Complexity in Action

I have read for years, ever since the late 1990s, and while I have never appreciated its smarmy social democrat (and statist) sympathies, it’s been a much better publication over the last seven years of the Bush Jong Il regime simply because the nincompoop editors of have not a Democrat regime to defend (with all its wars and other nonsense). Should a Democrat return to the White House next January, will likely take a turn for the worse. I hate the idea of Glenn Greenwald becoming a mouthpiece for, or a reflexive defender of, political power, but he likely will. The degree of thoughtfulness and truth-telling generally tends to be in inverse proportion to whether or not one supports those in power. It’s easy to “speak truth to power” you rarely agree with. Speaking truth to power you support and endorse is difficult. If not downright impossible.

Still, publishes some interesting stuff, especially its articles dealing with culture. Case in point is this review of Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. Venkatesh spent seven years shadowing members of the Balck Kings gang in Chicago’s now-defunct Robert Taylor Homes, and this review shows the book is something of a primer on how human beings organize themselves, politically and economically.

Again and again, the people Venkatesh talks to explain that police and emergency medical personnel “don’t come” when project residents call them about such “minor” matters as robberies and domestic violence. The Black Kings, by contrast, could sometimes even get stolen property back. None of Robert Taylor residents really liked the gang, but it evolved to serve a purpose: As is often the case when civil order breaks down — whether it happens in Afghanistan, Somalia or the South Side of Chicago — strongmen emerge to provide security, at a cost. On the other hand, at least the residents of Robert Taylor knew exactly what they were getting for their “taxes.” Furthermore, J.T. wasn’t the only one to levy such taxes; despite her efforts to pass herself off as a disinterested benefactor, Ms. Bailey, too, demanded a piece of any action that went down in her building.

Venkatesh soon realized that what he saw of J.T.’s work (or, for that matter, of Ms. Bailey’s) had been “edited.” Nevertheless, he was still present for several violent episodes, most of them beatings administered to anyone in the gang hierarchy who got out of line. When J.T. offered to let Venkatesh be “gang leader for a day” (hence, the book’s title), the exercise was effectively meaningless because the grad student refused to get involved in any violence; the doling out of “mouthshots” and other, harsher penalties was a key part of J.T.’s job. “They need to see that you are the boss, which means that you hand out the beating,” he explained in exasperation. “You have to make sure that they understand that they can’t be stealing! Nigger, they need to fear you.” Behind all J.T’s talk of the Black Kings’ role as a “community organization” lurked the stark fact that his authority was founded in the threat of violence.

It has always struck me as odd the belief that the collapse of “civil order” as is generally understood by genteel and civilized folks is seen as the collapse of all order. Isn’t the civil order so prized just another form of strongmen emerging to provide security “at a cost?” In fact, aren’t “disorder” and “chaos” impossible conditions for two or more human beings living in some kind of community, as human beings quickly and naturally structure and order themselves?

Philosophical thinking on social order tends to see it as top down, that is, something that is or must be imposed on society. And yet human beings seem to order themselves from the bottom up, that is, there is a fair amount of complexity involved when two or more human beings live together. In my mind, this idea of complexity is much more in accord with anarchist or libertarian thinking on the state than it is with hierarchy. Yet it’s clear that human self-organization involves the creation of hierarchies and the use of force. I wish it were not that way, but on this side of both Eden and the eschaton, we are incapable of organizing ourselves without the resort to force and violence. This doesn’t mean that, as the church, we should participate in or benefit from that violence, nor should we think that we can guide it and use it better than others.

Reviewer Laura Miller continues:

“Gang Leader for a Day” illustrates a handy contemporary maxim: As soon as people start using the word “community,” you can be pretty sure they’re trying to put something over on you. In time, Venkatesh became just as disillusioned with Ms. Bailey, the neighborhood clergy, the director of the local Boys and Girls Clubs (inventor of the much-celebrated midnight basketball leagues of the 1990s) and the cops — the ones with the “real power” in the ghetto, and in a few cases all too prone to abusing it. Everyone he met was jostling for influence, offering protection or resources, and distributing both to whoever had the most to offer them in return.

What the budding sociologist found, in the end, was not the depraved chaos that the political right imagines ghetto life to be, nor the left’s tragic melodrama of a powerless, victimized population terrorized by its most hopeless members. (J.T., a gifted manager by Venkatesh’s account, went to college on an athletic scholarship and gave up a job selling office supplies when he realized that white employees were receiving preferential treatment.) What he did find was an economy, and a rough social order that the residents had assembled out of the broken pieces left to them by society at large. Without meaningful police services, they cobbled together a security force of sorts. Without much in the way of social services, they figured out how to extract some of what they needed from the main economic engine in their environment: the gang. Within the borders of a major American city, they lived in the equivalent of a corrupt third-world nation.

