How vs. Why: Tension in the Means and Ends of the Church

HTBromptonRelevant Magazine’s most recent issue has a short article by James Dwyer on Holy Trinity Brompton, a parish in the Church of England which the piece celebrates for its innovative engagement with contemporary culture. At a time, Dwyer stresses, that the CoE’s membership is collapsing, Holy Trinity Brompton (“HTB”)is showing massive growth, not only of its principle parish, but also of additional “centres” (what I think would traditionally be called parish missions) around London. Dwyer chalks this success up to Brompton’s vicar, Nicky Gumbel, who critiques the “classical music” model of traditional Anglicanism and advocates for liturgy, formation, and fellowship modeled instead on contemporary culture.

Now, on the face of it, I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with this. The idea that the kerygma must be translated, as it were, into new cultural forms is as old as the Church itself; Paul struggled to faithfully convey the radical perspective of this new Jewish sect to his Gentile converts. But, as with most things in life, the devil is in the details. What are we talking about when we talk about “culture”, anyway? It’s such a broad term, and it can cover things as seemingly innocuous as contemporary slang and fashion, to weightier issues like consumerism. Which elements of culture, exactly, is Rev. Gumbel interested in being “in sync” with–and are there any elements of contemporary culture he is not willing to compromise with? These are really the essential questions, but, disappointingly, Dwyer does not press them.

And there are deeper questions still, questions which do not even come up over the horizon of this article. Fundamentally, what do we think the Church is really about, anyway? The driving assumption of this piece is, as far as I can see, that the goal of the Church is simply to get more members, more butts in pews, higher Average Sunday Attendance. HTB is celebrated by Dwyer because it succeeds at getting people to come into church on a regular basis in a country where Christianity is in major decline. That seems to be the only criterion for success here. More traditional parishes are dismissed because their membership is falling, while Gumbel’s work is presented as self-evidently wonderful because he built it, and people are coming.

Now, doubtlessly, the Church can achieve nothing if it has no members; indeed, the Church just is the community of its members. So there really can’t be any disagreement that for the Church as a whole and for specific denominations and congregations to be around in the first place, they have to find ways to gain and retain membership. But we have to be aware of “mission creep”–having our means slowly come to be seen as our ends. Gaining and maintaining members is only worthwhile if those members–all of us–actually take Christian discipleship seriously. Simply going to Church and describing oneself as a Christian is the first, not the last, step of our faith. The question is whether our parishes are inviting and challenging people with the full force of the Gospel.

Now, again, the Gospel is not tied to any particular kind of music, or architecture, or type of vestments. Innovation and change in these matters has been the norm, not the exception. That said, we must not ignore issues on which the Church and our culture more broadly are in real conflict. To the extent that Gumbel is suggesting more or less superficial changes to our liturgy or our PR, I don’t see anything particular objectionable about this. But my guess is that being “in sync” with contemporary culture ultimately involves more than this. Note, for example, that Christian formation shifts, in his “Alpha” educational program, to “down-to-earth conversations about Jesus and faith, not just theology”. It’s not clear exactly what this means (and I am not familiar with these educational materials), but this sounds like an attempt to sideline perhaps serious questions of faith and commitment in order to make the Gospel more digestible–less challenging, less radical, less imposing. As I have suggested before, I think this is the opposite of what we should be doing. The Church should be challenging central elements of our culture, like hyper-individualism and the logic of capitalism. Are we likely to do this if our primary concern is being “in sync” with the culture (it must, of course, be admitted that more traditional-looking and -acting parishes do no better on this score–but this only deepens, rather than mitigating, the problem!)

Central to my concern here is the point that our means and our ends are not easily decoupled. We tend to think in a disconnected way about our methods and our goals, but in fact, frequently, certain goals just can’t be achieved by certain methods. If we begin by insisting that contemporary society requires a certain set of means or methods before we lock down exactly what our goals are, we are liable to lose track of what it is we thought we were up to, and move into a habit of focusing on just continuing our methods, as if the indefinite extension of those methods was our goal all along.

