Businessmen and Entrepreneurs

A confession: I have not actually been listening to the GOP convention live. And I won’t be listening to the Democrat convention either. I am not a partisan politics junkie.

So I get all my stuff second hand, usually filtered through NPR (and knowing that NPR is as annoying as Harry Shearer’s “Continental Public Radio” parodies) or, increasingly from antiwar.com, The American Conservative, and occasionally salon.com (which can be more annoying and self-righteous, though not quite as vacuous, than even NPR). Which leaves me commenting on comments — blogging on blogs. And I always feel slightly fraudulent when I do that.

But *sigh*, today I cannot help myself. Scott Galupo over at The American Conservative was critical of what he saw as the content of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s speech:

In Ryan’s intellectual bubble, there are job creators and entrepreneurs on one side and parasites on the other. There is no account of the vast gray expanse of janitors, waitresses, hotel front-desk clerks, nurses, highway maintenance workers, airport baggage handlers, and taxi drivers. They work hard, but at the end of the day, what can they be said to have “built”?

And this is true. In the way I think Ryan means it — probably in the Randian, lone über-hero against the mediocre world of parasites — your typical laborer is most definitely not a entrepreneur. Samuel Goldman, in his comments on Galupo’s posting (I am blogging about someone’s comment on a blog — what have I come to?), notes that Republicans no longer have room in their understanding of the American dream for “those who don’t reach the towering heights of achievement” so that they “can hope for stable lives that include a reasonable measure of comfort.”

But I also remember reading this from the acceptance speech from the 1896 Democrat convention given by party nominee William Jennings Bryan:

We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.

Part of me finds little difference between Galupo’s estimation of Ryan thought and Bryan’s words. What, after all, is the difference between and “entrepreneur” and a “businessman”?
Except there is a great deal of difference here. Bryan is defending the dignity of labor — something I’m not sure Democrat or Republican elites know how to really do anymore. It’s certainly nothing either party would stoop to doing at this point. The man who works only with his muscles is still doing business — leasing his labor to someone who can pay. He still has property he trades on the open market, and deserves as much dignity and respect as any speculator or financier. Bryan is also defending the dignity of smallness in the face of bigness. 
Also, the sense I have is that missing from the Randian admiration of the heroic businessman is context. The reality is, most entrepreneurialism takes places within social networks, in communities, and does so in ways that makes sense to entrepreneur, investor and customer alike. And that seeks to minimize risk. (Because most entrepreneurs cannot get government to hedge risk and cover losses the way investment bankers have.) Entrepreneurialism almost entirely takes place within a web of cooperation and within a community. Bryan’s speech understands that. In effect, Bryan is defending a “property right” where those who most staunchly defended private property saw none to begin with. (It has always been interesting to me that labor is only viewed as property once it is paid for, and then it becomes the property of the one buying it, never the one selling it. I think our default moral model for employment is slavery.)
I suspect if pushed on the matter, Ryan would clearly get that. But the GOP has so bought into the language of heroic individuals — especially heroic capitalists battling the evil forces of predatory, regulatory government — that attempting to acknowledge the social grounding of entrepreneurialism is a form of socialism. Or perhaps even communism. Who ends up buying the goods and services provided by the heroic individual capitalist is then something of a mystery. 

God is Not With You This Day

For some reason, I cannot help but remember this Bible passage from the 35th chapter of 2 Chronicles when I think of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reports that he is pressing for some kind of unilateral Israeli military attack on Iran, possibly to influence the U.S. election:

(20) After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Neco king of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates and Josiah went out to meet him. (21) But he sent envoys to him, saying, “What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day, but against the house with which I am at war. And God has commanded me to hurry. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.” (22) Nevertheless, Josiah did not turn away from him, but disguised himself in order to fight with him. He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God, but came to fight in the plain of Megiddo. (23) And the archers shot King Josiah. And the king said to his servants, “Take me away, for I am badly wounded.” (24) So his servants took him out of the chariot and carried him in his second chariot and brought him to Jerusalem. And he died and was buried in the tombs of his fathers. All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. (25) Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah; and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a rule in Israel; behold, they are written in the Laments. (2 Chronicles 35:2-25, ESV)

There is no obvious analogy to draw — Egypt was not at war or even actively hostile to Judah in the Bible account, while Iran is actively hostile to Israel, and Iran’s resources and reach were nothing compared to that of Egypt’s at the time. 
Except that what strikes me here is the portrayal of King Josiah of Judah’s absolute recklessness. He need not have picked a fight with Pharaoh Neco (who ended up choosing several of his successors, according to the Chronicles account). In many ways, this is a stunning account. (The version in 2 Kings lacks the detail, merely saying that Josiah joined battle with Neco at Megiddo as the Egyptian army was on its way to do battle with Assyria.) Josiah was the good king — the priest Hilkiah finds and reads the 
Book of Moses, and Josiah leads the people of Judah in repenting, celebrating the passover in a way it had not been kept

… in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet. None of the kings of Israel had kept such a passover as was kept by Josiah… (2 Chronicles 35:18, ESV)

So, far all his adherence to the covenant (something I don’t credit Netanyahu with either), the account that Josiah rode out at the head of his army to fight Egypt when no fight was needed, when the Pharaoh of Egypt wondered what was itching Josiah’s so that he had to wage war, and that the voice of Pharaoh  was the voice of God telling him to go home — those are big deals in this account. Josiah was so itching to fight Egypt that he “disguised himself” (“donned [his armor] to fight him” in the JPS Tanakh) to lead his army out to fight. That’s strange behavior for a good king, one who understood the importance of the teaching of Moses and the right worship of God.
That’s what makes me think of Benjamin Netanyahu right now. I’ve never liked the man, not since he was Israel’s spokesman in the United States in the early 1990s. I’ve never met him. But he seems to me like the kind of man who would pick a fight, a senseless and stupid fight, without any appreciation of the consequences. And he’d even work hard at picking that fight. Simply to fight. 
Big difference, though. If he picks a fight, he won’t die on that battlefield.

Take the Time to Listen

When I was little, one of my great loves was the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. I discovered the CBSRMT the winter after we moved to California in 1977, and almost every night, I would curl up with my radio and listen (and usually fall asleep) beginning at 9 p.m.