Miller sees here that people muddle through, and that often, muddling is the very best we can hope for or even accomplish. That muddling is human life, often at its best, and certainly at its most authentically human.

What I DO like About Obama

I’ve written before here that I’m wary of Barak Obama, and that I’m not sure just how different his foreign policy will be. Liberal Internationalism bothers me as much as conservative unilateralism because it still sees the United States as managing or running the world, and I see Obama as a committed liberal internationalist. This is not a good thing.

But… there is something I do like about Barak Obama. For too many Americans, their only experience of the world outside the United States is a world of need. They go as soldiers or missionaries (either religious or secular, “volunteers” for aid projects or whatever), and thus they encounter a world that needs what America has. A world that can only get what it needs from America. A world full of incompetent people who can do nothing without American handouts, American assistance, American guidance.

Obama, however, has lived in a somewhat different world. If nothing else, his experience as a child in Indonesia, of his father’s family in Kenya, he at least has an understanding of the world outside the United States as a normal place, with people quite capable of working toward ends they determine themselves. I’ve never met the man or spent any time with him (I have met members of the U.S. Senate when I was a reporter in Washington, but it tended to be in the journalism relationship, and so I do not know how accurate my very positive impressions of Paul Wellstone or Richard Lugar, the two senators I got to “know” the best, are), so I have no idea if this is a good assumption about Obama. It may not be.

I still do not believe that the United States will become a “normal country” under an Obama administration (my idea of normal country is Finland, or Portugal, or Botswana, or Uruguay, or maybe even New Zealand — no empire, no overseas military bases, no projection of power, no messianic belief in national mission, no assumption of global privilege). I would like the United States to become a normal country, in my lifetime, without having to collapse. I still am not sure that is possible. But the Soviet Union went away peacefully, so anything is possible. 

Doing God’s Work. … Or Not.

David Fitch over at, in a posting I found while reading a commentary by Mark Van Steenwyk over at (I know, I promised once I would not do this “comment on comments” sort of thing), asks the following:

“Are we supporting Obama because it’s easier than being God’s justice in the world ourselves?”

The same could be said of Christian politics of any flavor, none of which I am supportive of. For the record, I am a fan of Stanley Hauerwas’ sentiments in Resident Aliens, only I am much more of a willful non-participant and secessionist than Hauerwas probably is (I sense he has, of late, gone soft on non-participation). That’s what comes from being an anarchist, I suppose.

I generally have three concerns about politics aimed at change and progress (what might be called “justice,” an issue I have addressed elsewhere). First and foremost, I believe the ideas of justice and the decent society current in the world today are not religious ideas, but are rather those of the secular Enlightenment. Ideas that have, over the last three centuries, been baptized and made synonymous with out eschatological vision of the Kingdom of God. I would proffer that those Enlightenment ideals are human equality, liberty and brotherhood (from the slogan of the French Revolution) grafted onto the possibility of universal material abundance arising as a result of the Industrial Revolution and merged with the Enlightenment idea of universal human peace. Human reason is capable of achieving all of these things — peace, equality, liberty, brotherhood, abundance — and the state is the venue through which human reason will work this out.

However, this is a fundamentally religious notion because these five things become the manifestation of human salvation. Saved humanity is one either inching toward these goals and in the process of achieving/realizing them (the progressive, or Liberal Christian ideal), or it is making a radical break with “the past” and trying to institute them completely and in their entirety (the revolutionary ideal). The “secular” Enlightenment is all about salvation, about saving humanity, both individually and collectively.

By embracing these ideals as either the Kingdom of God or evidence of the Kingdom of God, we have, in fact removed God from the Kingdom. Because we have concluded we know what the Kingdom of God looks like, human beings (or too many of them) have come to believe that they can, through their work and effort, either achieve it or work toward it. But a Kingdom vision like this has no God in it. Or rather, because human reason can conceive of it, the work of God is simply not necessary in working toward making that kingdom possible. The Kingdom is altered in our minds from an utterly transformed world — one in which the work of God makes the world unrecognizable — to simply a kinder and gentler version of the world in which we live. And this is my second concern.

Finally, I find many justice folks are just as “covenantal” about Jewish scripture as law-obsessed conservatives are. The view, I think, works likes this: as God gives the law, God tells Israel that defeat and exile will be the punishment for failing to obey the law. IF you don’t do this, THEN you will suffer this. And much of the language of scripture speaks just like that. So, there is a conservative assumption that the law CAN, in fact, be obeyed in order to avoid God’s punishment. But that ignores the actual narrative. Israel was incapable of obeying the law, thus consequences were inescapable, but God’s redemptive love was still made known to Israel. I see historical Israel’s encounter with God, the consequences of our sin, and God’s ever-present love and redemption, as a description of the human condition and of the plight of Israel — God’s called out people — in all times and places. We are utterly incapable of obeying God, and there are consequences for that, but God still loves and redeems us anyway.

