Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Beyond free speech

What are the issues in the IRS/All Saints Pasadena case? They come down to the most basic troubles Americans have with understanding what the Bible genuinely says, how the Bush regime has stooped to distorting justice, and legitimate vs. illegitimate use of the church in politics.

First, there's the issue of how the IRS has been used as a partisan weapon. We hear nothing about the IRS condemning the most flagrant of political church endorsements, the infamous Bush Fish. Similarly, the IRS's campaign against church politics has unveiled remarkably little like the experience of the CrossLeft reader who left her church after a conservative preacher's sermon on how all Democrats were going to Hell.

On the other side, liberal groups seem to suffer a statistically remarkable degree of persecution. The NAACP has recently met with similar assaults from the IRS for its political stakes. To let the IRS's stance go without accusations of extremely inappropriate political motivation is corrupt governmental practice that calls for immediate investigation and oversight.

Another issue at stake here is the forced and arbitrary representation of the church in American society. The church, let us remember, was an unwilling pawn in the call to go to war. Muslims were "threatening Christian values." America was defending those prerogatives of Western, Christian countries; "liberty and Democracy". Bush, the war's president, had ridden into office on a wave of "voting church-goers." War and presidency alike were blamed on Mel Gibson, megachurches, and the evangelicals' campaign to register all in the pews for the vote.

How ironic that a president who benefitted to grandly from the conservative Christian vote should preside quietly over the persecution of the liberal Christian vote. The media now have a chance to set the record straight: Christians did not, in overwhelming numbers, vote for Bush, nor does the Bush agenda of punishing the poor and indulging in wanton torture convene anything resembling a plan of Christian values.

A single church has now, across the nation, been published as representing non-Bush values, and being penalized for it. At stake here is not just freedom of speech, but the true and accurate depiction of Christianity in America. We are overdue for an explanation of why Christianity has been represented as pro-Bush, and the All Saints case has given America its first opportunity to face the angry truth.

The antiwar sermon preached at All Saints Pasadena went beyond a gesture of Free Speech: it was a gesture of Biblical honesty in the face of a culture that has indulged in corrupt, public distortions of the Bible.

All Saints Pasadena, like numerous others in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, have preached against war, specifically against war based on obvious deceit and use of the media to inflame racially and religiously tinged paranoia. A sermon for "peace" is doubly threatening to the Bush regime. Conservatives advance the claim that to be anti-war is to be anti-American and therefore anti-Christian. But with all Biblical evidence behind them, the All Saints clergy rightly preached that Christians necessarily worship a Prince of Peace. They made the case that this war in particular advanced no peaceful causes.

All Saints, that is, merely preached the Bible to the present day. The sound application of Biblical injunction to contemporary evidence is a terribly necessary item in the public debate.

The sermon at All Saints Pasadena represented the Bible in its true light, as opposed to real, graphic distortions of the Bible on behalf of contemporary politics, which flagrantly demand to be prosecuted under the IRS law.

Thousands of conservative churches preach against abortion and gay rights -- similarly political, candidate-linked issues. In doing so they attempt to apply Biblical passages to contemporary issues. Bible-literate Christians realize that, of the hundreds of passages about poverty and peace-making in the Bible, a miniscule amount point to anything about sexuality or pre-birth mortality. The bulk of the Bible is on the side of peace. The interpretation of the Bible in the case of a present-day war is a necessary act for the Christian, not an excessive whinging of theological scruple.

This, then, is the test we must apply to the sermonizing preacher. The laws exist to keep obvious wrangling of religion for politics outside of the legal: Has the figure in the pulpit drawn obscure passages in the Bible into one long, twisted path of reasoning which endorses one candidate because he was born with a caul on his head? Or has the preacher rightly pointed to one of the great cruxes of his religion, and advanced a proposition about one of the most crucial moral concerns of the present day?

For according to the law, which acts rightly to defend a state free of theocracy, some lines must be drawn here. The incitement of violence against gay people or people of color or women, based on obscure passages in any holy book, is rightly regarded as hate speech in many countries: it ought to be in ours. But the application of a central theme of the Bible -- peace-making, poverty, compassion -- to the present day: this is *the* central mission of the Christian religion.

Reporters act as if this is far too advanced and theological an interpretation for them to deal with. Indeed, it's dangerous territory; to separate the great themes of religion from the small, seems -- from a certain perspective -- to apply the interpretive lens of the state on what constitutes correct morality. And the state cannot be held responsible for sorting correct theology from incorrect theology.

It's time to rebuke the cowardliness of reporters who won't take up theological issues. All Saints Pasadena is clearly on the side of theological tradition, Biblical interpretation, and the weight of the Christian religion. If the IRS persecutes All Saints Pasadena, it makes an assault on all those who reaad the Bible.

The law was written to give the IRS full excuse to abolish the likes of the BushFish and the arbitrary ilk of Tim le Haye who call Armageddon down on the United Nations. It was meant to reprimand arbitrary and unconscionable application of the Bible in obscure formulations to contemporary elections. The law meant to outlaw carped religion has been glibly skipped over in the case of the most offensive culprits, and it has been applied to the most innocent.