Radio programming, like television, was a hit and miss affair. Some old radio shows have worn well, and some have not. The same was true of the CBSRMT. It was not always good. In fact, sometimes it was pretty awful. But it filled my ten and 11-year-old imagination well. And it was mine, space away from my parents and the awfulness that was school.

In 2009, Jennifer and I bought the whole series, which is available on DVD. Informally available, I think (carefully culled from recordings made by fans). But still for sale. While some episodes have had the commercials and newscasts stripped from them, some have not. And it’s fun, listening to CBS hourly news bulletins from 1974 or 1977.

But the commercials can be fun, too. I’d forgotten that the Mormons had blanketed the country with radio and teevee adverts in the 1970s (and early 1980s, I think). And I’d forgotten as well that the Franciscans also ran some commercials. Well, not really commercials. More like public service announcements. The kind of thing that people were going to spend money on in the 1970s, and haven’t spent money on since. (I recall Lutheran adverts too, come to think of it, but I may be wrong.)

This is one of several LDS Church adverts. It focuses on some significant LDS Church themes, but the underlying theme here is family. Make time to listen is, here, to also make time for family.

This in some ways could almost be the same advert, or at least serve the same purposes, as the above advert. No, that’s not quite it. It’s a mirror image of the above.  Tired of faking it, thinking that faking it would accomplish his goals, the speaker in this advert discovers that he finally gets the “everyday love” he wants be acknowledging his limitations and his finiteness too. He could be talking about anyone — coworkers, maybe — but it really sounds like he’s talking about his family. Or at least that’s how it feels:

By the late 1970s, there was less of this stuff on the radio, and by the early 1980s (the last year for the CBSRMT was 1982), it was gone completely. These folks advertised a lot well into the late 1970s, and it’s never really clear from their adverts who they are or what they believed.

It’s kind of odd to think that religious groups actually advertised, but I think was generally part of the whole “feel better about yourself” think that was drifting through the air in the early 1970s. I’m trying to imagine anyone doing this kind of thing today. It may be happening and I’m just not paying attention.

On Being Particular

One of the foundational elements, or so it seems, of much of Western thinking is the claim to universality — that ideas, principles and values are only morally legitimate if they apply to all human beings equally in all times and in all places. Kant was hardly unique in this (as he tried to distinguish universal Christianity from particular Judaism) — such was the result of many centuries of Christian thinking. Such universalism clearly informs medieval natural law theory, for example.

For good social democrats and secular humanists, the idea of the universal allegedly does away with all of the scandalous things that derive from particularism — racism, slavery, nationalism, militarism, all the abuse of human beings somewhat grounded in the “we are chosen and you are not” or “by dint of culture/civilization/technology/values, we are entitled to dominate or exclude you.” (Most conservative American Christians are good liberals in this regard.) I find this assertion both troubling and untrue, mostly because it ignores how universalism also entitles and empowers. “No one is free until everyone is free.” That may sound like liberation, but when it’s said by the powerful, it is an amazing justification for empire.

And universalism is an amazing justification for empire.

I don’t think it’s any stretch to say today that liberal nationalism is the world’s ruling ideal. It claims to be universal, and is claimed by many of adherents to be universal. By that, it is the direction history is inexorably taking humanity (and is morally superior to all previous social and governing arrangements), it is how all of the world’s people either desire to live or would desire to live if they could, and it supposedly leaves room for national and individual autonomy of sorts, for some amount of local difference. What liberal nationalism isn’t, at least in the eyes of its firmest believers, is a form of empire.

This is the last essay I’m going to write from Stanley Hauerwas’ latest book, War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity. Hauerwas believes it is imperative for Christians to abandon the conceit of universalism — and along with it, empire — and embrace the very particularism of God. In doing so, he spends so quality with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations. Hauerwas writes:

Sacks acknowledges that his refusal to abandon the distinctive perspective of Judaism means some will brand him a “tribalist.” Yet he argues that the very universalism that many assume to be the antithesis to the resurgence of tribalism, or worse terrorism, is an inadequate account of the human condition. A global culture may bring about much good, but from Sacks’ perspective, such cultures, particularly when they take the form of empires, do much harm because they fail to be capable of acknowledging difference. That Sacks should distrust the universal pretensions of empires is not surprising, for, as he observes, Judaism was born as a protest against empire. (p. 118)

Hauerwas examines the narrative many Christians (and more than a few Jews) tell about the Tower of Babel, noting that “for Sacks, Babel represents a turning point in history. For after Babel, God, who had first made a covenant with all creation, chooses to call out one people that they may be a witness to God’s will for all people.” (p. 118) Judaism is itself a very particular endeavor, a message addressed to a very particular people.

Let’s examine this in the light of the Decalogue, the teaching given to Israel in the wilderness. Throughout Christian history, the Ten Commandments (or at least the second table) have been seen as a kind-of universal natural law for all humanity. Things most people believe, more or less, and that are therefore somehow written on human hearts or somehow inscribed on human souls. (That this discussion took place in medieval Christian Europe should give some pause to these claims.) The Ten Commandments are good rules for living, then. Rules all people can and should follow. Because they just make sense.

But do they? If they make sense, why did Israel’s God wait to give this teaching to Israel in the wilderness of Sinai after yanking Israel out of Egypt? Aren’t these good rules for Egypt, too? In fact, if they were good rules for humanity, a guide to righteous and upright living, why didn’t God just sit down with Pharaoh and tell him “Inscribe these on stella across your land, so that all the people may know how to live.” I don’t much like asking this kinds of questions. But I also believe the story of scripture tells us something, and we don’t have the story I outlined above. We have a very different story. God gave this teaching to a people God had just formed, formed in trauma,  a people God had just rescued and redeemed (but in a way none of them had asked for).

The Ten Commandments are not a teaching given to all humanity. They are not meant to be posted in classrooms and in front of country courthouses. They are not universal guides to living upright and good, moral lives. God did not give the Ten Commandments to all humanity. God gave them to Israel, and by dint of our being grafted into Israel through Jesus Christ, to the church. They are an attempt by God to show those of us who have been called to be God’s people what it means to live in relationship with the God who called us and gathers us. And with each other. It is not our adherence to the teaching that makes us God’s people; the calling and gathering by God comes first.

