Church Versus Culture or Church With the Culture?

individualism71315Jason Evans penned a short piece over at his blog making a crucial point clear: the Church is not “special”, some kind of holy elect who can do no wrong. We have much to learn from non-Christians, whether from other religious traditions, secular political movements, or new scientific research. For more politically progressive Christians, this is an obvious point; those of us who are strong advocates for, say, women’s ordination or equality for LGBTQ Christians will be quick to point out that in many ways, progress on these issues resulted, at least in part, from the willingness of Christians to listen to arguments from outside the Church.

Of course, theologically, this could be restated as: the Spirit moves and speaks where it will. The Spirit hopefully speaks in and through the Church, but can just as easily speak elsewhere. And to this pneumatological point one might add an ecclesiological one: the Church is, as Cyprian of Carthage said, a “hospital for sick souls”. The only requirement for membership is recognition of one’s being caught up in sin. We are Christians because we recognize our desperate need to be renewed–not because we already have all the answers.

And there is no doubt that this is a message that needs repeating. We Christians do have a long history of Church-exceptionalism, thinking that only what comes from within our walls could possibly be worth listening to. Jason’s reminder is the kind of thing one might feel more ‘conservative’ Christians need to hear. (It should be pointed out here how vague this term ‘conservative’ is: political, cultural, religious, and fiscal conservatism are, for example, all quite distinct, and one could be conservative in one field and yet not in another. Nonetheless, lacking any more suitable term, I will use this one here, though one should keep in mind its vagueness throughout this piece.) Such Christians are much more likely, for example, to question evolution, forbid their children from listening to secular music, adopt less-compromising attitudes towards Scriptural interpretation, etc. If I am taking Jason’s point correctly, he is simply reminding such Christians of a basic theology of creation: God created us and everything else to be good. No matter how far we and others hae fallen, we should never forget that Truth can arise from anyplace whatsoever. Let’s not forget that it was the Assyrians of Ninevah and not the pious Israelites who heeded Jonah’s warning.

As far as all of this goes, I agree whole-heartedly with Jason’s point. But I also think we have to actually make the same sort of criticism in the opposite direction. Just as more ‘conservative’ Christians need this reminder that Truth may appear outside the boundaries of the Church, I think it should be said that more ‘liberal’ Christians need to be reminded of the ways in which Christian discipleship may demand confrontation with the culture around them. (And again, all the same caveats made above must also be made about this term ‘liberal’.) Just as there are undoubtedly situations in which the Church must be prepared to hear wisdom from non-Christian sources, there are also times in which we must be prepared to hold the line on our values and speak prophetically against problems we see in our culture.

Of course, precisely which issues require which response is itself a controversial matter. The point I want to make here is more formal and structural, rather than to advise compromise or confrontation on any specific issue. Indeed, though, I think it is precisely on structural issues that we Christians perhaps need to be most confrontational.

We humans tend to think that the structure of our thought and language just is what it is, and just reflects what is, more or less exactly and clearly. It’s very hard for us to imagine thinking about things in a completely different way. Examples of this are hard to come by, precisely because of the very issue itself: how does one think about thinking about things differently? One has to use the very structures of thought one wants to reflect on in the very reflection. How does a nearly-blind person inspect her own glasses?

Modern American Christians are, of course, modern and American just as much as they are Christian. We participate in, and are formed by, the cultural, political, social, and economic structures of the broader society. While we should absolutely be prepared to learn hard lessons from that society, we also need to reflect on it critically. Are there assumptions about humanity that our society accepts and promulgates uncritically? Are any of these assumptions at odds with Christian perspectives? I certainly think so. The best example is one that desperately needs more serious discussion, but which is increasingly hard to discuss precisely because it is so often treated without sufficient critical rigor: consumerist individualism.

Now, if your eyes are already rolling–“not another blog thinkpiece about consumerism!”–I can understand. Attacks on consumerism are now commonplace shibboleths in our culture, to the point that they seem drained of all importance. But I think this is precisely because such critiques themselves continue to operate out of the very perspective they seek to criticize, which is one reason I refer to ‘consumerist individualism’ rather than simply consumerism.

Frequently, consumerism is presented as a danger to an authentic individualism: consumerism is bad because, in consumerism, individuals are made to express themselves through the purchase of mass-manufactured items rather than expressing themselves through some other, presumably more legitimate, means. But this dodges the deeper issue, which is: what do we think we are talking about when we talk about individual identity in the first place?

This may seem like an odd question precisely because the idea that particular human beings have a more-or-less set identity–as well as the idea that being able to live that identity without interruption is the definition of a good society–are bedrock, fundamental principles of American political, social, and economic thought. This is well evidenced, I think, by the fact that both self-identified conservatives and liberals are likely to completely agree with the above statements, even if they tend to differ on which elements of identity are most important and on when compromise of self-interest is or is not valid. Individualism is ultimately a subterranean feature not only of our political system, but of our social culture and even our own ideas about our selves: we form an image of ourselves based on the way we are taught to think about ourselves–which, in our culture, is as individuals.

Beginning with the individual as the operative unit of political, social, and economic activity has a massive array of consequences, of which a specific few are I think crucial to note. Firstly, thinking of ourselves in this way first means that we think of society as something that individuals make. This is abundantly clear in Rousseau’s myth of the social contract, and is also clearly in play in the way we think of constitutional forms of government: people come together and agree to certain rules.

And this leads to the second major consequence: the assumption is that “self-interest is the proper goal of all human action“. A just society, from this perspective, is that society that allows individuals to act on their own interest without obstruction or interruption. Of course, compromises can be made on this through legislation of certain rules that everyone, or at least a majority, agree to. But the baseline assumption is that the goal is to allow for maximum individual autonomy, all other things being equal.

Thirdly and finally, what it means to be an individual here is basically to be either a property-owner or at least a potential property-owner. If the individual is defined by autonomy, and never by any social context, then no religion, nationality, ethnicity, family or culture can be defining terms of a particular human being. Since any such attribute is either changeable (e.g. religious conversion) or rendered abstract and meaningless (e.g. the relative unimportance of nationality in the identities of most natural-born US citizens) by choice, it is only the choices one makes relative to property ownership that ultimately really display the identity of the individual. Indeed, each of these other possible identities is viewed as just this–property. One can choose how, and whether, to present one’s ethnic or religious identity, and treat it more like clothing worn for reasons of fashion rather than a context which actually helped to determine the identity of the individual in the first place.

It’s worth noting that most contemporary Westerners, especially in the English-speaking world, seem to take these positions as facts, rather than as cultural interpretations. And when one points out that, for example, Chinese Confucian social theory has a radically different take on human identity, or even that Western Europe had very different views on it before the 17th century, this is generally seen only as evidence of the great progress that has been made. That is, we almost always perceive our own cultural and political structures as obviously true and right, and as either the default for any discussion of politics or anthropology, or at least as the high-water mark of human culture.

Now, at this point, we could descend into any number of discussions–on ethnography, for example, discussing the vast variety of human cultures, or on political ethics, perhaps discussing the virtues of these political and cultural structures. There is material enough for books upon books in this rich vein of possible topics. But I want to get back to the original discussion, on the Church’s response to non-Christian culture, philosophy, and achievements.

I want to suggest that though, as I said above, I strongly agree that we Christians must always be prepared to recognize truth when it is spoken, regardless of the source, we also must be critical of the larger culture which forms both our own communities as well as those outside the Church. And, more specifically, I think we must begin to consistently critique the assumptions of what I have outlined above as consumerist individualism. For one thing, as Christians, we simply cannot accept the claim that the ideal society is one where each individual simply pursues his or her own self-interest. Indeed, we should be clear that such a society would often be little more than an expression of our human sinfulness. Christ teaches us that it is love for others, and not the sating of self-interest, that is the mark of a just society.

And in admitting our sinfulness, we are also admitting that our very identities have been formed by political, social, cultural, and economic forces which manifest the rebellion against God’s love which is the problem Christ came to solve. This means accepting two things that the culture of consumerist individualism treats as heresy: first, we do not have identities which arrived out of the ether, some sacrosanct personality which exists apart from the world. Our personalities are not really ours at all: we are the complex structure(s) that result from our biology, our environment, our parents, our peers, and our educators. The society which we claim ownership of, in fact, actually shaped us into who we are. We define our individual uniqueness over and against the very set of factors which generated that unique identity.

