Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Nine-Eleven Meditation...

As we approach the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I think it would be worthwhile to consider where we are as a nation.

In the days immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as a nation we were united more than I can ever remember in my life. We were united in our determination to retaliate for the attacks, taking our vengeance wherever it needed to go to deal with those responsible for organizing and sponsoring them. President George W. Bush, a figure who had been seen as divisive by many, said and did what he needed to do to bring us together. It was a golden moment. And we let it slip away, almost unnoticed.

In the years since that mountaintop experience of national unity and resolve, we've seen the partisan warfare that characterized so much of the Clinton years wound ever tighter, to an entirely new level of mindless hate and anger.

We've seen our influence in the Muslim world wax and wane, as we've embarked on barely justifiable military campaigns, with still more warfare talked about with other countries of interest.

We've seen our national treasury bankrupted, first by tax cuts for the wealthiest of us, then by "supplemental" spending to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and finally by an economic meltdown that was spawned by irresponsible lending and "innovation" by the nation's largest and most influential banks and investment houses.

We've seen a rebirth of fear the like of which I don't recall having seen since the depths of the Cold War.

We have people seriously discussing the need for "Second Amendment solutions" to the "problem" of the Federal government.

We have lies masquerading as truth, and demagogues masquerading as impartial commentators.

We have a nation that is declining as we watch, apparently helpless to do anything about it.

We are hopeless, fearful, angry, and in denial.

Did the hijackers of those four airliners on September 11, 2001, triumph?

I wonder...

Hope, something that has been at the heart of so much that is great about America, has been relegated to the punchline of a political joke. Yard signs poke fun at the current President - "How's that hopey-changey thing workin' for ya?"

Naked, virulent hatred is proudly displayed on other placards - "Barack Obama Half-breed Muslin." We're too stupid to know how to spell, and we're too ignorant to accept that a statement is a falsehood.

Barack Obama has succeeded George Bush as the man to hate. He's a Muslim, he's not an American, he's a socialist, he's a Nazi, he's a communist. He's not one of "us."

The more extreme members of the American body politic have found a voice. They distrust any incumbent politician (oftentimes with good reason, sad to say). No statement, regardless of how far-fetched, seems beyond their ability to believe, if it hits at the "establishment." They want a return to "Constitutional absolutism," even as they try to re-interpret that living document to suit their own myopic viewpoints.

It seems almost as if the inmates are running the asylum. Birthers, deathers, and true believers of every stripe just know that the "mainstream media" is lying to them - and in many cases, they're right. And how's that workin' for ya?

In many ways, I think this has come about because we've finally moved the internet, with its dazzling speed and reach, into the mainstream and embedded it into our lives. Any opinion, regardless of how crazy or ill-founded, can be legitimized with the world-wide megaphone of social networks, blogs, wikis, email, and streaming video. With 6.5 billion people in this world, no one can police every website that pops up, every blog that is begun, every Facebook page that appears. Individuals who can barely make sense of life can now self-publish their opinions and get distribution as e-books or print-on-demand copies.

The village idiot has found his voice, and now it's the shit heard round the world.

Is this a reversible situation? Can this country find reason to come together, besides our hatred and fear of anyone different? Can we begin to believe once again in the promise of better times ahead, instead of yearning for better times that never _really_ existed?

I want to believe that our best days are still ahead. I want to believe that I'll actually see some of them before I take that big dirt nap. But I have my doubts. I don't see many people who actually seem to believe this. Instead I see people fortifying their bunkers, getting ready to ride out the siege and occasionally go out and strike the enemy camp.

If anyone reads these posts, you know I'm a Christian. That means that hope is kind of essential to my philosophy of life. For me, that "hopey-changey" thing works just fine. I'm not bound by the limitations of this life, in this world. Ultimately, this is not my eternal home, but a way-station on the way there. But this way-station could be a lot better place for all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, if we'd do a few things to improve it.

Do we really need to pursue a zero-sum game, one where if I win, you must lose?

Do we really need to marginalize those who think differently than us? Really? Why?

Do we really need to be such ignorant shits, so often? We have really good brains - they work best when we actually use them.

Pride goeth before the fall. We're falling for our own line of bull. Is it really necessary to be so proud of it?

Is anyone out there? Does anyone care?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Contrarian Question Two-fer

We've got a bonus question this time.

I've been posting some contrarian questions lately, proposing that some time-honored notions might be rife for re-evaluation and perhaps, even throwing out altogether. This question has rather cosmic attributes, so let's get right to it:

Is it possible that the "End of Days," "Judgment Day," "The Great and Terrible Day of the Lord," has already occurred?

