Gentle and Simple Bearing

Nicholas Baker takes neo-con demigod and hero Winston Church to task in his latest book, Human Smoke, a revisionist history of World War II. According to Mark Kurlansky, who reviewed the book for the Los Angeles Times:

Churchill is a dominant figure in “Human Smoke,” depicted as a bloodthirsty warmonger who, in 1922, was still bemoaning the fact that World War I hadn’t lasted a little longer so that Britain could have had its air force in place to bomb Berlin and “the heart of Germany.” But no, he whined, it had to stop, “owing to our having run short of Germans and enemies.”

Churchill was not driven by anti-fascism. In his 1937 book “Great Contemporaries,” he described Hitler as “a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner.” The same book savagely attacked Leon Trotsky. (What was wrong with Trotsky? “He was still a Jew. Nothing could get over that.”) Churchill repeatedly praised Mussolini for his “gentle and simple bearing.” In 1927, he told a Roman audience, “If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I should have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” Churchill considered fascism “a necessary antidote to the Russian virus,” Baker writes. In 1938, he remarked to the press that if England were ever defeated in war, he hoped “we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among nations.”

As Baker’s book makes clear, between the two World Wars communism, not fascism, was the enemy. David Lloyd George, who had been Britain’s prime minister during World War I, cautioned in 1933, the year Hitler came to power, that if the Allies managed to overthrow Nazism, “what would take its place? Extreme communism. Surely that cannot be our objective.” But even more than the communists, Churchill’s enemy No. 1 in the 1920s and early ’30s was Mohandas Gandhi and his doctrine of nonviolence, which Churchill warned “will, sooner or later, have to be grappled with and finally crushed.”

I’m always happy when heroes are brought down to size. The Churchill myth — that the good Sir Winston was the only resolute Western leader who understood the Nazi threat and the only one with foresight about the evils of fascisim — clearly does stand up to muster (and probably owes a great deal to Churchill’s own writings). It has also been the cause of a great deal of Anglo-American aggression over the last 60 year, from Egypt (1956) to Iraq and many places and times in-between. It is a myth that does not serve us. It is a myth that has empowered our most murderous impulses.

Power in The Blood

Been a long week, and so I am posting last week’s systematic theology rant … um, scuse me, paper … here. I’ve made no changes, this is what I handed in, and it is about oanne Marie Terrell’s Power in The Blood: The Cross in the African-American Experience. This is not my best effort, but this isn’t a book that spoke much to me either.

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According to Joanne Marie Terrell, Black theologies of the cross start with the experience of slavery and suffering, and root themselves solidly in the identity many Blacks in America believe they share with Jesus Christ as one who suffered and died. Because suffering under the violence of slavery and Jim Crow, with their enforced servitude, are central to the Black understanding and experience of Christ, many theologians have discerned the need for Black Americans to repudiate both the calls to suffering and servitude seen by so many European and Mediterranean Christians.

Therefore, the focus of theology is to either enable Black Americans (and, I suspect, Blacks living as marginalized people in others societies, such as Afro-Caribbeans or in South Africa under apartheid) to survive and find relief from the conditions under which they live or encourage and promote liberation from that oppression. Womanist theologians (who Terrell says are largely African-America, as opposed to feminist theologians, who are generally white) tend to embrace the latter (Terrell clearly does in her conclusion) while Black male theologians, such as James Cone and Albert Cleage, clearly embrace the latter.

Terrell states that liberation theology in the Black context (especially as espoused by Cone) focuses on the liberating acts of Jesus, the collective/communal nature of salvation and its social, political and economic consequences (p.72) – salvation for Black liberation theologians is clearly about the here and now, and is for Cone clearly about Blacks being “somebody,” both individually and collectively (p.92). Cleage was especially influenced by the Afro-centric theology of the Nation of Islam (with its beliefs in the inherent evil of whites), but felt that few Blacks would embrace the Nation’s religion and thus Black liberation must be Christians (p.86). Cone would later conclude that the “scandal of the cross” was the church’s failure to confront white imperialism across the world and name that oppression (p.98).

It is hard for me to know what to do with this book, since I am neither Black nor a woman. To speak of systematic oppression on the basis of race as a condition of America is clearly true. But as with most assertions of race, this is a gross generalization that fails to appreciate the breadth of actual human experience. My life in white America was such that I was sympathetic for a time with the Nation’s theology that white folks are the devil. Or at least the embodiment of evil in the world.

