Intolerance and Egalitarianism: A Follow Up

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous asks me in regards to my post from earlier Friday, The Intolerance of Egalitarianism:

[I]s toleration really enough, especially in the body of Christ?

This is a good question. And one that needs some thought.
The emphatic, simple answer is: NO. Mere tolerance is not enough for the body of Christ. Acceptance isn’t even enough for the body of Christ. Inclusion is what the body of Christ is and does to those Jesus gathers to himself. I am included in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism in the way all of the baptized are included. I cannot be more emphatic about this.
But … There is a nuance to this emphatic.
Those who see themselves as called to be the body of Christ in the world — those called to be the church — must be careful about what exactly it is they are accepting and including into. It’s easy for people to come to believe that the cultural and social norms of their time, place and class are the norms of the Kingdom of God and of the Body of Christ. What are people expected to adhere to, to conform with, to be included in? What does it mean to be the body of Christ? Are the ideals and values and practices had in the community the values of the kingdom or merely the values of the community? And how do you tell?
But … There is nuance to this as well.
Because (as a Lutheran) I believe in an incarnational God, a God enfleshed in time and space. That means God is also present in community and custom too. And thus, in some ways, the values and customs of the sanctified community ARE the values of the kingdom. Because God is present in the physical articulation and assembly of God’s people. And, to an extent, God is present AS that very community.
But .. There is yet more nuance to this. 
Because the majority will, practice and custom of the community is not all there is to the articulation of God on earth. Or even on some cute little green acre of earth. (Or benighted, dusty acre of earth.) It’s demands are not God’s will for all people. Or even all people within its reach. The guest, the stranger — that person is also the presence of God on earth. That person is also God incarnate.

And so, both those welcoming and the one being welcomed must remember that they meet God in the other. Yes, among any group of people, there is a “This is how it is done here.” And it would behoove a wanderer or a guest to learn those things. (It would also be nice of those in the majority custom do this teaching with tolerance, patience and kindness, as opposed to cruelty and cluelessness.) Especially if the wanderer is settling down. But the settled community would also best remember that “This is how it is done here” has its real emphasis on the “here.” “This is how things are done here” is NOT the same as saying “this is how people do things.” And God help the community that mistakes the “This is how things are done here” with “This is how all well-adjusted people should or should want to do things.” THAT is the true intolerance of the liberal.

And the settled community should also remember that there are true and honest differences in individual human beings — and not merely abstract groups, because we are children of the Living God, and not merely the sum of which Venn diagrams we belong to — that, because those differences, even differences of “choice,” reflect the many ways in which God is present in the world and to the world, should at least be tolerated.

Because too often the demand for conformity (and the mistake that conformity within the community of the faithful is THE proper practice of the sanctified community) is an end in and of itself. And this gets me back to the original part of Millman’s claim, that the more egalitarian the community, the less defined and visible the hierarchy and thus the identifiable place within the community, the more the community needs and enforces conformity. And the less tolerant that community is of actual, individual human difference.

The Intolerance of Egalitarianism

Noah Millman, a blogger over at The American Conservative, made this brilliant observation the other day in response to Rod Dreher’s rediscovery of tolerance and acceptance in the small Louisiana town where he grew up and recently moved back to:

Not being a Southerner, I can’t comment on Rod Dreher’s post on freak-toleration from direct personal experience. But I suspect part of what he’s seeing is the difference between a hierarchical society and a conformist egalitarian one, the difference between hierarchical Louisiana and conformist Iowa being somewhat similar to the difference between hierarchical (and famously eccentric-tolerating) England and conformist Sweden. A hierarchical society depends for its stability not on the notion of everybody being the same but on the notion of everybody knowing his or her place. And you can make some kind of a place for just about everyone. The question then is whether people will tolerate being kept in their place by others when it starts to chafe. 

My own hometown, New York, follows neither of these models, but is dynamically heterogeneous. We pride ourselves on being “diverse” and “tolerant” but what that winds up meaning in practice is that the overall society is a negotiated coalition among smaller sub-cultures, each of which tends to figure a surprisingly high degree of internal conformity. When a group is struggling with other groups for a relative share of power, dissent is harder to tolerate. On the other hand, when no group actually dominates local society, disaffiliation – to join another group, or none – without physically leaving becomes a much more realistic option.

Millman puts his finger on something very, very important, something I noticed not long after I arrived at this midwestern Lutheran seminary. The American Midwest is very egalitarian. And very conformist. In fact, that intolerant conformism is because of its egalitarianism, and not in spite of it.