I'm not going to go into the reasons why I pose this question at length, but I'll merely highlight some pointers to this as a valid possibility.

First, hope and change have been relegated to the category of punchlines to political jokes. The gates of Hell have posted over them the motto "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." I think that fact speaks for itself.

Second, Jesus, in the Olivet discourse (look it up) points out that some of those hearing him speak would be alive when the Second Coming arrived. Do you see any two-thousand-year-old Jews hanging around - anywhere? I didn't think so.

Third, the Book of Revelation talks about the Anti-Christ. Given the propensity of biblical literalists to cite this person, or that person, as the definitive Anti-Christ, and having done this for hundreds of years, I think it's safe to say that in at least one case, they must have been right. If the Anti-Christ has already made his appearance, and then been escorted off the world's stage, Judgment Day has come and gone.

We're the leftovers. Or, in the terminology of a popular series of novels a few years ago, the left behind.

Well, you may ask, why didn't we see the sun turn to blood, or the stars fall, or any of the other signs of those days listed in the Book of Revelation? Who's to say we didn't see these things? Have you seen some of the space images from the Hubble Space Telescope? Red suns, skies void of stars, the whole thing - it's all there! This is a big universe, after all.

So - if we're the left behind, what does that mean going forward? This is where the second contrarian question comes in.

Let's assume that my proposition is in fact the truth. Let's assume further that we're stuck here, that there will be no further passage of the righteous to Paradise. In other words, hope is now dead - this is as good as it gets.

That's pretty depressing, you might think. But wait - we now have the chance to create a world that truly reflects human values, not those hopelessly romantic notions that the God people kept imposing on us all those years. We can make the world in our own image!

Where should we start?

Here's that second contrarian notion.

I think it's time that we made the point, once and for all, that you're responsible for your own presence in this world. It's time to stop the stupid idea of charity. If events have conspired to screw your life into the ground, well, buddy, that's just the way things turn out.

This needs to be applied to both our foreign missions as well as to our domestic policies and practices. For instance, if you don't have a fortune, and you're so short-sighted as to not have bought health insurance, a sudden illness or accidental injury or any other unexpected health crisis is your problem. Show up at the Emergency Room without an insurance card, or a bank statement, and some really good ID, and you'll be shown the door. You can't mooch health care off the system any more. No freeloaders, and high time for that. It's all about freedom from government mandates, after all.

With any luck, this will help weed out the weak and slow, the elderly who are too infirm and slow to understand that there's no more free lunch. Within a generation, we should be a fit, healthy, and very free people.

There are a myriad of other consequences to this change in the way we live, but I think you get the idea. If you can't carry your own weight, you should just go off and die, and free up the resources for people who can pay their own way. And the sooner, the better.

Robert Heinlein wrote a book years ago, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. One of the things about that book that has stuck with me all this time is the acronym TANSTAAFL, which means THERE AIN'T NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH. That's eternal wisdom. That's the motto of this brave new world, if my contrarian notion is in fact true. We're embarking on a new adventure, and one that will create a much simpler world. Let's get it on!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Christian Nation

I'm going to make this brief.

I want to thank the Tea Party loyalists, the ultra-conservatives, and the more extreme members of the the Christian Right for finally, positively driving a stake through the heart of the notion that the United States is now, or ever was, a Christian nation.

The heart of the Christian gospel is love for the other, even your enemy, love for your God, and forgiveness even unto death. Jesus lived this, and died this - "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they do..."

The earmark of the people I mention above is an unforgiving judgmentalism, a rigid belief in their own righteousness, and a distinct lack of charity to those of their fellow Americans who have fallen on hard times. They want to "reload," to talk about "Second Amendment solutions" to the government that they don't like. They don't resemble Jesus the Christ in any way I can see; they're more like the Pharisees who looked on as the Romans crucified the Son of God and watched him die in agony on the cross.

As to the delusional belief that these United States are, or were, a "Christian nation"... Name one instance of mention of the name of Jesus - you know, the Christ? - in government publications, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, anything? Sure, there are the odd mention of "God," of "the year of our Lord," and similar terms, but those could just as easily be referring to almost any monotheistic deity. I'm talking about a concerted mention of Jesus the Christ, the "Christ" in "Christian nation." It's not there. What we actually find is more like the vague "God" in Enlightenment philosophy, something that was very typical in the 1700's when this country was founded. Vague God-talk; that's just about as specific as the half-assed "religion" we find in the "theory" of Intelligent Design.