Justice, I believe, works the same way. While there are many prophetic passages demanding justice for the poor, oppressed, needy and marginalized, and promising consequences if they are not adhered to (or that the conquest and exile were a consequence, and that now we will be different), that prophetic call cannot be stripped out of the greater narrative. Israel was utterly incapable of being just, of being a just society with a just government. As are we. The consequences of defeat and exile are, again, inescapable — we cannot avert them because we cannot do what God tells us we need to do in order to avert them. That is also the human condition. But God’s mercy and justice is always there, even if does not seem reasonably or rationally present in the world, just as God’s love and redemption is as well.

I have long believed the greatest problem of the Enlightenment is that it’s five promises are far more than human reason are capable of delivering (or even moving toward in any meaningful way; I do not believe in moral progress). And yet the promises are beguiling, whether we baptize them or not. But there is a greater problem. Enlightenment ideas are so beguiling that when we fail to make them possible, we do not sit back and go “liberty, equality, brotherhood, peace and abundance were the wrong things to want, and we are not up to making them possible.” We tend to say, “we did not work hard enough, and we must now redouble our efforts, be of purer heart, of steelier resolve, we must deal with those who stand opposed to these truly good and wonderful things, and we can and must make these things possible because we know they are possible because we can imagine them.” When we fail, we still believe. In fact, we believe all the more fervently. Our faith in our reason and our capabilities is not, in fact, accountable to reason. It is not accountable to anything.

Better, then, to live in God’s transformed world then to try and transform the world. The Kingdom of God is present among us, sideways, at a right angle to the world we live in (I’m drawing from Carl Sagan’s use of the novel Flatland here), something we experience at best peripherally but also overwhelmingly. We don’t make it, we are not its authors. Yet, living as though it is here, we make it real in the world. And that beats both voting and putting one’s faith in a political ideology, a party or the state any day.

No Possibility of Change

It appears at this moment that this fall’s presidential race will be between Barack Obama and John McCain. Some folks over at, in the tradition of Murray Rothbard, are trying to portray Obama as the clear lesser of two warlike evils — and he probably is, all things considered. But I’m not sure he’s significantly less of an evil than McCain is, especially in matters of war and peace. Or regarding the American world empire.

Salon had an interview earlier this week with Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, a journalist who has become a foreign policy advisor the Obama. She clearly is a member of America’s liberal foreign policy elite — she believes strongly in U.S. power, U.S. virtue and an America-centered world. Granted, it is a view of the world that places international cooperation and the United Nations at its center, but it is the same nonsense that has the UN as an articulation of certain kinds of American — and thus civilized — values. Her ideas and ideals are those of the idiots at Brookings or the Council on Foreign Relations.

If this is example of Obama’s foreign policy thinking, then it means that the nonsense of the last nearly 18 years will continue. (The United States has been at war almost continually for that time, and as I have argued elsewhere, for almost all of the last 60 years.) And that means war and empire will continue. Humanitarian interventions are still war, which means Americans will still be bombing countries and killing people, will still be acting as a powerful, world managing imperial nation-state. John McCain may be openly threatening to bomb Iran, but I am not convinced that Obama won’t rattle that saber too (he has in the past), given the Democratic Party’s commitment to Israel, the historical animosity of some Democrats toward Iran, and their commitment to the perpetuation of American military and economic power. Too many people, Power included, have decided that “something” needs to be done about Iran. That almost guarantees that something will be done.

There is no good, kind, decent, humanitarian, or socially responsible way for the United States to wield the power it has. It is not possible, no matter how the do-gooders of the social democratic left yearn. Empire is empire, with all that implies, and even “good” empires are based on violence, subjugation and humiliation. I wish it were possible for the United States simply to lay that power down, to bring all soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines home from everywhere. I want very much to live in a normal country rather than an empire. But we are addicted to our empire — it gives American life, nationalist and internationalist, liberal and conservative, a strong sense of meaning and purpose. Americans are not Swiss or Uruguayans, and we don’t know how to live if we aren’t running the world, saving it from itself or beating it into submission for its own good. An Obama presidency won’t change that fact.

So, the only way this power goes away is through collapse.


I’ve long thought a book on the lives and times of deposed monarchs and royal families would be, well, fascinating. In a world full of (for better or worse) republics of various flavors, it would be interesting to see what some long-lost monarchs are up to. I would suspect that, for many of them, it would be no good.