Some years ago, when I Jennifer and I were living and working in Logan, Utah (I was a reporter for the Herald Journal), I had a conversation with her (ELCA) pastor (I was not Christian at the time, and worshiped with the small group of Muslims at the Logan Islamic Center) about what it was like to live as a member of a tiny religious minority among the Mormons. The pastor did not like it. I asked him why? (What I really I wanted to ask was: Do they forbid our worship services and arrest us? Make us wear distinctive marks on our clothing? Force us to convert upon pain of death?) His response was interesting — they do not accept us as fellow Christians.

(Well, of course the Mormons don’t, I replied, since they have a very different understanding of what it means to be church then Lutherans do, and Lutherans are not part of that understanding of church.)

But I also contemplated his essential angst: They do not accept us. This, I think, is the core of liberal understanding of tolerance. Mere tolerance is not enough — acceptance is what is needed. (Another ELCA pastor in another circumstance used basically those words.) The pastor in Logan lived at the intersection of the Midwestern Lutheranism’s political and cultural piety (his background was Norwegian). It is not enough to merely tolerate people — they must be accepted as well. They must be equals in the community and in society.

I know, this sounds really good on the face of it. And in many ways, it is. But it is also has a long, dark, cold shadow. The main problem I have experienced with this notion of “tolerance as acceptance” is that it isn’t tolerance at all. It doesn’t tolerate real difference or non-comformity. It merely seeks the expansion of conformity. And it has been my experience that actually makes life harder for non-comformists. Not easier.

I see the ELCA’s struggle with homosexuality and in particular the ordination of clergy in open homosexual relationships. (Please note, I am generally supportive of what the ELCA is doing in this regard, since I believe it means we are open to God’s call.) Liberals call this diversity, and maybe it is, but what it really means is that grounds of acceptable conformity have been expanded. You can be gay, and married, and still conform to the expected social norms since gay and married has been added to social norms. For the liberal (in general), since no one should be discriminated against for things they cannot control — race, gender, and now sexual orientation — certain expressions of these things are now part of allowable conformity. (So long as they are phlegmatic and bourgeois.)

But in a conformist society like Millman’s Midwest, if we are all more or less the same, then we must all be more or less the same. Expanding the ground of allowable conformity actually makes things more difficult for non-conformists (of whatever kind, and this usually means people who are simply different) because in saying the society will now accept you for the things you cannot change, it will become less accepting of things you can (or should be able to) change: aesthetic choices, interests, outlook on life, so on. So, fail to conform to the expanded norm — a big deal in a society that is averse to obvious hierarchy (midwesterners are extremely uncomfortable with me when I use sir and ma’am) — is the fault of the one who fails to conform, and not of the society or community in which they find themselves.

Because this model of acceptance is not of individuals but of abstract groups of people into which individuals can be slotted. Midwesterners in general, and ELCA Lutherans in particular, love stereotyping. (“Tagging” as one pastor put it.) In fact, prior to being in this culture, I’d never been among people for whom stereotyping was such a virtue.

(I grew up in the 1970s — stereotyping people was wrong. THAT’S what lead to discrimination and racism.)

At this point, I have to admit that I am not so interested in acceptance. I like tolerance. Can we build a community here and generally be left alone, to do what we have been called to do? Or leave people alone who want to be left alone? That to me is the high water mark of life in society. I am not so interested in equality as I am in liberty (both individual and collective), and I am perfectly okay with significantly more inequality and social unfairness than a lot of people in the ELCA simply because I focus on how much freedom there is for those who choose or feel called to not conform. And building community among like-minded non-conformists. (Which, yes, is itself a type of conformity. But this is why I really like Millman’s city.)

My theological model for church is exile. I realize that is a difficult model for the ELCA to wrap it’s heart around because it is a confession of settled people who don’t see themselves as exiles and who don’t think exile is a desirable or normative human condition. Which is funny, given that once, so many of them packed up and migrated — Abraham-like — to a land far away.  Most human beings wish to belong to a community of other human beings. I know I do. And I also know that here I’ve found a community that actually seems to want me in its midst. (Which, to be fair, was also true of the Saudi Muslims in knew in Columbus, Ohio.) But I also know the brutal and fiery result of the community’s demand for conformity. No matter how egalitarian and accepting a community or society will be, someone will always find themselves on the wrong side of the demand to conform, who will be thrown underneath its wheels, who will always be wounded by it. Because it will be experienced as brutality. Or it will actually be brutal. (It was both for me.) I don’t necessarily want to be accepted, or rather, I do not want to be made to fit into some great broad category that has been predetermined as “acceptable.” I merely want the space to do what God has called me to do among the people God has called me.