According to Terrell, the experience of suffering as a people on account of their blackness is central to the Black theologians she cites. So, while I can understand their approach to suffering – finding relief from it or seeking to be free of it – I think it is too limiting. Or rather, that approach is limited by a desire for certain political and social outcomes. At several points in the book, Terrell refers to the “sanctification of suffering,” expressing a clear concern (either her own or that of another theologian) that to find too much meaning in the suffering of Blacks in the United States would be to bless or endorse or even see as essential that suffering as part of their religious experience. Terrell herself, in speaking of finding comfort, doesn’t explicitly say that religion can help find meaning in suffering without blessing the suffering. This is the problem with any musing on suffering, but I believe liberation theologians – especially Black ones – could expand their understanding of the value of suffering in the face of horrific evil by examining other understandings of suffering, such as that of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his three-volume history of the Soviet prison system, The Gulag Archipelago, or other classic works on the subject. Granted, the period Solzhenitsyn examines is only 35 years rather than 350, and much of the violence done by the Soviet state was random (but much was not, and was focused on peoples identifiable as peoples, such as Crimean Tartars or Lithuanians), but he still tries to find meaning in suffering – and a benefit for the sufferer – without ennobling those who inflict the suffering. (It helps he draws, perhaps without knowing, on Orthodox concepts of theosis for this.)

The other problem at the core of this desire for liberation is the unstated belief that is God wills only good stuff – say, freedom – for God’s people. Thus, any lack of the good stuff is a lack of God. Or, rather, God is simply not as present in suffering as God is present in liberation. This, to me, has always been a troubling implication of liberation theology and, from a Lutheran perspective, is an implied theology of glory. This is the difficulty for the theologian who seeks to understand God’s desire for the world without either sanctifying status quo or revolution. I seek to sanctify neither because I believe God sanctifies neither. Yet God deals with the material world as it, rather than remaking it – or empowering us to remake it.

One way to consider this matter would be for those who have suffered injustice, even (or perhaps especially) systematic social injustice, to ask: “What do we know about the world that those who have not suffered, or those who have made us suffer, do not know? What do we know about God? What do we have to teach the rest of the world?” If the natural human assumption regarding God is a theology of glory (and it does seem to be a natural human assumption), then suffering is perhaps one way humans can (but will not necessarily) learn about the God who resides is misery, poverty, obscurity and on the margins. (Care must be taken with this, however, because any sense that God can only be found someplace can just as easily become a theology of glory.)

Terrell also steps into the minefield of servant, sacrifice and self-abnegation language that many Black theologians believe has been used to maintain white supremacy in the United States. There is a clear and honest point here, and yet it has always struck me that there is a real failure to understand that while scripture has been used that way, it was most likely not intended that way. Yes, the call to love others is also a call to love self, and in fact that call implies that one cannot love others unless one loves self. But to say that some folks must exercise power – especially Cone’s social, political and economic power as part of salvation – while others must not is a recipe for Zimbabwe-like disaster. It merely arranges deck chairs with the appearance of justice. Considering the experience of the northern Palestine of Jesus’ time and how radical a form of resistance voluntary servitude was might help disentangle the voluntary, turn-the-other cheek kind from the involuntary servitude of the ruling society.

Indeed, I believe that Black theologians could stand an encounter with African American Muslims, who embrace a religion that calls all followers “slaves” of God. I never met an African American Muslim who had any problems with being “abd allah,” or slave of God (“slave of” forms part of many Muslim names), even as terms like “slave names” were used (and I was asked a few times what my slave name had been) and “slave religion” for Christianity. So clearly several different concepts of slavery are being used here.

Who Would Jesus Vote For?

The Nation asks that question this week, noticing that an alleged new generation of evangelical Christians aspire to use the state in a different way. That is, rather than bombing foreigners (or solely bombing foreigners, given the desire for humanitarian intervention), these “new” evangelicals want to deal with, and solve, poverty, disease and inequality as well. Solve them in the same way they solve “humanitarian” disasters in the near and far abroad. Bombing the poor? Militarily occupying the disenfranchised? Fat, no-bid, cost-plus contracts for all involved?

The answer to the question, “Who Would Jesus Vote For?” is nobody. Jesus wouldn’t even vote. He was not a citizen of the Roman Empire, and he would not stoop (or be reduced) to citizenship of any nation-state, nor faith in any political ideology or party. His disciples would ask who he would vote for, and misunderstand Jesus’ answer as advocating some opinion or another. Which it wouldn’t. And that includes mine.