Second, much of what makes us who we are are features that are, well, bad. I am often lazy and judgmental. This really is a part of my identity. But these are not features to be celebrated! Rather, they are marks of the ways in which I, and the world at large, has not developed into what God has created me, and the whole of existence, to be. So long as I hold onto the idea of a sacrosanct “I”, I will be blind to the depth of the ways in which I am not who God has made me to be. Which is to say: for the Christian, our true identity is a goal to be worked towards, not some inner and inherent possession.

All of this is ultimately a long and drawn-out, but I hope not useless, way of saying that the Church needs to be prepared to confront elements of our society that are problematic, elements that work against the mission that Christ sends us forth to. At times, we may find that it is actually us, the Church itself, that is the biggest impediment to Christ’s work. Other times, however, we may find that we must speak a prophetic word to secular thought. And in still other times, we may find that we and secular folks alike share a set of tragic assumptions which prevent us from speaking the Truth and working love. So I agree with Jason that it is important to remember that we Christians have much to learn from others. But I hope we also remember that at times, we may really have a unique and necessary truth to proclaim.

The two positions are not, of course, mutually exclusive, so long as we remember that we live in a complex world. But I think we nonetheless need to remind ourselves that, at the end of the day, the Church’s mission is not just to get by, reproducing its structure generation after generation in human cultures. God has and is acting to renew creation, to complete a work undone by sin. And that means that at our root, the Church must be ready to challenge the structures that keep us blind to the truth and unwilling to love in fullness.

Framing Questions to Shift the Blame in the Housing Crisis

Poverty Rate Rises To 15 Year HighThe LA Times published an editorial two days ago purporting to explore why it was that the black population of many progressive/liberal cities had been declining over the last decade or so.  Aaron Renn, the author, pointed out that cities like Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles had extremely high “median multiples”, a figure that expresses how many times the median income the average house costs in each city. Portland’s figure of 5.1, LA’s of 8.1, and San Francisco’s of 9.4 were all much higher than most cities (a baseline expectation is 3.0–meaning that an average home would cost three times the median yearly income in that city). The conclusion was that building/zone restrictions and environmental protections, which tend to limit the supply of housing, were driving up the prices of housing in these cities.

Now, on the one hand, Renn is pointing to an obvious and incontrovertible fact. Housing prices have certainly gone up in many cities in recent years; the explosion in housing costs in San Francisco has, in particular, gotten a lot of attention. There’s no denying that this is happening and it’s a problem. But Renn offers a particular causal explanation: saying that it is progressive/liberal environmental and zoning policies that are to blame. And it’s this causal story that doesn’t hold water.

First off, let’s step away from the content of this particular discussion and note the tactics involved. This rhetorical strategy of pointing out obvious and undeniable facts but then offering a contentious and indeed wildly dubious explanation is an all-to-common one. The hope is that the reader, noting the obviousness of the facts presented, will simply assume the proposed cause is just as obvious. We should be on guard against this rhetorical maneuver.

Our suspicion should only deepen when we pay attention to who Renn is and who he works for: he’s a “senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute“, a conservative think tank. Of course, pointing out that he has an ideological bias doesn’t prove his point wrong–we all have biases and points of view. But it makes the breezy transition from confident fact to dubious cause less surprising; Renn here is, it would seem, less interested in providing technical economic advice to cities seeing adverse outcomes and more interested in pushing a specific ideological interpretation of the situation to effect policy changes.

And it’s not just that Renn’s causal explanation seems specious and ideologically-inspired–it’s that he seems to be pulling a bait-and-switch as well. Because the problem he identifies–the massive increase in housing prices in these cities–may have other causes which he would like to obscure.

First and foremost, remember that the figure he points to for evidence of the problem is the “median multiple”, which is the ratio of housing prices to income. This number will go up if the cost of housing goes up or if income effectively goes down (or stagnates). So the problem could be as much with income as it is with housing availability or prices. It’s worth noting that Renn does not discuss minimum wages, union density, or trade policy, though these are all major factors in explaining the drop in real wages over the last 40 years in this country. Again, considering his employer, this is not surprising.

Secondly, in the case of San Francisco, we also know that the explosion of Silicon Valley companies in the area, most notably Google, is also a major catalyst for the increase in housing prices. But Renn explicitly claims that a city’s being friendly to development and business will decrease rather than increase the median multiple–and again, considering his employer, this interpretation is not surprising, even though it runs into direct conflict with the facts on the ground (facts which, unlike the increase in housing prices, Renn chooses not to report here).

I think this discussion is important not only because this issue of housing availability is itself crucial, but also because this is a very clear example that how a question is framed will have a major impact on the answers an author reaches, and how those answers are received. By ignoring most of the relevant data and discussion, Renn is able to take a very real problem, offer an at-best partial explanation, and then reach a wildly specious conclusion. We need to be on guard against this sort of rhetoric–not just bad answers, but manipulative questions.

Division Among the Democrats: Tactics Vs. Strategy

demDonkeyAt this point there is surely no shortage of articles and blog posts written by Clinton- and Sanders-supporters this primary season. Most of you have probably seen your Facebook feeds and RSS feeds (are those still a thing?) fill up with such pieces. I myself have posted many to Facebook. The problem that a lot of people have identified in this debate is that, as is always almost the case in political debates, the two sides are largely talking past, or at, each other, rather than engaging in a real discourse with each other. I won’t pretend to have avoided this pitfall myself, but this problem has gotten me thinking, and I’d like to take a crack at explicating what I think are some of the deeper divisions at play here.

First off: I am a Sanders supporter. I have given him money multiple times and voted for him in the Virginia primary. Second, I am not a registered Democrat (Virginia has open primaries). Third, and no doubt most controversially, if Clinton wins the nomination, I am not sure whether I will support her. I say this simply to offer full disclosure; I am not purporting to represent the party, or its base, or anyone else. I would like to present my reasons not only for supporting Sanders but also for considering not supporting the Democrats if he does not get the nomination.

If you are a Clinton-supporter and you are gasping for breath out of consternation, I ask that you take a second, catch your breath, and just hear me out. I’m not demanding that you agree with me! But I’d like you to understand my position. And if you are a fellow Sanders-nista and you are grinning smugly, I ask you to put a serious face on and consider whether the reasons I offer are the ones you would too–because Clinton-supporters feel strongly about their support for her and we should take them and their reasoning seriously. I’d like to try to step away from the emotions of candidate loyalty, and the way in which we like to perform our identities in public by showcasing that loyalty, for a second and think more structurally. Without further ado:

First off, it should be admitted that supporters of each candidate are ideologically and culturally diverse. Clinton supporters no doubt cover a wide range of people with a wide range of motivations: there are no doubt moderates who are supporting her because she seems the most practical candidate of either party, women (and men) who support her simply because she is the first woman to have a real chance at becoming president (not an insignificant or silly reason to support her, I should add); there are those committed cultural liberals anxious to have any Democrat in office to shore up the gains of the past 8 years, as well as progressives (this term annoys me in its vagueness, but I don’t have another good word to use here) who trust that she will really push a left-leaning set of policies forward.

For now, though, I’d like to address only those Clinton-supporters who consider themselves “leftist” or “progressive”, of some stripe or another. For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to define this group as having specific hopes on the following three policy areas. I want to stress that I am defining this group as people who want these things, whether or not they think they can realistically be achieved in the near-term:

  1. Guaranteed access to necessary healthcare for all people living in the US.
  2. Real reversal of income and wealth inequality, especially noting the need to address inequality of wealth between whites and people of color.
  3. Decreased rates of incarceration, especially of people of color.

If you do not hold these as political goals, you will probably find the rest of this post unhelpful in articulating your own political calculus. I am very much intending to speak to people with whom I share basic political, social, and moral positions. My argument is really intra-progressive or intra-leftist–I want to make a case for supporting Sanders and perhaps even withholding support from Clinton only to those who share these (and other) left-leaning goals. It seems clear to me that if these issues do not motivate you, you were never going to support Sanders in the first place and will not find my reasoning convincing. But I know that there are many Clinton supporters who do care about these issues, and I intend to address them here. I would also like to point out that I have kept foreign affairs and military issues off the table for now (even though I think that such issues provide perhaps some of the strongest arguments against Clinton, from the standpoint of my own values) because I want to present a simple and straightforward argument about electoral tactics and strategy, not debates over specific policy–again, just to be painfully clear, I am assuming we agree on our broad policy goals here. (If you don’t share these goals, we obviously could and perhaps should have that conversation, but I won’t pretend to address it here.)

