Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Tag: current events (Page 2 of 4)

Maureen L. Condic: Getting Stem Cells Right

The February 2008 issue of First Things is now available online to non-subscribers. One of the most interesting pieces is that of Maureen Condic regarding recent breakthroughs in stem cell research. No one can doubt the importance of stem cells in medical research, or the promise they hold, however, there have been a number of intense ethical dilemmas regarding their use, parrticularly the use of embryonic stem cells. Now, however, there seems to be some movement from a scientific front that may make the debate moot.

A true, no-cost resolution of a conflict, where the interests of all parties are served without compromise, is an exceedingly rare thing. Yet just such an unlikely resolution may be in hand for one of the most acrimonious conflicts of recent times: the debate over human embryonic stem cells.

Research groups in Japan and the United States have shown that ordinary human skin cells can be converted to stem cells with all the important properties of human embryonic stem cells by a process termed direct reprogramming. Like embryonic stem cells, reprogrammed cells are pluripotent, able to generate all the cells of the body, and so they have been named induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs). Unlike human embryonic stem cells, however, IPSCs are genetically identical to patients and are generated without destroying human embryos or using either human or animal eggs.

{read my all}

Interested in interest?

The Ugley Vicar brought this to my attention. Evidently something that slipped in under the radar of the Sharia dust-up was Archbishop Williams’ questioning of the use of loaning at interest:

LP: Thank you. Another, another fairly down to earth. “Our existing world order is based upon usury with control by manipulation of rates of interest. In Islam this is not just illegal but sinful. How can this be reconciled with Christianity? And this Christianity also condemns the existing order as the law of Mammon.”

RW: I’ve often been rather surprised by the ease with which the Christian church changed its mind about usury in the sixteenth century, without any very great public fuss. Martin Luther strongly disapproved of it; he was a good medieval Catholic in ail sorts of ways, and he disapproved of it like his medieval predecessors on the basis of the Bible, tradition and the authority of Aristotle. But within about fifty years of the beginning of the Reformation, virtually everybody had mysteriously and imperceptibly decided that there wasn’t a problem.

Now, without going into details of the history of that fascinating issue, I think that in all seriousness what theologians and moralists have said about lending at interest in the modern economy, is simply to raise the question “Is this what is prohibited in Jewish scripture?” And they’ve answered on the whole, “No”. And yet I have to say there remains, or should remain for the Christian moralist, a level of discomfort around this. Taking absolutely for granted the manipulation of rates of interest as the engine of an economy, ought to leave us with some unfinished moral business, let’s say, and I believe that rather than, so to speak, address that head on, we need to look – and this has been said by many people – at what are the alternative protocols and ethical frameworks for banking that are around. And that is one reason why ! am personally go very interested in the ethics and practice of micro-credit as a way of addressing serious poverty.

Read the rest of the Q&A here.

I find this interesting because I’ve made a similar observation about the rather rapid acceptance of contraception by protestant Christians. It was a rather dramatic about-face to reject the previous 1900 years of moral teaching in a period of less than 50 years.

Rowan Williams and the real tensions between Islam, Christianity and Western liberal secularism

Archbishop Rowan Williams certainly stirred the pot with his speech at the Temple Church, in which he discussed the possibility–indeed the desirability–of certain elements of sharia being recognized in British law. Some have seen this as evidence of Williams’ failure to stand up for Christian convictions. I think quite the opposite is true, and that Williams is doing something that needs doing in western liberal societies: standing up for the desirability, even the necessity of recognizing the ability of a religious community to police itself in certain areas. In particular he was referring to Islam because that was the subject of the lecture series to which he had been invited to participate in. But, as some commentators have noted, he might just as well have been talking about Christian minority groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church and their recent conflicts with the state over homosexual adoption.

I think Theo Hobson of the Tablet has a good understanding of what motivates the Archbishop, and he offers a good analysis of this in his reflection for The Tablet:

Above all, he refused to combine Anglo-Catholicism with a general liberal agenda. Indeed he revived the Anglo-Catholic suspicion of secular liberalism that dates back to Newman. The liberal state, in this view, offers itself as an alternative community of salvation; it tempts us into supposing that we can dispense with the Church, or at least water it down, and develop a more progressive form of Christianity. This leads to weak forms of Christianity that are unable to resist dangerous ideologies: most obviously, the liberal Protestants of Germany embraced Nazism. It is Williams’ anti-liberal ecclesiology that is the root cause of the present controversy. In a sense it’s not really about sharia law, or Islam: it’s about the relationship between a Catholic conception of the Church and liberalism.