The Scandalous God

This is the fourth installment of my occasional (mostly weekly) series of postings on systematic theology. (There was none last week because I read from Tillich’s Systematic Theology, and did not even know where to start…) These start out as reflection papers for a course I am taking at seminary. This week, I am dealing with Vitor Westhelle’sThe Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross, and this paper in unchanged from the one I will hand in. (FULL DISCLOSURE: Westhelle teaches at my seminary, and I took the first part of systematic theology from him last semester.)

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There is no theology of the cross, but there are theologians of the cross, according to Vitor Westhelle. In the first three chapters of his book, Westhelle describes the intellectual conundrum of a religious faith founded in the encounter with a crucified Messiah, “on the experience of utter shame, of a god that dies the death of a condemned criminal” (p. 2). This cross became the symbol of victory rather than defeat, has become so common that its original meaning – the method the Roman’s employed to publicly execute rebels – was lost in its “Constantinian” meaning of power and authority. Westhelle wants to recover the original meaning of the cross, and in so doing find the authentic meaning of the Christian faith as a faith that can only be found in the resurrection.

In this, Westhelle examines the incarnation, trinity and the concept of justice. For Westhelle, the reality of the incarnation demonstrates that “only the lowest can encompass the highest; only the last can be the first; only the lost can be found” (p. 25). (Indeed, only the lost are in need of finding.) Thus, God’s incarnation in Christ – the very essence of the infinite bounded and contained by the finite — “encompasses the world” (p. 29). In speaking of justice, Westhelle begins by considering the medieval understanding of justice, to each what to each is due, and how medieval thinkers such as Anselm and Abelard struggled with how God works with that concept of justice given that human beings are utterly incapable of giving to God what they owe God. Luther’s understanding, according to Westhelle, is that humanity cannot judge God on the basis of our understanding of justice as God’s surrendering of God’s-self to humanity, as a gift. The measure of justice is God’s action rather than human analogy. Westhelle points out, inadvertently I think, that the problem is with human beings who constantly try to hold God accountable to our understanding of “the rules,” whatever those may be.

God is just because God is God, and thus what God “does” is just by the fact that God does it, and not because it follows some predictable set of rules that God is supposedly accountable to.

(And whether medieval Catholicism’s understanding of God’s economy of justice was as grounded in early mercantile capitalism of Europe or not is an interesting question. I suspect not, given the suspicion that Rome had toward the evolving industrial and trade economy evolving from the industrial revolution of the 13th century. And while it may be fair to call Luther “the first German political economist,” as Westhelle quotes Marx, this is not entirely in Luther’s favor, as his views of trade and finance capital betray a Luther who is much more a “revolutionary conservative” akin to Pat Buchanan or Lou Dobbs [or maybe George Wallace?], to borrow an assertion from Robert Nelson’s Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics.)

Finally, Westhelle deals with the meaning and purpose of suffering – both that of Jesus and our own. “Jesus suffered because he named the cause of suffering, the law that kills. And in this naming lies the power to overcome it” (p. 90). In the midst of this pain and suffering – God’s and ours – comes the reassurance from God (and, I’m guessing, our response to God): “I know who you are, for I have seen you there in the midst of brokenness” (p. 117).

I’m not sure this is anywhere near as timely, provocative or as creative as reviewers suggest. Swaths of it (such as Chapter Eight) border on nonsensical, though my favorite bit of pointlessness in the book comes toward the end of Chapter Five:

Reading the cross in an epistemological key offers the invitation to move constantly to the margins of the text, to the frame of the picture that is normally all too familiar and seek what Foucault called “subjugated knowledges,” the knowledges that stand at the edge of the canonic epistemies, the conventionally accepted regimes of truth.

And when the “knowledges” in Westhelle’s book become “conventionally accepted regimes of truth,” as they are among Christians in liberal/progressive confessions (consider the adoring blurbs on the back of the book, for example), what then? Where lie the margins of Westhelle’s “all too familiar?”

In this book, Westhelle unfortunately offers an intellectual history that is completely ungrounded in the real world, where real ideas are incarnate and made flesh, so to speak. His chapter on uses and abuses of the cross is a particularly egregious example of this. By focusing on “great thinkers” and their ideas (Hegel, Nietzsche), he gives me utterly no understanding of how the cross was actually used and misused by preachers, essayists and lesser thinkers – and how it may have then been understood by believers. And what the very real, as opposed to merely intellectual, consequences of that were.