Frankly, I want to be tolerated. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

After An Octave, I Certainly Wouldn’t Complain

Okay, a brief refresher course on the long unused English Liquid Imperial Measurements. Ready, okay:
4 gills = 1 pint
2 pints = 1 quart
4 quarts = 1 gallon
9 gallons = 1 firkin (you knew that, right?)
18 gallons = 1 kilderkin 
36 gallons = 1 barrel (this is NOT the barrel used to measure crude oil, which is 42 gallons)
54 gallons = 1 hogshead (but pay attention, this is not always true)
72 gallons = 1 puncheon
108 gallons = 1 butt (two hogsheads are one butt … there’s an obscene joke in there somewhere)
216 gallons = 1 tun (two butts are a tun … that too is an obscene joke)
1 gallon of wine = six quart bottles
1/4 cask = 13 dozen quart bottles
Octave (or 1/8 cask) = 6 and 1/2 dozen quart bottles
Which means that 
1 cask = 52 dozen bottles, or 624 bottles of wine
Which is an awful lot of wine. Enough to drown perhaps an entire brotherhood of monks for a week at least, depending on how many brothers there are how they hold their wine. And how stingy the abbot is.
But careful, because
1 Hogshead of wine = 43-46 gallons
(and just for fun, and to make sure you’re paying attention)
1 Hogshead of rum = 45-50 gallons
Now that you have a passing familiarity with measurements that aren’t used anymore, this little advert from the back of a 1946 issue of Blackfiars, the monthly journal of the English Dominicans:

Obviously, Albert H. Wetz was selling wine in staggering amounts. For communion, of course (wink wink), but I find myself wondering: who on earth would complain about communion wine not being strong enough? Or is there something going on in English Catholicism in the middle of the 20th century, perhaps a Great Weak Wine Crisis, the kind of wine that didn’t give Father Marsh quite the nip and tuck he needed after a long Sunday of confession and baptizing and dominus vobiscum. And what is the highest strength of wine “permissible by Canon Law?” I suppose I ought to google that. Someday I will.

(Approbation is a good thing. No, I didn’t know that, though it’s fairly easy to ascertain from the context.)

Apparently, these folks still make and sell wine. I wonder if I can still get a firkin of the stuff. Sorry, an octave. That’s still a lot of wine.

(And I’m going to write the nice people at Mt. Gay Rum and see if they sell rum by the hogshead. The proper rum hogshead, and not some piddly wine hogshead…)

Can You Feel the Love Tonight?

So, how does a 27-year-old man show that he is the father of a nation  — and the figurative father — of 24 million people?

Simple: you show him caring for those people in a very fatherly way.

This is Kim Jong Un from a Korean
Central News Agency photo describing his visit to Korean People’s Army Air Force Unit 354. The news article that goes with this photo is the usual stuff you’d read from the KCNA about a visit of the Great Leader (any North Korean Great Leader) to any outpost of the state in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. He observes with great interest, he takes part in a very personal way in how the soldiers live and train, he exhorts their commanders to take good care of the soldiers who in turn tell of their love for their leader and their country (pilots singing songs while they fly over Pyongyang), and finally he shows he cares for the soldiers themselves by (in this instance) making sure they have enough water in their bathhouse and that it is the right temperature (checking it “personally”).

This is typical of all of the stories I’ve ever seen and Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

Now, I will not pretend I’ve made anything resembling an exhaustive study of North Korean propaganda. It’s a hobby for me, and I’m an amateur. But what I never saw Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il photographed doing was what Kim Jong Un is doing in this photo — hugging two air force officers.

No, he’s not just hugging them. He’s holding them. He’s comforting them. My guess is the two men are weeping, expressing their gratitude. (Whether it is real or faked is a question for another time.) The KCNA story does not explain the photo, and does not caption it (at least it does not do so in English; it may do that in Korean). There is a tenderness communicated by the photo. Even Kim Jong Un knew (or was well-coached) on how to look for this photo. He’s not quite the Virgin Mary with an all-knowing, all-caring and all-forgiving smile. But he is not bewildered either. He looks like a man who is comforting small children, and is slowly growing comfortable with that role.

