhu waits, dreaming

Who knew that dead Chthulhu was a plant? Or that R'lyeh was a small suburb of Seattle whose principal form of municipal income was speeding tickets?

[The music, in case you were wondering, is "Mars: Bringer of War" from Holst's "The Planets" performed by the LA Philharmonic under the direction of Zubin Mehta]