No Christ here, move along, this isn't the Christian nation you're looking for...

Jesus wasn't an American, he wasn't a Roman, he was a first-century Jew living in an occupied country. He was also an absolutely unique being - fully human, fully God - and billions of people call him Lord. Some of us fall on our faces because we can't do what we want to do to honor him - we fail, we sin, we ask for mercy. Some of us are so proud of our righteousness that we strut about and crow about how we're not like "those people." There's a story in the Gospels about these two types of people. From it, we get the prayer of the Orthodox - the Jesus prayer.

"Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner." I hate to say it, but I don't think I'll be hearing any of my ultra-conservative countrymen saying this anytime soon.

Monday, August 9, 2010


I suppose I should be glad that I'm a Protestant...

I've been following some practices in the last few months that come from a monastic tradition. Specifically, as a result of doing contemplative retreats at a Benedictine monastery in northwest Missouri, I've become very attracted to the Liturgy of the Hours, or what's known as the Daily Office. In addition, I've taken to reading the Rule of St. Benedict on a daily basis, with the objective of reading it as Benedictines do - three times complete in a year. Other spiritual reading is part of this mix as well.

In sum, I'm a confessing Protestant who does things that a Roman Catholic would find quite familiar. And yet, for all that, I think I'd make a pretty bad Catholic. Let me explain.

The Roman Catholic church is the product of twenty centuries of Christianity filtered through the lens of the descendants of the Roman Empire. The traditional language is Latin; the organization is heirarchical; echoes of ancient Roman imperial behavior can be seen throughout the entire church.

Tradition in the Roman church is capitalized when it appears in church writings, and if I'm not mistaken, treated in many ways as equivalent to holy Scripture. And this is why I'd make a lousy Catholic. And for that matter, I'd make an equally lousy Greek Orthodox.

I don't have this veneration for Tradition, and that's a flaw I willingly confess.

Tradition is not nearly so venerated in Protestant denominations, particularly those of a more Reformed heritage. Reformed theology preaches "sola scriptura," "by Scripture alone" as the basis for all salvation and holiness. In this worldview, Tradition is an interesting addendum to what is true and right, but nothing more.

This attitude toward Tradition has permeated my thinking and religious observance my entire life. I've gotten somewhat relaxed since earlier days, but I still have nowhere near the attitude toward Tradition that Roman Catholics or Orthodox do.

Let's see what Tradition really is.

In every case I can think of, any given Tradition began as anything but traditional. Take the Tradition, or Sacrament, of Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the bread and wine from the Last Supper. It did not begin as a tradition; it was a one-off event, at a particular time in a particular place. It was only later that it became a capital-T Tradition. Over time it has become encrusted with so much symbolism and religious adornment that it's hard to see back to the original event. So let me help...

Here's the account from the NET Bible from the Gospel of Luke:

22:19 Then he took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 22:20 And in the same way he took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood."

And here's a similar account (NET Bible again) from the Apostle Paul, from 1 Corinthians:

11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, 11:24 and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 11:25 In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 11:26 For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Do you see the development here? In the first, during a ritual meal, which Jesus held with his disciples, he redefines the nature of the Paschal feast, and takes that sacrificial role onto himself. He takes a loaf of matzoh and a cup of wine, at different points in the meal, and imputes symbolic significance to them. He tells his followers, "Do this in remembrance of me."

In the second account, we're presented with a somewhat more specific prescription for repeated practice, as in "every time you eat this bread and drink the cup."

My point is this. A meal with certain unique characteristics has been transformed into a rite that is the center of the Roman Catholic Mass. Eucharistic adoration is veneration of the host, which, sanctified by a priest, becomes the literal body of Christ to a devout Catholic.

I can not get my head around all this.

I understand praying the Psalms, as is done in the Daily Office.

I understand practicing contemplation, as I've learned to do in multiple retreats.

I understand reading the Rule of St. Benedict, the reading of other books of Christian meditation and spiritual introspection, and the use of gestures such as signing the cross.

I don't understand Tradition as it's developed in the Catholic church, to the extent that it has.

Protestants, however, for all their preaching about "sola scriptura," are not immune to encrusting simple events with traditional associations. If the rite of Communion were to be celebrated just as it was in the first instance, all of us worshipers would be wearing robes and sandals, reclining on pillows around a long table and eating and drinking while  propping ourselves up on one elbow. If you've been to church to celebrate Communion, you know that's not the way it's done. Instead, you may find a tray filled with tiny shot glasses with a thimble-full of grape juice and little bread pellets that look like breath mints. Or maybe you'd find a single chalice filled with wine, and round, flat wafers of bread-like substance. Or, as at our church, you'd find a single chalice filled with wine (or grape juice - we swing both ways) and a loaf of bread from which you'd tear off a chunk and dip it into the chalice. No pillows, no robes, no sandals, no propped-up elbows. Not exactly original - instead, very Traditional.