For Williams, authentic Christianity occurs within a clearly defined social body, an “ethical community” as he has sometimes put it. Without this, Christian culture will be dispersed by the cold winds of secularism. There is a need for strong resistance to the various negative spirits of the age: consumerism, celebrity, hedonism and so on, and this resistance can only occur within an alternative social world, walled off from mainstream culture.

Only from within a religious subculture can secular modernity be seen for what it is: dehumanising. He has referred to secularism’s “unspoken violence”, and to modernity as “an atmosphere in which people become increasingly formless, cut off from what could give their lives … some kind of lasting intelligibility”. He sees secular liberalism as a quietly nihilistic force that robs human life of full significance, as a demonically subtle tyranny that looks and feels like freedom.

This theme was prominent in the Dimbleby Lecture that he gave almost exactly five years ago: it is perhaps the key to understanding his agenda last week. He argued that secular culture always serves material agendas (someone’s desire to sell you something, someone’s desire for your vote); it shuns comprehensive visions of human good. Religion addresses the whole human being, it puts all short-term concerns into perspective. A religious tradition “makes possible a real questioning of the immediate agenda of society, the choices that are defined and managed for you by the market”.

N.T. Wright has also written some insightful thoughts on these issues and published them on his new blog at the Newsweek site. I share part of them with you below:

the fundamental issue he was addressing is the relation between the law of the land and the religious conscience of the citizen. For 200 years it has been assumed that these operated in separate spheres: the law regulates my public life, faith or religion operate in private. This was always a dangerous half-truth, since many of the great world faiths, including Christianity itself, actually claim that all of life is included within religious obedience. As some of us used to be taught, if Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all. In recent years various governments, including our own, have pushed the other way, to suggest that the secular state is itself master of all of life, including religious conviction. That’s why we’ve seen an airline worker sacked for wearing a cross, while in France the government has tried similarly to ban Muslim women from wearing their traditional head-covering. Because we haven’t had to address these issues before, our society has tended to slide round them by emphasizing words like ‘multiculturalism’, which often doesn’t actually mean that we celebrate our different cultures but rather that we subordinate them all to whatever the secular state wants. That is as much a problem for Catholic adoption agencies, as we saw last year, as it is for Muslims who want to follow their traditional teaching about (for instance) the prohibition of interest on loans while living within a society where the mortgage system is endemic. Rowan was going to the roots of these problems and coming up not only with fresh analysis but fresh solutions, particularly what he calls ‘interactive pluralism’. The question of how we live together as a civil and wise society while cherishing different faiths is a deep and serious one and can’t be pushed away just because people take fright at certain misunderstandings. His point was precisely that neither the secular state nor any particular religion can ‘monopolize’.

Third, Rowan was very clear in his lecture to rule out exactly those points which the screaming tabloids have assumed he was affirming. We all know the standard images of Sharia law – beatings, beheadings, oppression of women, etc. He distanced himself completely from all that, though you’d never know it from the media. He knows, just as well as do his critics, that Sharia is complex, that it varies from place to place, that it demands interpretation, and so on. His point was, rather, that there are some elements of Muslim law which can and should be accommodated within our legal structures. Ironically, Gordon Brown, who was quick to offer a knee-jerk rejection against the lecture, himself altered the law last year to enable devout Muslims to obtain mortgages. That’s the kind of thing Rowan was advocating in similar spheres.

While I agree with what both Hobson and Wright have said here, we shouldn’t allow our criticisms of the enlightenment and our distaste for the hysterical reactions to the Archbishop’s lecture to lessen our appreciation of the real, if sometimes poorly understood, concerns expressed. There are good reasons for western democracies to be concerned about the manner in which Muslims are welcomed and brought within the bounds of our common civil life. In this sense the Archbishop’s speech may well have been a gift if it has truly blown the lid off of a stifled debate people seem to have been fearful of.

During this conflict, I have seen some people compare fundamentalist Christianity, which sometimes maintains a reverence for the Bible apart from an understanding that the Word of God written has authority because it testifies to the Word of God in the Flesh, Jesus Christ with Islam with its reverence for the Qur’an as the Word of God in physical, written form. (As has been pointed out before, the parallel for the Qur’an in Christianity is not the Bible, but Jesus Christ.) While helpful from an ideological point of view, such comparisons only go so far when one is considering radical Islamists (which are the root cause of the negative reaction to Williams’ lecture). Have people over-reacted? Perhaps. Many certainly do not seem to have reacted in the most beneficial way–but there is time enough for that. I would argue, however, that while we have not yet turned the corner to helpful reactions, this is not in any sense an over-reaction.