And because God makes us God’s people, we cannot be “ungathered” through our own efforts. Whether we adhere to the teaching or not does not unmake us God’s people. Scripture clearly tells the story of consequences for failing or refusing to adhere to the teaching of God (conquest and exile), but none of that undoes God’s calling as us God’s people. The Bible is also clear that as time goes on, and as God’s people live in and with the consequences of things, God continually comes to meet them, and to change how the promises of God are realized in, for and with God’s people.

But God’s people Israel-Church never, never stop being God’s people. God won’t have it.

That, however, is not how empire works. Or human universalism. Unity and gathering are not the product of God’s work, but of human work. Hauerwas writes that the Christian answer to Babel is traditonally Pentecost:

Christians there have gone into the world with missionary zeal convinced that they possess the truth that all people desire even if they have not yet realized it. The political form this presumption took is called Constantinianism, which has taken many different forms, but [Ernst] Troeltsch’s claim for the inseparability of Christianity and Europe is as good an example as one could want for one of its most recent incarnations. 

It is, or course, hard to know which came first, that is, the presumption that the Christian faith represents universal knowledge that only needs to be explained to those who are not yet Christian, or the politics of empire. Either way it is now clear that Christian presumption of universality either as knowledge qua knowledge or as politics is — or at least should be — over. This does not mean I believe the Christian faith is not true, but that what it means for it to be true cannot be secured by a theory of truth more determinative than the faith itself. (p. 120-121)

Pentecost doesn’t undo what God did in confusing human speech at Babel. Rather, it changes what difference means. Difference, when we approach neighbors in love and vulnerability, becomes a way for Christians to know and encounter neighbors. “Pentecost has restored Babel not by mitigating the diversity granted by Babel but by creating a people who have learned how to be patient, how to be at peace, how to listen in a world of impatient violence.” (p. 132)

Christians will do ourselves or our neighbor little good by trying to convince those who do not share our story that we also can be liberal cosmopolitans. Rather, we must by what we are: the church of Jesus Christ. For if that church is not the anticipation of the peace God will for all people then we are without hope. To sustain that peace, to care for the stranger when all strangers cannot be cared for, to know how to go on in the face of our suffering, the suffering of those we love and the suffering of those we do not know, is possible because we believe God abandons no one. Our belief in God’s persistence takes the form of a story which receives us as strangers and destines us to be friends. 

The Christian word for universality is “catholic.” Indeed that way of putting the matter can be misleading because it gives the impression that “catholic” is another way of saying “universal.” But catholic is not the name of a logical category or philosophical position. It is the name of a people sent into the world to discover places and people whose difference is a necessary condition for self-recognition. Indeed the very presumption we can identify something called the world depends on a people who have been separated from the world to be of service to the world. What the church offers is the patience and the humility learned through the gospel, which teaches us how to live at peace although we cannot write the history of humankind. (p.130-131)

The church “is the name of a people sent into the world to discover places and people whose difference is a necessary condition for self-recognition.”I think I’m going to leave it there.

The Essential Intolerance of Liberalism

Abdal Hakim Murad, writing at the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s website, has a fascinating essay on the conflict in Europe between secularism and Islam (though other conservative religions are not immune either):

Europe may be economically inclusive, and passionately liberal and libertarian, but ultimately, to be itself, it must be exclusive of non-Christians, and of Muslims above all. The old Crusading cry of “Christians are right, and pagans are wrong,” has been modified by replacing the “Christians” with gay activists and human rights commissioners.

Murad asks: “to be Europeans, must we be liberals?” He then notes that there is a fairly broad consensus among European liberals in favor of banning Muslim headscarves for women and preventing the building of minarets on masjids (and other overt acts of public worship and private belief). He goes on to describe this trend, using France’s National Front as an example:

In fact, it is probably the case that the so-called far-right parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s Fronte Nationale, are in fact not far to the right of the political spectrum at all. They are best seen as coercive liberal parties, their social and fiscal policies placing them somewhere in the centre-right of the political spectrum, but so passionate about the unique truth of liberalism that they seek to punish those who fail to comply with present liberal social beliefs.

Coercive liberalism. A liberalism which cannot tolerate dissent of “liberal values” and ideals. In the case of secular liberal Europe, Murad notes those values are feminism and gay rights, and strangely enough, Murad finds that much of the support for secular right wing parties in Europe tends to be strongest among the secular center-left. 
I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow of this article — read it for yourself — but Murad asks a very interesting question of liberals and liberalism, one that needs to be asked (because liberals, assuming their own tolerance, are not going to ask it):

In the [UK’s] Muslim schools, where citizenship training is apparently in even greater disarray, Ofted says: “We must not allow recognition of diversity to become apathy in the face of any challenge to our coherence as a nation. We must be intolerant of intolerance.” 

Here, I think, the official finger rests on the Achilles heel of secular liberal ethics. If we must be intolerant of intolerance, then can liberalism tolerate anything other than itself? If Europe defines citizenship in terms of adherence to a set moral template, with all else defined as intolerable, how can Europe ever positively experience real difference, which more often than not is bound up with good, or bad, religion?

I think this is an important to question to ask, and not just of Europeans. Can liberalism tolerate anything other than itself? In effect, liberalism — especially when a governing ideology — demands all allegiance to the secular nation-state (Murad’s evaluation of Germany’s citizenship exam in the essay is interesting in this regard) as the one true thing held in common. (As Murad notes: “European liberals – with their Enlightenment, civil society, democratic institutions and human rights codes – sometimes seem to self-define as a secular Messiah, willing and ready to save the world. To resist is, by implication, to align oneself with an unregenerate, sinful humanity.”) Liberalism’s acceptance of “diversity” or toleration of “difference” is not real, especially when that difference or diversity is fundamental. Liberalism’s acceptance of difference and embrace of diversity only goes so far as all of those included accept the principles and values of liberalism and submit themselves to liberalism, including the state. Thus, those who either fail or refuse to conform are marginalized or excluded, sometimes violently.

This is what Liberalism does, and that makes it no different from any other means of organizing people, communities and polities.