Tradition is important. It can provide linkages to the past, a past two thousand years ago, and maintain continuity with that past. It can be examined to show how things go from simple at first, to complex as time passes. Tradition has value, and should be appreciated for that. But Tradition can also bind you when you should be liberated, can tie you to rituals that are irrelevant in the modern world and perhaps can be discarded centuries after they became Traditional. It's all a judgment call, as is virtually everything we do in the name of God and all holiness.

My traditions are not those, primarily, of the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches. I am steeped and infused with a Protestant mind-set. I'm getting old enough that I feel I can re-examine my attitudes and open myself to new practices, as I've described.

Right now, from the vantage point of where I am on my walk with Jesus, I don't believe I could be a good Catholic. But who knows what might happen tomorrow, or the day after? Who's to say what might be in store for me, or perhaps even for the Catholic church itself? One man was nailed up on a cross like so much house siding, and his death and return to life forever changed the world, and who expected that. I really don't know what comes next, but I'm willing to wait and see.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Contrarian Question Three

Let's look at another traditional practice, and see if it holds up...

The church is traditionally against "gay marriage" in any way, shape or form. Traditional values rule the day. Is it time to re-think this opposition? What reason might there be for a change of attitude about this?

What is the interest of the state in the institution of marriage, or civil union? Here's the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States -

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Three phrases jump out at me immediately in this context. The first is "establish Justice." The second is "insure domestic Tranquility." And the third phrase is "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." Let's examine each in turn.

The first interest of the state, it seems to me, that pertains to the union of two people in a legally recognized relationship, is to establish a just arrangement for uniting people in this unions. Justice requires no favoritism or discrimination; everyone is equal before the law. It would seem that justice, at face value, requires that legally sanctioned unions permit both heterosexual and homosexual couples to bond equivalently.

The second interest of the state in my view is insuring domestic tranquility. This "domestic peace" involves more than peace in the home; it applies to peace within the borders of the entire United States of America. Legally recognized unions of willing adults must further the interest of the state in maintaining a peaceful society. The contentiousness that the whole "gay-marriage" issue embodies, does not further domestic tranquility. Instead, it illustrates how an entire segment of the population is being kept from something that another segment has enjoyed for centuries. The injustice is openly on display, for everyone to see.

Finally, the phrase about securing the blessings of liberty for ourselves and future generations should be easy to figure out. Liberty would allow homosexual couples to unite in a life-partnership, and have the same legal rights, of property ownership, of inheritance, of power of attorney, everything, that heterosexual couples have taken for granted for generations.

Here's the bottom line - as far as the interests of the state are concerned, allowing homosexual couples to exist with full legal rights is not only just, not only conducive to the general tranquility of our society, but also in keeping with the very spirit of this country since its founding. That's the interest of the state. You'll notice I did not mention anything about furthering any religious agenda or belief.

That was very deliberate. What I'm going to propose will probably strike many people as too much, but it allows the partnership of two individuals in this country without any care for their sexual orientation.

I think that the state, Federal, State, and Local, should abolish Marriage Licenses. Instead, there would be nationally recognized "civil union" or "life partner" licenses. These would be free of any religious connotations, and would simply give a legal recognition of the intention of two people to make a lifetime commitment to each other in a durable relationship. It would free the entire issue from the stigma that attaches to it now, because it would not use the term "marriage."

In fact, this new "license" would replace marriage licenses. Any couple, heterosexual or homosexual, would procure one of these licenses if they wanted a legally recognized union. Couples that chose to co-habit and not commit to this durable relationship would do what they do now, live with each other and have no binding commitment to each other. No legal rights would accrue to them either. I suppose that common-law status could be continued, but it would have to expand to include homosexual couples as well, if that seemed good to the various legislatures.

What of the institution of marriage? I'm not proposing that it be abolished, only the licensing of such a union for couples of a certain sexual orientation. Marriage would revert to what it should be, a covenant relationship sanctioned by religious bodies, according to the beliefs of those faith communities. If a church, for instance, absolutely refused to recognize homosexual unions, no problem. They would not perform wedding ceremonies for such couples. Another church might feel more accommodating, and so they would perform such ceremonies. This preserves the freedom of religious communities to be true to their beliefs and promote and advocate for those values. For those so inclined, freedom of religion is maintained, and for others, freedom from religion is recognized.