Consider the state of Islam today. It is true that Archbishop Rowan has made relations with Islam a high priority, but I would submit that the Islamic scholars he is in dialogue with (such as at Al Azhar University) are no longer those who influence the worldview of many in the Muslim diaspora. They were once the centers of ideological and intellectual power, but that is no longer the case. Several years ago I watched a question and answer period on Book TV discussing Bernard Lewis’ books (I’m sorry, I cant remember whether it was From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East or What went wrong?: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response), during which time the question of Islamist radicalism came up. The questioner was confused as to what Dr. Lewis meant by traditional Islam. His response was that in his earlier books he was referring to Islamists understanding of themselves as “traditionalists” but that in reality they were the innovators, Islamic fundamentalists who claimed a spiritual lineage for legitimacy, but actually had none. The questioner then asked another question to the effect of “where did this go wrong?” To which Lewis replied that the problem started first with the defeat of the Hashemites by the Al Saud’s who founded Saudi Arabia and gained the influence over Muslims that only the custodians of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina could have and that the problem was exacerbated when oil was discovered in the Arabian Penninsula, turning what would have been a social, political and religious backwater into a financial and spiritual powerhouse. (You can hear much of the same in Book TV’s in depth interview of Lewis, which is available online. I suggest it highly.)

Why is this true? It’s true because Muslims, like immigrant communities throughout history, have a desire to maintain their traditions in the midst of a new and largely alien culture. The fault-line they are navigating has been traveled by immigrant communities from many ethnic groups: German, Italian, Irish, Polish, Chinese, Hispanics, Greeks etc… each of these communities have established their own civic and educational institutions to help maintain their cultural identity–it would be foolish to expect anything less or different of Muslim immigrants. But of course, the establishment of such institutions cost money and must be financed somehow. In the case of the Muslim diaspora this financing has come from Saudi Arabia. The effects of this are important. In the past the centers of Islamic scholarship and culture had been Egypt (Cairo and Al Azhar as the prime example) and Turkey. But with shifting political and economic realities, the center has become Saudi Arabia. What are the ramifications of this? Lewis gave a memorable example by discussing the way religious education is approached in Germany. Germany has a period of the school day set aside for religious education, wherein the various faiths divide up and are instructed in the history and beliefs of their respective religions. Because many of the Muslim immigrants in Germany are of Turkish origin, Turkey offered to provide the same text books to German schools that are used in Turkish schools. However, because Germany wanted to ensure that instruction was carried out by the faith group and not by a government, they refused the Turkish offer. Instead the classes were taught by an independent group… a group funded by Saudi oil. In the aftermath of the September 11th attack, of the ethnic Turks arrested, none were raised in Turkey, all had been educated in the German educational system. This is simply one example of a number of reasons why immigrant Muslim communities in the west seem to be producing radicals, particularly in the second generation, it’s a matter of who pays the Imams and provides the Qur’ans and what brand of Islam–and indeed what version of Islamic law–they espouse.

It would be a mistake to assume that these issues which are causing so much conflict in the West are not also present in Islamic societies. Indeed, as Dr. Lewis notes, the primary Jihad of Wahabists is the Jihad against those Muslims who-in their view–are apostates. One need only look at the resurgence of Islamism in Turkey and the concern of those who are invested in their secular experiment, or at the conflict in Chechnya, where it wasn’t simply Muslim against Russian, but instead a three way conflict between Wahabist fighters vs. those who followed the indigenous Sufi-derived form of Islam (which is seen as corrupt and pagan influenced), or were secular vs. Russia. If we truly want to have a positive impact on the integration of and respect for Muslim communities in the west, we cannot simply assume that the more friendly and palatable forms of Islamic thought coming from places like Al Azhar or the more modern and secularized variety that is struggling to maintain itself in Turkey, will be the predominant forms in the West. If we hope to have any positive impact we must help them move back to the center of their communities from the periphery they have been pushed to, and see to it that theirs is the voice heard in the mosques and fellowships of the diaspora… otherwise talk of allowances for sharia are not only pointless, they become dangerous.