OK, with all of that said, why do I think support for Sanders is important and support for Clinton, if she wins the nomination, may not be advisable? It seems to me that when it comes down to progressives (and again this word strikes me as problematic, but it covers a range of people that I think no other word currently does), the Clinton/Sanders divide cashes out in this way: Clinton supporters argue that we must support whichever Democrat is nominated or risk seeing recent victories (e.g. gay marriage) challenged and perhaps rolled-back by a Republican president. Meanwhile, Sanders supporters tend to stress that whatever her merits, Clinton’s policies and her legislative and executive history suggests that she is only marginally better than most Republicans on most issues, and therefore supporting her is not defensible or wise.

It’s important to point out here that both groups could be right: it both a) seems that Clinton really would hold the line on recent liberal victories and b) that ultimately her track record suggests that she is at best a very moderate liberal. (And again, for many of her supporters, this may be a virtue and not a deficiency, but I am assuming, as stated above, that my interlocutors here seek substantial policy change–debates over the need or lack of need for such change being bracketed for now). Assuming such agreement, the argument that most Clinton-supporting progressives seem to make is that we need to back incremental change, that backing a more radical candidate is a recipe for losing the election and giving power to those who want to roll back the meager progress we have managed to achieve.

And it has to be admitted that this makes perfect sense, at least at first blush. So why am I questioning this logic? I think we need to pay attention to the assumptions that go into this reasoning. Most of all, the emphasis is on the short-term: the goal for electoral action here is to cement gains made in the last 2-4 years, and all decisions about whom to support are, it seems to me, made from within this framework. So far as that premise is accepted, then support for Clinton seems obvious.

But if we question this premise, and suggest that we take a longer-term frame of reference, a troubling trend appears. If we ask not just about the last 2-4 years, but the last 20-40, the strategy of always supporting incremental change starts to look rather less than robust. Though victories, especially on so-called “culture war” issues (like gay marriage) have occurred, on most other fronts, progressive and leftist goals have been disappointed either partially or fully. Income inequality is rising, there has been little real action on global warming, incarceration rates have not fallen, undocumented immigrants are being detained and deported without any meaningful reform, etc. etc. Even some of the victories seem hollow: both the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act fall far short of what progressives believe was necessary (single-payer and reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, respectively). Meanwhile, policies, legislation, and treaties such as NAFTA have not been challenged, and indeed no mainstream Democrat seems to even admit in public that such a thing needs to be challenged.

Comparing this to the more-or-less broad consensus among Democrats from the 30s through the late 60s on a range of issues, especially regarding labor, economic, and fiscal policy, one wonders what happened. Why is that we went from having strong unions, high tax rates, and major landmark achievements (Social Security, Medicare/aid, the Civil Rights Act, etc.) to seeing much of that progress slowly erode for 40 years? (I want to be clear here about not romanticizing this period: especially on sex- and racial-equality, even the “best” Democrats of this era fell far short of what was needed. But the shift in the trajectory of the party’s priorities seems clear nonetheless.)

Obviously, any discussion of the causality of such a complex set of of events would itself be (endlessly) complex. But if we limit ourselves to the discussion of electoral behavior, one thing becomes clear. Since the late 70s, the Democratic Party seems to have shifted slightly rightward in just about every electoral cycle. Tax rates have fallen, incarceration rates have risen, income inequality has worsened, consistently and continually, even with Democrats in the White House and with Democratic majorities in Congress. Let’s not forget that it was under Bill Clinton that NAFTA, welfare reform, and harsher federal sentencing guidelines were passed.

In other words, support for Democrats has not resulted in slow progress, but seems rather to be aimed only at slowly the regress, rather than building power to achieve real gains for equality and justice–even at at time when majorities, even super-majorities, of Americans support the basic planks of progressive/leftist politics, according to a range of polls.

Again, remaining focused on electoral behavior, one conclusion seems to recommend itself: the Democratic Party is not worried about courting the progressive/leftist vote, as demonstrated clearly by the fact that they have continually supported the very opposite of the policies that this bloc has called for, at least on certain issues. If this is the case, the question that arises for those of us in that bloc is: what should be done about this lack of representation?

And here’s the essential point, as I see it: so long as the Democratic Party knows that progressives will support them, regardless of whether the Party actually delivers on any progressive goals, they have no incentive to so deliver. Meanwhile, a large number of moderate votes are up for grabs each cycle; by moving slightly right-ward in each election, the Party can capture some of these voters, helping to secure victory–and so long as they believe they gain more votes in the center by doing this than they will lose on the Left, this makes mathematical sense.

The only way to conceivably change this outcome is to discipline ourselves to think in the long-term; so long as our fear of the current Republican candidate pushes us to support the candidate with a [D] next to their name, regardless of their actual positions on any issues outside of those over which Republicans and Democrats like to disagree with each other over, we should expect the Party to move to the right, slowly but surely, over the course of election cycles. In short: this situation is explained by evolutionary logic, not by individual wills and deeply-held beliefs. So long as this institution recognizes that it has more to gain in terms of power in the executive, legislative, and judiciary by moving to the right, it will. Arguments about what is just and equal, morally right and wise, will fall on deaf ears because this institution, like every institution, is structured to maximize its security, power, and prestige. I want to be clear here that I am not accusing the Democratic Party of being some kind of nefarious conspiracy; I am saying that it is precisely as mundanely, boringly, and infuriatingly self-interested as every other human institution.

Those of us, then, who want to see progressive/leftist policies actually enacted need to figure out how to reverse this movement of the Party. Now, to the extent that we thought there was only a tiny percentage of Americans who supported our positions, the course of action would be obvious: we would need to do the work of spreading our ideas, convincing people of the need to enact the policies we see as necessary. An while this kind of organizing is, of course, still laudable, the thing is, this really isn’t the problem. Huge percentages of people already agree with us–in many cases, as mentioned above, absolute majorities!

If this is so, then we need to recognize that a different course of action is required. The problem isn’t that most voters don’t agree with us (obviously the specific degree of agreement on each issue varies, but broadly speaking, on the three issues I stipulated above, there is broad consensus) but that, despite most Americans wanting substantial change, that change isn’t happening–whether a Republican or  a Democrat is in office.

Recognizing this is, I think, the crucial move. If the electoral system is itself completely faulty–if its obvious that, in fact, the wishes of the majority on a range of issues are not being represented by elected officials–then hope in incremental change starts to look Quixotic. Such incremental change follows the structure of the system, so if we recognize that what is faulty is that very structure, then why would we think we can achieve our goals by yoking them to the thing that has been designed to frustrate them?

This is not to deny, of course, that, all other things being considered equal, small and incremental progress is still a good thing. It obviously is. But the reality is that all other things are not equal! If we are going to address the most pressing issues of our time–massive poverty, horrendous labor conditions, global warming, collapsing ecosystems–we are going to have to achieve orders of magnitude greater change than we have seen in the last few decades. And once we see that the progressive/leftist behavior of supporting the Democrats no matter what, in fear of the looming Republican menace, has itself helped to generate a more right-wing Democratic Party, then we have to have the courage to try and behave in new ways, to force that party to change its behavior.

In short: refusing to support the Democratic Party in elections until they agree to support some basic list of fundamental and essential policy changes, if only everyone who agreed with those changes (again, this is a huge percentage of the population!) acted in concert, could effect change in the Party in just one or two election cycles. It would, it is true, mean allowing, in the short-term, even worse candidates to get into office. But, if the basic narrative I’ve outlined above is more or less accurate–if the Democratic Party is shifting more and more to the right on the majority of issues–then voting for Democrats to keep Republicans out of office is the very behavior slowly transforming those Democrats into Republicans.

So the real tension here is between a tactical and a strategic decision-making process. Those who feel called to support Democrats no matter what are responding to the more immediate, on-the-ground tactical realities. And this makes sense, from within the framework of the assumptions it employs. Meanwhile, those who are increasingly convinced that the Democrats cannot be supported unless they commit to–and really act to achieve–important policy goals are, implicitly or explicitly, responding to a broader or strategic set of ideas, interests, and anxieties. The point here is not that one is better than the other, as if political decisions could be made purely at the particular or the general level. In fact, of course, competent decision-making requires both. But what the latter , strategic-focused group has begun to realize is that, in the particular circumstances that we face today, the tactical decision-making process is winning battles even as the war is being decisively lost.

