Most Interesting Reads for the Week (November 30, 2014)

Here’s some of the more interesting things I’ve read on the Internet over the last week…

  • A very dated but useful look at the importance of cooperation. “A straightforward message is, then, that each of us may live happier and, in the main, more successful lives, if we treat our fellow human beings as individuals with whom we can readily work. This is a rational rather than a moral argument. It should appeal to all those pragmatists who want to look after themselves.  Cooperation is good business practice.”
  • Is there simply enough work for everyone? “The injunction given Millenials in particular forms a kind of double-bind: you need to get a job to become qualified (there is no job/you don’t have the qualifications); you need to become qualified to get a job (you have a Ph. D. but still no job/you have a job and hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans); you are a leech and a waste to the system if you’re incapable of obtaining qualification and a job. Studiously avoided is the question: does America have 40 hours of socially-useful work for 195 million people (the number of working-age adults) to do? And if we genuinely don’t, why waste society’s resources on pretending there is?”
  • How the EU and Russia got crossways with each other over Ukraine. “Foreign policy has long been considered one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s greatest strengths, but even she ignored the warning signs. Merkel has proven herself over the years to be a deft mediator who can defuse tensions or work out concrete solutions. But crisis management alone is not enough for good foreign policy. Missing in this crisis was a wider view and the ability to recognize a conflict taking shape on the horizon. Instead, officials in Berlin seemed to believe that because nobody wanted conflict, it wouldn’t materialize.”
  • When your very existence contradicts the national narrative. “For a creedal country like America, this poses a problem—in nearly every major American city one can find a population of people whose very existence, whose very history, whose very traditions, are an assault upon this country’s nationalist instincts. Black people are the chastener of their own country. Their experience says to America, ‘You wear the mask.'”
  • I’ve long thought America is governed by some of the dumbest smart people I’ve ever met. “In the policy community, people who may wish to do more than tailor ideas to pre-existing, polled audiences have discovered that in doing so they run the risk of offending someone on Capitol Hill who might not vote to confirm them in top jobs were they ever to want them; that is to say, originality is not only frowned upon, but it is actually institutionally quashed. Thus, far too little bold thinking goes on in the country’s think tanks. It is safer to write an article that doesn’t offend than it is to write one that actually breaks new ground.”
  • Why mercy ought to be at least considered as an objective of good public policy. “As Stevenson might put it, we have chosen to treat people as if they are as bad as the worst thing they ever did. We hate not only the sin, but the sinner. For a putatively religious country, we seem to have forgotten one of the central lessons of all religions, and certainly the central message of Stevenson’s work—that every human being is capable of redemption.”
  • There’s nothing conservative about suburbia. “The sad reality is that, despite the marketing, the suburbs were never about creating household wealth; they were about creating growth on the cheap. They were born under a Keynesian regime that counted growth from government spending as equivalent to that coming from private investment. Aggressive horizontal expansion of our cities allowed us to consistently hit federal GDP and unemployment targets with little sophistication and few difficult choices.”

Most Interesting Reads for the Week (November 22, 2014)

Here’s some of the more interesting things I’ve read on the Internet in the last week…