Of course, all of this leaves aside the very important question of whether or not Islam is able to exist in a pluralistic setting. That’s a question of another post, but the answer will most probably be found in secular paradigm of Turkey vs. the contention of Sayyid Qutb that Islam is itself a political philosophy. For myself, I’m not sure we can see the Turkish flirtation with western-style secularism as anything but an experiment–at the moment, Qutb seems to have had the right of it. In which case the allowance of Sharia for a minority could become the imposition of Sharia on others if and when that minority becomes dominant in an area–we can already see that happening in Northern Nigeria and other places in Africa where dominant Muslim communities that once handled their disputes locally and among themselves with sharia have been pushing for codification of Sharia in the constitutions of their northern states–imposing their beliefs on religious minorities who, until recently, also handled their disputes in their own local and often unofficial ways.

So there’s my take… here’re some books to think about:

Islamists aren't the nicest people…

Yet more evidence that, at least the variety of Islam these folks espouse, is fundamentally not “a religion of peace.” If anything, such disregard for innocent human life is positively satanic (and yes, before I get hate mail, I would say the same thing about a number of things white western liberals do.)

Two women described as mentally disabled and strapped with remote-control explosives — and possibly used as unwitting suicide bombers — brought carnage Friday to two pet bazaars, killing at least 91 people in the deadliest day since Washington flooded the capital with extra troops last spring.

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, Iraq’s chief military spokesman in Baghdad, said the women had Down syndrome and may not have known they were on suicide missions, but gave no further details on how authorities pieced together the evidence. He also said the bombs were detonated by remote control.

{Read it all}

Oh… and then there’s the continuing irony of Muslims who get angry at westerners who say they are angry, as the Bishop of Rochester in the UK is now reported to be under police protection because he’s received threats on his life and that of his family after writing an article saying there were Muslim “no-go” areas beginning to form in Britain. I guess their are Muslim no-go areas when it comes to speech as well. Watch out, they may send some Mujahideen after you… or some poor innocent person with a disability.

Dr Nazir-Ali was in India when staff at his home in Rochester took a number of phone calls threatening his family and warning him that he would not “live long” if he continued to criticise Islam. He has been given an emergency number at Kent Police, along with other undisclosed protection measures, and said that the threats were being taken “seriously”.

Speaking to The Times, Dr Nazir-Ali, who is on the conservative evangelical wing of the Church and is Britain’s only Asian bishop, said: “The irony is that I had similar threats when I was a bishop in Pakistan, but I never thought I would have them here. My point in saying what I did was that Britain had lost its Christian vision, which would have provided the resources to offer hospitality to others.”

{Read it all}

Pederasts and Madrassas

Ever since I heard the stories of American soldiers who fought in the Gulf War about certain interesting sexual practices among Arab men, summed up in the phrase “girls are for babies boys are for fun,” I’ve periodically heard whispers about a cultural inclination to pederasty in that part of the globe–ironic given the hatred our supposedly immoral lifestyle inculcates among Islamic fundamentalists. Well, we all have logs in our eyes about something. And it always warms my heart to be called immoral by a bunch of misogynistic pederasts.

My most recent exposure to this culture was from a new friend, a moderate American Muslim, who lived for several years in Saudi Arabia as a child and experienced the desire of older teenage boys to help him “mature” first hand. Thankfully, he was able to get away.

At any rate, this article is probably the first time I’ve seen this practice referenced in the popular press–this time in regards to Afghanistan. (Hat tip to Kendall).

More worrisome, it was revealed that Tracy, the mystery anthropologist, wears a military uniform and carries a gun during her cultural sensitivity missions. This brought to my increasingly skeptical mind the unfortunate image of an angelic anthropologist perched on the shoulder of a member of an American counterinsurgency unit who is kicking in the door of someone’s home in Iraq, while exclaiming, “Hi, we’re here from the government; we’re here to understand you.”

Nevertheless the military voices on the show had their winning moments, sounding like old-fashioned relativists, whose basic mission in life was to counter ethnocentrism and disarm those possessed by a strident sense of group superiority. Ms. McFate stressed her success at getting American soldiers to stop making moral judgments about a local Afghan cultural practice in which older men go off with younger boys on “love Thursdays” and do some “hanky-panky.” “Stop imposing your values on others,” was the message for the American soldiers. She was way beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and I found it heartwarming.