Murad is right to call liberalism a religion. And a particularly intolerant one at that. (He rightly also links that historically to the intolerance of real religious difference in Christendom.) While things are not quite this way in the United States, we live with a version of this. (Indeed, as Americans, we live with a “religious” version of this in so-called Conservative Christians.) I wonder, after reading this piece, just how much liberal Christianity’s embrace of “tolerance and diversity” is really a grafting of Liberalism into or onto (or, more likely, instead of) an understanding of the purpose of the church, and how dogmatic this “tolerance and diversity” really are. One of the reasons I believe the Liberal Churches are so comfortable with secularism is that they form their moral templates with the same materials that secular liberals do — in this case, feminism and gay rights.

Which means as well that Liberal Churches in America are also going to be comfortable with Liberalism’s essential intolerance and exclusion of anything that isn’t (or isn’t seen to be) liberal. (And I think Liberalism’s fundamental intolerance was on full display in the complete nonsense over Chik-fil-A in the last couple of weeks.)

UPDATE: Scott Galupo at The American Conservative has some things to say about the nonsense at Chik-fil-A and an American element of the Liberal creed he calls “Make Money and Mind Your Own Business”:

This is the statement of belief about which nearly everyone in our pluralistic society can agree. It’s not the “thickest” or morally expressive of credos, but it has proved durable. Free-market conservatives are as invested in it as progressive liberals are. The assimilation of blacks in the last century into mainstream American economic life was perhaps its greatest challenge as well as triumph. We told ourselves this: Our constitutional order was only partially flawed — and it was flawed in a convenient way. The problem was not its fundamental morality but rather that it excluded black citizens from their right to Make Money and Mind Their Own Business. The economic liberty of whites to do as they pleased with their private property was circumscribed. But federal coercion was the price we had to pay to uphold the legitimizing promise of the credo. 

The assimilation of gays is turning out to be a more devilish task. On one side are traditionalist conservatives who believe, not without justification, that opposing same-sex marriage does not violate the neutralist credo. In this view, gays are free to make money and to live free from persecution. That they may not marry is merely a function of the immutable nature of an institution designed for a man and a woman. Traditionalists are saying, You are free to live as you please — but on the question of marriage, our hands are tied.

The logic of liberal neutrality often leads to liberal affirmation. Gays are no longer content to make money and mind their own business. They seek a broader validation. And the credo can’t give it to them. 

Eventually, traditionalists are going to bend — because it’s in the nature of liberalism to make them bend. 

In the meantime, tempers will flare.

Now Here’s A Youth Gathering!

In what looks like old home week for a group of Comecon nations, young people from China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Russia and North Korea are meeting in North Korea to, well, raise a flag, lay a floral basket at the base of a statue of Kim Il Sung (no visit to North Korea is complete without it!), splash in the ocean, make sand castles on the beach, and learn about each other while they do their thing.

Pyongyang, August 4 (KCNA) — Schoolchildren from various countries began their camping at the Songdowon International Children’s Camp, located on the east coast of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 

They spend pleasant times at the seaside with swimming, boating, sports and amusement games, etc, getting together. 

A camper from China told KCNA: 

“It is a big fortune for me to come here. I’ve got to know a lot of things about the culture and history of Korea. 

I am thankful to respected Marshal Kim Jong Un for the loving care given to us campers.”
A camper from Mongolia said: 

“Days here in the camp are so enjoyable. This is the first time for me to see the sea.
It is very funny to play with campers from different countries. I want to come here again in the future.” 

Hong Jin Hyok, a 13-year-old student at Kumsong Secondary School No.1, said:
“Now I feel refreshed after having a sea bathing. During the camping, I will further train my body and deepen my knowledge to be an able man for the country.”

I cannot tell from the video whether there are kids from countries other than what was listed in the video. (Note the Korean Central News Agency: please, please, please, please, please, please set your website up so I can link to your videos!) But no group here marches as well as the North Koreans. Not the Russians, not the Chinese, and certainly not the Mongols.

And something creepy. While this is hardly a communist youth gathering, it looks for all the world like on of the Russian youth groups have a rifle muzzle and bayonet pointing upward on their shirts, along with a red star and some kind of olive branch thing. There are several Russian youth groups here, and only one of the groups sports a bayonet on their shirts. (Whew!) While most of the Russians were having too much fun to march well, the young man above (image taken from the 1:16 mark in the video) really got into marching the youth gathering flag out and being part of the group of four kids who hoisted it.

Two of the countries whose youth have come to North Korea.

Two of the Russian groups. 

One happy young camper from Mongolia. No bayonet on this young man’s tee shirt!

UPDATE: Ooops, my bad. It appears the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was never a member of Comecon.

SECOND UPDATE: I am looking at another video, and it appears that the Vietnamese youth group is wearing tee shirts that say, in English, “Good Morning Vietnam.” I cannot tell for sure, but if it’s true, what’s THAT all about?

Why Justice is a Bad Idea (-OR- What the Justice of God Really Is)

One of the many controversial things Stanley Hauerwas has said and written is “justice is a bad idea.” It’s a statement I have emphatically agreed with ever since I first read it, especially as a critique of progressive protestantism. In War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, Hauerwas does the best job of explaining very simply what he means by the above statement and more importantly, what he thinks God’s justice actually looks like:

[M]y suggestion that justice is a bad idea was meant to call into question abstract accounts of justice often associated with liberal political theory, which assumes a just social order is possible without the people who constitute that order being just. My worry about appeals to justice in advanced capitalist societies has been that such appeals can blind us to the ways our lives may be implicated in fundamental forms of injustice. 

However, my deeper worry about appeals to justice has been theological. Reinhold Niebuhr, in the interest of making Christianity politically responsible, argued that in matters of politics Jesus must be left behind, because the political work necessary for the achievement of justice requires coercion and even violence. For Niebuhr, “justice” names the arrangements necessary to secure more equitable forms of life when we cannot love all neighbors equally. Good Barthian that I am, I worry that justice so understood becomes more important that the justice of God found in the cross and resurrection of Christ. (p. 100)

Hauerwas then draws heavily from Dan Bell’s essay “Jesus, the Jews, and the Politics of God’s Justice,” noting that if Jesus is the Justice of God, then Christians cannot help be be passionate for justice because “we are in agreement that God does justice and so should we.” However:

… [Bell] thinks such agreement is part of the problem, just to the extent that the Christian enthusiasm for justice distorts our reading of Scripture. He is particularly critical of an approach he characterizes as “social justice advocacy” for how its adherents approach Scripture. For according to Bell, advocates of social justice read scripture for values and principles they think crucial to motivate Christians, in Bell’s words, “to get off their pews, leave the stained glass bliss of the congregation and its liturgy behind, and go out into the world to do justice.” 