Indeed, at times, the logic of our methods is actually not just less-than-ideal to achieving our goals, but is rather totally counter to them. And all the hand-wringing about declining membership, I think, shows this with extreme clarity. If, at its core, the Church is about announcing both the bad news that human society is horribly disfigured by sin and the Good News that God has acted, and is acting, decisively to heal that disfiguration, then we should be suspicious of methods of growing the Church that demand that the Church shape itself around contemporary culture, itself part of the larger world disfigured by sin. In other words: the Church was inaugurated to challenge much of human culture. When we become more focused on how to model ourselves on the culture around us rather than challenging it, we lose our focus on the actual goal of the Body of Christ.

This, as I said above, is most decidedly not a new problem. We see it witnessed to in Scripture, in the earliest theological texts of the sub-Apostolic era (e.g. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus), all the way up through the medieval and modern periods as well. Richard H. Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is often pointed to as a seminal text in studying these matters, but he was simply providing an updated look at the issue, not inaugurating a new field of study.

And it must be admitted that much of what more traditionalist Christians are defending against cultural innovation is just older cultural innovation. The music we find “traditional” today was new a few centuries ago; the early Church had no pipe organs or sheet music. The habit of kneeling to pray is only common in the western Church, and became so only in the medieval period (previously, standing was the norm, with occasional acts of full prostration generally reserved for particular kinds of prayer, especially penitential acts). The vestments common in the western Church were borrowed, more or less, from the Roman Senate. So Gumbel and others would be completely correct in saying that we should be ready to change much of this. I would certainly agree.

But we have to be on guard against allowing the logic behind making those sorts of changes replicating and expanding itself into our thinking about other matters. That’s not to say that more fundamental changes in liturgy or theology should never be made; such a position is simply a fetishization (one might even say idolization) of the past. But changes to our core beliefs must never be made simply to get more butts in the pews. Once we are willing to change core principles simply to try and keep the Church alive, we know that it’s definitely about to die.

For example, over the last 50 years many Christians–myself included–have embraced the ordination of women and the welcoming of LGBTQ Christians with full equality in the Church. But if I thought the only reason for doing so was to keep the Church up to contemporary cultural attitudes and membership up, I would be deeply worried. Instead, I would argue that Christians with “progressive” attitudes on these issues are actually just the very Christians who are most willing to be challenged by the Holy Spirit and the radical witness of Scripture. Sexism and heteronormativity, in other words, were actually cultural constructs which the Church adopted precisely in order to be accepted by the culture around it (the argument for this claim would obviously take up much more space than I have here; lots of work, historical, textual, and theological, has been done on this. A good place to start might be to read, say, Galatians and then either of the Epistles to Timothy –probably written much later–and note the tension between them).

That is to say: much of both our traditions and  our innovations are actually just hypostatized ideas about our means rather than our goals. We absolutely should be wiling to discard “traditions” that are at tension with the radical message of the Gospel–but we must be just as wary of innovations that are in the same tension. The truth of the matter is that the Christian faith has no business being popular. We worship a God whose Word became incarnate in a man who was tortured and killed by the state, whose friends abandoned him after spending years completely misunderstanding his message. Apart from a few poor people, he was not popular during his lifetime, and the Church took the better part of a century to grow to about 10,000 members. We preach a stumbling block, a millstone around the neck. Our Lord calls us to sell everything, give the money to the poor, and take up a Cross–a torture-device. When we baptize our children, we wash them in the death of Jesus. We announce that our only hope comes through the mystery of death.

basilSocialJusticeNone of this is calculated to be popular or easy to accept. So any church that is growing at a phenomenal rate is likely doing so precisely because it is refusing to really be honest about what Jesus taught and teaches, what kind of life Christian discipleship really is. Instead of focusing on getting more butts in the pews, we should be worried about whether we ourselves are really living as faithful witnesses of our radical, incredible, and, let’s admit it, scary faith. We are promised not a pie in the sky, but division, and fire, and strife–because our social, economic, political, and cultural structures feed on exploitation, misery, ignorance, and hatred. Our goal is to fight these structures, to do the work God has called us to in the abandoned vineyard–and yes, to welcome more workers into the vineyard. But that’s just it–we should only rejoice if someone has really committed to that work. If our churches are full of people who say “Lord, Lord”, but do not keep Jesus’s commandments, who do not feed the hungry and visit prisoners and challenge the Ruler of this world, then what have we done, exactly?