I began to imagine an occupying army of moral relativists, enforcing the peace by drawing a lesson from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans lasted a much longer time than the British Empire in part because they had a brilliant counterinsurgency strategy. They did not try to impose their values on others. Instead, they made room — their famous “millet system” — for cultural pluralism, leaving each ethnic and religious group to control its own territory and at liberty to carry forward its distinctive way of life.

{read it all}

"Sorry about the torture; we thought you were one of the terrorists"

During the Clinton presidency I recall the cries and warnings of pseudo-conservatives, especially folks like Rush Limbaugh, that our freedoms were being taken away, big brother was coming to enforce libertine ethics on our families etc… Fast-forward to today, and many “conservatives” have prostituted themselves and any legitimacy they may once have had to defend policies and decisions that–if made by an administration they hadn’t staked their political futures on–they would have decried as leading to the end of the freedom and virtue this nation was founded upon.

Take the following examples. Ten years ago, how would people have responded to stories of our government kidnapping people–even criminals or terrorists? Have we become so set on safety and survival that we not only give up our own freedoms for it, but are willing to do things that are unquestionably evil (and I use that term deliberately), practice the vices of governments that for years we have chastised, abuse people in ways that the US was established to oppose? And yet still we sooth ourselves with the mantra that we’re a “good people” and a “great nation” and that “they hate us because of our freedom,” as “America’s Mayor” has trotted out for the press so often. If that’s true, then they won’t have reason to hate us much longer. It’s a brave new world, and the freedom we so often parade has shown itself to be it’s own means of societal control–a counterfeit liberty.

Take for example the response of the Republican candidates to questions about the use of torture in one of the debates earlier this year. Of the field, only one candidate stated definitively that he would not authorize the torture of prisoners to get information–John McCain. To be fair, I’ve since read that Ron Paul has also stated he would not use torture. The rest of the candidates said flat out that they would use torture or tried to play games with the question rephrasing it to sanitize it by using the term “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

John McCain was not just morally right when he said he wouldn’t resort to torture, he was also correct from a utilitarian perspective when he said that information extracted under torture is notoriously unreliable. He’s also correct when he says this: “It’s not about the terrorists, it’s about us. It’s about what kind of country we are.”

Or, to put it another way, in the reimagined sci fi series Battlestar Gallactica, Admiral Adama says that their fight with their Cylon enemies is not just about survival, but deserving to survive. Perhaps thats a question we need to ask ourselves as we defend our way of life: does what we’re doing make us more or less deserving of survival?

Consider that as you read this editorial, “Sorry about the torture; we thought you were one of the terrorists.”

Here’s the problem with Guantanamo Bay – and secret CIA prisons on foreign soil – in a nutshell: If the prisoners being held there are illegal enemy combatants, then most Americans believe they do not deserve all the procedural niceties afforded by the Constitution. But the only fair way to figure out if a prisoner qualifies as an illegal enemy combatant is to follow the procedural niceties guaranteed by the Constitution.

And the Bush administration hasn’t even come close.

Take Khaled el-Masri. He was kidnapped by American agents while he was vacationing in Macedonia in 2003. He was beaten, stripped, dressed in a diaper and sweatsuit, and then chained, spread-eagle, to the floor of an airplane. He was flown to Afghanistan – where he was held incommunicado and, he says, tortured in a secret prison for five months. By then, U.S. agents realized they had the wrong guy. Khaled el-Masri was not, in fact, Khalid al-Masri, the terrorist. Whoops, sorry about that! El-Masri was then dumped in Albania and left to find his way home.

ON TUESDAY, citing the state secrets doctrine, the Supreme Court said el-Masri could not bring a civil suit in U.S. court. Germany’s parliament continues to investigate the episode.

If el-Masri’s were an isolated case, that would be one thing. But it is not. Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was kidnapped by U.S. agents and spirited to Syria, where authorities tortured him for 10 months. A subsequent inquiry by Canadian authorities determined “categorically” that there was “no evidence to indicate that Arar has committed any offense.” El-Masri and Arar are not alone.

How do Americans know the prisoners held captive in Guantanamo are not also victims of the fog of war but are, as the Bush administration claims, the “worst of the worst”? We don’t.

Take Australian David Hicks, the first Guantanamo prisoner to be convicted under the 2006 Military Commissions Act. According to press reports, “The high school dropout, Muslim convert, and al-Qaida recruit fought for two hours alongside the Taliban before he sold his rifle for taxi fare and was captured trying to escape Afghanistan in December 2001.” He was held at Guantanamo for more than five years before pressure from the Australian government led to a plea agreement – in which Hicks was sentenced to all of nine months’ imprisonment, on condition that he stop alleging that he was physically abused.