I have often imagined the book would begin at a roulette wheel in Monte Carlo, spend more than its fair share of time dealing with the sundry disinherited royals of Europe, especially its major powers (like France, which has three pretenders — Bourbon, Orleans, and Buonaparte; or German, which doesn’t merely have Hohenzollerns but Wittlesbachs and assorted other minor royals). But the ex-Communist states of what Donald Rumsfeld once strangely called “New Europe” also have their ex-royals, and what of them?

Of course, the book wouldn’t stop there. Somewhere out there is the man who would be Sultan of the Ottomans, a presumptive King of Egypt, a bey or dey of Tunis, and a dispossessed Libyan royal family out there. The book could include a large section of a chapter on the Albanians — Muhammad Ali of Egypt and Zog (nee Ahmed Zogu) of Albania (the idea of Albania monarchs amuses me, I’m not sure why) — and a description of Hashemites from Makka to Jordan and Iraq (I have met the current Iraqi Hashemite pretender, and he is a man from another age, looking very much like Michael Cain’s character in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). There could even be a chapter on India and its caste of ruling princes and whatnot deposed at independence when the country became a republic. I understand that the man who would be emperor of Ethiopia has an office in Alexandria, Virginia, where he does whatever it is that he does.

Why stop there? China, Korea and Vietnam all have “emperors” out there somewhere. I am not as up on Asian or African monarchies as I would like to be — what are the constitutional or cultural statuses of, say, the King of Buganda or the various Sultans of Malaysia? (Does anyone care what the progeny of Jean Bedel Bokassa are up to these days?) That might be something the book could address. And while the Americas are awash in republics, this has not always been the case. Mexico, Haiti and Brazil were all “empires” once, with emperors and (I’m guessing) petty nobility. Is anyone out there who would claim those “thrones?”

I’m not sure if anyone would be interested in such a book, but if folks can write “histories” of salt or cod, then why not deposed royalty?

Theology, Third Installment

This week’s edition of systematic theology reflections is somewhat subdued, if for no other reason than the 10-page essay I read in Asian Faces of Jesus (R.S. Sugirtharajah, editor) gave me little to disagree with. So, this essay, by Church of Pakistan Bishop Alexander Malik (who has his own problems), is no longer than the one I will hand in Monday evening. It isn’t as if I don’t write enough here anyway.

* * *

Pakistani scholar and church leader Alexander J. Malik boldly asserts, on the basis of Paul’s writings as well as the differences in the Gospels, that Jesus can be “confessed in different terms in Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, or Marxist contexts,” thus allowing Jesus to speak to people on the basis of both their cultures as well as their pre-existing religious, social and even political ideas.

However, given the context of Islam in Pakistan, Malik finds three significant difficulties for Christians. The first is the “reductionist” Christology of the Qur’an, a Christology which portrays Jesus as a prophet little different from any other prophet of Islam – without divinity, pre-existence nor who came to save the world. Second is the Muslim view of the Bible as a set of scriptures which were once similar to the Qur’an in content but were long ago corrupted (and thus in need of a final revelation to correct the misunderstood message of God). Finally, Malik identifies the elevated Prophet Muhammad of popular Muslim piety, a Muhammad who is as close to divine as any human being can be.

Malik is also concerned about Islamic exegesis which has long said, on the basis of several ayats in the Qur’an, that Jesus was not crucified and did not die. Rather, most Muslim scholars have long taught, someone was else was crucified in Jesus’ place and Christ himself ascended to heaven without dying. He is correct in pointing this out, but he gets the footnote (5) wrong. The reference is to surah 3:48 (Aal Imran, or the Family of Imran), which only speaks of Jesus being taught the book, wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel. The reference I believe Malik was looking for is surah 4:157 (An-Nisa, or Women), which, if taken literally, is merely a refutation that the Jews did not kill or crucify Jesus (the ayat makes the affirmation that “they did not kill him” twice), though the ayat’s exact meaning would depend on how these words are used and what they mean in other contexts. Malik is right in noting that there is little point arguing with 1,400 years of Islamic scholarship, but if he is calling for a biblical Christology based on scripture, an honest assessment of the Qur’an is in order as well.

For Malik, then, the goal is to let Muslims know that confessing Christ as God is not shirk, literally the association of others with God (often times crudely translated as polytheism), and that Jesus and the Holy Spirit do not form a pantheon of gods with the Father. Nor does confessing Christ as “Son of God” imply literal generative kinship. (The use of the word is problematic, especially in relation to the term Father.) Finally, the greatness of God as expressed in the takbir – allahu akbar, literally God is greater [than whatever else might be mentioned in the context] – allows Christians to confess a Christ who died as was raised as an expression of God’s glory and to live “resurrected lives” that attest to that greatness.