Indeed, we should be asking ourselves how many people already in church–very much including ourselves and this writer–are actually living the Gospel. Perhaps we should spend less time worrying about getting more people into the church, and more time worrying about whether the Church really is doing the work its Head calls it to do. And indeed, if we actually lived, publicly and privately, the way Christ calls us to, I imagine that people really interested in a deep life of commitment–and not just feel-good spirituality–would take notice. Before we evangelize, let’s make sure we know what the Good News we are trying to spread actually is.

All of this is to say, not that everything that HTB is doing is somehow wrong (all I know about this particular parish I have gleaned from the rather slim article introduced at the beginning of this post), but rather that I think that those eager to celebrate this approach to ministry are asking the wrong questions, worried more about our social media presence than about whether the Church is really living the radicalness of the Gospel. I fear that so much of the innovation many contemporary ministers are interested in is really just like decorating a funeral home with bright balloons and playing up-beat music in the entryway. We are welcoming people to a corpse, but spending all of our time on the welcome, instead of trying to resuscitate the body.

Brexit, Trump, Xenophobia, and Labor

brexit-flagThe past few days have seen much hand-wringing about the so-called “Brexit“: the referendum, held in the UK  on June 24, on whether the UK should leave the European Union. Somewhat surprisingly, the “leave” vote ended up receiving a majority. Most media commentators have presented this as an absolute disaster, for two main reasons. First, many have pointed to the likely economic and monetary downsides–be it the implementation of tariffs between the UK and other European states, the slide in the value of the Pound Sterling against other currencies, etc. The second claim is that the vote to leave the EU is both a manifestation of, and will strengthen, racist and xenophobic sentiment in the UK.

Now, both of these claims rest on a wide range of complex economic and sociological theories. I am not particularly well-qualified to enter the fray on, for example, European tariff policy. My goal here is rather to focus on the assumptions and rhetoric involved, because the discussion of Brexit reveals the way in which how we talk about something ends up shaping what we can think about it.

Comparing the pro-Brexit camp to US supporters of Trump–a comparison that has been frequently made over the last four days–really strengthens the deeper point I want to make here. Many commentators, both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, have bemoaned the xenophobia and racism that rests, either implicitly or explicitly, in many of Trump’s speeches, and have themselves implied that this proves that most of the support for him is really just the racism of poorer white Americans become manifest in a demagogic presidential candidate who would otherwise have basically no support.

This is obviously an over-generalization, but I have no issue with this claim on its surface. I basically agree. What troubles me is that no one seems to think this situation needs further analysis. The racism of poor whites is simply taken for granted, rather than as a social situation that needs an explanation. And it is this reality about our mass media that I think points to the more important discussion. Because so long as racism is seen as the natural attitude of poor whites, those in positions of political and economic power can deflect criticism from themselves. If voters respond angrily to globalization, the message we hear is that a bunch of racists are xenophobic, and that’s why Brexit or Trump have support. The idea that there could be other concerns motivating these voters isn’t even discussed, much less taken seriously. In this way, people are given only two options: either admit that you are a backward, xenophobic racist resistant to progress, or you have to get in line with whatever social, political, and economic structures global elites have endorsed. So long as those are our options, of course, many people feel pressured to join the latter group.

Once we ask the question of why poor whites should be racist in the first place, though, we can begin to unravel this simplistic and dichotomous presentation of human societies. It is crucial to see that the very idea that poor whites just are racist is itself a claim meant to limit critiques of global capitalism. And here the word “ignorance” is thrown around a lot: the claim is that uneducated people are ignorant of other cultures, and that people who are ignorant in this way simply respond to the unknown with an automatic hatred. The solution, then, is both more (expensive) education or, considering the lack of universal access to higher education, to simply trust those with the advanced degrees from famous schools. If one questions the claims of this group, one is immediately dismissed as ignorant and therefore necessarily a manifestation of xenophobia and racism.