  • Inventing the military/industrial/scientific complex.  “Industrial means of production thus became means of warfare; moreover, thanks to the emergence of the commercial laboratory, industrial research became the means of innovation, directing businesses to respond to the new technological needs of the military. In time, American industry would see the full imprint of Little’s concept of research, so that when the Second World War broke out, the American military and government were able not only to leverage an existing and enormous infrastructure, but also to co-opt the emergence of an entirely new and powerful complex of directed industrial, technological, and increasingly scientific research.”
  • We simply don’t know how to solve our economic problems. No one in the West does. “The problem is structural. Wages have stagnated for decades. Recoveries in employment have been painfully slow in each of the last three recessions. This has been true under united governments of both parties and under divided governments. The most parsimonious conclusion to draw is that the main policymakers in both parties genuinely don’t know how to solve this problem.”
  • Why moral character is the key to individual identity. “Consider the reason we keep track of individuals in the first place. Most animals don’t have an identity detector. Those that share our zeal for individual identification have one thing in common: they live in societies, where they must co‑operate to survive. Evolutionary biologists point out that the ability to keep track of individuals is required for reciprocal altruism and punishment to emerge. If someone breaks the rules, or helps you out of a bind, you need to be able to remember who did this in order return the favour later. Without the ability to distinguish among the members of a group, an organism cannot recognise who has co‑operated and who has defected, who has shared and who has been stingey.”
  • Why is American teaching so bad? “American education schools are often derided as overly theoretical, inscribing an arcane vocabulary about education and few real skills for delivering it. But these institutions actually teach a hollow and decidedly anti-intellectual brand of theory, as many critiques of education schools have concluded. Future teachers receive a warmed-over set of homilies about preparing ‘the whole child’ and ‘student-centered learning’ (with the requisite homage to philosopher and education theorist John Dewey) instead of a serious intellectual initiation into the subjects in which teachers will have to instruct students.”
  • Searching for home. “The Austrian novelist Friedrich Torberg has one of the characters in a novel say: ‘Home is where one was a child.’ When I first read this sentence, it seemed very plausible. After all, the phrase ‘mother-tongue’ is applied to one’s first language for a good reason. But on further reflection one word should be added to the sentence: ‘Home is where one was a happy child.’ Some childhoods are hellish, and those emerging from them may look all their lives for a place where they might feel at home.”
  • What the Islamic State and its use of violence means for the future of Israel and Palestine.Savagery affirms the value of what previous revolutionaries called ‘armed propaganda,’ with the United States as a particular target. Violence that seizes media attention, the book says, attracts new recruits who will be ‘dazzled by the operations …undertaken in opposition to America.’ It also provokes the United States to act directly rather than through proxies in the Islamic world, eventually revealing American weakness. Extreme violence is also described as a means of ‘inflaming opposition’ and polarizing the masses, who will find that there is no safe middle ground, no way to stay out of the fight.”
  • How bourgeois ethics created the last two centuries of economic growth. “Part of the Western bourgeoisie’s fall from esteem may stem from a more complex technical and economic world; where instead of one celebrated inventor a vast team makes the advances; where companies protect patents and reward performance with cash and not kudos; where the division of labour is now so vast that few people understand how anything is made or from whence it comes; where more people work as clerks for multi-nationals than in simple machine-shops where they could tinker, invent and dream.”
  • The Islamic State expands. “‘Islamic State propaganda promises a fight for liberation similar to many Latin American movements in the 1970s,’ says Ahmed Naifar, who teaches religious studies at Zitouna University in Tunis. He believes that frustrated young Tunisians see the trip to Syria as a kind of revolt against corruption, brutality and daily indignities. It is a mood that is prevalent in many countries that experienced Arab Spring revolts.”
  • Charles has the potential to be a very interesting–and possibly very meddlesome–king. “It sometimes seems that Charles is pushing against the limits of his position, testing what is possible for a constitutional monarch in the 21st century. It is an approach that has alarmed many onlookers. ‘The main difference [between Charles and his mother] is that the Queen is frightfully discreet about these things and will mention them in private meetings with the prime minister,’ said a former senior government official. ‘Prince Charles is much more pushy and writes letters about his views which are on the edge of the mainstream. He pushes them hard and takes a risk. He is much more activist.'”
  • I rarely agree with Michael Young, but here, I do. “Most disturbing, successive Israeli governments have found no answer to the numerical challenge posed by a rising Palestinian population whose land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is being gradually reduced by Israeli actions. Before long Israelis will have to determine what to do with a rising Palestinian population in their midst. They cannot expel them, because of the international outcry and because Palestinians could be expected to fight back; they cannot expect the growing Palestinian population to supinely accept being banished to a nominal, fragmented mini-state surrounded by Israel; and they cannot absorb Palestinians, because Israeli Jews do not want to create a demographic time bomb that ultimately transforms them into a minority.”
  • The “invention” of the Bhagavad Gita. “The British (Protestants) knew that any self-respecting religion had to have One Book; so they asked some educated, Anglophone Calcutta Brahmins, What is your One Book? or indeed, What is your Bible? And the answer was, the Gita. In 1785 Wilkins published his full English translation of the Gita, the first work of classical Sanskrit translated directly into English; he made it sound as biblical as possible, using King Jamesian ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s.'”