As a Muslim (for 15 years), I never had a problem with a crucified Christ resurrected and ascended to God. The story Muslims tell always felt preposterous and contrived, an attempt to deny to central element of the Gospels, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, rather than an honest and sincere explanation. Like Malik (only from the other side), I thought a confident assertion of what we believed as Muslims we significantly more important than having stupid and pointless arguments with Christians.

In this, I find Malik is right on in his bold and confident assertion that we “should not be ashamed of the Gospel.” Indeed, the Gospel is the answer to anyone flinging law around as the way to comply with God’s will for the world and thus make the world the kind of place God wants – whether they be Muslim, Christian (for there are many law-based Christians out there), Hindu, Jew or Enlightenment Secularist (for there is in the Enlightenment a way of human conduct and organization that is believed to lead to individual and social salvation). While there are many distinctions between Islam and Christianity that Malik does not touch upon (distinctions that are especially important for Lutherans), he hints most at the problem Muslims and Christians will have in seeing where and how God’s glory is manifest. For the orthodox Christian, the glory of God is (or should be) most manifest in those things least glorious – the poor, the needy, the abused, the oppressed, the death of the Messiah and Savior of the world. Islam has, to use a Lutheran term, very much a “theology of glory.” God is most manifest in those things one would expect God to be manifest in (though not always and not by all Muslims; Sufis and Shia can be inclined to see glory in suffering and lowliness), such as human power – especially human power wielded by Muslims. (However, I remember a Kuwaiti state radio broadcast from 1992 comparing the U.S. Air Force to the birds God sent to destroy Abraha’s army of elephants as it besieged Makka in the year of Muhammad’s birth, using the language of surah 105 to compare the defeat of Abraha to the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s army and the liberation of Kuwait the previous year.)

It would be interesting to see how many Muslims would be willing to work with the idea of God’s grace and glory most manifest not in high things, in mighty things, but in weak things and low things. And to see how they might be willing or able to live their lives in response to that idea.

More on Justice and Charity

In Dorothy Day’s autobiography, she quotes Peter Maurin as saying something akin to “whenever you meet and give to a beggar, you get a chance to give to Christ.” In one of his little essays, The Duty of Hospitality, Maurin writes:

People who are in need
and are not afraid to beg
give to people not in need
the occasion to do good
for goodness’ sake.
Modern society calls the beggar
bum and panhandler
and gives him the bum’s rush.
But the Greeks used to say
that people in need
are the ambassadors of the gods.
Although you may be called
bums and panhandlers
you are in fact the Ambassadors of God.
As God’s Ambassadors
you should be given food,
clothing and shelter
by those who are able to give it.
Mahometan [Muslim] teachers tell us
that God commands hospitality,
and hospitality is still practiced
in Mahometan [Muslim] countries.
But the duty of hospitality
is neither taught nor practiced
in Christian countries.

I find Maurin’s views on charity to be refreshing, invigorating and true, and counter to the demand for “justice” that permeates liberal/liberationist Christianity in North America (and possibly the rest of the West). While there are places in many of his essays where Maurin calls for a restructuring of the world and of human societies, he at least doesn’t pretend that liberal reforming or the welfare state is that restructuring. There’s much to dislike about Maurin’s thought (I do not believe the aspirations of the Marxists were, in fact, the same as the aspirations of Christians yearning for the Kingdom of God), but I appreciate the essential anti-statism in Maurin’s belief and practice. Helping the poor is something we as Christians are supposed to do with our own hands, and not fob off on state social services thinking that is enough or even the same thing.