To be branded as ignorant is to be excluded from being taken seriously in policy discussions, and this is a way of cutting off whole dialogues, whole topics of discussion. No one seems interesting in asking why poor whites might be racist and xenophobic. Though I won’t pretend to have the expertise in general nor the space in this post to try and answer a question that would take a team of sociologists and economics multiple volumes to even begin to answer, I think there are two broad points that need to be made–and repeated in public.


First, the historical dimension: north-west Europeans have not always hated darker-skinned people. White supremacism is not some ethnically ingrained attitude of fair-skinned peoples. White supremacy has a history, and it was invented, at least in the English-speaking world, in the 17th century to justify a new and horrendous form of labor relations: chattel slavery. Two facts about the early North American colonies need to be made clear: first off, up until the 1670’s, English and African workers sometimes banded together to attack land-owners. They recognized what later Euro-Americans (who at that later point identified as “white”) frequently have and do not: that their interests aligned with other un-landed working people. The fact that other agricultural workers had different colors of skin didn’t matter to them, because they had not been taught to divide people according to this physical feature. But they definitely recognized the divisions of property ownership and class.

Second, the initial groups of enslaved Africans brought to colonies like Virginia were not treated as chattel slaves, because the legal and cultural categories of chattel slavery had not yet been invented. Some Africans were even freed and given land after a period of service, like European indentured servants. This is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that even the elites did not think of Africans as anything other than dark-skinned fellow human beings. They were treated more or less the same as white servants (whose rate of survival, it should be pointed out, was only about 50% while in indentured service).

Secondly, though, and more ominously, this fact also shows the reason that the social structure of chattel slavery  was developed. English land-owners had a lot of (stolen) land, but not nearly enough labor to really profit off of it. The big cash crops like cotton and tobacco required a vast amount of labor. Too few Europeans were motivated to sign on as indentured servants, and the flow of forced African labor was too slow to provide enough labor to be profitable on a large scale, precisely because those Africans were eventually freed (or died early) and even sometimes given land of their own. From the standpoint of Capital, a new form of labor relations had to be asserted that would guarantee more access to cheaper labor.

Thus chattel slavery, at least in its incarnation in the English-speaking world, was invented. But it had to be justified. Christian churches had been inveighing against slavery for centuries, and absolutely forbade the enslavement of other Christians. So political and economic elites needed to find a way to provide sufficient moral and legal justification for chattel slavery–especially one that would justify slavery for certain groups even if they converted to Christianity. And the answer, of course, was to regard some (indeed, most) humans as not fully persons–some humans, it was argued, were not intellectually and culturally capable of the kinds of sophisticated patterns of behavior necessary to own property in an efficient manner.

Of course, this argument is empirically ridiculous, but it didn’t matter. Not only did it provide a legal justification for slavery-in-perpetuity (that is, slaves were never to be freed and their children were to be regarded as property of their parents’ owners) but it also provided a crucial wedge between poor English people and African slaves, because no matter how poor or oppressed English colonists might find themselves, they were still regarded as better than Africans, as legally-recognized persons (even if often only in theory, considering the low rates of real property ownership among most colonists). This meant that such English colonists–now referred to as “white” people (and it is important to note that not all fair-skinned Europeans were yet regarded as “white”) would no longer be likely to make common cause with African agricultural workers, because they would risk their own privileged status, even if this privilege was often rather superficial in material terms. White supremacy was–and is–a double-edged sword. It provides the justification for objectifying a whole continent of people and simultaneously infects working-class European-Americans with a virus that prevents them from often acting in their own economic interests. From the standpoint of the landowners, perhaps no technology was more important than this cultural and legal innovation. White supremacy was a tool used to craft a new, profoundly racist, culture in North America.


Again, the above is only the barest possible sketch of this history. But we now need to swing centuries forward into the present, and ask the question: why might whites today still feel animus against foreigners and non-whites? Of course, part of the answer is historical–the culture that was invented in the 17th century very much continues today, despite major victories by people of color in their struggles for recognition, independence, and equality. But the modern global economy provides a new form of the same basic set of labor relations that underpinned white supremacism in the 17th century. Although throughout most of the world, slavery is of course illegal, the economic gains that land- and business-owners can realize through maintaining labor mobility are still massive. If English planters needed hundreds of thousands and then millions of laborers to make cash crops from the American South profitable, likewise today, corporations need to find the cheapest possible source of labor to maximize profits. And maintaining the ability of workers to move freely is part-and-parcel of the modern system for achieving this.