What we need is a party that will actually represent the interests of working people, fight for environmental stability, call for racial justice, etc. The Democratic Party has never been truly committed to these goals (it has been especially inconsistent, to put it very mildly, on race) but, for about 40 years in the middle of this century, it seemed to be moving in the right (er–“correct”) direction. But in the past 40 years, we’ve seen it shift in the opposite one. What I, as a Sanders-supporter, am saying is that we need to be thinking about how to shape the Democratic Party to actually represent our interests, rather than allowing our fear of the Republicans to motivate us to loyally support the Democrats even as they transform themselves into precisely what we fear.

Unless, I think, we can talk about the tensions between these two levels of political decision-making–the tactical and the strategic–then I don’t think Clinton- and Sanders-supporters are likely to be really able to talk to and with each other. Some times and problems will call for a more tactical engagement, while others will call for a strategic vision. I think we are currently facing the latter, and unless we can act to change the Democratic Party’s behavior and the trajectory of its development, we will keep winning small (though undoubtedly important!) battles right up until the war is lost.

Withholding support from the Democrats is a risk, undoubtedly. And supporting them regardless of their actual commitments and actions has, in contrast, a guaranteed outcome–I just don’t think that outcome, at least in the long-term, is the one we actually want.

Purple Plants and Self-Identity; Or, Romantic Intersubjectivity According to mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss

mewithoutYou‘s “Aubergine” at first listen, sounds like a stream-of-consciousness rambling-on about agriculture with no clear referent or purpose. And while it can be understood, and, I am sure, enjoyed as just this, when understood in what can only be called its intertextual dimension, its meaning, or at least one of its many meanings, comes into greater relief. (And it should be noted that I am not the first to explore this particular song.) First, here’s the song itself:

The first verse is a collection of gardening references which refer to an unspoken subject:

Sugar down the syrup in the Queen Anne’s lace
Shining in the light of nightshade
Cultivating unsophistication in my face
Trying to think of nothing to say
Grapes gone sour and the spinach went to seed
It was spindly and sick from the outset
Waiting for the hour with a wherewithal to leave
Patient as a dog for its master

Two things are striking here: the first is that each line suggests a negation, a lack, a diminishing: confusion, absence, sickness, and frustration are evoked throughout. The second is perhaps less obvious but even more important: there is no clear subject or agent to this narrative. We have a list of phrases, most of them gesturing towards plant life and gardening. But if these images are meant to tell us about something other than themselves, it’s not at all clear–what is it that is shining, what is cultivating unsophistication, what is sick and spindly? It could of course be the narrator of the scene, though this would just be an assumption without any direct evidence–and it should be noted that the first-person nominative (“I”) is completely lacking here–as indeed are any pronouns whatsoever except for a possessive “my” and the rather un-evocative “it”. The “my” doesn’t give much help, since it can’t be determined whether it is meant reflexively or not–is the speaker the subject of this line, or is he or she instead in the accusative or dative, passive before some other actor? Meanwhile, the opening line doesn’t even have the stable subject-verb-object structure that might give us a toehold on the stanza as a whole. But then the chorus might suggest a candidate:


Just this one word: “aubergine”. If you are familiar with this word at all (at least in American English), you probably know it as a specific shade of purple. What does this have to do with anything? Perhaps the next stanza will begin to fill things in?

Labrador was locked through the promontory rock
She called down, said “time is an illusion”
An inconsequential shift as the continents drift
But my confidence was crushed and I miss you regardless

The “labrador” here might link us to the last line of the previous stanza, which spoke of a dog waiting for its master–and indeed this dog is waiting in eternity beyond time. Is this dog meant to signify the one about whom the speaker has spoken all along? It doesn’t seem so, for two reasons: first, this dog “calls down”; it seems to be off-stage, as it were. It would seem that it is interjecting into the scene, making a point relevant to the narrative. Secondly, in the last line of this stanza, “I” finally arrives, and it comes accompanied by “you”.

So perhaps the subject of the first stanza was either the speaker or the one being addressed, after all. The delay in introducing these referential pronouns means that it’s hard to be sure. And then, this sentence introduced, we are returned to our one-word chorus:


Again, this shade of purple–what’s it doing here? It doesn’t seem that reflection on what came before will be of any help, so let’s carry on forward and see what we find. The next verse is, in the song itself, sung by a new–female–voice:

You can be your body but please don’t mind if I don’t fancy myself mine–you at 32 still tied to your poor mother’s apron strings!

So the “I” and “you” remain in focus, but considering the change in vocalist, it may well be that this I is the you of the previous verse–though, of course, we can’t be sure. In any event, now we have a more explicitly philosophical statement. Imagery and metaphor have stepped back to allow a straightforward assertion: this speaker announces that she won’t begrudge the first speaker (if indeed there are two speakers here) his identifying himself with his body if he so chooses, but she won’t accept such a condition on her own identity.

So–perhaps the subject of the first stanza is actually the body of the first speaker? This would certainly hold together–bodies get sick and fade away, and the agricultural imagery seems to lend itself easily to reflection on the transience of life. But then why do we have a second voice? If we are here grappling with, to use philosophical jargon, the mind-body problem, why do we have a second mind announcing itself as taking a different view?

We now arrive at the final stanza:

Sorrel in the gravel and the saffron robe
Sleeping like a shark in the cordgrass
Now I saw how far I travelled down the solipsistic road
I climbed out to ask for directions
There was not a pond in sight, here I’m gasping like a fish
In the desert with a basket full of eggplant
Who asked about the passage from the bible on my wrists
But I couldn’t catch my breath enough to answer

Here we return to metaphor and imagery; the male speaker seems to prefer this mode of communication to the direct assertions of the female speaker. That said, we do have further use of philosophical jargon: the speaker, identifying himself with Theravadin monks in their saffron robes, has traveled down the solipsistic road–ah hah! So, this song may not be about the mind-body problem at all, but rather about solipsism, making the second voice’s presence simultaneously more relevant but also more mysterious.

But the second speaker is also here, perhaps, referenced, though oddly now again in  a third-person narrative form: someone has asked him a question about a tattoo, and he finds himself unable to answer. Who asks him? An eggplant. An eggplant!? We are back to our agricultural images, but now the produce is talking. But I think this eggplant is the second speaker. Why would I think that? Well, we have to return to the chorus: “Aubergine” is another word for eggplant, so this talkative gourd is not a new character in the play, but the interlocutor with whom we’ve been wrestling all along. (Perhaps many of you already knew the full meaning of ‘aubergine’; when I first heard this song, I did not).

OK, you might say–but why is this interlocutor an eggplant? This seems an extraordinarily arbitrary way of symbolizing a fellow human being. Here is where the “intertextual” element necessarily comes into play.

“Aubergine” is the sixth track on the album Ten Stories, released in 2012. Three years earlier, It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright was released. Its sixth track, “Bullet to Binary (pt. 2)” may shed some light on our original text:

The opening of the song references, unsurprisingly, the original “Bullet to Binary” (from A–>B Life, released in 2002) but let’s not follow too many threads at once here. The second stanza is the one most relevant to our current quandary:

Lettuce grows, lettuce grows in neatly sectioned beds and rows, but one day asked the Gardener to be moved to where the Eggplant goes.
The reason being, I must confess, I adore her shining, purple dress!
As the Eggplant listened in, she wasn’t offended but she wasn’t impressed.
The Potato called from underground: You’ve got it all turned upside-down.
Does the Rain that’s sent each spring anew to fall on her not fall on you?
You project on her your inward scenes, she’s a blank, external movie screen.
But the One who looks out from your eyes looks through hers and looks through mine.

Again with the agricultural imagery! It’s not hard to see a trend here. And not just a trend, but an explicit parallel–here, three years earlier, is our eggplant. And, let’s not miss this, this eggplant is definitely a she: the lettuce adores her purple dress. So this very well may be our eggplant from “Aubergine”, and if so the relationship between the first and second speakers from that song seems to be–or at least have been–at least implicitly sexual. It is her purple exterior, after all, that the lettuce so admires.

But then the potato calls “from underground”–again we have a third speaker breaking into the scene, like our eternal Labrador from before (is it perhaps going too much out on a limb to see Dostoevsky looming here?) The tuber lambastes the foolish greenery for his superficial affections. But note the reasoning here; the potato doesn’t seem to have a problem with physical attraction as such, or even sexual activity. Rather, the potato mocks the lettuce for thinking that the eggplant has any separate identity to begin with.