I have several problems with how the ELCA and many ELCA Lutherans (I speak now only of my confession, rather than any other) have come to view how we are hospitable toward the poor, how we do charity and how we are of service to others. 
First, many Lutherans (and this is generally a Christian habit) speak of aid as having a purpose, that it must achieve an end. I have heard, in the context of giving money to beggars, that actually giving people can be (or often is) counter-productive, that it continues to feed alcohol and drug habits or won’t be used in an effective way. Or that the beggar is trying to lie his or her way into some extra cash. All of this is most certainly true, but I believe it misses the point of why we, as followers of Jesus Christ, are called to give charity. We do not do it for the benefit of those we give to, we do it for our own benefit, because it is part of this new relationship we are in, because giving charity to those who ask is what it means to live in God’s kingdom. There is nothing about conditions in the giving of charity, nothing about using the aid properly, or wisely, or “correctly.” Aid to the poor is seen as not a response to God’s calling, but rather the means to the end of helping the poor out of poverty. 
I contrast this with how Muslims give charity (as I was Muslim for 15 years, and received and gave charity during that time). Muslims never put any conditions on the use of aid they give, never make demands, and never insist that money be used “properly.” They understand that the obligation is not on the recipient of the aid to better his or her life (though there are hadith which talk about how this can best be done), but rather on the giver, who has an obligation as part of his or her relationship with God to share out of that which God has bestowed on them. This is one reason Muslim charities did so littler oversight prior to September 11, 2001, because it is unseemly to do so, because charity is to be given secretly so that only God knows.
Of course, being human beings, neither Christian nor Muslim wants to be taken for a ride by someone begging for food money who will use that cash to score a rock of crack or a bottle of Night Train. Any “system” of unsupervised charity lends itself easily to scam artists who want to fund extravagant lifestyles or guerilla insurgencies with “aid” money.
But my basic point still stands — the obligation is on the giver to share, not on the recipient to show he or she has used that shared money “wisely” or “properly.”
Second, while I understand the Lutheran ethic of service, it is a problematic ethic in our world. The idea is both simple and correct — because we, as Christians, can do no work that will please God, the work Christ does for us frees us from thinking we can please God in any way, and that frees us to love and serve our neighbors. But there is also an inherent tension in this idea, in that it can completely detach service to neighbor from any relationship with God, and thus privilege the idea of “service” itself. This is especially bad when the bureaucratic welfare/warfare state comes into being, as service to the state can become confused with service to neighbor. This also makes bureaucratic notions of service normative or even primary, and thus ethereal activities like “community organizing,” which is essential to the ELCA (and all other liberal/liberationist) concept of “justice,” can become service to others. Indeed, the problem of the bureaucratic-industrial welfare/warfare state is that of human management (I probably have blogged elsewhere on the fundamental immorality of managing human beings as if they were things), and managing human beings becomes a form of service to neighbor. It isn’t — there nothing more evil than the management of human beings.
Finally, there is the matter of who is the neighbor. The liberal/liberationist Christian takes the Jerusalem Road story (aka the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37) and concludes from this story that everyone everywhere is our neighbor. This makes the Christian responsible for healing all illness everywhere, feeding all hunger everywhere, ending all war and suffering everywhere. And for bringing the welfare/warfare state to everyone everywhere. Media images are a call to action, a motivation for angry self-righteousness that some war somewhere is being ignored or some famine somewhere is not responded to. This is a delusion, fed by the sense of power and wealth that most Western Christians have (an illusory sense of power and wealth disguised by GDP statistics, as if everyone has a moral and legal claim on the wealth of everyone else), but it is a powerful one.
I don’t think the story says, however, quite what these folks think it says. Yes, the lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” in the hopes of being told who his neighbor is not, and thus someone he doesn’t have to care for. But Jesus doesn’t give a list, and he doesn’t say everyone. In fact, he says absolutely nothing about who my neighbor is, but he says everything about how I am to be a neighbor. And that how deals with someone I encounter, physically, in the flesh, a beggar in need right in front of me, by accident, unplanned. Not a teevee image, not something marketed to me either to elicit my sympathy or my outrage, not something designed to have me support a cause, but a real human being, hurt, in front of me, someone I can touch and minister to and care for. The priest and the Levite had to do work, go out of their way, to avoid helping or even encountering the man who had been beaten by robbers. 
(I say this as someone who has expended a lot of rage for the Palestinians, whose suffering as an American taxpayer I am forced to fund, and who wanted to do something violent about it once. There is plenty of injustice in the world — indeed, injustice is the very definition of human civilization and communal human existence. I have just become convinced there is little or nothing that can be done about it.)
It is true that Jesus lived in a time when his followers could not have meaningfully ever helped someone far away — say India, China, Mesoamerica or even Alexandria — but I don’t think modern technology detracts from the immediacy of this call, that we as Christians are called to be neighbors to those we encounter, really encounter as opposed to imagine from mediated images, in desperate need. 
So charity, not justice, is our calling. Charity, not justice, is the best reflection of God’s love for the world.

On Justice and Charity

I think I finally understand what everyone is talking about.

The word “justice” gets used a lot at the seminary where I study. A lot. It is damn near every third word. I have never quite understood what is meant by “justice” — it has always struck me as a “we get what we want” kind of thing, but it’s always been hard for me to tell exactly what’s being talked about.

But now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the confession to which I belong) and the Episcopal Church have provided the world with a handy set of definitions in their study book on global poverty and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, God’s Mission in the World [available as a PDF here]. I wish I could say I was grateful for this, and I suppose I am, but where to start with this miserable document?

The presumptions of God’s Mission are those of liberationist-tinged liberal theology — the Kingdom of God is basically some version of the social democratic welfare state, a thing to be be built with human hands through purposeful human work. As if, somehow, thousands of years of human aspirations for God’s kingdom on earth have only been thwarted by greed and selfishness (and a half-dozen isms which make human life unbearable), and that the eradication of those things lies within our grasp, if only we are rightly guided to right and noble action. This requires a faith in moral and material progress, a faith I do not share because I do not believe human history even remotely suggests that we are “better” or kinder or more moral than our ancestors ever were.

I’m going to focus on the p. 15 discussion of charity and justice. According to the document, charity is “an act that responds to the broken and sinful nature of humanity by helping a person or persons in need,” while justice “is an act that seeks to change the broken and sinful conditions that create human need in the first place.” The document then goes on to say:

Both charity and justice are important, but justice is the most fundamental action because the purpose of justice is to create a world where acts are charity are no longer necessary.

Again, I lament: where to start with my objections?

  • A world without charity is a world without love. It is a world in which acts of love don’t matter, in which they have no value and are utterly without distinction. Assuming we could even create such a world, I’m not sure I’d want to live in one. Only in a world of horror, of pain, of suffering, deprivation, can we even know love. We need to lack of love to know love. A world in which “acts of charity are no longer necessary” is a cold, controlled, painless, loveless, joyless world. It’s not a human place.
  • UPDATE: Related to this, a world in which acts of charity are no longer necessary is a world in which God’s Grace is no longer necessary. It would be a world without God. It would be a world in which human beings assume they are God. It would not be a safe place, a kind of decent place, to be a human being.
  • What on earth leads good Lutherans to believe that anything remotely resembling changing human brokenness and sinfulness can even be accomplished by human effort in any way? Isn’t the whole point of Luther’s theology that human beings are utterly incapable of fixing ourselves, of making ourselves right with God? Yet this document seems to ooze with the liberal theological presumption of steady progress, of human effort expanded to correct and eventually fix the human condition. Or am I missing something here? (It isn’t that trying to change the broken and sinful human condition is a good idea that just can’t be done — it’s a bad idea that almost always leads to the eradication of human beings. No people, no sin.)
  • Are we so bereft of imagination and hope that we can envision no better world than one we could make if we were all good left-leaning, progressive social democrats? Is this really the only Kingdom of God we can possibly imagine?
  • My experience of God, in both scripture and elsewhere, leads me to understand that we are called explicitly to do acts of mercy and charity, to be just. But everything I have seen about “justice” assigns that quality and its creation on earth to God and God alone. We participate in God’s justice, but we do not make it for ourselves. When did justice, to borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, become a “human ideal” — one we are wise enough and good enough to enact — rather than “a divine reality?”
  • Or has our idea of an incarnational God made it impossible for us to conceive of God acting outside human action? Do we then mean that God only acts through deliberate and purposeful human action in which the actors share the same stated aims and goals as the God they allegedly act on behalf of? That God truly is present in the deed of the rightly guided, and only the rightly guided?
  • If so, how on earth do we know which squawking gaggle of self-righteous do-gooders is truly rightly guided?
Of course, my greatest objection centers on the state and state violence. If, in fact, the left-progressive social democratic welfare state is the Kingdom of God, it is still a state, it still is based on the monopoly of violence,it still collects taxes and that means the threat of (or actually) shooting people if they do not comply or behave or do not wish to belong. THERE IS NO WAY AROUND THIS. I like the idea of a kind, cooperative society in which everyone has enough and all share with one another (and I hope to live this ideal someday), but I’m under no illusions that you can bully or bludgeon your way to that kind community. In fact, a decent society built on the understanding that violence will — no, must — be done to whoever doesn’t want to play hardly strikes me as decent. It strikes me as the devil’s way of doing business. A way of doing business Jesus rejected.
And there’s a lot of devil in this document, because there’s a lot of appeal to vastly expanded state power, from more compulsory public education (possibly the worst activity the state does) through expanded government aid programs. I have no problem with those well-off aiding or helping those not so well off — after all, we are called to do just that. Nor do I have any problem with education (because God knows I have enough of it; I just hate the public schools). But if these things are such laudable goals, Christians ought to do them for ourselves and by ourselves without recourse to state power or state machinery. We have no business demanding the state (or some amorphous “international community”) compel others — especially non-Christians or Christians who do not share our understanding of our calling — on pain of imprisonment or death to do what we ourselves are unwilling to do.

A Little Wisdom from Churchill (With Update)

I’m no great fan of Winston Churchill, mostly because the warmongers among our (America’s) policy elites and idiotic voting public tend to like him too much and cite him as their inspiration for warmongering. They remember the Churchill warning of Hitler and making “finest hour” speeches, not the Churchill organizing the Gallipoli disaster or praising Mussolini.

At any rate, Sir Winston did at least say something smart, in regards to how much more brutal wars fought by democratic states (either republics or those with reigning monarchs) would be than wars fought by those countries with ruling monarchs:

The wars of peoples will be more terrible than the wars of kings.