There are brilliant places in this book. Again, his discussion of justice is marvelous (especially given how insipid talk of justice is among liberal Christians these days), and he especially critical of temporal power. I found myself wishing I had written this statement on page 42 (though I would have said it somewhat differently):

In our pursuit to be righteous – to have our due share and pay for our dues, which does not succeed – the justice of Christ breaks in and fragments the systems of the world, its philosophy, ecclesial structures, legal rules – in short, the earthly economies and regimes. Instead of righting them with their own rules and weapons, the justice of Christ transgresses their wisdom and legislations. The possibilities of divine justice in the midst of this world manifest themselves precisely where these economies break down or are transgressed. How is that done? By showing that behind every one of the ruling systems or the earthly regimes there is an implicit promise that they will deliver salvation, safety, property, freedom and emancipation, and thus a disguised failure. They hide their failures by demanding more compliance. And we comply in the belief of the reasonableness of their request. [Italics mine.]

But there are times, I think, when Westhelle is trying to make Luther into a progressive Brazilian archbishop. And Luther simply wasn’t. He was a late medieval German, a passionate and intemperate man who did not understand economics (any of his writings on the subject show this, though Luther has some very good ideas on risk that I hope to write about at some point in the future) and believed in a very medieval social order. Luther was often wrong about things, and that needs to be remembered as we deal with Luther’s many and veried writings.

In the end, despite bits of brilliance, The Scandalous God is a generally unsatisfying book which itself makes promises that it does not deliver. It is a bottle of very rarified air that glows ever so slightly when exposed to a spark of static electricity. This is probably not Westhelle’s fault. Perhaps we are simply too inured to the cross to truly appreciate it as scandal.

One Reason I Don’t Like the Public Schools

I’ve stated, here and there on this blog, why I am not a fan of the state schools (otherwise known as “public education”). The reason is primarily personal — I had several awful primary school teachers in California who were sadists, sadists who did not like children. I was surrounded by ruffians and bullies who thought nothing of terrorizing me and were allowed to by school officials. By the time all this stopped, I was mostly bored with what California government schools taught. I should have dropped out, and found my own way in life, but I had few social or job skills and I knew little of the world. In 1985, when I graduated high school, the U.S. Army would not take GEDs or drop outs (unlike today, but then the Army didn’t need IED fodder in 1985). Given my experience and upbringing, I made the best decisions I could make.

At least no one was jailed, permanently injured, made pregnant or otherwise damaged by anything I did. So, despite whatever cruel and stupid things I have done (see posting for Melissa somewhere below), I call my life a success.

Back to the schools. Citing California (where else?) law, a California appeals court is considering dragging some children into the state schools from their “school” at home (and there have been allegations of abuse, whatever that might mean) because:

A primary purpose of the educational system is to train school children in good citizenship, patriotism and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare.

Loyalty to the state. We can never have children growing up and questioning the “right” of the state to take life, either their own or someone else. To conscript labor, either their own (through taxes) or that of others (by taxing or jailing them). No, no. We must never allow anyone to be disloyal to the state. Ever.

The ruling examines California state law which requires children to be in school full time, either a private or public school, or to be taught by a certified tutor. Apparently, homeschooling parents in California can be asked to prove they have “proper” credentials and can be fined for failing to produce (despite there being a “constitutional right” to homeschool).

Citing a previous U.S. Supreme Court decision, Wisconsin v. Yoder (regarding the rights of Amish parents to keep their children out of school past grade eight), the California appeals court also said:

The Yoder court rejected the notion that parents have a universal right to refuse to obey a state’s compulsory education law. The court recognized that “allowing every person to make his own standards on matters of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests” is precluded by “the very concept of ordered liberty,” and thus, “if the Amish asserted their claims because of their subjective evaluation and rejection of the contemporary secular values accepted by the majority, . . . their claims would not rest on a religious basis” but rather would be philosophical and personal.

What’s important here is the collectivist idea that society — the “community” bounded by the nation-state, that is, the community held together by coercion and violence — comes first and that the individual comes second. The idea that “society as a whole” has an interest in education is utter nonsense. This is individual human beings as resources, to be guided and managed and molded, to be formed to fit. To be bent and broken. Or thrown away if they become inconvenient. This kind of thing puts the need of an abstraction, “society,” first, and the needs of flesh and blood human beings — human beings made to stand powerless before the state — a very, very distant last.

(Thanks to Christopher Manion at for the link.)