So, now the theme of solipsism is clearly rooted in this cross-album reflection. The eggplant is merely a “blank, external movie screen” upon which the lettuce projects some modification of his own identity, and his desires. At this moment of the lyric, before the final line of this stanza, one might suggest that the conclusion will be a confirmation of solipsism; this penultimate line has completely trashed the separate identity of the other person.

But in fact, this is what does not happen. Instead, both the speaker (lettuce) and the beloved (eggplant) are both relativized before “the One”–some Other “looks out” from his, her, and even the potato’s eyes. We have here not solipsism, but something more like a monistic pantheism: each individual human is actually just an instantiation of the One True Self (though one might want to link this to the “Gardener” from the second line–however, this begins to put massive strain on the metaphors in play, so for now I will leave this be).

But if “Aubergine”, a song released after “Bullet to Binary (pt. 2)”, has returned to the theme of the second speaker, the you, of this previous song, then it would seem that this mystical conclusion was not final for Aaron Weiss, the vocalist of mewithoutYou. Three years after announcing the unity of himself and the object of his affection, he still seems entranced and transfixed precisely by her otherness and distance–indeed, she rebukes him for holding a view of self (that one just is one’s body) that seems in conflict with the conclusion reached in the 2009 song.

So: what do we make of all of this? I am less interested in trying to arrive at what he meant (insert stock critique of access to authorial intent here), and more interested in tracking the development of the thoughts and feelings that seem, on a close reading, to have motivated all of this. And to that end, I will conclude by only muddying the waters further with a reference to “Bullet to Binary”, a song released, as mentioned above, seven years before its “second part”, and which seems to give the clearest account of what germ sprouted all of this romantic and philosophical anxiety:

First off, the two songs are sewn together not only by their titles, but by having identical openings:

Let us die, let us die!
And, dying, we reply…

Beyond this, though, the original 2002 song has no agricultural imagery, but is far more direct in its romantic lamentations:

When you laugh you’ll feel my breath there
filling up your lungs. And when you cry,
those aren’t your tears but I’m there
falling down your cheek.
and when you say you love him, taste me
I’m like poison on your tongue-
But when you’re tired, if you’re quiet,
you’ll hear me singing you to sleep.
So our aubergine-eggplant seems to have rebuffed the speaker in the distant past, and not only, perhaps, broken his heart, but also triggered a whole lot of philosophical and theological wondering. Whether the eggplant stands in for a specific woman or womankind in general is not at all clear here (though Aaron’s claim–in “Fox’s Dream of th Log Flume” from Ten Stories–to not have kissed anyone in 14 years might suggest the former).
All of this suggests a fraught attitude towards romance which is caught up in anxiety over self-identity as well–in loving, perhaps Weiss is saying, we find our selves displaced. If the love is reciprocated, then perhaps all is well; what is gained is far greater than the identity abandoned. But, if not–well, perhaps it can’t easily be retrieved.
That said, perhaps this loss of self-identity, though painful, is a great boon–perhaps what is lost is only an illusion in the first place, and the beloved who does not return the love is actually offering a great gift–liberation from an imagined selfhood. At this point, of course, I am moving beyond the lyrics themselves and speculating. One could engage in theological speculation here as well, especially considering the final line of the second stanza of “Bullet to Binary (pt. 2)” suggesting, as was seen above, perhaps a monistic pantheism.
My goal here is not, as I said, to suggest any “right” reading of the lyrics, but to try and showcase how close reflection can reveal significance in a host of things–this kind of thought isn’t just a dry exercise, but can, I think, when undertaken by anyone with some discipline and care, be vital and even therapeutic.
(I hope in the future to analyze more mewithoutYou lyrics with specific attention to Weiss’ theology. If you found this interesting and would like more, leave a comment saying as much!)

On Marriage, Primates, and Communion

Primates-2016-mapMy Facebook feed this morning was a long thread of posts on the exact same event: the meeting of the Primates (that is, Presiding Bishops, Metropolitans, Archbishops, etc.) of the Anglican Communion this week. What has many American Anglicans–i.e. Episcopalians–agitated is the specific document that (according to some media sites) calls for a temporary “suspension” of the Episcopal Church of the USA (commonly referred to as “TEC”) from full participation in the Communion and for “sanctions” upon this church, primarily due to the fact that last year’s General Convention (the governing body of TEC) agreed to formally introduce a modified marriage rite for same-sex couples. Many articles have been written by angry Episcopalians condemning the Primates’ communique and heaping scorn on the Primates Meeting for agreeing to it; this article in particular has been getting a lot of traction.

So, Episcopalians are understandably frustrated, and not small number are lashing out on social media. Many Episcopalians have also made a point of publicly endorsing the very views on LGBT equality that have precipitated this conflict, and there is a growing sense of an Us vs. Them coming to dominate coverage of this meeting and the broader issues being discussed. But even though this communique has only been available for one day, already a massive amount of misinformation and problematic interpretation has been published and brandished; let’s take a breath, and then take a few moments here to actually look at the details of the statement and the relevant issues. I do want to point out that others have been quicker to address these misunderstandings, and I definitely recommend reading widely.

First off: those media outlets that are reporting that TEC has been “suspended” from or “sanctioned” by the Anglican Communion are in error. TEC is still unequivocally a member of the Anglican Communion; indeed: the meeting of the Primates doesn’t even have the power to remove a member national church from the Commmunion. (There was an earlier effort to endorse a statement calling for TEC to voluntarily exit the Communion for three years, but even this rather gentle disciplining was not endorsed by a majority of the Primates.) Furthermore, even those Primates who have called for some kind of disciplinary action have been extremely explicit in referring to TEC as a member church and have stressed a desire for unity and cooperation. As I will do throughout this post, I encourage you to actually read the communique itself, rather than relying on media outlets that, generally speaking, seem not to  know what they are talking about (ahem, Washington Post, ahem). The communique is available here. On the particular issue of TEC’s membership in the communion and the desire for substantive unity, I would direct you especially to items 1 and 7 in the communique. So, to be crystal clear, as there has been much confusion on social media about this: TEC is still a part of the Anglican Communion, and no one in the Communion is even disputing this.

Second: the accusations the Primates make in items 2, 4, and 5–that TEC has changed central doctrines and rites without consulting the Communion–are simply true. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the majority of TEC members who endorse full LGBT equality in the church (and I want to be clear that I am certainly a member of this pro-LGBT majority), there is no question that in changing fundamental doctrines and rites of our church without consulting the broader Communion, we have violated the polity of that Communion. Of course, those of us who believe strongly in LGBT equality are likely to stress that we feel that this is a moral issue of such importance that we felt justified–perhaps even led by the Holy Spirit–to make these changes. And in fact I personally hold this position. But the whole point of having a polity, a governing structure, is that it’s supposed to apply to everyone equally. Of course, everyone thinks their position is the morally right one. If every church, or parish, or individual asserted their own doctrinal positions as truth because they firmly believed them to be true, there would be no possibility of community or of unity.

Does this mean that I think we should not have made these changes without consulting the Communion? In truth, I believe TEC could and should have made more of an effort on this front, though I will admit to not knowing the details of every international meeting of Communion churches over the last 20 years. But, let’s be clear: TEC leaders also knew full well what the answer would be if we engaged in such a consultation: the majority of Anglican Primates would not have endorsed pro-LGBT language in resolutions nor any modified marriage rite. So even if we had bent over backward to engage in full range of bureaucratic consultation, TEC still would have been left in the same position: to make changes according to the conscience of the majority of TEC members, or to accept the will of the majority and not treat LGBT Christians with full equality.

I should interject here that I am not a “cradle” Episcopalian; I joined TEC because it manifested two aspects of Christian faith, each of which is equally important to me: first, it is a church that takes liturgy, tradition, and theology very seriously. Second, it is a church that nonetheless is willing to be disciplined and corrected by secular thought and engage in progressive changes when, after prayerful reflection, it finds itself in error. These two currents are definitely in tension, but it is this tension that I think makes TEC unique and critical to the universal church today. It is a creative tension, one where the strength of tradition and the prophetic voice of the Spirit alike both tug on us–we Episcopalians find God pushing us with the hand of tradition even as God pulls us with the hand of progress and critical thought. In other words, for TEC, these two forces are not in conflict, but rather in a dialectical, creative relationship.