Yes, they certainly have been.

UPDATE: Churchill said this in 1901, during debates over funding for the British Army following the Boer War. The full quote from the biography Winston Churchill in the Mirror: His Life in Picture and Story:

Now when mighty populations are impelled on each other, when the resources of science sweep away anything that might mitigate the nations’ fury, a European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal exhaustion of the conquerors. The wars of people will be more terrible than the wars of kings.

And what’s amazing is this quote, from the same period, that earned him condemnation from Conservatives in Parliament:

The honor and security of the British Empire do not depend, and can never depend, on the British Army!

A Foolish Article of Faith

It is an article of faith among American interventionists — from neoconservatives to liberal internationalists, elite and common alike — that had the West (Britain, France and the United States) screwed up its courage and waged war against Nazi Germany in, say, 1936 (when Germany remilitarized the Rhineland) or to prevent the Anschluss or to back up Czechoslovakia in the Sudeten Crisis, the disaster of World War II could have been prevented. A larger war could have been prevented by a smaller war.

But this places the entire problem of Germany’s post-World War I rearmament and irredentism on Hitler and the Nazis, which is not the case, as Pinson Koppel makes in his book, Modern Germany: It’s History of Civilization (which, yes, I am still reading). In discussing German foreign policy during the early and mid-Weimar period, he writes:

The depth of German rejection of the treaty [of Versailles] can only be understood in terms of the almost universal certainty of Germans that they would win the [First World] war and of the enormous discrepancy, therefore, between the kind of treaty such a victory would have brought and the treaty born of German defeat. German moderates agreed fully with the extremists in attributing German defeat to a purely accidental and unique configuration of circumstances, and they too looked for the eventual disunity among the Allies that would undo the German defeat. The goal of German foreign policy, to borrow [Walther] Rathenau’s figure, became the ascent once more to the top of the mountain. In this goal, there was unity among all parties. The only difference between the moderates and the extremists was as to means. The moderates were resigned to a process of slow ascent from the bottom of the valley. The radical nationalists, impatient of such slow progress in regaining national glory, were ready to risk the hazardous adventure of jumping across the wide cleft. Ultimate objectives, however, of Socialists as well as of conservative nationalists, were the same: to convert Germany from the “object” of policy of the Entente to that of active and free determination of its own policy, to nullify the Versailles Treaty, to rectify the eastern borders, to regain its lost colonies, to end Allied occupation and reparations, to regain its military power, and to be restored once again to a position as one of the great powers, if not the great power, of Europe. Differences there were as to methods and tempo of attaining these goals, but these differences cannot be dismissed as trivial or insignificant. But ultimate objectives were on the whole uniform. Therein lies the main reason why when Hitler later took the radical path to these ends there were some misgivings among the other Germans as to method but no real opposition of a profound nature to his ultimate objectives. (p.423-424)

Pinson goes on to cite a 1925 letter from German liberal and sometime chancellor and foreign minister during the Wiemar period, Gustav Stresemann, to the Hohenzollern ex-crown prince saying that his government sought the eventual end of reparations, expansion of the German military, regaining of Danzig and the Polish Corridor as well as Upper Silesia, Anschluss with Austria, and de facto and de jure protectorate over 12 million Germans living outside Germany, such as in the Sudetenland. Granted, this letter was not made public until after Stresemann’s death, but Pinson goes on to say that these goals were widely shared by all parties and ideological views in Germany in the 1920s, from socialist to nationalist. My own research into the issue of German disarmament, for a paper I wrote at Georgetown comparing Germany with Iraq, led me to the same findings. All German governments in the 1920s were determined to rebuild the country’s military, including air and sea power outlawed in the Versailles Treaty.

But these were the stated aims of the German government in 1925, a liberal German government, when Hitler was still reclining in prison dictating his “memoirs.”

And none of this fantasy about doing away with Hitler in 1936 or 1938 addresses what would have become of Germany or who would have governed it. There were no liberals left in Germany by the mid-1930s, and doing away with the Hitler government would have only put Germany in the hands of rightist generals, generals still committed to nationalism, militarism and expansion. There was little faith in the world in the liberal democratic welfare state in the late 1930s; that faith didn’t exist until after the war we know was well underway and even won. Were Britain and France prepared to occupy Germany in the 1930s? A war in the east, against Czechoslovakia, against Poland, against the Soviet Union, would most likely still have taken place. Jews would still have been deprived of civil liberties and citizenship in Germany (though the extermination camps of the 1940s would most likely have been avoided). And remember, it was that war against Poland — and the guarantees the Western allies made to Polish security — that brought about the World War II of history.