Most Interesting Reads for the Week (November 15, 2014)

Sorry I’m a little late with this, some things got ahead of me last week. Here’s some of the more interesting things I read…

  • A fascinating description of how and why violence is used in prison. “Every incident I witnessed in prison, except for the melees that we had to break up when I worked in a unit for the mentally ill, was premeditated and done with purpose, however twisted that purpose was. The violence functioned as a tool for preserving order, whether to maintain the hierarchies of prisoners or to reassert the authority of the guards. It was the best form of currency we had.”
  • Jonathan Edwards, theologian. “In his great treatises, Edwards dealt directly with aspects of orthodox teaching that were and are most problematic, taking on himself, in the eyes of posterity, the dark associations that had caused many within his own tradition to renounce them. Original Sin was a crucial element in his theology in a way dependent on his and his tradition’s understanding of it. For him it had little or nothing to do with sin as we ordinarily understand the word, taking its character instead from a kind of unawakened experience or perception that is blind to the glory of God and therefore to the glory that pervades being.”
  • ISIS gets a national anthem. “If Ayatollah Khomeini was still around, he’d probably look at some of the techno stuff and go, ‘What the hell is this?’ But the groups are all operating off some kind of religious guideline. They’re getting an ayatollah who’s saying, ‘Yes, this is halal. Go for it.’”
  • Things that shouldn’t become industries or industrial. “I think the core problem is that both these types of institutions apply the industrial division of labor to the care and education of humans. In other words, they apply methods developed for creating, maintaining, and programing machines to ‘maintain’ and ‘program’ creatures.”
  • What if how we fight terrorism makes us less safe? “What I’m suggesting, in short, is that the ‘surveil and strike’ mentality that has dominated the counterterrorism effort (and which is clearly reflected in Hannigan’s plea to let Big Brother — oops, I mean the NSA and GCHQ — keep its eyes on our communications) is popular with government officials because it’s relatively easy, plays to our technological strengths, and doesn’t force us to make any significant foreign-policy changes or engage in any sort of self-criticism at all. If we can solve the terrorist problem by throwing money at it, and enriching some defense contractors and former government officials in the process, what’s not to like?”
  • Anders Breivik and the fear of Islam in Norway. “Tolerance has never been Norway’s strong suit. Jews and Catholics were constitutionally banned from entering the country for much of the 19th century; the prohibition against Jesuits was lifted only in 1956. The so-called tatere – travelling Romani who have been in Norway for several hundred years – were subject to ruthless assimilation policies, including forced sterilisation, from the 1930s until the 1970s.”
  • Wishing “undesirables” away. “But these regulations aren’t about maintaining ‘quality of life’ for the local community’s residents: the laws are simply about colonising the commons to make it safe for the rich, typically to the exclusion of others. Their proponents are using the allure of social harmony to paper over the shame of massive inequality.”
  • Dealing with the 1 percent. “Dorling wants to form a coalition against the super-rich that he knows (and argues) is more likely to be led successfully by the well-heeled middle classes than by the downtrodden – by the other Dorlings than by the Tirados. The poor may wave a pike or knit in the shadow of the guillotine but the committee of public safety will be made up of doctors and deputy head teachers.”

The Last Three Chapters of Judges, Part 1 – Girl Parts

In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah…

And thus begins the last three chapters of the Book of Judges (19-21), which is quite possibly the ugliest, most violent, and least redeeming story in all of scripture.

It is also one of my favorites. I love this story. Human beings can do nothing right in this story, and try as they might to solve the problems they are faced with and create, make a mess of everything.

These three chapters describe the human condition for me. I am a big believer in limits, of acknowledging what we as human beings can and cannot do. Here, Israel organizes to right a wrong, avenge an outrage, and even fight to get what some might call “justice.” But in the process, more wrongs are done, more violence perpetrated, more injustices committed.

It’s a perfect example of what humans can do. And what we are simply not capable of.

Not even God comes off very well in this story.