What this means for the current controversy, I think, is this: we should make those changes which we feel called to make and we should accept the discipline of our Anglican brothers and sisters. We can endorse both our own understanding of a prophetic call to atone for our homophobic (and transphobic, etc.) past while also accepting that we are members of a worldwide communion of fellow disciples of the Risen One, many of whom do not accept our actions as prophetic but see them as disruptive, myopic, and perhaps even heretical. This is an uncomfortable position–but what else should we expect as worshipers of a crucified man? Jesus never promised his disciples comfort, or an easy life, or even a soothed conscience. He called men and women to speak the Truth as they understood it, but he also himself insisted the the central Truth we had to believe in and live was an absolute respect and love for all others. For most of us in TEC, this of course means demanding full equality for our LGBT brothers and sisters. But let us not also forget that, as Jesus pointed out, it is easy to love those who love us and whom we find lovable (Matt. 5:46-48). We also have to love the Primates who have criticized us and the more conservative Christians in our own nation and even within TEC who find our position problematic. We should speak the Truth as we see it but do so humbly, and prepared to accept that speaking the Truth is rarely easy. Indeed, one sign that one is speaking an important truth is that it should make us and those around us uncomfortable. This was certainly Jesus’ experience as he preached the Good News: to many who heard him preach, it didn’t sound good at all, because He threatened to overturn long-standing traditions and structures of power. (The rich young man of e.g. Mark 10 and the many outraged Pharisees throughout the Gospels come to mind as prime examples.)

But let us remember well that though Jesus spoke the Truth–and did so bluntly–he always announced this Truth as a hopeful promise. The Kingdom is only a threat to those who refuse to see who God really is, and who they themselves really are as God’s creatures. That is to say: Jesus never excluded anyone, but he was honest that certain people fundamentally excluded themselves, if they were unwilling to accept the radicality of His Call. Many of us in TEC might feel that in the 21st century, knowing what we know about human sexuality, to exclude LGBT people from the Church is to fail to love as Christ calls us to. Ultimately, I agree with this. But in doing so, I know that I condemn myself. For I almost never love others as Christ calls me to. True, I do not use someone’s sexual orientation as an excuse to not love–I find other, more acceptable and less controversial excuses. This, too, is a sinful refusal to really understand and live the Kingdom. Likewise, if we erect walls between ourselves and African Anglicans over this issue, we will be failing to love as we are called. Let’s disagree with them, let’s even condemn their position as unworthy of the love Christ calls us to. But let’s never condemn the people who hold those views, however abberant or even hateful we may find them. Let’s admit that we have not played by the very rules we demand others play by. Let’s also publicly and confidently discuss why we feel we had to act regardless. But let’s do all of this with as much humility and love as we can muster. Because living this way is what Christ calls us to do. We call ourselves Christians; let’s try to live up to that name.

So, even as we speak honestly and critique those who have critiqued us, let’s not fall prey to misinformation or insufficiently critical thought. Let’s not demonize those whom we are in conflict with. In short, let’s remember that we are–or, we aspire to be–disciples of Christ. Let’s try to handle this conflict with the ethics and wisdom He has imparted to us. I think our new Presiding Bishop captured our position–in all its discomfort and promise–well in this short message:

The White Devil Among Us: White Supremacy and the Church

confederate skull EDIT2The terrorist massacre of nine black Christians on June 17 in Charleston, South Carolina, has already received massive treatment online, on air, and in print. Most editorials on the subject seem to fall into two groups: many use the opportunity to call for stricter regulation of firearms, while others emphasize that the real root cause of tragedies like this is not the availability of guns, but the prevalence and non-treatment of mental illness. While both topics deserve attention (as does the question of what interests each narrative might be serving), there have been those who have instead called for a need to understand that violence of this nature has deeper structural and cultural roots. What both the gun-control and mental illness policy recommendations miss, essentially, is the primacy of the culture and ideology of white supremacy.

This topic is, unsurprisingly, treated much more frequently by people of color than by white Americans. Though this is unsurprising, it is ultimately a major blindspot in white Americans self-understanding. By responding to violence of this kind with only narrow policy proposals–as worthwhile as those may actually be in their own right–we white Americans sidestep an uncomfortable discussion about our identities, our history, and the structure of the cultural, political, and economic systems in which we operate.

White Christians have generally been no better than our secular counterparts in taking white supremacy seriously. This is, again, a major failing of white Christians’s self-awareness, for one cannot understand the history of the Church in the Americas without understanding the history and development of white supremacy. Indeed, a historical account of the rise of the complex of attitudes, ideas, and theories that constitute white supremacy is absolutely necessary to disabuse oneself of many of the convenient fictions we white Americans often like to tell ourselves. Nonetheless, for white American Christians, there is yet another level, perhaps for us even deeper still than history, that needs investigation.

If the above conversations discuss the intersection of policy, of literature, of popular culture, of history, etc. with white supremacy, here I would like to query the intersection of theology and white supremacy. This could, of course, also take a historical route: we could investigate all the ways in which white supremacists attempted to backstop their political and economic views and interests with Christian imagery and texts. But such a project would be best left to those with the historical acumen to dig into the relevant texts. I’d like to ask what white supremacy means theologically.

White supremacy stalks white Christianity today, and this can be appreciated–and regretted–without an in-depth historical analysis of the rise of white supremacy since the 1670s (though, again, such a historical understanding is unquestionably valuable!) The theological gravity of white supremacy can, I think, be summed up by a quote that James Cone employed in his 2012 The Cross and the Lynching Tree: Cone cites an older white man who, in the 1950s, said that “lynching is a part of the religion of our people” (135).

This short quote encapsulates, I believe, much of what we white Christians do not understand–or want to understand–about our past, about the formation of our culture, and about our relationship to Christ. If indeed lynching is a part of the religion of this people–white people–what does this say about white Christians? What religion, exactly, is this man talking about? And what role does it play? Half a century after the passage of seminal Civil Rights legislation, and with a black President, it would be easy for us to assuage any feelings of guilt or uneasiness on the subject of race, trusting that Progress is already delivering us from our historical sin. Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black Christians should remind us that the devil still sits in our pews.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree is undoubtedly received differently by different readers. Its chapters are diverse and divergent: moving from an ethical critique of the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, to a cultural celebration of the achievements of the Harlem Renaissance, to a historical account of the tactics of survival employed by black Americans in the early 20th century. Cone offers a rich meditation on race and religion that lacks any unifying thesis; instead, he moves between frames, trying to draw the reader to consider the gravity of his topic. The effect of this broad presentation is to offer a book that speaks different truths to different readers. For me, as I have already made clear, one line stands out above all others. Reading this old man’s witness, that, with lynching suppressed, he feared for the survival of the religion of his (my!) people, appeared to me as a sort of revelation–or, actually, condemnation. John Macquarrie argues that God’s judgment is just the obverse of God’s grace–perhaps then, God’s condemnation is God’s revelation received by one who recognizes a horrific failing, the weight of a historical sin.

“Lynching is a part of the religion of our people.” Assuming this man identified as a Christian, this statement at first must seem only incoherent. Even the most virulent fan of Richard Dawkins would not accuse Christians of publicly defending human sacrifice or murder as a central tenet of the faith (though some pagan critics did attempt this critique of the early Church). Furthermore, the fact that many (though not all, as Cone points out) of the victims were themselves also Christians seems to exclude this interpretation. So what religion is he talking about?

Let us focus on the subject of the sentence: the act of lynching, of publicly torturing and murdering someone (after 1865, nearly always a young black man) and celebrating the event with postcards and at times even collecting body parts as souvenirs (or relics?) suggests that this act is essential to this religion, perhaps functioning as its central cultic action. In short, we seem to be describing a religion which was formed around organized white violence against black people. Historical, cultural, economic, and political forces and explanations for this behavior abound, and of course are essential in understanding the activity. But, again, interpreting via the lens of theology, and recognizing the sacrificial trappings of lynching, I believe we must admit that white supremacy functioned, and indeed functions, as a truly religious force within white America.

Only by understanding white supremacy as a religion can we understand the old man’s statement, and having understood it as such, the full importance and effect of lynching, too, becomes clearer. This was not only an act meant to discipline and terrorize black folks, it was also an event which solidified the white community, reminding its members of their identities, their shared interests, and reinforcing the racial ideology that formed the backbone and glue to their political and social culture. To understand lynching in this way is, basically, to apply fundamental anthropological tools to the phenomenon.