Such an approach, Bell notes, presents justice as an external standard to which Christianity is accountable. Indeed, it is assumed, and therefore it is also assumed that justice can be understood apart from Christian theologian convictions and practices. Human rights, for example, are defended in a manner that renders irrelevant what Christians believe or do not believe about God. Such a view of justice, as well as the approach to Scripture associated with justice so conceived, Bell argues, is determined by the modern political context. 

That context, moreover, is one in which the church is assumed to be apolitical and, therefore, not relevant for determining how to know as well as do justice. Such a view of justice thus reinforces the politics of modernity, in which “the church is consigned to the role of cultural custodian of values rightly cordoned off from political practice, which finds its highest expression and guarantor in the nation-state.” Desperate to show the social relevance of the church, Christians ironically underwrite in the name of justice an account of social relations that presumes a privatized account of Christian convictions and the church. (p. 101-102)

Hauwerwas is also very critical of how Jesus is used in the “social justice advocacy” approach:

Jesus is relegated to being a motivator to encourage Christians to get involved in struggles for justice. Even if Jesus is thought to have practiced justice in his ministry, he is appealed to as a symbol or example. What really matters is not Jesus, but justice. This understanding of justice not only displaced Jesus, but also displaces the Jews as crucial for determining what we mean by justice. Social justice advocates often direct attention to the call for justice made by the prophets, but the justice for which the prophets called is often assumed to be universal in a manner that has no particular or intrinsic relation to the Jewish people. (p. 102)

This does a fairly good job of summing things up. The problem he — and I — have with justice talk is threefold:

  1. Justice is an abstract idea unmoored from the concrete practices of liturgy and daily living.
  2. The calls for justice in scripture are abstract an universal — God is speaking to all humanity — rather than God speaking to a very particular people in a very particular place in very particular circumstances.
  3. Justice as understood is heavily reliant on the exercise of state power and state violence (or at least appeals to state action) to reorder the world in a more”just” way.

Hauerwas spends a couple of paragraphs dealing with the more theologically conservative approach that Bell calls “justice as justification,” which centers God’s saving act on the individual who either accepts or rejects God’s saving work in Christ. But his strongest critique is of liberal or progressive Christianity.

I will not spend much time detailing Hauerwas’ critique of rights language, especially the language of human rights. In his Gifford lectures, Hauerwas destroyed my libertarianism by describing the rise of individual rights not as resistance to the state, but as emanating from the expanding power of the state. Every right is actually a claim, and when the nation-state has a monopoly on force, coercion and violence, every claim empowers the state to act as the agent of the claim. More individual rights means more state power! (I’ve read the argument elsewhere, and I agree with it.) Hauerwas notes that human rights as constructed are not significantly grounded in either scripture or canon law (despite constant attempts to plant them there) and in any case, are universalized in a way to make the secularly intelligible in a way that makes the story of God encounter with God’s people in scripture irrelevant.

So what is justice for Hauerwas? Does he even have a vision of justice? He does. Jesus is the justice of God. Citing Bell again, Hauerwas states clearly:

[A] text like Matthew 25:31-45 makes clear that the works of mercy are not principles or values that then must be translated into a universal or secular vision of justice. Rather, they summon us to participate in God’s redemption by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harboring the stranger, visiting the sick, ministering to prisoners, and burying the dead. Such is the way, Bell suggests, that we learn what it means for Jesus to be the justice of God. (p. 115)

We who are church, as the body of Christ in the world, are God’s justice, insofar as we are joined to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in baptism. We are called not just to do, but to be God’s justice. In the debate over national health care and the insurance mandate, for example, rather than lobby for state policies, it would have been better for the church — if the church were honestly concerned about healing the sick — to actually care for the sick, rather than demand the reorienting of society in ways we believe to be more “just” (including demands for the exercise of state power, which always includes the possibility of state violence).

For Hauerwas, the best example he can find for how justice is actually done is in Hans Reinder’s Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology and Ethics:

Reinders observes that much good has been done in the name of disability rights for creating new opportunities, as well as institutional space, for the disabled. But such an understanding of justice is not sufficient if we listen to the disabled. They do not seek to be tolerated or even respected because they have rights. Rather they seek to share their lives with us, and they want us to share our lives with them. In short, they want us to be claimed and to claim one another in friendship. (p. 115)

God has not created, or even called for a theory of justice, Hauerwas writes. Rather, “God has called into the world a people capable of transgressing the borders of the nation-state to seek the welfare of the downtrodden.” We are God’s justice when we cross boundaries, when we meet strangers and make them friends, when we share our lives with people and welcome them into our lives. That, and not abstract ideals or a partisan political program, is justice. And we’re not called to make others do the work when we are unwilling. Or to rewrite the rules of society so it will somehow be “easier” to do this. We are called to do this very hard work ourselves. And without any regard to the rules or structure or order of the society in which we live.

Songs I Love — Madness, “Yesterday’s Men” (1985)

Everyone has a guilty pleasure record. A collection of songs that are not particularly good, or well made, but you cannot help but listen to anyway. For whatever reason. Awfulness is not a consideration. It just isn’t.

Madness’ 1985 album, Mad Not Mad, is my guilty pleasure.

I remember the day I bought this cassette. Not knowing there was a even a Madness album coming, I remember walking into Rhino Records in Claremont, seeing the single for “Uncle Sam” on display, and going “really?” I bought the cassette, popped it into the player in my car, and as the first notes of “I’ll Compete” came pouring out of the speakers, I remember thinking:

What the hell is this crap?

Oh, because Mad Not Mad is a pretty crappy album. From top to bottom. From agonizing beginning to computerized end. I’m trying to give serious consideration to which song on this wretched collection is the worst — the tawdry political awfulness of “Burning the Boats,” the Yamaha DX-7 bells from hell on the title track “Mad Not Mad,” the utter parody of a Madness pop song with “White Heat” (and the banjo! the &*@$% banjo!), the never-ending nightmare that is their send up of Scritti Politti’s “Sweetest Girl” (I once did a whole radio newscast with the extended instrumental mix as my background), or the fourth-rate I-love-you-because-you’re-my-brother schtick of “Tears You Can’t Hide.” There’s just so much awful to pick on this album, it’s hard to know exactly where to start.