It is incredibly sad how loosely and ineptly we have articulated the central issues in this case. Left and Right speak not about church abuse of fringe issues, nor about presidential persecution of minorities, but about something as vague and omnipresent as "freedom of speech."

On another NPR roundtable, the commentators defend All Saints Pasadena, saying, "if the purpose of the church isn't to speak truth to power, what is it?" Well indeed. But the issues here go well beyond freedom of speech.

In the other corner, preaching something that sounds suspiciously American apple-pie-like as "separation of church and state," are conservative seminary students, who argue that the churches shouldn't endorse certain candidates at all. They argue for preaching family values, for preaching against abortion, and dozens of other issues which are linked to a very particular array of candidates. The IRS's position is about churches "endorsing specific candidates." These conservative legal scholars argue that All Saints should have educated its preachers better about the law. They make no bones over the vagueness of how "endorsing specific candidates" applies to biblically informed anti-war speech. They refuse to see the All Saints issue as an issue specific to a partisan cause or to the quandaries of political religion in which the Bush regime has placed us.

We must not be such fools. We must not merely let this slip away as a first-amendment issue. The status of Christianity in America, of morality in the public debate, of all the traditions of peace-making and social redemption of the poor: all this is at stake, and we must speak clearly now in order that the voice of progressive Christianity not be lost but be loudly defended against the madness of trifling scribblers.


All Things Considered has just reported a story on Ed Bacon's church: "IRS Steps Up Scrutiny of Political Activity from Pulpit Web Extra Read Sermon That Sparked an IRS Probe"

You can read the sermon from All Saints Pasadena that sparked the IRS probe, read the IRS letter, and read the church's response.

Modern Architecture Goes for Suburbian Total

The Architecture Scholars love to hate suburbia. Tracts of little tract houses, block after block, their side-by-side roofs making "meaningless arrows" pointing to nowhere; their homes producing safe, walled cities where white-bread children are produced with factory-like perfection and similarity of mind.

This is the stereotype you'll learn from many an urban studies class in the American university. Architecture professors rattle on with grim resignation about a nation which, they believe, has no taste, and has sacrificed community intermixing (in the traditional plan of mixed-use downtowns) to selfish isolation. Traditional pointy-roofs are the token of a homogeneity and tastelessness that they find revolting.

So it takes an outsider from the provinces to break with those expectations. Which is exactly what's happening in a south-of-the-river, ghetto-fringing upscale development of Dallas, Texas, Kessler Woods.

Ironically, however, the new modern veneer comes in the same large-scale, large-tract developments as before. Sophisticated Dallas architects of intersecting slabs and floating glass staircases and native limestone encroachments -- like Hammers + Partners -- are essentially producing glorious icons set into the same isolated developments of isomorphic suburban retreat as populate other walled communities:

He currently has a midcentury modern home in North Dallas and said there's an appeal to living in a neighborhood with the same architecture.

'Aficionados a lot of times see a contemporary house they like, but because of the surroundings, there is a battle of styles going on,' Mr. Moore said. 'To be able to live in that aesthetic and walk the street and be surrounded by it is amazing to me.'

-- Steve Brown, Dallas Morning News, "It's a Mod, Mod World"

What's so fascinating about this is the claim that modernist architecture sets up for itself. Berkeley Architecture stars like Stanley Saitowitz love to tout postmodernism's ability to fit into its urban setting; indeed San Francisco urban planning boards mandate certain details of architectural design to force new buildings to adopt, wherever possible, bow windows and cornices in order to fit into the urban pattern set by the city's major period of late nineteenth-century expansion. Postmodern architecture fits into the city framework and promotes a certain social view for the long-term: creating reusable frames in which residential and commercial uses can intermingle and shift, depending on the needs of future users.

Now "mid-century modern", as its called, is bucking the promise of postmodernism in the greatest way. Rich native Texas limestone, to be sure, is used wherever possible, to be sure. And to be sure, these suburbs merely keep the pattern of most of those new developments around Dallas.

The first risk, of course, is the increasing social divisions implied by architecture that keeps to these strict patterns in an already socially divided city like Dallas, where the color line starts at the Trinity River. The community not far from these fantastic flights of glass and limestone has as much texture as a detective novelist or urban historian could wish for.

Walled communities insure that those of different incomes are kept far away. Social worlds will never meet on the terms of this kind of planning. This is architecture that can only tear down and gentrify large tracts of land.

The second risk is related. As land gentrifies, the Latino communities south of the river will be pushed further away. Bad for brown folks who need to commute; but quite possibly, bad for white folks too. For these homes are expensive to get to and expensive to maintain. As we face the coming age of Peak Oil, since now half of the world's natural resources are already gone while worldwide consumption steadily mounts, these homes won't be feasible for use much longer.

A pity, because the new McMansions really are quite pretty, after all.

Related fantasy worlds:
  • Celebrity modern architecture developments in furthest West Texas, from the Texas Observer
  • Further on the gentrification of Dallas: Jim Schutze, "You Can Go Home Again," Dallas Observer, Published: Thursday, May 18, 2000:
    It's not that Oak Lawn was a bastion of rare and valuable architecture, anyway, but there were old-fashioned "community service" business strips with shoe-repair places and dime stores--things that spoke of a past of some kind. Their total erasure isn't a moral wrong, according to Miller: It's just that the template is lost, so everything there now feels instantaneous and thin the way it does in the suburbs.