{read it all}

Random thoughts on immigration and pets…

The two of which are unrelated except for the way they both demonstrate the uncanny ability of well-meaning people to do and say stupid things.

The other day Anna and I happened to be watching the news when a story came on about the wife of one of the US servicemen missing in Iraq. Turns out this lady is in the US illegally, but the INS says they have no plans to deport her, or at least such plans are on hold. So on the news show they put two talking heads up against one another to “debate” the issue, one belonging to a hispanic political organization, the other Michael Gallagher, a conservative radio personality. Now here’s the thing: one shouldn’t expect any real debate or constructive dialogue on these shows…the segments are too short and they normally only let people on who will throw the audience the red meat that (supposedly) keeps them tuning in.

That being said, I was still somewhat surprised by the sort of rhetoric employed by Gallagher to get his point across. At one point he countered the assertion that illegal immigration is a misdemeanor with a comment that supplying false ID or false Social Security numbers is a felony. Now, while these things may follow in Gallagher’s head, it is a non-sequitor to skip, without comment, from the assertion that illegal immigration is a misdemeanor to iterating separate crimes that are felonious. There may be a logical sequence in some–maybe a majority of cases–but a strict one to one correlation cannot be claimed since many illegal immigrants have always worked menial jobs for cash without the need to file social security withholding etc, and many sub-contractors employ illegals on a cash basis while contractors simply don’t ask too many questions. Not to mention the large number of maids and nannies who work for cash without any social security withholding. All one has to do is look as far back as the President’s first choice for the head of Homeland Security, Bernard Kerik to see how easy it is to employ someone illegally, and how many well-meaning citizen’s do it. Who cleans your house, or the day care where you send your children? Who tends your garden or the one at your country club? Do you know that they are all legal immigrants and proper taxes are being withheld and benefits extended to them? Would you stop associating with establishments that you knew employed illegal immigrants? Just a few questions to ponder.

Another thing that Gallagher’s comments missed: while the soldier’s wife may have been in the US illegally, her husband had to be a legal permanent resident in order to join the US military, which offers a faster route to citizenship (three years) than others. So, here’s a man who is serving his adopted country in a foreign battlefield, who had evidently applied for a green card for his wife and had it denied (what’s up with that?), who is on a route to citizenship but who conservatives say should have his wife shipped out because she’s here without filing the proper paperwork. What’s patriotic about that?

On the unrelated topic of pets, I recently read about two events that speak to how unhelpful people’s helpfulness can be. In the most recent edition of Southern Cultures there was a photo essay about the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. One of the photos was of a man who had stayed behind to care for his two pit bulls and their puppies, which he couldn’t transport. One day when he was gone to get food for his dogs–having left a note on his door explaining his whereabouts–some “helpful” neighbors heard the puppies yelping and decided to break in to “help” them. Well, the mother and the aggressive male wouldn’t let the “rescuers” near the puppies, so they ended up killing the adults and taking the puppies, so this guy who’d weathered Katrina comes home to find blood all over his floor, his dogs dead and puppies gone, and the whole reason he’d staid to begin with completely undone.

The second pet story is one recently posted by one of my seminary classmates. She had a 17-year-old cat that she loved that had cancer in it’s paw. She had to get the cat surgery to remove the tumor. The cat wasn’t fully healed when it wandered into her neighbor’s yard. Her neighbor saw the cat limping, took it to the pound, had it put to sleep and filed a complaint with animal control saying my classmate was being cruel to her cats. the claim was investigated (and found to be false), but here’s my classmate with a dead cat and an understandable amount of embarrassment and feelings of violation after this uncalled for investigation. So here’s my question: why are people so stupid? Why can’t we just wait to talk to one another and get the whole story before taking actions from which we can’t turn back?

Just a few thoughts on nothing in particular….

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Washing our hands in blood

I sit down to write this reflection on April 17, 2007, the day after the deadliest school shooting in American history. The initial inspiration for what I write here, however, is something much less heinous and now several years old.