And yet. The first single, “Yesterday’s Men,” is a gem. It’s a lovely little song. Yes, It’s almost completely ruined by the production, which has too much percussion, some keyboard thing sequenced rhythmically in the background, something that sounds like a French horn that doesn’t really belong there, and between Afrodiziak and the army of Jimmys singing backing vocals (what ever happened to Carl Smyth singing anyway? you would think a band with two dedicated vocalists wouldn’t need a troupe of backup singers), there’s almost too much here. (At least the UK version of this song didn’t have the harmnoica solo.) This would have made a sweet little reggae song — guitar, organ, bass, a little less drum, a section of saxophones, trombones and trumpets doing what the strings are doing. Suggs and Carl and maybe Lee doing all the singing (although it probably needs the girls of Afrodiziak to fill in some things). This could have been, and should have been, a much simpler song.

And yet. The words get me. They got me from the beginning:

An insolent speck of youth
Being taken for a walk
So tightly by the ear
That he can hardly talk
Yesterday’s men hang on to today
To sing in the old way
It must get better in the long run
Has to get better in the long run

A metropolitan marathon
Has been held today
But who you need to catch
Will be coming the other way

Yesterday’s men hang to today
To sing in any old way
It must get better in the long run
Has to get better in the long run

Because when you’re told to start
How far can you go
When your race is won
And you already know…

There’s an air of resignation to this song. You can hear it in the sound of Suggs striking the match at the beginning of song, lighting the cigarette and taking a drag. This is a tired song, sung by the tired singer of a tired band, a band tired of the world. Which is why Lee’s sax works better than Judd Lander’s harmonica — Lee sounds a bit tired too. It’s one of Lee’s better solos. And yet, there’s hanging on. To today. I’m not going to give these lyrics a depth they don’t deserve. But as tired as this song, there’s an almost hopefulness to it as well.

Watch the official video for “Yesterday’s Men” here (the content is blocked outside of Youtube). Yeah, it’s an 80’s video, and some of the visual images only kind of make sense. What can I say?

Here’s the 12-inch extended mix which highlights some of what’s overdone in this song. It also manages to have both the harmonica and the sax solos (basically, the song plays twice, more or less).

Now, the interesting thing about Mad Not Mad is the b-sides of all three singles were actually really good songs. In part, they weren’t produced in the same way, so they weren’t overdone. “All I Knew,” the b-side to “Yesterday’s Men,” is quite possibly a better song than the a-side. I think the drum and bass parts could have been better — again, this wants more of a reggae feel than the band gave it. But there’s a beautiful simplicity to this song that the a-side could have used. (I think that’s the reason this is one of a tiny handful of b-sides included on the 3-CD Guided Tour of Madness collection.)

The b-side to “Uncle Sam” was a little guitar ripper called “Please Don’t Go,” which sounds ever so vaguely Beatles-esque. (I am not responsible for any damages to your mental faculties caused by listening to the “Sweetest Girl” extended mix. You have been warned.)

And even this, “Jennie (A Portrait Of),” which was the b-side to “Sweetest Girl,” manages to work reasonably well, largely because it’s done so simply (even with the flanged synth sound, which is probably a high hat trigger) and yet in a way that plays to the band’s post-Mike Barson musical strength, especially the tenor and baritone sax honking away. (That Madness would call it quits by the end of 1986 really wasn’t a surprise, because they were a tired and worn out band after Barson left in 1984.)

Yesterday’s men hang to today
To sing in any old way
It must get better in the long run
Has to get better in the long run…

“War is America’s Altar”

Stanley Hauerwas spends a couple of chapters of War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity dealing with the role of war in the American national and religious identity. He begins with an evaluation of just war theory and “realism,” particularly the approach to Christian governance espoused in the 20th century by Reinhold Niebuhr. (Niebuhr is never one of Hauerwas’ favorites, and in his Gifford Lectures, Hauerwas is heavily critical of Niebuhr’s failure to have an ecclesiology — Niebuhr sees no role for the church as bearing God or witnessing to God’s presence in history in a world of nation-states.)

After briefly evaluating Augustine and Martin Luther, Hauerwas writes:

Reinhold Niebuhr understood himself to stand in this “realist” tradition. In 1940 in his “Open Letter (to Richard Roberts),” Niebuhr explains why he left the Fellowship of Reconciliation: he did not believe that “war is merely an ‘incident’ in human history” but rather that it “is a final revelation of the very character of human history.” According to Niebuhr the incarnation is not “redemption” from history as conflict because sinful egoism continues to express itself at every level of human life, making it impossible to overcome the contradictions of human history. Niebuhr, therefore, accuses pacifists of failing to understand the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith.” From Niebuhr’s perspective, pacifists are captured by a perfectionism that is more “deeply engulfed in illusion about nature than the Catholic pretensions, against which the Reformation was a protest.” 

“Just war” proponents argue that war is justified because our task as Christians and as citizens is first and foremost to seek justice. Paul Ramsey understood his attempt to recover just war as a theory of statecraft to be “an extension within the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.” Ramsay saw, however, that there was more to be said about “justice in war than was articulated in Niebuhr’s sense of the ambiguities of politics and his greater/lesser evil doctrine of the use of force.” That “something more,” Ramsey asserted, is the principle of discrimination, which requires that war be subject to political purpose through which war might be limited and conducted justly, that is, that noncombatants be protected. 

Yet it is by no means clear if just war reflection can be yoked consistently to a Niebuhrian realism. Augustine and Luther’s “realism” presupposed there was another city [the church] that could at least call into question state powers. For Niebuhr, realism names the development of states and an international nation-state system that cannot be challenged. Niebuhrian realism assumes that war is a permanent reality for the relation between states because no overriding authority exists that might make war analogous to the police functions of the state. Therefore each political society has the right to wage war because it is assumed that doing so is part of its divinely ordained work of preservation. “Realism” therefore, names the reality that at the end of the day in the world of international relations, the nations with the largest army get to determine what counts for “justice.” To use Augustine or Luther to justify this understanding of “realism” is in effect to turn a description into a recommendation. (p. 23-24)

Which is my primary complaint with Martin Luther, who describes well but proscribes poorly in his essay on the use of temporal power and what Lutherans (and others) have come to call the “two kingdoms” theology.

Hauerwas then deals a little with international law and the nation-state order, which now requires that governments undertake war with just intentions.

This means that a war can be undertaken only if peace, which is understood as a concept for a more “embracing and stable order,” be the reason a state gives for going to war. The requirement that the intention for going to war be so understood as an expression of love for the enemy just to the extent that the lasting order be one that encompasses the interests of the enemy. (p. 25)

Which leads to a wonderfully snarky comment from Hauerwas:

And pacifists are said to be unrealistic?

And Hauerwas begins to get down to the centrality of war, particularly total war, in the context of American democracy. He focuses heavily on the Civil War because it became the moral template for how Americans understood themselves and what war did for, to and with them.

I think the lack of realism about realism by American just war advocates has everything to do with them being American. In particular, American advocates of just war seem to presume that democratic societies place an inherent limit on war that more authoritarian societies are unable to do. While such a view is quite understandable, I want to suggest that democratic societies, or at least the American version of democracy, are unable to set limits on war because they are democratic. Put even more strongly, for Americans, war is necessary to sustain our belief that we are worthy to be recipients of the sacrifices made on our behalf in past wars. Americans are a people born of and in war, particularly the Civil War, and only war can sustain our belief that we are a people set apart. (p. 27)

Hauerwas then reviews how pastors and preachers on both sides of the Civil War saw the war as both an atonement for sin but also as a blood sacrifice necessary if the American people were “to inherit their providential destiny.” (p. 30) Such ideas became enshrined in the few short words of the Gettysburg Address, which Hauerwas describes as “chilling” (and rightly so):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Which prompts Hauerwas to write:

A nation determined by such words, such elegant and powerful words, simply does not have the capacity to keep war limited. A just war that can only be fought for limited political purposes cannot and should not be understood in terms shaped by the Gettysburg Address. Yet after the Civil War, Americans think they must go to war to ensure that those who died in our past wars did not die in vain. Thus American wars are justified as a “war to end all wars” or “freedom.” Whatever may be the realist presuppositions of those who lead America to war, those presuppositions cannot be used as the reasons given to justify the war. To do so would betray the tradition of war established in the Civil War. Wars, American wars, must be wars in which the sacrifices of those doing the dying and the killing have redemptive purpose and justification. War is America’s altar. Confronted by such a tradition of war, the attempts to justify war using just war considerations, no matter how sincerely done, cannot help but be ideological mystifications. (p. 32-33)

War, then, in the American context, is a continual redemptive sacrifice, a sacrifice that redeems the world, that redeems America. It is purpose. It is meaning. It may be the only real shared meaning Americans have.

Finally, Hauerwas notes that while there was ink about the need for the Civil War before and during the conflict, a conflict that would redeem and remake the nation (simply consider the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”), the war itself — and its outcome — provoked almost no theological reflection either by the winners (many of whom wandered away to other causes) or by the losers.

In his book, The Civil War as Theological Crisis, Mark Noll asks why the Civil War, in contrast to past wars, produced no “deep theological insights from either elites of the masses.” At least one of the reasons may be be, as Noll amply documents, that religious thinkers in America assumed the people of America had a covenantal relationship with God. America was identified with the ttibes of Israel in which is was assumed that the federal union “created a higher bond than the bond constituted by the unity of all Christian believers in the church.” This was combined with the confidence of the Enlightenment that the common man was capable of reading Scripture without guidance from any authority, which meant that it was a simple matter to read God’s providential will for political events. The war did not force American Christians to deeper theological insights because the war was, for America, our church. (p. 33)

The closest one can come, I think, to a re-evaluation of the war theologically is the speed with which abolitionists disappeared, and with it any real commitment to racial equality (aside from its use to punish the occupied Confederacy as Reconstruction wore on), which suggests to me that the commitment to civil and social equality was pretty ephemeral to begin with. (I recall reading somewhere that many religious abolitionists were of an apocalyptic mindset to begin with, and when the war ended not with the creation of New Heaven and New Earth but with Ulysses Grant sending the defeated rebel soldiers home with their horses so they could plant the next crop amidst the ruins of their towns and cities, was fairly much of a let-down.

But the importance even today of the Gettysburg Address in explaining the Civil War — indeed, most American wars since — shows that the war prompted almost no theological reflection. Not then, and certainly not since. The Civil War became the central sacrifice, the central liturgical act, in the religion that is The United States of America. And it must be understood that way.

* * *

Next time, I’m going to skip a few chapters. There’s a couple of I’m going to skip because I don’t think they add much. Hauerwas does some of his best writing on the subject of justice in this book. And he spends a very silly chapter defending Martin Luther King in what I consider to be a very un-Hauerwassian way (yes, that would make me an Hauerwassian against Hauerwas).

America’s God, America’s Church and America’s Culture of Death

I have been reading Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity, and I am going to post some reflections of my own over the next few days.

A little background. I love Stanley Hauerwas, and his thinking about church has significantly influenced my thinking about church. I first learned about him in 2004, I think, when he was interviewed by Salon.com regarding his opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. (Again, I think it was in Salon.com, because it might not have been.) As a theologian, I am interested in what it means to be church, especially church in the world, and my ideas about church as parallel alternative to but in the world are heavily influenced by the many years I spent as a Muslim in the United States — as a member of a religious minority which could not demand or expect that the greater culture of the society in which it lived reflect the values of a majority of plurality of the community. So, given the world would not bend to our understanding of what God wants for God’s people (and trying to get it to bend was pointless, either because no one listened or violence was the chosen means of communicating), what does it mean to be faithful?

And I think Hauerwas does the best job of most theologians I have read today of trying to answer that question faithfully. As an American, Hauerwas calls into question the relationship between church, state and culture that tries to make sense of what is what. At least that’s what I think he’s trying to do. But I think it’s better to let Stanley speak for himself:

America is the first great experiment in Protestant social formation. Protestantism in Europe always assumed and depended on the cultural habits that had been created by Catholic Christianity. America is the first place Protestantism did not have to define itself over against a previous Catholic culture. So America is the exemplification of a constructive Protestant social imagination. (p. 15)

This is important, but probably not quite as true as Hauerwas says it is. American Protestantism inherited much from English & Scottish Protestantism, both Anglican and Calvinist forms, and both struggled with the Catholic inheritance and a deep and profound fear of Rome and Roman rule. (English Catholicism had this even before Henry VIII decided to start divorcing and killing his wives.) Anti-foreign fear in Anglo-American culture has at its base anti-Catholicism dating back almost 1,000 years (the English church was fairly autonomous, and at times very anti-Rome), and Anglo-American racism has at its core anti-Catholic sentiment. But, back to Hauerwas:

So constituted, America did not need to have an established church because it was assumed that the church was virtually established by the everyday habits of public life. (p. 15-16) 

… 

Protestantism came to the land we now call America to make America Protestant. It was assumed that being American and Protestant meant having faith in the reasonableness of the common man and the establishment of a democratic republic. But in the process, the church became American; or, as [Mark] Noll [author of America’s God] puts it, “because the churches had done so much to make America, they could not escape living with what they had made.” As a result, Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist, because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. Religious people on both the Right and Left share the presumption that America is the church. (p. 16, emphasis mine)

Who does God speak to when God speaks? Most American Christians, whether they be of the Right or the Left, appear to assume that God is speaking to either the nation-state — to the United States of America — or to the entire world. And so salvation is for the nation/world, and prophetic judgement is for the nation/world. Thus God cares that America allows for abortion and open homosexuality, or God cares whether Americans have health insurance. It’s why when pastors speak of public repentance, they call upon the nation to repent. Because The United States of America is God’s people.

I think this is done to avoid the scandal of particularism, which offends moderns with their allegedly tolerant universalism. But particularism is not a scandal in scripture. Particularism is how God works in the world. God calls Israel and Israel alone, gives the teaching to Israel and Israel alone, sends Jesus to Israel and speaks to the world only through Israel. Hauerwas deals with particularism and universalism in greater depth in a later chapter, and so I’m going to set this down for another day. Let’s go on.

Noll ends his account of these developments with the end of the Civil War, but the fundamental habits he identifies as decisive in the formation of the American religious and political consciousness continue to shape that way Christians, and in particular Protestant Christians, understand their place in America. Yet I think we are beginning to see a loss of confidence by Protestants in their ability to sustain themselves in America, just to the extent that the inevitable conflict between the church, republicanism, and common-sense morality has now worked its way out. America is the great experiment in Protestant social thought, but the world Protestants created now threatens to make Protestantism unintelligible to itself. It it to this subject I now turn. 

I believe we may be living at a time when we are Protestantism, at least the kind of Protestantism we have in America, come to an end. It is dying of its own success. Protestantism became identified with the republican presumptions in liberty as an end reinforced by belief in the common sense of the individual. As a result Protestant churches in America lost the ability to maintain the disciplines necessary to sustain people capable of being an alternative to the world. Ironically, the feverish fervency of the Religious Right in America to sustain faith as a necessary condition for supporting democracy cannot help but ensure that the faith sustained is not the Christian faith. 

More Americans may go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches they go to do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their personal and communal lives. The church is expected to reinforce that those who come to church have done so freely. Its primary function, therefore, is to legitimate and sustain the presumption that America represents what all people would want to be if they had the benefit of American education and money. 

Let me try to put this in a different register. America exemplifies what I call the project of modernity–the attempt to produce a people who believe that they should have no story except the story that they chose when they had no story. This is what Americans mean by freedom. The institutions that constitute the disciplinary forms of that project are liberal democracy and capitalism. Americans presume they have exercised their freedom when they get to choose between a Sony or Panasonic television. The same presumption works for choosing a president, and once you have made your choice you have to learn to live with it. So freedom requires a kind of resignation. (p. 16-17)

I was Hauerwas had expanded a little bit on the Protestant unintelligibility. But I think this is what is really happening when liberal and conservative Protestants have the kind of stupid argument that Ross Douthat has had with Diana Butler Bass on the pages of the New York Times recently. I’m going to have mull this over a bit, because this statement strikes me as intuitively correct, but I cannot really say why yet. Anyway, back to Hauerwas.

The narrative that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story obviously has implications for how faith is understood. It produces people who say things as, “I believe Jesus is Lord–but that is just my personal opinion.” The grammar of this kind of avowal obviously reveals a superficial person. But such people are the kind many think crucial for sustaining democracy. For in order to sustain a society that shares no common goods in common other than the belief that there are no goods in common other than avoiding death, there must be people who will avoid any conflicts that might undermine order, which is confused with peace. So an allegedly democratic society that styles itself as one made up of people of strong conviction in fact becomes the most conformist of social orders, because of the necessity of avoiding conflicts that cannot be resolved.  

Such a view has devastating effects on the church. For the church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us by engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe that we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church and why we are called “Christian.” A church so formed cannot help but challenge a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to write my own life story. 

But forming a church that is capable of challenging the reigning ethos that sustains America is no easy achievement. You may think that the Catholic Church surely would be up to the task, but you need to remember that, as Archbishop George of Chicago often remarks, Catholicism in America has largely become a form of Protestant Christianity. Catholics in America, like their Protestant sisters and brothers, are likely to assume there is no essential tension between being Christian and being an American. As a result, Catholics in America think the distinction between the public and the private (and their “faith” clearly falls into the latter) is a given that cannot be questioned. (p. 18)

What story gives us meaning? Hauerwas highlights here the complete incompatibility of the Christian story and the American story. One story will dominate, and in our world, it has been the story of American that has subsumed the Gospel story.

Finally, Hauerwas describes briefly why American culture is a culture of death, and it is a description that’s bigger than abortion or health care or tolerance. It goes back to which story forms your life.

America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death. “Freedom,” as understood in American culture, names the attempt to live as though we will not die, and lives lived as though death is only a theoretical possibility can only be sustained by a wealth otherwise unimaginable. But America is an extraordinarily wealthy society determined to remain so even if it requires our domination of the rest of the world. We are told that others hate us because they despise our freedoms, but it may be that others sense that what Americans call freedom is bought at the expense of the lives of others. (p. 19)

I’m not going to comment much more on what I’ve posted here. I think Hauerwas’ naming the “culture of death” is spot on, and is bigger than any partisan claims as to what constitutes a “culture of life.” Since a culture of life lives fully in reality of death, knowing that in the promises of God made real in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, death no longer has meaning or power over our lives.

More later.