Nets deployed at a Foxconn factory in China to prevent worker suicides.

This is for two main reasons: first, labor and wage laws differ massively between different nations. Where wages, benefits, and labor standards are higher, of course, the price of labor will be higher, and so goods will be more expensive. Of course, from the workers’ point of view, so long as the gains in wages and benefits outstrip this increase in cost, this is completely worth it (thus it is crucial to distinguish between real and nominal wages). But for Capital, if a product or service can be produced by labor outside of that nation, but then sold back in that market where the prices reflect the generally higher cost of labor, then the marginal profit rate will skyrocket.


This is the reasoning behind outsourcing, of course, and most people recognize that this is happening, and most, even those who defend global neoliberalism, will generally admit that it has downsides. But contemporary labor relations are more complex still. To see how, I think we need a specific example: NAFTA.

The North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994. It eliminated tariffs, quotas, and other restrictions of trade between the US, Canada, and Mexico. In theory, of course, “free trade” should mean that the country which is most efficient and effective at producing each kind of good should produce that good and then trade it for other goods which it is not efficient or effective at producing. This is just boilerplate Ricardo. And, actually, this is more or less true. Trade certainly isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

But NAFTA didn’t actually institute truly free trade. For one thing, there was no way to ensure equal labor protections between workers in each country, which of course meant that business was going to flock to wherever labor was cheapest–that is, where labor was treated the worst. But NAFTA also did not address the issue of subsidies, and it it this issue, which perhaps seems equal parts arcane and boring, that we really need to pay attention to.

The US subsidizes the production of corn (maize), wheat, rice, cotton, and soy, among other agricultural goods. The reasons behind these subsidies is actually pretty compelling: first, to ensure that the US has the means to produce enough food to feed its own population, so that it is not dependent on other nations for this obviously vital supply. And second, to try and combat poverty among the rural population, to ensure that farmers can make enough money from their work and land to support their families (this is important due to the peculiar nature of agricultural markets, which is crucial in understanding the problems in developmental economics, but I can’t get into that here).

But once NAFTA was enacted, these subsidies had a new and wildly problematic effect: all of the sudden, US corn sold in Mexico was cheaper than Mexican corn. Importantly, this was not because US corn was cheaper to produce–in fact, just the opposite was true–but because of the subsidies. So long as US farmers knew that their government was going to pay them a set fee for each pound of corn produced, they could afford to sell that corn at under cost and still make a handsome profit. Once NAFTA went into effect, the Mexican government could no longer impose tariffs or quotas on American corn, and this meant Mexican farmers had to compete with US farmers, who had the financial assistance of the US federal government.

The results were predictable (and that’s important to remember). Millions of Mexican farmers, many of whom were working land that their families had owned for generations, went bankrupt. Of course, in the short-term, Mexican consumers benefited–the cost of corn, a staple of the Mexican diet, went down. But once the Mexican domestic corn market collapsed, the price of course increased dramatically, since US farmers no longer had to sell cheap in order to out-compete Mexican farmers, many of whom were now basically absent from the market (of course, corn is still produced in Mexico, but not nearly at the levels of the past). So in the medium- and long-term, working-class Mexicans lost in two ways: first, millions lost their land and their jobs and became unemployed; second, the price of a basic food staple ultimately went up, and Mexican national security was also endangered as the country could no longer provide its own food base.

Now we can see the source of the labor mobility mentioned above. With millions of Mexican farmers and agricultural workers suddenly out of work, two things happen: first, maquiladoras–factories built on the Mexican side of the Mexican-US border which produced goods cheaply with Mexican labor but then imported those goods into the US (an arrangement only possible, of course, because of NAFTA)–are able to depress wages even further due to the huge influx of these recently unemployed Mexicans. When workers know that there are hundreds of thousands of people desperate for work, they have no leverage to push for better wages, benefits, or working conditions. (Maintaining a certain minimum level of unemployment is actually a good thing from the standpoint of Capital. And this is crucial to remember, despite all the rhetoric from both parties in the US about wanting to fight unemployment.)