Pilate washes his handsWhen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, it generated a lot of conflict and debate for various reasons. For some it was anti-semitic, or poorly researched, a propaganda piece etc… But, in the midst of all this criticism, one in particular stood out to me: The antipathy of many people toward the way Gibson’s film portrayed Pontius Pilate. Some even argued that Gibson made Pilate into a hero. At first I found this criticism startling and wondered if somehow these people had seen a different version of the film than I had. It turns out it was just a different take on anthropology.

You see, while I saw in Pilate a weak and indecisive man who refused to take responsibility for his decisions, others were observing what they perceived to be a consummate politician doing what a politician should–his actions were even praise worthy. The root, it seemed, of people’s problems with Gibson’s portrayal of Pilate was not so much that he was portrayed in such a way as to make him look “good,” but rather, that he seems so like our own politicians. The problem with Pilate is that he is us, and the only portrayal that would have been sufficient would have been the one that made Pilate into a monster so grotesque that we could never see ourselves in his place.

John O’Sullivan addressed the issue of how people were responding to the portrayal of Pilate in the National Review. The core of his argument is what follows:

…there is also a less admirable reason why the modern world finds Pilate sympathetic. He is the patron saint of doubt and thus attractive to an age that regards doubt itself as a virtue — or at least as a mark of sophistication in the face of certainties with which we happen to disagree, whether they are the certainties of the religious right, or of fundamentalist Moslems, or of political ideologies. Many intellectuals, academics and (generally liberal) politicians have come to see doubt in these modestly heroic terms.

I think that O’Sullivan is certainly on to something, but I’m not sure it’s really the primary thing. I believe that many people were, on the deepest level, made uncomfortable with how easily the actions of a villain sit in the conscience. But rather than question the state of their conscience, they question the presentation of the villain. Surely Pilate must be heinously evil, and yet I can understand his actions, and I may even find them sympathetic–such a portrayal, especially in film, makes us uncomfortable and brings us face to face with our own duplicitous and sinful natures. As Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (and much of the rest of her work) demonstrates, and contrary to way it is often portrayed in our movies and media, evil is not strictly alien or thrust upon us by some hideous outside force. Instead, evil is more often than not, banal and very clearly a part of us as human beings, a sick malfunction fueled by sin.

So what does all of this have to do with the VA Tech shooting? As Anna and I watched the news right after this tragedy occurred, we couldn’t help but talk about the words journalists were using to describe Cho Seung Hui, the man who perpetrated the killings. False emotion has always irritated me, and there was certainly plenty of that on display from some commentators. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the people who were impacted by this, who were connected with the victims and their families, but rather commentators on national TV who could barely contain their falsified rage and seemed intent on completely dehumanizing the murderer through their use of language. Evil was used a lot–and this shooting was undeniably that–but that wasn’t the only term thrown about. Monster was another one we heard a lot, as was sick–but monster sticks in my mind. As I watched the news come out, and the commentary become more detailed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t only watching the news about the aftermath of the actions of a very sick and indeed a very evil human being, but also the process of a society hardening itself against any intimation that each and every one of us is, in our heart of hearts, capable of doing something heinously evil.

As Arendt brings to light, Eichmann and most other Nazis were “ordinary men” before the rise of the Third Reich… Eichmann, for instance was a vacuum cleaner salesman. And yet, people want to create a mythology of monstrosity, put people who do horrible things in a separate category from “us,” not to punish them, but to soothe our consciences, and to help us continue to live the lie that “people are basically good.”

I realize that there are those who dislike Arendt’s characterization of evil as banal, just as many dislike Augustine’s understanding of it as a privation of the good. But in my limited experience, this is the only understanding of evil, and of humanity, that allows us to both judge evil in others and guard for it in ourselves. To do otherwise, and to accept the easy cultural assumption that anyone who does an evil thing must not be “like us” is really to do the same thing Pilate did, to wash our hands of all responsibility… if we attempt this, we may find that we’re only washing our hands in blood.

Rowan Williams++ on the likelyhood of Anglican-Roman Catholic rapproachment.

Christianity Today has this hillarious response of Archbishop Williams to reports that there is a plan for Anglican-Roman Catholic union.

there’s also some other stuff to read about Episcopal Bishops who have said they will choose to continue blessing same sex unions etc… rather than remain part of the Anglican Communion.

“What’s this we hear about the end of the world?”
—Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in an uncharacteristically sarcastic response when asked, “What’s this we hear about you guys joining up with the Roman Catholic Church?” Williams went on to dismiss the widely circulated report of Catholic-Anglican union as overblown and garbled.

Rowan Williams, , , ,

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