The work of Emile Durkheim or Mary Douglas could be leveraged here, but I think an even more powerful analytic tool might be the work of Rene Girard. In his books The Scapegoat and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard outlines a simple but powerful idea: human religiosity is always founded on an initial act of violence, in which the stresses, dangers, and uncertainties of a community are symbolically (that is: actually, psychologically) loaded onto a single person, who is then killed. Not infrequently, either the real set of problems happens to dissipate after this violence, or the act of violence effects sociological and psychological changes that result in the community feeling as if the problem has been solved or at least has temporarily abated. For this reason, Girard argues, some of those killed are posthumously deified, and a religious cultus develops around their memory. So, if there is an attack of the plague in some settlement in prehistory, and some man, who is perhaps targeted because he is marked with plague scars, is “scapegoated” and then killed, and then (for, of course, biologically unrelated reasons) the plague dissipates, or a number of sick people get better, some members of the community will interpret the scapegoat’s presence as that of a divinity, and his exit (via murder) as a divine act. The person  becomes seen as both the source of as well as the solution to the threat the community faced. It is critical to remember that Girard understands this act of killing and the subsequent deifications as real events that actually happened in the past. Some real person was really killed in the past, and the community who murdered them deified them–Girard sees this as the actual genesis for the vast majority of human religions, including the deities of the Greek and Norse pantheons.

Whether one buys Girard’s argument that this sacrificial behavior can explain the genesis of human religiosity (and if you are curious, I definitely recommend both texts, especially I See Satan…), I believe the general mechanism he outlines can be usefully employed to the theological question we have been meditating on. Lynching, seen through this Girardian lens, is the sacrificial cult that continually reinscribes the religion of white supremacy. Black others are essential to this religion precisely because they come to symbolize threat, danger, and degeneration for white people: the very human bodies that formed the foundation for the American economy were, nonetheless, religiously and culturally perceived as only liminally human, a nuisance to be controlled. The occasional lynching could then function as a sacrificial rite, reminding white people of their whiteness and thereby reinscribing white supremacy, and insulating white people from realizing the obvious: that much of their culture and economy was predicated on exploiting and torturing fellow human beings–indeed, quite often, fellow Christians and, after 1865, fellow citizens. Lynching was not, then, a spontaneous and unfortunate event that occurred in an otherwise healthy society progressing smoothly to a democratic future. Lynching was a necessary and predictable manifestation of an ingrained culture.

Theologically, lynching must be seen as a sacrificial cult of a clearly non-Christian religion which, nonetheless, took up residency within much of the white Church in the US. Lynching is the cultic activity of a widespread apostasy, manifesting the failure of the Church to actually live its teachings, to live the Gospel. White supremacy set up the ideal of the White Race in the place of God, and consumed the flesh of black persons–many of them Christians–in order to reproduce itself. If any extant, popular religion approaches the depravity Christians have historically feared lurked in what we generally call Satanism, surely, white supremacy fits the bill. White Supremacy is worship at the alter of the idealized (white) self: it is Satanism. This connection between murder, religiosity, and the objectification of evil as Satan is something that Girard himself makes clear.

Only if we understand white supremacy through this theological lens, understand it as an idolatrous parasite on the body of the Church in America, only if we come to terms with the extent to which white theology has been warped by its influence, only then can white Christians face the historical sin that lies at the heart of our culture. As Emmanuel Levinas reminds us, when we recognize who we really are and the Infinite who stands before us, we are responsible even for what we have not done. White supremacy is not the work of a few gun nuts or pitiable crazy people; it is a central and highly influential cultural, social, psychological, and indeed religious force still at work in our society. To apply a biological rather than a theological metaphor for a moment, if white supremacy is a virus, Dylann Roof is just the latest outbreak of the infection: not a one-off loon, but the manifestation of a deep evil that lies buried in our culture.

The promise of the Gospel is not easy perfection; obedience to the Gospel is not marked by assumptions of election. God’s revelation, God’s graceful call, falls on those mired in sin as condemnation; grace reads as judgment when we fall short of emulating God’s love. To take the history, the culture, and the idolatry of white supremacy seriously will be deeply painful for us white Christians. It will not be easy, it will not be popular, it will not sell well to Nones, it won’t attract young families. Talking about white supremacy in the Church may make the collection plate lighter on following Sundays; nothing clears a room like an honest sermon. But unless we can be honest about the sin that is white supremacy, we cannot follow Christ. And it really is that simple: will we serve God in Christ or our own convenience and power? Jesus has warned us that we cannot serve both God and Mammon.

May God help us make the right choice, and forgive us for centuries of refusing to.

Modern Myths: Science vs. Religion

“Religious belief systems prefer a universe with mankind firmly at its center. No wonder Cosmos is so threatening.” This is the subheading to a recent article on the controversy over Neil de Grasse Tyson’s revamping of Carl Sagan’s famous Cosmos series, which began airing earlier this year on Fox. Alternet‘s Adam Lee examines the public outcry of many fundamentalist Christians over the show’s portrayal of the history of the universe; as the show is hosted by an astrophysicist and focused on the scientific exploration of outer space, it is unsurprising that the creation stories related in Genesis are not discussed. For those who insist on a literal reading of Scripture, of course, this is a thrown glove, an invitation to ideological combat. Lee, however, sees the issue in much broader terms: for him, this debate between scientists and fundamentalists is really the manifestation of a much deeper and absolute tension between science and religion on the whole.

Massive volumes have been penned on the idea that science and religion are locked in existential combat, and I have neither the space nor the expertise to go into detail here. A Google search or perusing of Wikipedia’s article on the subject can provide a better introduction to the scholarly debate on this narrative than I ever could. The short summary of what I think you will find in those investigations is this: the idea that religion as such and science as such are locked in some unavoidable ideological war is, simply put, a myth–in the full meaning of that word. It is not only mythical in that this narrative is untrue in many respects (i.e. many scientists are religious, many believers are fully accepting of science, and historically, a vast amount of scientific discovery has been achieved by people who were deeply religious and spiritual) but also in the more pernicious sense: this narrative is mythical in that it forms the backbone of a polemical stance that thinkers committed to a certain vision of modernity employ to discredit their opponents and give the impression that readers and listeners must pick a side in this great battle between progress and knowledge, on the one hand, and ignorant superstition, on the other.

But here, in the small space of a single blog post, I want to focus in on one particular claim that Lee makes–let’s return to his subtitle: “Religious belief systems prefer a universe with mankind firmly at its center. No wonder Cosmos” is so threatening.” Many readers will likely find this claim barely worth mentioning, because the assumptions behind it are largely accepted as obviously true. The uncontroversial nature of this claim only drives home how successfully the “conflict thesis” has been accepted in contemporary thought, for the claim is, theologically and biblically, simply untrue. What Lee is describing here–the idea that humanity is ontologically located at the center of reality–can be called anthropocentrism, an idea which is actually closely tied to Enlightenment humanism–not biblical religion. The assumption of human importance in the universe is the bedrock for social contract theory Liberalism and the application of scientific knowledge to the development of industrialism through technology, all tied up in the modern assumption of historical “progress” towards brighter and better futures. But this view is simply not central to Jewish or Christian religious thought. Somehow, however, many people today–even highly intelligent and well-educated people–seem to think that Abrahamic theology is tied deeply to an anthropocentric vision of reality.

This modern confusion is more complex than a simple historical and philosophical misattribution, though. Anthropcentrism’s consequences are meted out to various ideologies in a specific and ideologically-guided way. What we tend to see as the good aspects and achievements of an anthropocentric culture are attributed to science, technology, and liberal democracy, while the bad aspects or failures of anthropocentrism are attributed to religion or traditional culture. Thus, vaccines, air-conditioning, airplanes, computers, and the moon landings are all proof of the glories of scientific living, while the atom bomb, global warming, and the indignities of modern life are attributable to reactionary, unenlightened religious or tribal thought.

But the problem isn’t just that there is ideological cherry-picking here, there is also a mass of unexamined and baseless claims. There are few, if any, sections of the Bible that lend themselves to an anthropocentric reading. It is true that Jewish and Christian Scripture broadly claim that human life is purposeful and inherently meaningful–that God, the creator of all that is somehow cares for us–but humans are by no means placed at the center of creation. Indeed, the Bible is a theocentric, rather than anthropocentric, text. God, not humanity, is at the center of the biblical universe, and it is only in relation to God that humanity can “cash in” its potential, so to speak. Far from being concerned only or primarily with the immediate material concerns of human beings, the Bible stresses that only in consciousness of and service to the Reality that transcends immanent being can humanity understand its true identity. Human life is recognized as fleeting and, in immanent and material terms, almost trite:

Consider, for example, Psalm 103: 14-17 (note that I have left all gendered pronouns referring to God in place; the reader should not take this as my approval of such pronouns. All quotes are from the English Standard Version):

For [God] knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children.

Humanity is “dust” and “grass”, formless and fleeting: it is only by God’s continual creating and sustaining act that humans exist, and it is only in God’s loving act that we can have any hope. This same theme is present throughout the Bible; consider Isaiah 29:15-16:

Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”?

Here again, any sense of human autonomy from the Ground of Being and Becoming from which it sprang is quashed–only through understanding of the meaning of existence, which is objectively determined apart from humanity, can the particular human harmonize themselves with the reality in which they live. Again, humans are not the center here, but rather a periphery offered meaning and importance precisely to the degree that they conform themselves to the Center, which gives them being in the first place. The writer of deutero-Isaiah continues this theme and even the same metaphor in Isaiah 45:9:

“Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?

Job also takes up this theme of human impermanence and seeming unimportance, even demanding that God leave him alone to enjoy what little passing pleasure he might:

“Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not. And do you open your eyes on such a one and bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one. Since his days are determined, and the number of his months is with you, and you have appointed his limits that he cannot pass, look away from him and leave him alone,
that he may enjoy, like a hired hand, his day.

This lament, the opening of chapter 14, is later met with God’s reproval in the closing chapters, which maintain humanity’s determined and circumscribed existence while maintaining both God’s transcendent Otherness and sovereignty. Again, there is little room for a hubristic, anthropocentric reading here.

The Christian New Testament leans heavily on these images, continuing the insistence that the meaning–and indeed salvation–of humanity can come only via the human’s willingness to recognize and follow God, not on any human action itself. Thus James warns his comrades:

Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Here, even the rich person who seems in control of his or her life, with independent means and social power, is revealed as limited and contingent: the process of becoming will roll over them just as surely as it will over any other particular being in the world; death comes for all life. Similarly, the first letter of Peter directly quotes the lines from Psalm 103 above. And we have only skimmed the surface of this theme’s presence throughout Scripture: a number of other Psalms (e.g. 22, 90, 92) as well as Ecclesiastes explore the theme in greater breadth. But let’s not get carried away with quoting the text–I hope the point has been made.

This, of course, does not mean that religious people are often not anthropocentric in their thinking–but it does suggest, and I would say decisively so, that the source of this anthropocentrism is not their religiosity, but indeed the humanism that informs modern social thought. And here lies the interesting yet often unexplored tension within modern life. For it is modern social thought–social contract Liberalism in the Locke/Rousseau vein–that collides headlong with the scientific determinism of the 19th and 20th centuries–especially the Behaviorism of say, Skinner. The idea that human beings are largely determined and powerless in an often hostile universe is not at all threatening to a biblical view of the world–as we saw above, the Bible itself repeatedly asserts this very fact! It is humanism that finds this view of the world unacceptable and oppressive, for it suggests that humans, despite all our inventive cleverness and power, are ultimately unable to liberate ourselves from our material constraints. This would suggest that it is the largely unspoken yet ubiquitous classical Liberal view of humanity that, contradictorily, leads fundamentalist Christians to so vociferously reject scientific claims that seem to challenge an anthropocentric view of the universe, whether this is the Big Bang or evolutionary theory.

This will likely strike many readers as an odd claim, but, as counterintuitive as it is, I think its a much more accurate reading than the credulous pigeon-holing that Lee employs in his Alternet article. Fundamentalism, after all, is a religious movement that came about precisely to counter the rise of a robust Science in the 19th century; though its roots can be seen in resistance to early historical critical work on the Bible, it is not until geology and then biology undermined traditional readings of the creation stories that a full-throated ‘fundamentalism’ arrived on the scene. But this reaction already shows a major shift in the reading of Scripture, for creation stories that had meant to point to the mystery of creation had been bent–under the guiding rubric of humanism–to instead provide a firm basis for absolute human knowledge of the physical world. It is easy to forget that the basis for Evangelical and fundamentalist theology was and is (primarily) the Swiss Reformation–led by John Calvin, himself an avowed humanist. It was humanism that led to the idea that the Bible could be simply and directly translated–freeing the laity to interpret the text on their own, without ecclesiastical guidance (or interference, depending on one’s view). Although this certainly gave lay Christians more direct access to the Bible, it also meant that this highly diverse and ancient text was divorced from the cultural, philosophical, and hermeneutical context in which it was written–leading easily to a literalistic mode of reading in which the vast majority of the significance of the text is lost. This is, I think, precisely how the theocentric Bible can come to be read in a highly subjective, self-indulgent anthropocentric mode.

Thus, the real conflict here is not between religion and science, but between humanism and science. This seems paradoxical, precisely because we are so used to thinking of science as both the product of and servant to the humanist project: and again, medical, transportation, and information technology breakthroughs fit this narrative well. The last 2 centuries have been witness to an incredible surge in human knowledge, and that knowledge has led to human manipulation of the material environment in ways that have expanded human lifespan and quality of life (at least for those lucky enough to live in “developed” nations and of sufficient class status). This is an obvious historical fact. But of course, this same knowledge has also had its dark ramifications–not only in the development of military technology and the various negative “side effects” of industrialized society (pollution, rising levels of obesity, displacement of traditional culture, etc.) but also in the increased recognition of human beings as more object than subject. The Cartesian/Kantian view of human personhood as based in transcendental reason has collapsed. Humans now are immanent things, objects of science. This has resulted in massive medical breakthroughs–for only as a physical object can the human body be studied and healed scientifically–but it has also raised profound and unsettling questions: for can an object have intrinsic ethical value? When a person was understood as an immaterial soul, the separation of value and fact was not fatal to the maintenance of ethical realism. But if a person is no more than a body, how is a robust ethics to be maintained?

Herein lies the collision of what we might call “early” and “late” modernity: Locke, Rousseau, Descartes and even Kant inhabited a world of transcendent souls animating material bodies. Since the 19th century, this view of humanity has been challenged to the point of obsolescence: yet it remains the basis of our social thought. This philosophical view is necessary so long as we want to maintain modern liberal values of freedom and human rights, as well as the sense of human dignity, because there is no scientific basis for such claims. One cannot show, empirically, the existence of human rights. Nietzsche recognized that the collapse of transcendence meant the end of the old ethics just as much as it challenged old religious views of Divinity; Heidegger too saw the implications for classical Liberalism–and post-structuralist and postmodern thought has continued to drive home these conclusions. Yet, modern society remains caught in the limbo between humanist social thought and scientific determinism. It seems to me that the resistance to evolutionary thought and an “old” universe is as much about salvaging a sense of meaning to human existence–any meaning, religious or otherwise–as it is about defending a particular religious position. Fundamentalist Christians strike me more as the humanist canaries in the coal mine, rather than real countercultural traditionalists. And of course, they are far from the only people frightened by the conclusions of modern science and its manifestation in technology; lamentations of consumerism, the banality of industrialism, and the “disenchanted” nature of modern self-consciousness are common, especially among the artistic Left. What is perhaps unique about fundamentalists, however, is a recognition, even if it is pre-critical, that there is no “going back”–once one accepts the scientific view of the world, the realm of value and meaning seems forever lost.

I am not suggesting that we side with the fundamentalists in their angry, anti-intellectual assault. I am, however, suggesting 2 things that I think Lee–and many others–have missed. First off, fundamentalist angst is primarily humanist, not religious. Secondly, they aren’t wrong for sounding the alarm–their outbursts point to a central contradiction in modern life, the gap between our social/ethical and scientific/technological endeavors. The haughty cultured dismissal of fundamentalist fear only proves the uncritical complacency of many pundits and commentators. In the final analysis, if we are going to affirm science and ethical realism, we will need a new synthesis, a new way forward, that is not dependent on the transcendental individualism of humanistic classical Liberalism. The alternative to developing such a new way forward can only be the ethical relativism that post-structuralism and postmodernity promise. I would argue that such a synthesis can actually only come by reaffirming the theocentric view we briefly touched on above–but that’s a topic needing its own post.