Is this idea too radical? Why? California's Proposition 8 was recently struck down. Other states have allowed such unions to exist, with full protection under the laws of those states. I think it's time that we allow life-partnerships to exist for all Americans, and move on to matters that truly threaten us.

I welcome comments on this article. Please keep them on-topic. Comments are moderated.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Contrarian Question Two

Sometimes you just have to shift gears, and deal with new questions...

I had intended to address the next installment in this series on the re-examination of traditional beliefs, to questions about prohibitions on legalizing gay marriage. However, some events in the last day or two have inspired me to set that aside, and look at another time-honored belief instead.

I'd like to ask if the modern nation-state has reached the end of its usefulness.

In the modern world we've seen an explosion in the number of nations. In the 1950's there were far fewer than 200 nations in the world. Today, in contrast, there are well over 200. Many of these states have come about from the break-up of larger countries, such as the demise of the Soviet Union, or the partitioning of some of the Balkan states. Only occasionally have we seen nations actually joining together into a larger single state, such as happened with the re-unification of East and West Germany.

The nation-state as we define it has really existed for a relatively short time, historically. In the past, there have been empires, extending back to the Roman empire, the Persian empire, ancient Egypt, or some of the Chinese empires, among others. These might last for the lifetime of one empire builder, like that of Alexander the Great, or they might endure for centuries, in one form or another, like Rome.

For far longer than that, however, civilized or social man lived in what amounted to city-states, small fortified towns that typically controlled some agricultural land and perhaps access to a trade route or transportation corridor. To call these "states" is a bit of a stretch, compared to nation-states we have today.

Even further back, mankind existed as small clans, either nomadic or settled. The next valley over might see another clan, but the reach of one clan was very localized.

Life in those days tended to be short, perhaps brutish, and you typically knew just about everyone you'd meet in the course of any given week.

The nation-state as we have it today is a marvel of organization, with many levels of bureaucracy and delegation of power, with highly developed ruling elites and laws governing all levels of society. Freedom is a managed quality; you're free so long as you observe the laws and play by the rules. If you cross these lines, though, you can be sure that sooner or later you'll run afoul of the police power of the state. This can mean anything from a traffic warning to the death penalty. The modern state governs by carefully applied coercion.

This coercion can extend to the relationships between states. Warfare is a common event in the world of nation-states. This was true in the ancient Middle East, and it's true in the world today. Wars of aggression, holy wars, all sorts of organized conflict fall under this rubric.

In the twenty-first century I believe we're beginning to see the systematic failure of the nation-state. Small non-governmental bodies can wage attacks on large states, such as the attacks of 9/11. These same groups can then resist decimation by those same opponents by striking bargains with groups within the governments of sympathetic states in close proximity to the attacker's bases of operation. Guerilla warfare can go on for decades, when one group is fighting for autonomy from a national government.

On top of this new reality in armed conflict, governance of commerce is becoming harder and harder, as the world economy reacts to financial upsets in one country by plunging the entire global economy into recession.

Environmental degradation knows now boundaries. Climate change, a political football in too many countries, can't be addressed on a nation-by-nation basis. We're all on one planet; if my environment fails, the odds are pretty good that yours will too.

Population movements seem to happen regardless of policies put in place by nations that attract immigration. Borders are porous, and security is partial.

The budgets of these modern nations are undergoing pressures they haven't often experienced. The age disribution of mature populations is trending toward more and more old people. Who will care for these seniors, and how much financial burden will this place on younger people still in the workforce?

Finally, the trust that people have in the national institutions of their home countries is under attack, often from the abject failures of the ruling elites to address the problems mentioned above, and others, in any sort of timely or constructive way.

My question is simply this:  Has the modern nation-state reached the end of its usefulness as an organizing principle for a technologically advanced world?

Modern-day anarchists are quick to say it has. Their solution is a stateless society, with volunteerism raised high as a social norm. Others talk about anarcho-capitalism, or agorism, or a rainbow spectrum of other social models.

Are these people hopelessly deluded idealists? Or is it perhaps time to open some territory for experimentation, to see if these models for a new society have any viability? In an age of internet start-ups, this doesn't sound so far-fetched, does it?

What do you think? Is it time for the nation-state to allow for some innovation, as a first step to gradually disappearing, and to being replaced by something really new?

I'm grateful to a fellow Twit, @PunkJohnnyCash, for inspiring this post. For some good reading to get started on considering anarchism as a possible social organizing principle, visit www.gonzotimes.com.