This is, I think, an interesting way to construct an image of fatherly care for a young man who otherwise has no accomplishments of his own. Kim Il Sung could at least claim to have made the revolution and defeated the Americans in 1953. Kim Jong Il could at least claim to be Kim Il Sung’s son, and co-ruler during the last decade of the elder Kim’s life, who made North Korea a nuclear power and sent rockets into space. Both men could at least claim they were strong protectors. Kim Jong Un can claim … well, not very much.

Except that he cares for his people.

Plus, It’s Better Than Burning

I came across this recently while cataloging some bound periodicals in the seminary library. At first, I thought it ought to go on my other blog, Stuff Found in Library Books, because it is found in a library book. But this is actual content, not something that fell out when shaking to book or popped out when flipping pages. So, it goes here.

The Word is the magazine (now) of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, the Arabic-speaking flavor of orthodoxy in the United States. (Jennifer and I have worshiped at St. George’s in Cicero, and I love the liturgy in Arabic!) Once upon a time, it was published by the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese, before some mergers created a bigger church. We have copies of The Word bound going back to 1957 or 1958, and I spent a little time wandering through them (I work too fast, my boss keeps telling me, and she trouble keeping up with me, even when I plow through 90 volumes of Roman Catholic periodicals). And I found this somewhat strange yet charming item in Father Buben’s Question Box, an advice column, from February 1964:

What starts out as promising something a bit dour ends up as a charming invitation to the joys of married life. “[B]y all means, don’t let her escape.” This sounds like advice from a man who knows the joys of which he speaks.
Something else of note. It is interesting how important cotillions — debutante balls — were in Arab-American Christian communities in the 1950s and 1960s. Late spring was full of photos from Syriac churches across the country, from San Francisco to Brooklyn, featuring comely young dark-eyed lasses in their finery. Sometimes with an aged (but strangely smiling) orthodox bishop in his finery (which was usually more ornate than anything the women wore). By the early 1970s, however, the cotillion photos were gone. They still had lots of pictures of bishops and archbishops, however, and nary a one in a strapless cossack.

Wait, Palestine Has an Ambassador to North Korea?

There are places hierarchies send people because, well, they are out of the way and they are a good place to shove people who have caused trouble. Or they are such awful places to send people that those sent will get the message — you have done wrong. Not so much wrong that the bosses are going to arrest you and send you to prison, or fire you, but just enough wrong to be sent to that very special place where wrongdoers are sent. Because that place is so awful, so miserable, so boring that the wrongdoer will do anything — anything — to get out of that place.

So, my question is this: What on earth did Ismail Ahmed Mohamed Hasan do to deserve being the Palestinian ambassador to North Korea? Or are there worse postings for an ambassador from Palestine?

And aren’t those flowers lovely?

Pyongyang, January 19 (KCNA) — The dear respected Kim Jong Un received a floral basket from Mahmoud Abbas, chief of the Palestinian National Authority, with the approach of the lunar New Year, Juche 101. 

The floral basket was handed over to an official concerned by Palestinian Ambassador to the DPRK Ismail Ahmed Mohamed Hasan on Thursday. -0-

About the term “floral basket.” Kim Il Sung was constantly receiving floral baskets. As was Kim Jong Il. Not an issue of The People’s Korea that I have from the late 1980s goes by without Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il receiving a floral basket from someone: the foreign minister of Mozambique, the president of Bangladesh, the chairman of the Juche Study Committee in Uruguay, the second-vice secretary of the Korean-Finnish Friendship Society. Floral baskets for the erstwhile leader of North Korea is a big news item. On North Korean holidays, such as the birthdays of Great Leaders and Dear Leaders, the list of floral basket senders would simply go on and on. There was probably not an uncut flower within 100 kilometers of Pyongyang. There must be something in Korean culture — either the real culture or the invented mishmash that is the Juche Religion of the DPRK — that gives status to the floral basket, or to the one receiving the floral basket. And funny, all those short little stories about floral baskets, and I’d never actually seen a picture of one. Until now.

Running a flower shop in Pyongyang would be a very lucrative business, all those flower baskets.  Well, it would be, if you could legally do business in North Korea.

(I will, at some point, dig into the box where I keep all those copies of The People’s Korea that I have and go through them. It will be fun! It was something that got mailed to the San Francisco State University student newspaper, and no one else wanted them. All kinds of nonsense got mailed to our newspaper. Including a number of poorly made and horrifically racist rants by one Mark Margoian of Waukegan, Illinois. Which I kept, by the way. And if I’m feeling particularly daring, I’ll dig those horrible things out too.)