  • The extremely fascinating multiblog site, Metroblogging Dallas, which asks and answers questions like this one:
    Are some cities more romantic than others? Does the lifestyle certain cities lend themselves to make love more or less likely to strike and to survive when it does? How does Dallas rate as a love-conducive metro area?

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

6 Things I Hate About The Left

Having spent a few weeks in England -- nursed to health on the largesse of the National Health Service, gorging his mind on BBC WorldService, Le Monde Diplomatique, and The Guardia -- my boyfriend has returned to California. James is suffering readjustment problems, to say the least:

And while I'm at it, in case you didn't know, all your folky protest songs, your political poetry slams, and "die-ins" have zero effect on Washington policy; they may be genuine art, and may have the effect of bolstering the morale of the already-converted choir and that is a good thing, but please, let's disillusion ourselves if we think they change anyone's mind, i.e. have any real political effect.

Don't get me wrong, I think such things are worthwhile within their limited sphere, but sometimes I can't help thinking we mostly do these things because, for creative people, they are relatively easy.

They make us feel as if we've contributed something without having to do any distasteful work, and the applause and the attention makes us feel nice, as an added benefit.

-- "6 Things I Hate About The Left"

No, no, no, it's not just because he's adorable and makes me feel happy about the world and quotes me for at least two whole lines! He also crisply summarizes that sinking feeling of ineffectuality that many of us have felt in California. Loving the diversity as we do, loving the t-shirts at work and the birkenstocks at the opera and the good sushi and friendly dragqueens, there's still the problem of how we talk to the rest of the country. And whether we're actually taking that project seriously -- by talking to and changing a country that we're capable of identifying as our own.

James's culprit list starts: 1) Berkeley academics. 2) peace activists. 3) burning man groupies.

Those would comprise most of my friends and acquaintances, right there. Friends, everyone needs an existential self-examination session once every twelve months. That's why the church has Lent! Do your eternal soul a favor, and face the "Are you an ineffectual whinge-monster" test today.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Black Market of Intelligence

In Cambridge, we toss gently around the idea that there simply *is* no more military intelligence in the United States. By which we do not mean to impugn the IQs of the respected operators. Rather merely to point out that the CIA and its ilk have, despite their immense mapping strategies, networks, and mechanisms for collecting data, remarkably little oversight how that data is analyzed. As a result, there is remarkably little intelligence analysis in a concerted fashion. 500 analysts write a report on their country every day; scarcely any mechanism exists for sorting those reports into anything useful.

What exists, rather, is alongside this collection-machine, another machine for changing outcomes: a propaganda machine. This machine actually does depend on some cultural knowledge and some understanding of the cultures at stake. As a result, this wing of intelligence must actually be outsourced to young, freelance Oxford graduates with humanities degrees and little experience in the military or politics, as the article below begins to explain. Humanities graduates understand the value of visual propaganda.

What neither Oxford graduates nor CIA has grasped is the value of reliable sources of authoritative truth to social stability in democratic society. As Paul Fussell wrote about soldiers in the trench warfare of the first world war, superstition and myth spread like wildfire in a climate where there's no reliable source for information; if one thing might be true, anything might be true. If anything might be true, then the angry Zawahiri - inspired Jihad press might just as well be true as the American press.

If the CIA has indeed entered the game of sewing mythic fabrications, they had better realize that their game has no zero sum and does not tend in the direction of reasonable outcomes, democratic societies, or well-behaved populaces: disinformation breeds more fanaticism and world views of a medieval to barbaric shape.

Lincoln Group dealings unmasked:

The recent disclosures that a Pentagon contractor in Iraq paid newspapers to print 'good news' articles written by American soldiers prompted an outcry in Washington, where members of Congress said the practice undermined American credibility and top military and White House officials disavowed any knowledge of it. President Bush was described by Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser, as 'very troubled' about the matter. The Pentagon is investigating.

But the work of the contractor, the Lincoln Group, was not a rogue operation. Hoping to counter anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, the Bush administration has been conducting an information war that is extensive, costly and often hidden, according to documents and interviews with contractors, government officials and military personnel.

-- Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwa, "Military's Information War Is Vast and Often Secretive," New York Times

Traditional Christmas Cheer from England to You!

Poofy screwdrivers, for girls only.

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Drugs and economics combined can make us happy

Call for the therapy state:
Most of it is piecemeal and still relatively small-scale, but the old liberal concept that the emotional life of citizens is no business of the state is crumbling.

It raises the prospect of a future politics where emotional wellbeing could be as important a remit of state public health policy as our physical wellbeing.

In 10 years' time, alongside 'five fruit and veg a day', our kids could be chanting comparable mantras for daily emotional wellbeing: do some exercise, do someone a good turn, count your blessings, laugh, savour beauty.

We might also be discussing how to regulate emotional pollution in much the way we now discuss environmental pollution.

Top of the list would be advertising, which is bad for our emotional health. It induces dissatisfaction with its invidious comparisons with an affluent elite. Television is not much better for us with its disproportionate volume of violence and fraught relationships. It makes people unhappy, less creative and cuts them off from emotionally healthy activities such as sport or seeing friends.

Meanwhile, there would be a strong rationale to increase subsidies for festivals, parks, theatres, community groups, amateur dramatics, choirs, sports clubs and lots of other lovely things.

-- Madeleine Bunting, "Consumer capitalism is making us ill - we need a therapy state", Guardian Unlimited Politics

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Defense Tech: Insurgents Using Chem Weapons - On Themselves?

'We could not understand why they kept coming but they did.'

The reason, it turned out, was drugs: these "holy warriors" are taking drugs to get high before attacks. It true, as we pushed into the town in April many Marines came across drug paraphernalia (mostly heroin). Recently, we have gotten evidence of them using another drug BZ that makes them high and very aggressive.

BZ is not your typical substance of abuse. It's a hallucinogenic chemical weapon."

-- Defense Tech: Insurgents Using Chem Weapons - On Themselves?

Evangelical Physics

Some people have developed the idea that higher mathematics and science have little to do with the Bible or Christian life. They think that because physics deals with scientific facts, or because it is not pervaded with evolutionary ideas, there is no need to study it from a Christian perspective.

This kind of thinking ignores a number of important facts to the Christian: First, all secular science is pervaded by mechanistic, naturalistic and evolutionistic philosophy. Learning that the laws of mechanics as they pertain to a baseball in flight are just the natural consequences of the way matter came together denies the wisdom and power of our Creator God. . .

Second, physics as taught in the schools of the world contradicts the processes that shaped the world we see today.

Trying to believe both secular physics and the Bible leaves you in a state of confusion that will weaken your faith in God's Word.

-- from "Undernews"

As the Megachurches Close Their Doors

"Family values:" it comes down to Family Values.

If the family is the unit in which Christianity is understood to be most effective, then one should not meet with other Christians to celebrate the birth of the Savior. One need not, like Scrooge, be introduced to the poor, the needy, the people one's double-crossed, the people one has personally disappointed. If the family is the unit for Christianity, one can comfortably spend Christmas pretending that one lives in a Hallmark Family Special: grandma and grandpa reminiscing over punch; the kids unwrapping presents, perhaps everyone saying a prayer thanking the Lord for blessing them with the riches to afford so many gifts and so much food this Christmas season.

Rachel Zoll's AP article on Megachurches closing their doors for Christmas has been reported and reposted throughout the web. David Wells, an evangelical professor of History in Massachussetts, says, ""This is a consumer mentality at work: `Let's not impose the church on people. Let's not make church in any way inconvenient.'" But I have yet to see anyone put their finger on why this picture strikes so many non-megachurch Christians as utterly ridiculous. I'd like to take my stab at it. I think the reason is pretty easy to understand: Jesus did not endorse Family Values.

Jesus, after all, said that his followers could have neither mother nor father nor sister nor brother. Jesus said that his coming would break up families: "For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law" (Matt 10:35). Not only would it break up families of unbelievers, but it would break up families based on love and obedience: "If any [man] come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).

In all of these statements in their context, Jesus makes clear demands that the individual follow his free conscience to God, rather than obeying the demands of family, church, or social pressure. The statements are continuous with Jesus's two great commandments, "to love God and serve one's neighbor," in which Jesus commanded by example and speech that the Christian serve the poor and follow God.

The calling to which he beckoned us was a family of a larger community, in which rich men knelt down to wash the feet of beggars, in which noble men forgave the tax collectors who had cheated them, in which prostitutes and lepers were welcomed to the table -- before, not after, they gave any outward signs that their lives had changed. This larger community, this great church, is inherently unhospitible to families because it is one in which at the cost of all thoughts of social advancement, family solidarity, or relationship stability.

Now for most of us, who depend on our families and the good-will of others, these are challenging passages in the Gospel; I remember reading them in Sunday School when I was a Methodist 13-year-old, and entertaining serious doubts about the Book of Luke. Of course, one way of dealing with difficult passages is to ignore them.

But when Christians start speaking out against the closed doors of Megachurches, they lay their finger on a kind of heresy rife within American culture: the heresy of family values, and all the evil it has done modern political debates.

Family Values have been used, as everybody knows, to champion a certain kind of anti-tax, anti-gay, middle-class program that has successfully dismantled welfare, social security, and the rest of the safety net with which America as a nation once acted to secure its poorest citizens against complete disaster.

When the Megachurches close their doors this Christmas, they will give final testimony to the nature of the god they worship: it is a god of suburban barbeques and quiet lives; a god of shopping malls and basketball; a god made joyful by little girls in lipstick but deaf to the protest signs of angry veterans and unemployed workers and migrants hungry, housed in trenches around the farms of California.

This petty god who insures that the suburban two-car family maintains its stability even while their government spreads inequality and injustice and torture throughout the globe, this petty god is not the Lord of All. He is not the Messiah who was born to save all men. If he rules in the quiet suburb and the shopping mall, he will not rule their long: even the most secure drivers of SUV know that the oil will run out, that the race riots are spreading, that the forces of division on which their petty god feeds have grown and stretched over the country until the entire surface of America is blackened with fomenting chaos about to erupt. There is indeed an end-time coming, and it's the end of the petty god. And there is indeed a return of Jesus Christ planned, but he will not come back for the Megachurches that closed their doors to him.

The Messiah whose birth was foretold, whose coming as a savior we are now waiting for as we light candles in our urban churches and homeless shelters and open tables; this Messiah is due to come back. We spread news of His coming when we react with disgust and outrage at the closed doors of the Megachurches of the petty god of the suburbs.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Progressives and the culture of sex

Liberals want to know how to win elections. Recently, you've heard a lot more of a clever but dangerous proposition about how to form a coalition of moderate Christians free from the claws of the radical right fringe cult. The proposition runs thus: we want progressives to work with moderates to build a more powerful political coalition, so we must jettison gay marriage and abortion from the political agenda.

I should know, because I've argued for that position myself. In the autumn of last year, I was working with a gay seminarian friend, and we had reached the same conclusion: gay marriage was not going to be one of the items in our political lobby. Poverty, yes; prison reform, yes; fair trade and foreign relations, absolutely: but gay marriage was too divisive, too narrow, and too domestic an issue to touch. Marriage: one man, one woman. It's dividing churches, and the noise of churches breaking loses voters. Meanwhile, Jesus called us to serve the poor and disenfranchised; progressives have a nation to save.

Maybe we also felt, secretly, that the gay marriage debate was going to be won without us: that the courts were acting in a fashion amenable to civil rights, that the rest of American culture was committed to a practical level of civic pluralism even if our government was not; that in any case, popular culture was so far ahead of the church in accepting gay relationships, that the church could only follow once enough of its older members, wary of Ellen and Boy George, died off.

So while we separated our political crusade from our concern for gay marriage, we felt that this was no betrayal of gay rights. I come from a family of gay rights activists within the church, and my friend is seeking ordination in a church suspicious of his orientation. We both felt extremely committed towards lobbying for gay marriage -- not just blessing but marriage -- within our churches. We cited Melanchthon and Luther about the use of marriage not just to produce children but to care for the souls of the individuals; we both see marriage in a committed relationship before God and a community as serving that function, regardless of the gender of the individuals involved.

We shied away from gay marriage for practical reasons. We saw case after case where this issue, raised in the media, gave way to the most limp and meaningless discussion of marriage. Some say progressive theologians don't have their theology worked out yet. Some say that progressives in general aren't skilled enough in discussing their point of view in pithy terms without hemorrhaging emotionality. Some say the religious right's soundbites are too strong an ammunition for us. Some say that divisions within the churches cripple convicted clergy on the left from speaking their own mind. Some say that the tolerant are actually a minority in this country. Some say that tolerance is a majority virtue, but never has a chance in the world of soundbites.

My experience carrying forward the banner of "progressive values without discussion of sexuality" made me change my mind. I personally got a lot of flack -- often from moderates I hadn't expected it from, even more often from close friends and respected clergy who felt a duty to challenge me -- every time anyone asked us about our position. Those who have fought for gay rights have felt betrayed time and again by the Democratic Party and other liberal organizations that count on their vote (because liberals are better than the opposition), and then, once in power, turned Judas on their supporters. There's a great deal of righteous anger amongst gay rights supporters. There's a great deal of appropriate suspicion, to the extent that many committed activists, reading a "moderate" post such as this at CrossLeft, may simply roll their eyes and click on to the next site.

To me, there is no question about the appropriateness of gay marriage or gay relationships within the church. To me, the foes of gay marriage run dangerously close to advocating a kind of marriage in which I, as a woman, would play the role of subservient to my husband. If gender is *so* essential that commitment, love, Godliness, and community are insufficient to marriage without the appropriate gendering of one man and one woman, the only correct marriage must be one in which women act as traditional women. Traditional women are, as we know, deferent laboratories for producing infants, not permitted to be ordained.

Jesus and his apostles overturned that notion of gender long ago: there is neither man nor woman in Christ. Amongst the early Christians of the first centuries of the church, women acted as ministers and took more active roles than they had under Jewish law. When he told Christian women that they should not commit suicide just because their husband had died, Augustine advocated the independent salvation and purpose of the Christian woman in a fashion utterly radical to his pagan, Roman context.

As Christians, we have no metaphysical use for gender. Our salvation is between one individual and Christ: a Christian woman is a woman who has found out all her callings - domestic, professional, political, romantic, and social - and acts with full liberty, confidence, and discernment in each of them according to the products of her direct and ongoing conversation with God, not the pre-packaged marriage instructions of a local sewing circle.

When he went undercover amongst a cabal of billionaire right-wing Jesus freaks, journalist Jeff Sharlet gave a good picture of the way this minority has defaced the Christian understanding of gender by adulterating it with something more like the gospel of Liz Claiborne:

They wore red lipstick and long skirts (makeup and “feminine” attire were required) and had, after several months of cleaning and serving in The Cedars while the brothers worked outside, become quite unimpressed by the high-powered clientele. “Girls don't sit in on the breakfasts,” one of them told me, though she said that none of them minded because it was “just politics.”

As Progressives, we may understand that individuals in our world are gendered, and we may make use of institutions that help them to function spiritually and ethically within this world. We don't insist that women are only free if they stop shaving their legs or shave their hair; we understand that there are a thousand different feminisms, and that women as individuals pursue paths as diverse as men do. But gender and gendered living are necessary to neither our salvation nor to Christian living, and so they *cannot* be necessary to participating in marriage as a Christian sacrament (amongst Catholic churches) or Christian ceremony (amongst Protestant churches).

But when our brothers and sisters in Jesus kick the girls out of the politics meeting, they betray our heritage, our culture, and our God. Their actions take on all the more significance when considered in light of international events. Gay Nigerian Christians have had their first meeting ever; a sign of hope to some and naivete to others. But the British media reports that the Nigerians just sound "scared." They sound scared because they have dared to discuss their sexuality openly in a culture that deems the openly gay unfit to live. I don't need to remind our readers of other societies where girl babies and widows are similarly deemed unfit to live.

In the great world of feudal corporate fiefdoms and third-world dictatorships, the woes of your individual lesbian couple in California might not matter much. But they do matter insofar as more powerful nations have, in realpolitik, the opportunity to influence the protection of human rights the world over.

Gay marriage in a small town in Idaho may not be our issue: getting mired by throwing Bible verses back and forth is not the way any of us should spend our precious time on the radio and tv waves. When we look at questions of liberty for political, social, religious, and economic action for people of every gender and sexuality, the United States and Britain make statements about freedoms appropriate for all people, whether they choose them or not.

Poor families in Pakistan and Nigeria and South Carolina can choose traditional relationships, courtship, and ceremony wherever they wish, but in every democracy where the light of Christianity (or indeed the secular Enlightenment, which took many of its values) has shown, the state as the will of the majority has prevented husbands, clerics, and churches from curtailing the property rights, legal rights, or life of the individual.

Protestant Christianity has always witnessed on behalf of the laws that protect individual freedom in this way. Its theology has, in the past, pushed the government to act in ways ever more protective of individual freedoms.

Thus it is profoundly embarrassing and sad for the church to claim that it can't take a position on gay rights because its theology will take a hundred years to develop, as Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams did recently; Luther started us on the correct path five hundred years ago, and we have had a hundred years since Havelock Ellis and Freud to understand how basic different forms of sexuality are to basic human identity.

How queer that once we have to talk about what particular acts of sex a committed couple takes part in, godfearing Christians turn pale and run away. In being asked to defend gay marriage, Christians are merely called to the same questions of individual freedom and conscience before God, to which they have dedicated themselves individuals, as married couples, and as churches.

Let me be clear: many things are not at stake here. At stake is not whether I, as a defender of my brother's freedoms, participate in them myself, am virginal or not, am married or not, wish to live in my brother's company or not, consider his choices well-advised or not, or wish to discuss his sexual life. At stake is not whether the individual priest is perfectly convinced that two people will forever adhere to the vow of chastity and commitment that they have made in due seriousness before him, although he may counsel and advise them according to his impression of the individuals in question.

At stake in whether a church marries too people is certainly not whether the individual priest judges that the individuals before him are actually going to heaven: what priest refuses marriage to the drunk or gluttonous or hate-filled man who stands before him with a future bride?

At stake is only a precept of freedom about whether the individual's rights will be curtailed on the basis of gender, a precept which has profound consequences for global freedoms in light of today's issues. We believe in a God that builds communities and sustains individuals, and an oath of marriage between two people -- any two people -- is, if nothing else, a vow to build a community as individuals who have made a free choice before God.

For in facing the question of how sexual relations are understood before God, the churches of United States and Britain have the opportunity with their theology to make a profound statement in favor of *human* rights -- including the fundamental right to life free from murder -- against regimes that devalue life merely because of an individual's gender.

For as dictatorships and corporate feudalism spread throughout Africa and South America, we stand on a precipice and look out at two futures. In one version, the discourse of women's rights and gay rights are jettisoned, as we argue instead about the necessity of traditional polygamy to maintaining the chiefs of African villages, of Sati to maintaining the wealth system of northern India, and of man-woman marriage to something vaguely called "traditional morality" in North America. In such a future, girl children will be exposed on hillsides as they were in ancient pagan empires; villages will throw screaming widows into the funeral pyres of their husbands; a tiny minority of the world's women will have legal rights over their property; the rest of the world's women will be legally subject to rape by their husbands and left penniless in case of divorce.

Remember that such was the legal condition of women in the West until about a hundred and twenty years ago -- until, that is, the age of Freud and Havelock Ellis and the modern understanding of human sexuality -- and you will understand how fragile is our concept of rights regardless of gender. You will understand how liable traditional local laws are to triumph in court and practice over the gospel of human rights.

You will understand how, in the spectrum of legal protections, gay marriage is a direct continuation of our understanding that men are free to serve God, and women are free to serve God, and traditions that restrict their freedoms because of their gender go flatly against Jesus's teachings. You will understand how discussion of gay marriage scares people away from realizing the peril in which their common values stand. You will see that, while Western Christians hesitate, the Christian-derived precept of human rights stands threatened the world over.