Second, of course, many of these displaced workers crossed the border to work in the US, for while the Mexican economy was in a tumult, the US economy was booming in the mid- and late-90’s. And the agricultural sector was doing particularly well, especially as it now had new markets in which it had a massive competitive advantage in the form of federal subsidies. So millions of Mexicans (among others) crossed the border in the years following NAFTA; although undocumented immigration is nothing new, the number of people crossing the border in those years was particularly high.

Now, just as the increase in unemployed workers depressed wages and labor’s power in Mexico, so too did the influx of labor have negative effects on US workers. Mexicans and Central Americans coming into the US took jobs not only in the agricultural sector, but also in the service industry and in certain other industries (especially meat-packing). This negatively impacted US workers in at least two ways: first, through directly displacing such workers (since undocumented workers are almost always willing to work for less than US citizens) and by simply increasing pressure on employed workers–again, if you know that there are a lot of unemployed people in your area, you are not going to have the leverage to push for better wages, benefits, etc. A higher rate of unemployment in general will lead to lower wages, all other things being equal, even if the actual number of Americans displaced is relatively small. The “reserve army” of unemployed workers has this effect regardless.

And this, of course, is at least one source of poor whites’ animosity towards foreigners and undocumented immigrants. Simply referring to this attitude as racist or xenophobic does not capture anywhere near the complexity of the situation. This is not to say that many poor whites are not, indeed, racist and xenophobic apart from economic conditions–although, again, as our short historical summary above pointed out, even this racism and xenophobia did not arrive out of a vacuum. But to simply dismiss workers’ concerns about jobs and wages as nothing more than an incoherent manifestation of latent racism, itself the product of nothing more than ignorance, is itself a wildly ignorant position.

The reality is that, paradoxical as it may sound, the reason that political and economic elites today are so happy to endorse multiculturalism and antiracism is the same reason that, in centuries past, they endorsed white supremacy and nativism. Those who own land and capital endorse cultural, political, and economic systems that suit their interests, especially that of keeping the cost of labor down. CEOs, entrepreneurs, and politicians aren’t mad about Brexit because they are kept awake at night worrying about the realities of structural racism. They are upset and scared because of the effect Brexit will have on their bottom line.


None of this, of course, means that Brexit was necessarily good. I know far too little about the intricacies of the EU to give any kind of opinion on that matter. My point is just this: if many white Britons were motivated to leave the EU because they were worried about the influx of workers willing to work for less money and security than British citizens, this is a completely legitimate concern. Of course, many of these people may also hold repugnant attitudes towards foreigners. I’m not arguing that Brexiters are morally perfect people, but I am arguing that one of the root reasons many people are upset about immigration is the economic insecurity that immigration really does help to generate.

BankerCookiesAnd of course, it must be said that my critique here is not against immigrants themselves. They are just looking to find work wherever they can, the best wages they can, to try and support themselves and their families. Indeed, my point is that both workers who stay in their home country and immigrants who leave theirs to look for better options are both the victims of these economic policies. And so long as this narrative about working-class whites–that they oppose things like the EU or NAFTA purely due to racist and xenophobic attitudes–is not questioned, we will not be able to have a serious discussion about what it would look like to create local, regional, and global economic structures that can actually generate prosperity for all working people. So long as we only have the conventional conversation, we won’t be able to present or talk about options beyond neoliberalism. Racism is a tool invented to keep working people at war with each other. Liberal hand-wringing about the ignorant masses and their xenophobia is not meant to actually combat racism, but rather to profit off of it, by scaring middle-class people into supporting economic and political structures that are actually at the root of so many of our problems.

So whether you supported Brexit or not, whether you plan to vote for Clinton or not, whether you regard yourself as a ‘liberal’ or as a ‘conservative’, I implore you to think through the assumptions of the arguments that are made over the coming months. Instead of rushing to announce on social media that you support the ‘correct’ side, ask questions about the framing of the discussion itself. I think you will find that often, the most important questions are the ones media commentators are desperately trying to get you to never ask.

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: