Monday, July 31, 2006

My twin brother, Lexington musician Tom Baker, has a new website which you ought to check out:

So check it out. You can even download some of his songs for free.

[note: I sincerely apologize for this shameless plug.]

Sunday, July 30, 2006

A Victory for Moderate Islam?

I don't often comment on Islam for a variety of reasons. I don't have much to say about the (chronologically) third great Monotheistic religion, and much of what I could say would only inflame either Muslims who don't need someone from outside their religion to criticize it, or conservative Christians or Jews who find my criticisms far too charitable. But, when I read this article in the Christian Science Monitor I felt I had to say something.

There are many aspects of Islam that have always appealed to me: the radical monotheism, which at its best uses the unity of God to attempt to unify humanity; the blending of the secular and sacred in daily life; the public and highly ritualized prayers; the fact that one prays with one's whole body, and not just one's mouth; Sufi mystical poetry; the emphasis on submission to God; the majesty of the hajj, the pilgrimage that so powerfully speaks to human unity before God that it forever changed the life of Malcolm X.

But for all of the good that I see in Islam, all in that great religion which appeals to me (and the previous paragraph is but a hastily prepared list which barely touches the surface), like all reasonable people I am deeply troubled by the propensity towards violence that I see in Islam.

Islam, to be sure, does not own a monopoly on religious violence. The Tanakh, called by many Christians the "Old Testament," is littered with divinely ordained violence. For instance, while the book of Numbers intimidates many causal readers of the Bible with long sections devoted to census taking and law making, it also contains horrific stories of religious/political warfare. In Numbers 31, for instance, God ordains the Israelites to take vengeance against the Midianites, which they faithfully do killing all of the men and taking the women and children hostage. However, Moses, who here acts as the mouthpiece of God, rebukes his own army for being too lenient, commanding them in what is for me the most troubling passage in the Bible:

Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man. (Numbers 31: 17-18, JPS)

Likewise Christian history is filled with violence done in the name of a righteous God. While Islam was still a relatively peaceful and tolerant religion the Roman Catholic Church propagated a series of Crusades against it, an event which still scars the collective memories of Muslims. After the Muslim Seljuk Turks captured much of the Near East in the 11th Century, including parts of the Byzantine Empire, Pope Urban II, in 1095 at the Council of Clermont, called for what has since been named the First Crusade; a holy war against Muslims who had been accused of defiling sacred Christian sites.

The Crusades eventually spanned such a broad expanse of time, killing such a vast and senseless number of people, that it is easy to become emotionally numb studying is from a broad view. Stories from individual battles and sieges in individual Crusades, however, tell a much more compelling human story which truly depicts how violence done in the name of the Prince of Peace (to use a Jewish image appropriated by Christians for Jesus) defiles the history of Christianity. Donald Spoto's magnificent biography of Francis of Assisi (my bedtime reading last week, as you can see here) contains some powerful images from battles that Francis witnessed as he was preaching peace during the Fifth Crusade. Summing up the carnage, Spoto writes:

The Fifth Crusade continued on its disastrous course. After another siege, Damietta was taken on November 5 [1219 - CB] by the Crusaders, who found houses and streets filled with corpses half devoured by ravenous dogs while weeping children clung to their dead and dying parents, begging for food. Of the 80,000 people in the city at the beginning of the siege, only 3,000 survived, and of these only 100 were not ill with fatal diseases.

When a religion believes that it alone represents God, and that all who oppose it oppose God, and especially when a religion believes that it has been ordained by God to wipe out all of God's enemies; that religion has reached such a height of moral arrogance that it can justify dishonoring all of its principles in its quest to rid the world forever of the identified enemies of God. While I do not believe that such morally arrogant violence is essential to monotheism, I must admit that each monotheistic religion has tended from time to time toward such righteous violence. Islam is no exception to this.

What troubles me about Islam, however, is that, as a Jewish religious studies professor of mine once lamented, it seems like no moderate Muslims are willing to call Islam's violent extremists to task for their maniacal methods. Reading the above-linked article simultaneously gave me some faith in the collective moral conscience of moderate Muslims (after all, a cleric helped lead authorities to 17 suspected terrorists) and a great deal of fear for those moderate Muslims who are willing to stand up to the violence being done in their name (after all, while the cleric is being hailed by the secular world as a hero, he is seen by many Muslims as a traitor).

Will the real Islam please stand up?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Taking Stock

Time, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed from his Nazi prison, is a funny thing. While we mark it off moment by incremental moment, dividing it into equal, measurable units, our experience of it is neither uniform nor always linear. Some moments fly by, almost unnoticed in their haste to move from future to present to past. Other moments hang around interminably. Most moments do neither. Perhaps they sneak up on us, but then hang around for a little bit once we notice them, only to depart as stealthily as they came.

Eighteen months ago this morning, my son Adam was born. The time we've spent together since then, and even the time my wife and I spent waiting for him to arrive on our scene, cannot be easily described. It has been neither fast nor slow, neither orderly nor chaotic, neither linear or circular, and neither good nor bad. It has, however, been a time of inordinate change.

While bringing new life into the world is always momentous, and while the chaos that it brings into your order (as well as the order that it brings into your chaos) necessarily implies a great deal of change, the changes in my life since Adam was born have been so disoriented that I don't often recognize myself anymore.

Eighteen months ago I was in my fourth year as the Youth Minister at Epiphany United Methodist Church on the south side of Louisville, KY. While I loved that job, and while I was proud of the program that I had built and the kids produced by it, I new that I would not last much longer there. Every year I got a little bit older, and every year my Youth Group stayed about the same age, with graduating Seniors being replaced by incoming Sixth Graders in a process that might be best described as a stabilizing transition. The names and faces might change every year, but the ages and personalities remained almost constant.

My religious interests were constantly deepening, but the needs of my ministry required a certain amount of shallowness, a certain amount of basicness. No matter how much I grew, no matter how much my interests evolved, my job there would always be to try to meet the spiritual needs of teenagers. A rewarding job, to be sure, but it takes a certain kind of person to remain in Youth Ministry for very long, and I am not that kind of person.

Eighteen months ago I was in my final semester as a college student, finishing up my desperate cramming of four years worth of classes into three years. I was at the end of a relentless schedule of eighteen credit hour semesters followed by a couple of summer classes. My course load was hard enough, without accounting for the work that I was doing at Epiphany. I was quickly burning out.

At the same time, though, I relished certain challenges. The summer before Adam was born I took a course in modern African-American literature. I'd love to say that I signed up for the course because of some special interest in the subject - and since I had already taken a course in African-American music I'm sure there is some truth to that - but mostly I took the course because I needed three credit hours in literature to graduate, and that was what was available the summer I decided to get my literature credit in.

Whatever my motives for taking the course, however, I loved it. In that class I wrote a paper on John Edgar Wideman's unique use of language in his amazing Hoop Roots. After reading that paper, the professor approached me and said, "Every year students ask me to do an independent study with them, and I always turn them down. I don't do independent studies. But, if you want to turn this into a publishable paper, I'd love to do an independent study with you." You can't turn down an offer like that.

The semester before Adam was born I took a course in Buddhist philosophy. I took it for three reasons:

1. As a philosophy major on the religious studies track, it was a very useful class for me.

2. It was taught by my favorite professor, a lover of Asian philosophy who had already taught me everything I know about Chinese philosophy, and brought some of my best work out of me.

3. I have had a life-long fascination with Buddhism, a fascination which is from time to time reflected in this blog. If I were not a Christian I would be a Buddhist.

In that course I was particularly inspired by the traditional Buddhist idea of pattica samuppada (Pali), concerning the interconnected and interdependent nature of all things. While pattica samuppada is originally concerned with the cyclical nature of suffering, as a metaphysical concept it can be applied much more broadly. I thought that it might be particularly able to inform our approaches to environmental ethics, and so approach my professor about doing an independent study designed to look at how this teaching has historically informed Buddhist approaches to environmental ethics.

Frustrated that it has not historically been used that way, I eventually broadened my topic. So, eighteen months ago, when Adam was born, I was right in the middle of not one but two major independent studies aimed at writing publishable papers. The first one, like the paper which gave rise to it, concerned John Edgar Wideman's use of language in Hoop Roots, and is to this day one of my proudest achievements. The second was at least as bold, focusing on comparing and contrasting Buddhist and Christian approaches to environmental ethics. While I was disappointed in how that paper turned out, I did get to present my research at my university's philosophy colloquium, an event which earned my infant son the nickname "the little philosopher." He sat with his mother in the back of the room while I presented, in rapt attention, hanging on every word that I said. Some of the professors remarked that the baby was a better listener than most of their students.

Eighteen months ago I was also an Exploring Candidate for Ordination in the United Methodist Church, about to become a Certified Candidate subject to appointment. My time at Epiphany was, as I've already noted, quickly running out. Not only was I growing frustrated with my responsibilities at the church, longing to work with a "more mature" group; but my best friend had just left as pastor of that church, to be replaced by a fundamentalist. While the former pastor and I had basically shared a brain, being able to finish each other's sentences, the new pastor was a foreign to me as I was to him. We had different concepts of God, different concepts of what constitutes a healthy church, and different goals for ministry.

He was very kind to me personally, and very helpful in advancing my ministerial career, but the whole time we worked together we were engaged in a sort of cold war for the heart and soul of that congregation. As such we shared a goal: getting me out of that congregation and into my own pulpit. Of course, you know how that story ends.

Eighteen months ago, then, I was a college student and a Youth Minister, and my biggest goals were to get into seminary and my own pulpit, and to pursue ordination in the United Methodist Church. Since then I graduated (with High Distinction - it would have been Highest Distinction but the semester Adam was born produced my first two B's!), became a pastor, entered seminary, withdrew from pastoral ministry and dropped out of seminary. I've gone through the application process to get into law school only to decide (along with the University of Louisville's Brandeis School of Law) that the law isn't for me.

Now I'm looking for a job. I've always felt that God hasn't called me to a serve in a particular profession, but rather to be a particular person. So long as what I do comes out of who I am, and so long as who I am is consistent with who I ought to be, I don't have to worry so much about what I'm supposed to do. But the fact is, I've got to do something, and I've got to do it soon.

I have been blessed to spend most of Adam's first 18 months of life with him. While I was both a student and a Youth Minister when he was born, I often took him with me to class and church. Since I dropped out of ministry, and later seminary, I have been a full-time stay-at-home Dad. I can't even begin to describe how that has changed me. My life has been dedicated to the welfare of a precious child; a child who is growing up well, and who is a credit to his parents.

But, as much as I love being a father, I can't be myself and be a stay-at-home Dad. So, I've started looking for emotionally enriching and rewarding work. I've resisted the temptation to post very much on my job hunt because:

a.) I didn't want to bore anyone to death with the constant refrain of

1. I applied for a job today, followed by

2. I haven't heard back from anyone yet, or

3. I just got another rejection


b.) I didn't want to do anything to in any way jinx the few job opportunities which have looked promising.

But today, bad joo-joo and superstitious thinking be damned, I'm going to share a little bit about my job hunt.

Last month I saw that the Peace Education Program was looking for a Trainer to work with urban teenagers on non-violent conflict resolution. It seemed like a perfect job for me, so I applied for it. Earlier this month I got a letter from them saying that, to their great surprise, they have received 40 applications for that position. They are currently looking through the resumes and letters of recommendation for each candidate for the job trying to narrow the field to 10 or 15 candidates before they begin their first round of interviews. They are to notify me by tomorrow to let me know whether or not I've made it past the first cut.

To put it another way, I've got to beat out 25 or 30 applicants just to get an interview. I went through this sort of process to get the Youth Minister job at Epiphany, but I'm still not so sure about my chances. These are, after all, some seriously long odds.

On the other hand, if you'd told me 18 months ago, when my son was born, that I would have already had my own church and resigned from pastoral ministry, I would have thought they odds of that happening would be a great deal longer than this.

I don't know why all of this is coming out today. Perhaps just because I can't believe that it has already been 18 months. It seems both longer and shorter than that; like he was born yesterday but has always been here. Time is, as Bonhoeffer noted, ever so elusive.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Anti-Abortion Bumper Sticker

Can it really be? According to my own internal search, I haven't posted a Bumper Sticker Watch since this one in February! That simply cannot stand.

For those of you who weren't around for my Bumper Sticker Watches, I have an unhealthy fascination with religious and political messages on the bumpers of cars. While I keep my own car pure (save for the Autism Awareness magnetic ribbon, put there by my dear wife, who feeds us by working as a behavioral therapist with autistic children) I cannot help but admire those brave souls who bare their beliefs on the butt of their car.

So from time to time (but, evidently, not for a long time) I post an ode to some message that I see on a car. Sometime the ode is sincere, sometimes satirical. Remember, even in my most reverent moments my tongue is generally firmly pressed to my cheek.

Anyway, since I haven't posted on bumper stickers in so long, I simply couldn't resist telling you about this one.

Recognizing that I'm never again going to get above a basketball rim (for the record, I've dunked four times in my life, thank you) I've started playing tennis again. Tennis is a game that ages a little more gracefully. I'm also in charge of the cat litter in our house, which has alas been far too neglected this past week. I say alas particularly because the litter box is in the basement next to me office, so when its contents begin to, well, shall we say ripen, I notice. And, speaking of ripening, my bowl of cereal this morning reminded me that I either need to get less milk when I go to the grocery, or I need to drink a little more of it more quickly.

This created an interesting shopping list for me today:

1. One new can of tennis balls, since the balls I played with yesterday were over two years old.

2. One crate of cat litter - the litter box can't be changed without some fresh litter, and boy does it need to be changed.

3. One gallon of skim milk.

Where could I go to get all three of these items? Well, I could go to Wal Mart, but I've been boycotting them for most of my adult life. Of course, they haven't noticed yet, but I'm still holding out hope. What do you think: can one small family in Louisville, KY bring down a corporate giant? If we're joined by enough other families, yes we can!

So, I decided to go to Target. My mother tells me that, ethically speaking, Target isn't much better than Wal Mart (this is how, by the way, she justifies shopping at Wal Mart, not boycotting Target, but that's another story), but ethics aren't the only factor to consider. There's always aesthetics, and if Target takes over the world at least the world will look relatively pretty.

On my way to Target to pick up my three disparate items, a mid 90's, metallic blue Ford Ranger pick-up truck pulls in front of me. On the right side is a Bush-Cheney '04 bumper sticker. On the left is an metal Ichthus fish. (How many times have we seen those two together?!?) And in the middle? A large colorful bumper sticker, with white trim, which has a picture of a crawling Caucasian baby in a white cloth diaper, and text which reads:


Will the anti-abortion movement ever grow tired of equating abortion with infanticide? I'll admit it, my moral intuition makes me very uncomfortable with the practice of abortion. For much of my life I have identified myself as pro-life, even though I am nominally pro-choice now (that is, I think that under certain limited circumstances abortions are morally permissible; and further I think that abortions, whether morally permissible or not, should remain in most cases legal, because to criminalize abortion would ultimately do more harm than good), but I've got to say that I am morally and intellectually offended by the fundamental dishonesty of conflating the killing of an unborn fetus with the murder of a little child.

But bumper sticker leave little room for subtlety or argument. They simply reduce complex ideas to manageable sound-bytes, just like every other politically propagating media in America at the moment. Is there, then, any wonder that political discourse is so polarized and uncharitable? Is there, then, any wonder that people are so willing to believe the worst about the people who disagree with them.

Pro-choice? You're nothing better than a baby killer! Why don't you just club kids like baby seals?

Pro-life? You wish women would go back to the only thing they're good at - popping out babies and fresh-cooked meals!

In favor of affirmative action or social welfare? Why do you hate hard work so much? What's your problem with a level playing field?

Opposed to affirmative action or social welfare? Why must you continually oppress and exploit minorities?

Liberal is, in our polarized political lexicon, becoming another word for communist. Conservative is becoming another word for fascist. And all because our ideas and beliefs, as represented by our talking points and bumper stickers, oppose nuance and complexity.

No one is completely right, and most people aren't completely wrong. Very, very few of us wake up in the morning trying to come up with the most effective way to really do some harm to our culture and the people in it. It's just that whenever we solve a problem new problems emerge, the unintended consequences of our "solutions." But bumper stickers like the one I saw today, so full of misplaced moral superiority, so full of intellectual and ethical dishonesty, stifle what should be a great debate in this country. Instead of opening up avenues of thoughtful communication, they shut them down, firing up the people who are "with us" while trying to shame or intimidate those "against us."

Maybe I don't like bumper stickers as much as I thought I did.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Medieval Christian Zen?

Most of you should remember my fascination with the American Zen stories compiled by Sean Murphy in his delightful book One Bird One Stone: 108 American Zen Stories (for a refresher see here and here). My bedtime reading this week has been Donald Spoto's magnificent Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, which contains some stories to rival the great tradition of Zen for sheer absurdity.

Two of my favorite writers and thinkers, Thomas Merton (in Mystics and Zen Masters) and D.T. Suzuki (in Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist) have observed the similarities between Christian mysticism and Zen. Of course, these two traditions come from wildly different and often opposing world views, and I would hate to simply gloss over that. But they both share in common the evaluation that practice is more important than theory or theology, and that life is more important than our reflections on life. So while they may be coming from very different systems of thought (though mysticism and Zen share in common a refusal to rationalize, they come out of Christianity and Buddhism respectively, which offer very different rational accounts of the nature of the universe) they often produce lives and stories which seem kin to each other.

Here is, from Donald Spoto's biography of Francis, part of the story of one of Francis' earliest companions, a young man named Juniper, called by Spoto "one of the most uncoventional among the early Franciscans":

His odd behavior often had an underlying spiritual motive. On a visit to Rome, he learned that some people, believing he was a wise counselor, were seeking him out for advice. His companions assured him it was pointless trying to avoid such attention and admiration, but they had not taken Juniper's resourcefulness into full account. As he approached the eager crowd, he spotted a group of children on a seesaw. At once, he went over to them and joined the fun as if it were the most important item on his agenda. The enthusiasms of his admirers was at once checked, and they withdrew, disappointed that a holy man should act such a fool.

There are many other such stories of Juniper and the other early Franciscans. And, of course, some of the best and strangest stories are of Francis himself, who took the command to follow Christ distressingly literally at times. But this may be my favorite one. Most of my life up until now has been spent frantically trying to "grow up," to lose the child within and become a fully functioning adult. In my mad race to manhood, however, I have too often ignored my own nature. As Madeleine L'Engle once observed, I am not any particular age, but rather all of the ages I have ever been at the same time. There are moments when I am and must be a grown man, a husband and a father, a responsible adult. But there are other times when I am a playful little boy, or a baby who needs to be held, or a teenager rebelling against the invisible authorities.

To be willing to embrace your inner child and play on a seesaw with little literal children is at the same time liberating and grounding. It is liberating, because it reminds you that you are not just a staid and stuffy adult, but also a former child who from time to time returns to such childhood fancies. It is grounding because it reminds you that you can never truly escape who you once were, so you'd better be able to make peace with yourself as you are, even as you go through the painfully transformative process of sanctification.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Do the ends justify the means?

Forget for a moment everything that I've written on abortion (including this and this). Pretend that I'm not some crazy heretic who thinks that abortion is a complicated moral issue which can't be reduced to a simply pro or con, for or against, right or wrong. Wipe from your mind the knowledge that I think that having an abortion is, under certain limited circumstances, morally permissible.

In this backwards (and far less nuanced world) I am a pro-life evangelical Christian who is concerned about the morality of a society that permits the deplorable practice of abortion. How, do you think, would I feel about this?

Radical anti-abortion advocates have long used a strange utilitarian calculus to justify any means to prevent abortion, even killing doctors who have performed abortions. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that some people would be willing to lie to pregnant teenagers to scare them into not having an abortion. But I still have to wonder how someone can take the moral high ground when their strategy for ending what they see as a social evil involves deceiving scared and vulnerable people to manipulate them into doing what you think is best.

And I have to wonder about a government which funds medical misinformation.

But, I'm out of indignation, and that is the real shame. When I read this study, I wasn't surprised, angry, or even disappointed. I think that I have outrage fatigue.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

An Ode to the Lost Dogs and Politically Progressive Christian Music

Every morning Adam, Pepper (our dog) and I take a 4.5 mile walk through our neighborhood and the surrounding area. As the summer heats up, our walk keeps starting earlier and earlier. But, whenever it starts, pounding the pavement pushing a stroller and dragging a tired dog gives me a great chance to reflect on stuff. Yesterday's walk, for instance, produced the bulk of the letter contained in my last post. Today's walk, however, had slightly stranger fruit.

I'll spare you the visual image of me returning from such a long walk on one of these hot, humid, sticky, steamy summer mornings. Suffice it to say that, this morning, as I passed our neighborhood Catholic church, just under a mile from our house, I was more than aware of the weather. If their sign is any indication, that is exactly what they were hoping for.

I'm sure you've seen signs outside of churches intending to in some way evangelize the masses that pass by. I've always thought that such signs were silly at best, and invitations to engage in poorly thought out bigotry at worst, but churches don't consult me on such matters for some reason. One of my favorite bands, the Violet Burning, has a special feature on the concert DVD with their favorite church signs. Their treatment of these generally either stupid or offensive (or both) signs is by no means complimentary.

The sign on our neighborhood Catholic church this morning belongs on that DVD. In the midst of this scorching summer heat wave, it reads:

Think the weather is hot?
Hell is hotter!

Pardon the pun, but What the hell?!?

Seeing that sing this morning for some reason got me singing some of my favorite songs by a band called the Lost Dogs (including the fantastically funny Why is the Devil Red?), and reflecting on my spiritual and political journey. So, maybe the sign did its job?

I grew up in a liberal household and an evangelical church. When I was fourteen I had a religious conversion experience which I will no longer sully by trying to describe. At that moment I began to take my faith in God through Jesus Christ very seriously. Being in such an evangelical church (and a particularly evangelical Youth Group) my newly claimed faith was a very evangelical (and culturally evangelical faith). So I have long been both an evangelical Christian and a political liberal, two positions which are often held in tension.

Having been taught the maxim "garbage in, garbage out" in Youth Group, I decided to keep myself uncontaminated by the world by listening exclusively to Christian music. In hindsight I see that while there is a great deal of truth in the maxim I was taught, the people who taught it to me often failed to correctly identify "garbage," convinced as they were of the evils of "secular" music.

Art has a profound moral and spiritual impact on its audience. At its best it connects us with an experience of the transcendent. It has the power to inspire, and even to change the world. David Byrne argued, in fact, in his song "The Revolution," that listening to a piece of music can start a slow but steady revolution which transforms the world. You go out to a bar and accidentally encounter beauty, singing a song which touches your soul. You go home slightly changed, fall asleep, dream beautiful dreams, and wake up a new person. From there you take the beauty which you encountered in that piece of music, and use it to similarly transform others. Slowly, one person at a time, you have a beautiful revolution, just because someone happened to sing that song at the bar you went to, and you were in exactly the right place to listen to it and really hear it.

But art in general and music in particular cannot be divided into the all too neat categories of "secular" and "Christian," as though the "secular" music were entirely opposed to God and the "Christian" music entirely on God's side. "Christian" music, at its core, is an industry. It is, simply put, pop music marketed to evangelical Christians. These evangelical Christians (and despite my conversion in the past five years to a much more "liberal" theology, I still consider myself to be an evangelical) have many different motivations for participating in this industry, and many different motives for purchasing the products of this industry.

Many evangelical Christian, like the teenage me, want to keep themselves as uncontaminated by the "evil" world as possible. They see the universe divided into two opposed camps, "God (or the "godly") and "the world." Viewing this world as naturally opposed to God, and as such viewing the things of this world as being opposed to God, they segregate themselves, creating a form of ghettoized art. This art may stylistically parody popular music, but in their minds there is little to no overlap.

Other evangelical Christians desire to use their art to enter into and evangelize the culture. Often inspired by the great book Roaring Lambs by the late Bob Briner, a powerful figure in popular culture as an author, co-host of a nationally syndicated radio program, and especially as president of ProServ Television and an Emmy Award-winning producer, they seek to engage popular culture rather than retreat from it.

While the evangelical approach to pop culture and artistic media cannot be so neatly divided into two camps, for our purposes we can see these two camps, and see them often opposed to each other. My former youth minister, for instance, really struggled when a prominent evangelical Christian musician would move from the one ghettoized camp to the other engaging camp. He considered people like Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant, who crossed over from "Christian" to "secular" music, to be money-grubbing turn coats, never mind that they just gave up a guaranteed audience to try to reach people who weren't in their natural demographic.

When his hero, Steve Taylor, "retired" from Christian music only to form the short-lived and dismal commercial failure (though rousing artistic success) Chagall Guevera, he was sick to his soul. How could the man who brought modern rock to Christian audiences (for those of you less familiar with the strange genre of Contemporary Christian Music, Steve Taylor was a revolutionary figure best known for making that actually sounded "new" - he was one of the few "Christian" artists who could rival "secular" stars for creativity and production values, for which he was reviled by many a televangelist who consider "Rock" to be entirely of the devil. No less a figure than Jerry Falwell publicly condemned Steve Taylor as being an agent of the devil, meaning that he and I are in good company) leave the "Christian" music scene to try to "make it" in the broader secular culture?

That Taylor in fact gave up a great deal of money to follow his heart and break-out of the sterile "Christian" mold meant little to those who lacked the vision to see the evangelical potential in the field of popular culture. But, with the popularity of such cross-over acts as Sixpence None the Richer and P.O.D., not to mention newer cross-overs like Switchfoot and Underoath, Christian rock has thoroughly embraced the more culturally engaged model.

By the time I was a teenager there were plenty of options for someone who craved modern rock with Christian lyrical content. But growing up a political liberal, much of the "Christian" content overtly (and often nonsensically) attacked my inherited political beliefs. In his song "Bad Rap (Who You Tryin' to Kid, Kid?)," the venerable Steve Taylor not only attacked godless liberalism, but even managed to somehow connect the animal rights movement with the pro-choice movement, saying:

You save the whales, you save the seals
you save whatever's cute and squeals
But you kill that thing inside the womb,
would not want no baby boom!

The lyric shows Taylor's creative wit, which was as often directed against hypocritical evangelicals as it was at political liberal, but it also shows a failure to take liberal arguments and positions seriously. That song came from his debut EP, I Want to Be a Clone, which was generally a scathing attack on the "cloneliness" of evangelical Christianity. The title song from that album had a satirically droning refrain:

If you want to be one of His
you've got to act like on of us!

But that album also contained a song which is certain to offend anyone who wished to consider the possibility that homosexuality is not per se sinful and that abortion might not always be morally impermissible, "Whatever Happened to Sin?" along with the menacing "Whatcha Gonna Do When Your Number's Up?," a not so subtle reminder of hell.

While the I Want to Be a Clone EP came out when I was four years old, a decade before I would have my conversion experience, because it had such a profound impact on two adult leaders in my Youth Group, it quickly became a part of my life. But, as a teenager I also listened to more recent Christian music, including the first album by Audio Adrenaline, a now legendary Christian act currently on their farewell tour. That album, Don't Censor Me, was among other things a protest against the perceived censorship of evangelical Christian ideas and speech.

What almost all of the "Christian" music that I listened to had in common was a particular political ideology which was overtly opposed to my own. While many of the songs were devotional in nature, and helped me see music as one of the many ways in which we experience the presence of God, too often those devotions were made part of a political agenda which included pairing progressive politics with social ills and religious persecution. This did not help me in my struggle to remain faithful to both my politics and my religion.

In the midst of this confusion, enter the Lost Dogs, a group whose images often come directly from the Gospels, and yet who have, if you listen, a subtly liberal political message. Comprise of four giants of Christian rock, Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos, the late Gene Eugene of Adam Again, Derri Daughtery of the Choir, and Mike Roe of the 77s, they had so much credibility with the evangelical culture that my Rush Limbaugh listening youth minister loved their debut album, Scenic Routes even though it contained an anti-gun song ("Bullet Train"), and anti-death-penalty song ("The Last Testament of Angus Shane"), and even an anti-war and not so subtly anti Bush I song ("Bush League"). Part of this was due to the fact that their politics only subtly crept into their lyrics. They didn't beat you over the head so much as they let their point slowly sink in. Another part of this had to do with the fact that most of their songs were religious rather than political.

But that first album was, if you looked closely at it, a powerfully political album; an album whose politics came from a deep-seated humanity and a love of the Gospel. Perhaps the most powerful song on the album was the last song, "Breath Deep," an egalitarian look at the Kingdom of God. The lyric recites almost every label you could think of applying to a person, and then emphasizes that all of these labels are united in the Kingdom of God.

That is a very political message, overtly stating that gays and lesbians are in the kingdom of God, along with war mongers, peaceniks, preachers, atheists, evolutionists, creationists, xenophobes, politicians, the homeless, and everyone else, good or bad. All can, as the song says,

Breath deep, breath deep
the breath of God

This image is especially powerful in light of the Biblical connection between "breath" and "spirit," especially as it applies to God. Simply put, to breath the breath of God is to take in the spirit of God. This powerful song says that all, regardless of label or ideology or even and especially merit, have access to that spirit.

This leads to a willingness on the part of the Lost Dogs to, in their songs, give some basic human dignity to all kinds of people. In "Built for Glory, Made to Last," for instance, a homeless person provides the narrator of the song with a powerful moral example, leading the narrator to a deeper understanding of God. That homeless person, who in the song refuses to give his name, is given the dignity of having a story to tell and a lesson to teach.

The basic human dignity which comes from their egalitarian vision of the Kingdom of God also show up in other songs, especially the subtly anti-war songs like "The Fortunate Sons" and "Amber Waves Goodbye." Both songs look at the tragedy of death and destruction, a tragedy made more poignant by the fact that real people rather than just images on a television screen or words in a newspaper account, are doing the killing and dying. "Fortunate Sons," written by Gene Eugene and Terry Taylor, is the story of the spiritual anguish of a soldier, and begins

Blood, thunder and fear
I cry when I need you
and march when I'm told where to go
Lessons I know
Is it the way of a soldier to offer his soul?

"Amber Waves Goodbye," penned like so many other Lost Dogs songs, by Terry Taylor, looks at the grief of those who try to survive the tragic loss of senseless death. It often uses patriotic imagery, but turns is just slight to illustrate the perverse way in which such blind patriotism is used to justify horrific violence. The song ends with this lament:

Bright white crosses line the hillside
So long Danny boy
She prayed to heaven
but you still died
Please come back Danny boy
God bless the poor she left in the streets
Lord she heard those babies cry
those little fallen angels weep cause
Amber waves goodbye

But the most powerful example of the way in which many Lost Dogs songs extend dignity in the name of Christ to those who are often dehumanized is in their portrayal of criminals. Country music, and the Lost Dogs' music is certainly influenced by country, has long had a tradition of empathizing with criminals, especially murderers. Hank Williams and Johnny Cash among so many others were famous for their treatment of law breakers and crime. But that theme does not play well with evangelical Christians, who despite the fact that they serve a Lord who was put to death by the state, rarely seem to have any pity for those our state condemns to die.

The first Lost Dogs album, Scenic Routes (and all of the songs thus far considered come from Scenic Routes, the most political Lost Dogs album) contains the song "The Last Testament of Angus Shane," a song which anticipates an even better one, "The Mark of Cain," from 2001's Real Men Cry, the fifth Lost Dogs album. "The Last Testament of Angus Shane" is a story told from the perspective of a condemned killer, about to be put to death. In it he offers this prayer:

Lord, be with my children
and dear Sarah, my wife
Lord, comfort their sorrow,
for I love them more than life.

Angus Shane knows that he has tragically wasted his life, even though he can't bring himself to confess to murder. While offering his confession, he even slips in a slight protestation of innocence:

I confess I'm a sinner,
but I never killed no one.

Whether he is innocent or not, one man is dead, and another is about to be dead, and many grieving family members are suffering with no relief in sight. In the song, Angus Shane's impending death is just one more human death to mourn, no less valuable than any other.

"The Mark of Cain," which was recorded nine years later, is an even more nuanced song. As the political message of the Lost Dogs dulled over the years, it doesn't even take an overt stand on the death penalty. But it does lend dignity to the unnamed killer who narrates the song. The haunting lyrics make up some of the best poetry I've seen, and go a long way toward showing that "Christian" music need not be inferior in quality.

I have dark dreams of that murderous night,
I see the hammer swing and the blood run bright.
Then the sky rolls back in a blinding light
and I cannot hide from the master's sight.

I don't ask to be spared the criminal's shame,
I deserve these bars and the ball and chain,
the hangman's rope and the fire's flame,
for the dark in my heart is the mark of Cain.

I had my good reasons to do the deed.
For a lover's treason sews the devil's seed.
And revenge is the fire that dragon breathes
and murder's the madness that hatred breeds.

Come this very morning when the rooster crows,
only the preacher will pray for my soul.
They'll hang me high and bury me low
in a Potter's Field where the cold wind blows.

The scriptural imagery is clear and powerful. The murderer is Cain, Peter and Judas rolled into one. But, of course, the mark God placed on Cain was meant to preserve his life, keeping him from being killed by human retributive justice. Here, however, it marks the unnamed killer for death. And Peter, despite betraying Christ, became the Rock (Petra) on which the universal church was built. Of the three, only Judas died for his crime, and his death was self-inflicted.

The third stanza is perhaps the most powerful one. It first gets us into the perspective of the unnamed killer:

I had my good reasons to do the deed.
For a lover's treason sews the devil's seed

We now understand the situation better. This was a crime of passion, spawned by betrayal. Perhaps the killer was not violent by nature, but was made so by his passion for the woman who betrayed him. Here too we also have some solidarity with Judas, though I won't finish that thought except to echo a line from Michael J. Pritzl, who wrote in the 9-11 song "Halo"

Aching like Judas, betraying his lover...

The second half of the stanza moves from the particular to the general, leaving for a moment the killer's perspective to see how that perspective fits in with human nature and societal ills.

And revenge is the fire that dragon breathes
and murder's the madness that hatred breeds.

This, then, is not just a problem with a single person, but rather is evidence of human sinfulness and sick society, poisoned by our collective propensity towards violence. As we saw with "Breath Deep," the Lost Dogs in general and lyricist Terry Taylor in particular love breath images. Here we have another, though instead of the breath of God we have the breath of a dragon. This breath, this sustaining spirit, this fuel for the fire of violence, is revenge, vengeance. Vengeance is, of course, often a justification for the death penalty, and this image is a reminder that violence, even at the hands of the state, does not put out violence but instead, like the breath of a dragon, only fuels more violence. The killer in this song may or may not deserve to die, but to take his life will not solve the problem.

As you can see, I could go on and on forever. The Lost Dogs, with their willingness in their music to merge more progressive politics with their evangelical Christianity, thus demonstrating their allegiance to the politics of the Gospel rather than the politics of the Republican party, entered into a mixed up cultural mess and kept me from placing my politics and my faith as necessarily opposed to each other. Now I know that some political liberals and some evangelical Christians are going to say that they are, in fact, opposed to each other. And, that's fine. The political wing of evangelical Christianity, with its frightening hope for an American theocracy, is in fact often opposed to liberal democracy. And liberal politics, like all other forms of politics in a plural society, certainly fails to always line up with the Gospel. But the Gospel cannot and should not be reduced to a political platform, and the fact that Contemporary Christian music, which is marketed exclusively to evangelical Christians, has room for a group with a politically progressive message, gives me a great deal of hope.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Letter to Councilperson King

Evidently this is my year to dabble in politics. I've already posted a letter I wrote to the campaign of Andrew Horne, who, despite my eventual support, failed to win the Democratic nomination in the race for our seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now I'm posting a different sort of letter.

My neighborhood has been having a serious problem with people who use the park across the street from my house on the weekends. Fed up, I was asked to write a strong letter to our Councilperson, Jim King, to try to address the situation. The letter is now circulating our neighborhood collecting signatures, and should be sent out tomorrow or the next day. Since it is how I spent my writing time today, and since I'm proud of the writing in it, I've decided to post it here. So, here it is:

Councilperson King,

I am writing this letter to you at the request of several other persons in my neighborhood, each of whom share my concerns and have signed their names to this letter.

I live with my wife and our 18 month old son across the street from George Rogers Clark Park. As you know, the park is a wonderful facility, and can be rented for private events at a very reasonable price. Living across the street from such a lovely park has been a priceless treasure for our family.

However, of late this public space has been put to ill use by many of the private parties which rent it out. To clearly communicate what I mean by this, let me give you a brief picture of the average Saturday for my family this summer.

Most Saturdays a crowd gathers at the facilities at the park at roughly ten o’clock in the morning. They unpack their cars, and begin to set up for a party or a picnic or a family reunion. Along with the colorful balloons and, of course, food and drink, they also set up something which is far less pleasant: a sound system.

Just before lunch each Saturday the walls of my house begin to shake as a deafening drone pulsates from the newly set up loud speakers. My dog begins to whine, and scurries into the back yard to hide, cowering and whimpering, under the back deck. My two cats hide under the bed, in physical pain from the noise pollution emitted just across the street from our house.

My son can’t go into our front yard without grabbing his ears and crying, so loud is the relentlessly blaring noise from the park. In short, our home is, each weekend, under siege, assailed by the sonic blasts of those who do not care or do not understand the impact that their actions have on the quality of our life. Most Saturdays, if we wish to have any peace at all, we are forced from our home for most of the day. When we return home in the evening, hoping to put our young son to bed, there is no guarantee that the noise pollution will have ceased. It often, in fact, continues late into the night.

I believe that people should and do have the right to peacefully assemble, and celebrate together, in a public space. But I also believe that one person’s rights end where another person’s begin; and that the right of families and friends to celebrate each other in the park should not encroach on my right to live in peace in my own home. When someone rents a shelter in the park, they do not rent my living room, and they do not have a right to perform music which invades my living room and disrupts my household.

I do not harbor any private prejudice, but I would be remiss if I allowed the fear of somehow being labeled racist keep me from sharing another serious concern: not only is the volume of the music excessive to the point of being harmful, the content of the music is unfit for public performance. Much of what is played at these gatherings contains not only profanity, but also sexual and interpersonal violence. Women are often treated as objects or worse, and violent crime and thuggish posturing are glorified. While I do not believe that speech should be regulated for content, I do believe that the government has and interest in and obligation to protect children from certain forms of expression. Simply put, it is not appropriate for much of the music which is played at these gathering to be performed in public places near children.

If something cannot be expressed on network television or on the radio, for fear that children might hear it and be in some way harmed by it, that something should certainly not be permitted mere feet from a playground.

Simply put, this is impacting the quality of life in our neighborhood, and many of us are upset about it. I and others have often called the police to complain about the noise, but we have thus far had little relief. I don’t know if the police fail to show up, or are simply ineffective at preventing this disruption of the peace. What I do know is that there is growing frustration and resentment in our community, creating a potentially volatile situation.

I, along with all of the undersigned parties, propose the following:

1. Signs should be placed in the park (George Rogers Clark Park) expressly forbidding excessive noise.

2. All parties who wish to rent the facilities at the park should be reminded that loud music is expressly forbidden, and that they will lose their privilege to rent the facilities in future should they play loud music.

3. If anyone, while using the facilities at the park, violates the city’s noise ordinance, they should be cited for their violation.

4. Police patrols in the neighborhood should be stepped up on weekends, with police being clearly informed of the community’s concern about the level of noise in the park.

We do not wish to do anything to take away from the many public uses of the wonderful park in our neighborhood, but neither do we any longer wish to be under siege each weekend. Simply put, something must be done, and we sincerely hope that you see that our concerns are addressed.

Respectfully Yours,

Chris Baker, and each of the undersigned persons

Saturday, July 15, 2006

More fuel for the Culture War's fire

I just read this in the Lexington Hearld Leader. It seems that social conservatives are upset because the University of Louisville is going to offer benefits to the heterosexual and homosexual domestic partners of university employees, with the University of Kentucky, the state's "flagship" university, set to follow suit.

Social conservatives argue that giving such benefits both:

a.) uses public funds to tacitly approve of and support lifestyles that the majority of the public disapproves of, and

b.) in the words of state Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, "undermines families."

The second half of this is particularly troubling, though easy enough to deal with in reasonable conversation. Simply put, my family, and the families of every single person I know (here I am speaking of traditional nuclear families, though I don't think that the term "family" should be so severely limited) is in no way, shape or form threatened or undermined by the idea that the benefits that we enjoy might also be enjoyed by people whose households are not structured like ours.

The best case that I can make for his point, the most charitable construction I can muster, is that by providing marriage-like benefits to unmarried couples (and this sets aside the question of sexual orientation, which would be a relevant one if gays were allowed to marry) we have removed an incentive to get legally married. But, I must ask, do we really want marriages which are based principally on incentives, particularly economic ones? Is that the best reason to enter into such a sacred arrangement?

Given that our divorce rate is now well over 50%, and given the similarly alarming number of married couples who are miserable in their marriages but may never actually divorce, do we really want economic incentives to be a strong enticement to marry? I don't know about you, but if my marriage were only being held together by economic incentives, I certainly would consider that to be a morally, spiritually, or emotionally good place to be.

And, if I thought that Rep. Lee seriously believed that the fabric of my own marriage might come undone by giving domestic partner benefits to unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples, then I might get very offended, or be extraordinarily amused (depending on my mood). But what is troubling about this is that I don't think that Rep. Lee seriously believes that this move undermines families. Rather, I believe that he is using inflammatory rhetoric to incite paranoid voters.

The first issue raised here, however (and in fairness to Rep. Lee, he raised both issues at the same time, as though they were connected, though I can't see the connection myself) is a more serious and more complicated one. Here are some relevant questions:

1. Does the use of state funds (these are, after all, public universities) to provide benefits to unmarried heterosexual and homosexual partners really constitute a moral endorsement of their lifestyles? Can the morality of their lifestyles even be fairly evaluated by considering only that they are unmarried but are still domestic partners?

2. Is this principally an issue concerning sexual morality (we can't support with state funds sexual arrangements which run counter to the majority's moral intuition) or an economic one (to attract the best talent to our universities, and as such to create the best environment for economic and intellectual growth in our state, we must offer competitive and even creative benefit packages)?

The culture warriors often use the language of democracy to undermine the protections offered by a democratic state. While our form of democratic government exists to prevent the extremes of a tyrannically authoritarian central government on one side and mob rule on another side; many fighting the good cultural fight appeal to both extremes, granting our presidential administration their equivalent to the divine right of kings on the one hand while arguing for the right of the majority to impose its will on the minority on the other. Here we see the second half of this equation, as Rep. Lee argues that the University of Louisville (and also, hopefully soon the University of Kentucky) is bound to impose the sexual moral intuitions of the majority on its staff, never mind the severe economic and intellectual consequences of draining the university of its talent.

Personally I'm proud of the University of Louisville for considering such a move, and I'm also proud that the University of Kentucky has at least verbally stood up to moralizing bullies and said that their benefits policy will not be impacted by the political views of the community. Good for them. Their primary job is to run a university, not appeal to the sexual moral intuitions of an ill-informed "majority," or to cave to the political opportunists who inflame the passions of that so-called majority.


I recently did a post on Michael A. Bellesiles' Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, which I supposed, given the credentials of the author and the fact that it and he had, at the time of the printing of my copy of the book, won several prestigious awards, to be an authoritative work. It turns out, however, that, unbeknownst to me, there was - after the printing of my copy of the book, thus explaining why I was able to but it off the remainders market for $1 - a great deal of scholarly controversy over the book.

It is clear to me now that Bellesiles' book is not a good source, and that the quotes from it in my post should not be seen as authoritative. The conclusions that I draw from the quotes assume that the quotes in question survived the peer review process, which they did not. As such, while my political ideology concerning guns has not changed, and while some of my own arguments on the subject remain, that particular post is entirely without value, as best as I can tell.

Thanks to the essentially annoynmous commenter JayWoodhamTheMan for drawing the controversy surrounding Bellesiles (who was forced to resign from Emory) and his book to my attention. Here are some links concerning the Bellesiles and Arming America controversy:

From George Mason University's History News Network

From Reason Online

From Emory University

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Are You Threatening Me?

In an earlier post I referred to my neighbor's bumper sticker, which reads:

Sure you can have my gun... BULLETS FIRST!

My neighbor would probably be surprised to learn that guns, as I noted in that post, have not always been considered private property. But for him - if his bumper sticker is any indication - they are not only private property, but a special (and threatened) class of private, in defense of which any means is justified.

Many other writers have noted the frequent connection between guns and self-identity. Of course, guns are not unique in this respect. We often identify ourselves by objects in our possession. I am a great music lover, and have a rather obscene collection of compact discs, to go along with my records (yes, I have a vinyl record collection - and even an operational record player!) and other musical media. I once dreamed that all of my cds were lost in a flood, and woke up existentially disoriented. Just having my musical collection threatened in a nightmare was enough to call my self-identity into question, leaving me emotionally rudderless until I could confirm that nothing had happened to those objects.

This connection between possessions and identity has often been exploited by gun lobbyists to resist even the most moderate and sensible restrictions on private ownership of dangerous weapons, creating the paranoia reflected in my neighbor's bumper sticker. How can someone reach the point where they are willing to threaten the life of anyone who philosophically disagrees with the wisdom of allowing citizens to arm themselves to the teeth? But that is exactly the sentiment communicated by my neighbor's bumper sticker, and that sentiment is not unique to him.

The problem with having weapons is that having them makes us more likely to use them, without making us any safer. The mere possession of the means by which to kill or maim another person makes us contemplate situations in which such killing or maiming might be justified, and such contemplation, if it is left unchecked, can cause us to seriously mis-evaluate the morality of such situations.

While Jesus' Sermon on the Mount calls into question the moral justification for self defense ("You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Matthew 5:38-41 NRSV) the American gun culture, which insists on an unchecked right to defend self and property by any means, clothes itself in the rhetoric of Christianity.

Jesus expressly forbids meeting violence with violence, evil with evil. This is the case whether health, property, or even liberty is at stake. But, of course, a reasonable person could argue that the commands of Jesus are not universally binding. After all, we live in a plural society, in which both the law and the public morality should account for the diversity of views and beliefs. And, despite Jesus' protestations to the contrary, most people in America believe in a basic right to defend self, property and liberty.

But, hopefully those of us who believe in such a right do not consider it to be an entirely unlimited right. Hopefully reasonable people who believe that it is morally justified to visit some level of violence on those who would threaten their person, possessions, or freedom believe that the level of violence visited upon those who threaten them must be proportional to the threat.

I say that because on my walk this morning I saw a sign much more troubling that my aforementioned neighbor's bumper sticker. A few blocks from my house, posted on the gated fence around a well-manicured yard, is a menacing sign which reads:


Not exactly a subtle threat. When I first saw this sign I was tempted to knock on the door and ask the owner of the house if they would seriously shoot anyone who jumped the fence. But, thankfully, I thought better of it. Anyone who would post such a sign would not make, I think, for a very good conversation partner on the ethics of self-defense.

I'm not sure how to tie all of this together, Even though I've lived in Kentucky all of my life, and even though I've lived in Louisville for over 6 years now (qualifying me as a honorary Louisvilleian, I think!), some days I feel like an alien who was tossed out of a spaceship and had to make my home here. I simply can't relate to the desire to visit lethal force upon someone for the crime of trespassing.

Perhaps that's because I can relate more to the trespasser than the property owner. After all, it wasn't that long ago that I was a boy, passing through my neighbor's yards on my short-cut to the park, or jumping the fence into the garden next door to retrieve the tennis ball that my brother pummelled in one of our daily games of BYBB (Backyard Baseball - the greatest childhood game ever invented, and the only form of baseball that I could ever dominate).

While I'm sure that some people enter into private property with more menacing intent than the childhood version of me, I still can't understand how anyone could get to the place where they could shoot someone just for being on their property. Personally I'd rather be robbed than allow myself to kill another human being, and I hope that such an intuition is a common one.

So I have to ask: When, as a culture, did we get so crazy or depraved that we started to value our possessions over the lives of others? Can someone help me to understand this?

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Read This!

I just read this post by Troy; a very thoughtful encounter with homosexuality as a moral and spiritual issue, as well as a loose interaction with my The Culture War and Homosexuality: A Different Sort of Quagmire.

While we both treat homosexuality as a moral issue (for the most part) in our posts, I think, based on his treatment of homosexuality in the above-linked post, that Troy agrees with me that homosexuality is, like most issues, principally a pastoral issue. What I mean by that is that the principal question which Christians should ask concerning homosexuality has less to do with a sort of thumbs-up or thumbs-down morality, and more to do with how the church should treat the spiritual needs of homosexual persons.

This is the same concern, in fact, which we ought to bring to every issue, as best as I can tell. And, while exploring the morality of acts and issues may inform our pastoral strategy, we should be reminded as we wax poetic and abstract on moral issues that we reflect on morality not as an end in itself but rather as a means to another end, a pastoral end.

Do yourself a favor and check out Troy's post, and if you feel bold, leave a comment. He's done us a real service in thoughtfully pushing the discussion on homosexuality and its relation to the Christian life.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Christians debate the moral value of debt and bankruptcy

Here is an excellent piece by G. Jeffrey MacDonald of the Christian Science Monitor on Christian perspectives on the morality of bankruptcy. Do yourself a favor and read it.

My very short take is this: Those Christians who argue that bankruptcy is in all or most cases an immoral failure to take personal responsibility for your financial decisions overlook both the essential Judeo-Christian notion of Jubilee (debts are to be forgiven every seven years) and the myriad of systemic issues which play a role in extreme debt. They are also guilty of favoring the rich over the poor (which James would have a lot to say about) and the powerful over the powerless. Such callousness in the name of personal responsibility overlooks the compassion of Christ, and the Christian duty to care for those who cannot take care of themselves and have no one else to look after them.

Consider James 1:27, which in the NRSV reads

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Religion, true religion, in other words, has both a positive and negative component. While those Christians who condemn people who file for bankruptcy may consider themselves to be keeping the second half, the negative component (and it is by no means certain that they are), they are certainly failing to live up to the first half, the positive component. This positive component calls us to have compassion on and come to the material aid of those who, because of circumstances beyond their control, cannot make a living.

In first century Palestine men were the wage earners. The orphans (fatherless) and widows have in common that they no longer have a man to provide for them. In that culture, then, the real problem was not the symbolic problem identified by those modern moralists who insist that every child needs to have both a father and a mother, a man and a woman, in their lives. Rather it is a very real, very material problem; a financial problem. They are incapable of earning a living, and need compassionate assistance.

Bankruptcy is one of the few legal protections available to debtors who are unable to repay their debts, and it is getting harder and harder to obtain. While it should not be used to escape legitimate and repayable debts, nor should it be used to shirk one's moral duty to live within one's means; it should be available for those whose debts are unpayable either because they are so unreasonable or because the debtor no longer has earning power. Without bankruptcy the poor and economically oppressed have no legal recourse when they are ground under by extreme debt, debt which is often obtained to temporarily sustain life or in response to some unforeseen tragedy.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Constitution and Guns

Disclaimer: Please see this retraction of much of the content of this post. CB 7-15-06

For the last week or so I've been reading Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael A. Bellesiles, Professor of History at Emory University and Director of Emory's Center for the Study of Violence. In his book Bellesiles systematically debunks many of the "myths" (I still hate the erroneous notion that myth is "false," though the "myths" which Bellesiles debunks are false myths - that is, they are meaning producing stories which are based on falsehoods) concerning the history of guns in America.

There is a modern notion that America has always been an armed nation; that boys were given guns by their fathers at birth and taught to be expert marksmen defending their families and putting food on their tables. There is also a notion that European colonists in America destroyed the indigenous populations principally because of the technological advantage that guns gave them. In his well researched and gripping book, Bellesiles uses both contemporary documents and some well reasoned arguing to demonstrate that neither was the case.

America was not, at its beginning, a well armed nation. There were few guns in America, even up to the time of the Revolution, and many of them were inoperable. Bellesiles bases this claim both on documents from the time and on the fact that there was no way for Americans to manufacture guns, and few Americans qualified to repair them.

But, when dealing with the social problem of guns in America, debunking a few historical myths has little real power. So the American gun culture was built on a lie. Big deal; the right to bear arms is preserved in the Constitution, isn't it?

In chapter seven of his book, which I just finished reading (pardon me if I'm a little bit excited, since this is the sort of argument I was looking for when I spent what little money I have on this book!), Bellesiles places the Second Amendment of the Constitution in its historical context, and demonstrates that the right to bear arms preserved in it may not be as far reaching or as inalienable as the American gun culture would have you to believe. What follows is an extended quote from that chapter, which I hope will produce a nice patriotic discussion (the 4th of July is coming up, after all!) about gun control:

Historians have amply demonstrated the difficulty of ascribing to the framers of the Constitution a consensus on the original intent of many of its clauses. The Constitutional Convention hammered out a document full of compromises and barely obtained concessions. On one point at least there was no disagreement: Congress should arm the militia. Some speakers felt that the states could organize and discipline the militia, but none held that any state could keep its militia well armed and all agreed to the need for federal guidance. As Luther Martin, a member of the Philadelphia convention who became an Anti-Federalist, told the Maryland assembly later that year, "As to giving such a power [to regulate the militia], there was no objection; but it was thought by some, that this power ought to be given with certain restrictions." Most particularly, Martin had hoped for a limitation on the president's power to order a militia beyond its home state. The majority of the convention brushed aside this latter fear and agreed with James Madison that the whole purpose of federal regulation "is to secure an effectual discipline of the Militia." The states had repeatedly proven their inability to arm, discipline, and deliver their militia when called upon. "The States neglect their militia now," Madison went on, "and the more they are consolidated into one nation, the less each will rely on its own interior provisions for its safety... The Discipline of the Militia is evidently a National concern, and ought to be provided for in the National Constitution."

Madison had his way, as article I, section 8 of the Constitution granted Congress the authority to call "forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions." Some modern observers argue that the framers perceived the militia as a check on the governmental power; yet the Constitution accomplishes the exact opposite, making the militia a potential tool of the central government for the repression of any challenge to federal authority. Toward that end, the Constitution made Congress responsible for "organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia."

As early as 1787 a counterfactual faith in the militia had become a core American belief. More difficult to determine is the relationship between the notion of the militia as a prop of the state and the ownership of firearms. The question is significant, as so many modern observers hold that there was an exact correlation between the individual ownership of firearms and the militia, a relationship that informed the Second Amendment. A careful reading of the historical context of that amendment - the point of this chapter - indicates that the state and federal governments continued the British legal tradition of controlling the supply of and access to firearms.

As previously discussed, the Colonial governments had followed the British precedent in maintaining authority over firearms. Guns were used and owned at sufferance, the state reserving the right to limit, regulate, or impress those arms at its discretion. Under common law this "reserved right of the sovereign" differed from eminent domain. It lacked a requirement for just compensation, since firearms were always seen as in service of the monarch, and it did not require a special act of Parliament. The American Revolution did not change that English heritage, as the loyalists discovered when their firearms were confiscated. State legislatures needed no further argument than public safety, or in constitutional terms, the state's police powers, to justify gun regulation. In this regard they adhered to the English common law heritage and the practice of every European nation. As Edmund Burke held, the state's primary justification is, after all, public safety, and therefore the legislature has a legitimate interest in passing acts to secure that end. These measures aroused amazingly little debate - other than accusations that they were not stringent enough or rigorously enforced.

And, later, after reminding us that it this point in history even privately owned guns were seen as state property, for only public use, Bellesiles writes

Even the most seemingly individualistic renderings of gun rights must be matched against the actions of those responsible for the these statements [in state constitutions - CB]. For instance the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution declared that "The people have a right to bear arms for the defense [of] themselves and the State; and as standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they ought not be kept up. And the military shall be under strict subordination to, and governed by the civil power." Again, it is the state's authority that stands out in this declaration, and the state of Pennsylvania did not hesitate to exercise that authority, disarming loyalists and others who refused to take an oath of allegiance to their government. Gun ownership in Pennsylvania, as in every other state, was premised on the notion that the individual would use that weapon in the state's defense when called to do so; to make the point completely clear, the state required an oath to that effect. The Test Act called for a disarming of those who would not take the oath of allegiance. As Don Higginbotham pointed out, "In all the discussions and debates from the Revolution to the eve of the Civil War, there is precious little evidence that advocates of local control of the militia showed an equal or even secondary concern for gun ownership as a personal right."

The Constitution's treatment of the militia was in keeping with various state constitutions that aimed to craft a workable militia structure.

After discussing the conflict between the Anti-Federalists - that is, those who opposed a strong central government - and the Federalists over local control of militias, and after pointed out many logical flaws in the Anti-Federalist arguments (which look remarkably like the arguments made by the paranoid gun nuts of today, like my neighbor, whose pick-up truck has a bumper sticker which reads: Sure you can have my gun... BULLETS FIRST!), Bellesiles writes

Though the Anti-Federalists' arguments lacked cogency, James Madison had promised during the ratification process to consider amendments to the Constitution. Madison kept his word. He even turned his attention to the proposals that addressed the structure of the militia. Among the changes recommended were limitations on the number of militia under federal control, their training, and the duration of martial law, the use of militia beyond state's borders, and the degree of state control over the militia. None became part of the Second Amendment, as Madison preferred simplicity and clarity in all of the amendments he put before Congress.

While considering the first amendments that would become the Bill of Rights, Madison rejected all changes to the Constitution that would weaken the federal government, including control over the militia. As he rhetorically asked, "For whose benefit is the militia organized, armed and disciplined? for the benefit of the United States." The result was a single sentence with a clarifying preamble: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to bear arms , shall not be infringed."

Madison stated his own understanding of the Second Amendment when he presented it to the House of Representatives. "In our government it is, perhaps, less necessary to guard against the abuse in the executive department than any other; because it is not the stronger branch of the system, but the weaker." The people need not fear that national government, which had few means by which it could exert its authority; the real danger lay closer to home, in a tyrannical majority lacking checks on its democratic power. "I confess," Madison continued, "that I do conceive, that in a government modified like this of the United States, the great danger lies rather in the abused of the community than in the legislative body. The prescriptions in favor of liberty, ought to be levelled against that quarter where the greatest danger lies, namely that which possesses the highest perogative of power: But this [is] not found in either the executive of legislative departments of government, but in the body of people, operating by the majority against the minority." For Madison, it was an unrestrained citizenry that was the most to be feared, and the Bill of Rights, he thought, should protect the minority against the majority's transgressions.

The Second Amendment's purpose is fairly indicated by the ensuing debate and legislation. The House debate focused on two issues: the "use of the militia" in preventing "the establishment of a standing army," and the wisdom of allowing religious exemptions for service in the militia. The legislation that resulted uniformly sought to regulate the militia, starting with the first national militia act of 1792, while legislatures in every state further revealed their intentions in the limitations they imposed on gun ownership, whether in denying that right to blacks, Catholics, Indians, or foreign born.

In other words, the Second Amendment, in its historical context, was not interpreted as giving a universal right to individuals to own private arms. Rather, it concerned the formation of militias, which were to be armed by the federal government with federally owned arms, and which were to be regulated by the federal government. Earlier in his book Bellesiles provides some statistics concerning the state of arms held by each militia, which were, in fact, pitiful. A militia in which half of its men had usable firearms would have been considered a relatively well-armed militia. These men did not bring their own guns to the militia, even though most states offered strong financial enticements to do that, indicating along with contemporary records that, again, very few men in the initial days of our young nation owned any sort of firearm, much less a usable one.

Some form of gun control, far from being prohibited by the Constitution, is actually assumed by the framers of the Constitution.