The other future before us is that path we were called to by Jesus, Paul, the early Christians, Augustine, Luther, and the progressives of nineteenth-century America. In this future, women the world over have the opportunity, if they desire it, to seek education, work, and political involvement. In this future, black and white marry -- even if a community deems it inadvisable, the church still supports them. In this future, a woman and a woman can marry, as can a man and a man, if their fascination with each other is romantic and sustained; if their mutual intention is towards God, and if they find a Christian community -- any Christian community -- willing to support them.

In this future, the churches of America and Britain are a safe house and a nurturing family to the African who happens to be gay or the Chinese who happens to be a woman. In this future, the Christian message of individual discernment runs so strong that it inspires freely-discerning individuals around the world to make their cause with God and face the fallen world with courage.

Rowan Williams has also spoken recently about what it means when a church says it needs leaders. Most people, he says, when they ask for leaders merely ask people to parrot back their own opinions for them. Leaders are instead individuals capable of holding together a sometimes fragile alliance for the purposes of some greater good that all have agreed upon.

Let's agree that the discussion of gay marriage in the American media has been fractious and confusing, especially to Christians and moderates. We can talk with them individually and in our communities. Church leaders will continue to huddle and argue about Bible verses.

But for political purposes, perhaps we can concede that the image of the altar, the procession, the wedding dress, the wedding ring, and the priest are so symbolically charged as to trouble people when the image is tweaked. Individuals of little experience find pictures of newlywed lesbians holding hands in San Francisco and Boston are visually jolting and confusing. Perhaps a good leader would spare them confusion, and direct them to a message that they can't be confused about: the rights of those gay Christians in Nigeria not to be lynched.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Winter is cold and moving

maple tree in sodium light
Originally uploaded by joguldi.
Maple tree in sodium light, down the street from my rooms at Pembroke College.

Most beautiful thing

Originally uploaded by chotda.
of the day: the feed for the Orange is a Color that is Safe and Alive group at Flickr.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Postcard from the meeting of worlds

Old cities always make me think about the future.

I've spent the past few days wandering around the straits of the Bosphorus with my friend James. Istanbul is a remarkable ode to the meeting of cultures: the ancient and the modern, East and West, Islam and Christianity, side by side. For centuries, Europeans built cathedrals and Jews synagogues on one side of the Golden Horn; Ottoman sultans built mosques on the other. Today the three cultures exist side by side, crescent by star by cross, as geographical a testament to the integration of the three "religions of the book" as one could wish.

A funny thing happened on the ferry across the Bosphorus. I thought one of the other passengers looked familiar, but I couldn't believe my eyes. A few meters away was David Hollinger, the head of the History Department at Berkeley, whom several CrossLeft fans heard a few weeks ago, when he was the keynote speaker at the conference on progressive Christianity at the National Cathedral in Washington. David was in Istanbul to give another version of the same paper on the history of pluralism, liberalism and tolerance as a project advocated by American Protestants. The Turkish State Department had flown him over to talk about what civic pluralism means for a nation, where it comes from, and how it once, civic pluralism flourished in America, directly because of the work of progressive Christians.

The Turkish government, intent on promoting itself as fully compatible with the European Economic Community, forcibly promotes as syncretic and pluralistic a religious community as can be seen anywhere in the world. The headscarf is banned on the grounds of promoting a culture free from the tyrannies of religion through social conformity (the ban is enforced only at schools, and insistence on the private choice of women to their own statement of belief is carried forward by the wife of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who continues to wear a headscarf in public). Turkey has good reason to insist on religious pluralism, even while it negotiates room for devoted practice of religious values.

Later that day, in between baklava and coffee, I pick up the Herald Tribune and Le Monde, both edited from Paris, and available on newsstands where the New York Times never makes it. Le Monde Diplomatique for December was boiling with indictment of American foreign policy. Torture has been huge in the newspapers here ever since it was released that the US has been housing Guantanamo Bay-like facilities in some Eastern European countries. The European Union has been threatening major action against any European country that houses American-style torture facilities.

Europe reassures us that morality can still exist, that intelligent discourse above the level of a Rupert Murdoch media is possible; that if we can make plans as ambitious as the American plans for a globalized economy, we can certainly plan to house our workers and inoculate them against tuberculosis and diminish our dependence on fossil fuels before oil peaks and leaves third world countries without a discernible source of food. Le Monde Diplomatique seared with rage against the orders to bomb Al-Jazeera. It used statistics and clear evidence to mock Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, Bush's neocon gurus, who have argued for militantly intolerant Christianity, anti-integration immigration politics, and government-subsidized capitalism, as if these forms of exclusion would bring peace and social stability in their wake.

(Le Monde Diplomatique, the monthly political review by the Paris newspaper Le Monde, is conveniently translated into English by Google)

James and I wandered through the Sufi monastery where lay the bodies of dead dervishes and mystics who wrote love poetry to God. In the peace of that graveyard, amidst the olive trees and playing cats, I paused in the silence to enjoy the feeling of severe love rushing across the world.

The Fukuyamas and Huntingtons argue that our differences will always tear us apart. They are believers in differences, and their heart is so seared by faith in difference, that in their sight the world is plagued by a Lord of Difference whose realm is enormous that no culture can escape his rule. No amount of education can free us from him, no act of charity save his chosen victims.

What I sensed in the monastery was a hint of that true breeze I feel in every holy site in the world: a clarity that the bonds and rifts of the world are there for us to bind and break them; that the laws of economy and propriety and difference bend beneath the will of the law of love; that the universe and God himself are weary of the law of the Lord of Difference and back the individual who acts against it.

But Istanbul has other lessons besides those of the mystics. Seated under the Madonna in the Hagia Sophia, it's hard to forget that Istanbul, as Constantinople, started the idea of a Christian Empire. Augustine endorsed the empire for Christians, claiming that the church could use political power as a platform through which to transform the world. Rome enabled an empire that gave its citizens wide freedoms and a large degree of religious tolerance; Constantinople added to the freedoms of that empire the liberty of souls freed from sin. For Augustine, at least, empire could act to spread the gospel of individual liberty, of radical morality.

As America embarks on its path to empire, restaging the Great Game in Asia for the natural gas fields of Russia and the oil fields of Kazakhstan, we have wheeled ourself into the domain of a great battle between different visions of empire.

On the one hand is the law of corporate welfare, the Law of Difference, the neocon strategy for control of the globe for the sake of control alone. The NeoCons make no great plans for morality: they simply strip the Christian religion of all its non-utilitarian elements and reduce the church to a tool for disciplining honest workers with predictable families.

On the other hand is everything we have to learn from history, from Europe's past and from our own. French papers daily repeat the Enlightenment heritage of a morality whose foundation grows from the Judeo-Christian reverence for individual rights, but is compatible with a human family well beyond the sphere of the church. Roman ruins glows in the light of Augustine's vision of the use of empire to extend a Christian morality whose aims transcend those of the empire. The graveyards vibrate with Sufi whispers, telling us, always, every moment, to remember our our power to choose between material wealth or godly pleasure in the society of other human beings. There are the graves and ruins of empires -- Persian, Sassanid, Parthian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman -- reminding us of all the religions of Mammon that have come and been utterly destroyed, to remind us that we need not suffer from our empires forever.

When the Fukuyamas and Huntingtons tell us that their vision of empire is the only vision of the future in which the American economy will be safe, they wash away the greater part of what history tells us about empires.

The Neocons claim that all power has to be coercive; that all nations must defer to American corporate power; that corporate power has no room for altruism; that the character of our nation is informed by a militant Christianity which worships the persecution of anyone who deviates from a certain economic and family pattern norm.

Those who worship a Lord of Life know that the reign of the Lord of Difference is limited. They know the God of the Market who waves his hand impatiently at 3 billion malnourished worldwide, who hands the future's blueprints over to tight-lipped scientists and economists who shrug and return to their accounting tables. We have heard about another God, who came that we should have life and have it abundantly. We have all the wisdom of history to learn from, all the clearly-put statistics of European papers to argue from, every letter of the gospel to back up our mandate. We have ahead of us a long road: all the hearts of those we encounter to win, all the well-structured empires of entrenched media and tired politicians to plow down; every vote in America to fight for. But we have a great cause, far greater than the cause of Difference and income; we have every mouth in the world to feed, every life in the world to fight for; an empire to transform, and a civilization to rebuild.

Inappropriate Inattention

For a solid week, the disaster at New Orleans shook us to our boots and made normal individuals -- media announcers, mayors, people on the street -- doubt that the regime they lived in was really organized to protect the liberties and pursuit of happiness we so extol in our constitution.

But in America today, attention dwindles easily, even among liberals, and I believe that if we look carefully in the mirror at our attention-addled selves, the image we see there is saddening.

Did anyone else see last month's Harper's? Harper's is one of the best essay magazines in America, and one of the most liberal. Harper's featured a dozen pages of photos of New Orleans, long after the rest of the media had forgotten.
Strange to say, Harper's didn't show water lines, soiled photographs of loved ones, or houses in ruin. Harper's showed a dozen, lovingly-wrought, black-and-white images faces, worn with worry, alit with hope, angry, happy -- all the seasons of emotions.

What was so strange about these images was how out of context they were. The photographs followed exactly the pattern of Dorothea Lange images of Oklahoma agricultural migrants from the Great Depression. These are people too, they assured us; they worked hard, had dreams, lived lives; they are beautiful and earnest. How beautiful, how noble, how courageous they are.

Pause for a moment. How strange to draw attention to the sentimental humanity of the poor creatures whose entire city has been destroyed. How curious, that we notice their wrinkles, their merry smiles, as if they really were survivals of that nostalgic old-time era of hard-working American farmers. How bizarre that even American liberals cannot summon up compassion for those in misery by merely looking at row after row of homes reduced to a pile of boards, miles of crumbled interstate, invalids from hospital in their wheelchairs with nowhere to go, food lines without food, children wandering in search of water. How interesting that we cannot be moved even when it is one of our own cities, even when we must think, forcibly, from our earthquake- and tornado- and flood- and riot-prone cities of the coasts, "that could be us." I suppose the thought never occurs.

From Harpers' (they're not all bad):

Return from Istanbul

Stuffed with apricots and almonds, pummelled by the masseuses at the hamam, James and I are happy to be back to Cambridge. A great many more photos are at my flickr page.