So, I’d like to take about three blog entries to examine this fascinating story, starting with Judges 19.

1 In those days, when there was no king in Israel, a certain Levite was sojourning in the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, who took to himself a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. 2 And his concubine was unfaithful to him, and she went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months.

It’s true, there was no king in Israel. The judges were ad hoc leaders “elevated by God” to defend, protect, and rule Israel during times of crisis. Usually, that meant war with their Canaanite neighbors. The institution, such as it was, bears an intriguing resemblance to the Roman “office” of Dictator (with his partner, the Master of Horse). The Dictator was also an emergency leader elevated to manage the affairs of state, usually during a time of war. (But not always. Cincinnatus’ was dictator twice, I believe, the second time to deal with civil unrest between Rome’s large debtor population and the city’s avaricious creditors.) So this statement about there being no king, and thus nothing but lawlessness without the central authority of monarchy, can be taken at face value. Especially given the awfulness that is to follow.

At the same time, there are two things to consider. First, earlier in Judges, Gideon rejects an attempt by Israel to make him their king by telling Israel, “The Lord will rule over you.” (Judges 8:23) Gideon’s son Abimelech actually gets himself appointed king of Israel (after killing all but one of his brothers), leading to one of the great anti-monarchy speeches of the Bible in Judges 9. To no effect, of course. Abimelech holds the position until he is eventually killed during a siege when a woman drops a millstone on his head. The point is, Israel already has a king—God. It has no need for any other ruler. This point is echoed later in 1 Samuel 8 when God tells Samuel “they have rejected me from being king over them.”

Besides, as the interregnum between David and Saul’s rule, or Absalom’s rebellion, or the violent division of the kingdom following Solomon’s death all show, having a monarch in Jerusalem didn’t stop much of anyone from doing what they wanted. So, most likely, the beginning of verse 1 (which is also repeated at the very end of judges) can be taken both literally and ironically. And it was probably meant that way too.

So, let’s go on.

3 Then her husband arose and went after her, to speak kindly to her and bring her back. He had with him his servant and a couple of donkeys. And she brought him into her father’s house. And when the girl’s father saw him, he came with joy to meet him. 4 And his father-in-law, the girl’s father, made him stay, and he remained with him three days. So they ate and drank and spent the night there. 5 And on the fourth day they arose early in the morning, and he prepared to go, but the girl’s father said to his son- in- law, “Strengthen your heart with a morsel of bread, and after that you may go.” 6 So the two of them sat and ate and drank together. And the girl’s father said to the man, “Be pleased to spend the night, and let your heart be merry.” 7 And when the man rose up to go, his father-in-law pressed him, till he spent the night there again.

Pay attention. This is what hospitality looks like. Even in an exaggerated form, which is what we have here. The girl’s father—the man and his young paramour are not married to each other—clearly does not want anyone to leave, and extends hospitality beyond the customary three days.

8 And on the fifth day he arose early in the morning to depart. And the girl’s father said, “Strengthen your heart and wait until the day declines.” So they ate, both of them. 9 And when the man and his concubine and his servant rose up to depart, his father-in-law, the girl’s father, said to him, “Behold, now the day has waned toward evening. Please, spend the night. Behold, the day draws to its close. Lodge here and let your heart be merry, and tomorrow you shall arise early in the morning for your journey, and go home.”
10 But the man would not spend the night. He rose up and departed and arrived opposite Jebus (that is, Jerusalem). He had with him a couple of saddled donkeys, and his concubine was with him. 11 When they were near Jebus, the day was nearly over, and the servant said to his master, “Come now, let us turn aside to this city of the Jebusites and spend the night in it.” 12 And his master said to him, “We will not turn aside into the city of foreigners, who do not belong to the people of Israel, but we will pass on to Gibeah.” 13 And he said to his young man, “Come and let us draw near to one of these places and spend the night at Gibeah or at Ramah.”

Jerusalem here is a foreign city, not yet conquered, and not yet central to Israel’s political or religious life. It will not become an Israelite city until David makes it so, largely (I think) because it sits roughly equal between Ephraim in the north (with its ritual worship centers at Schechem and Shiloh) and Judah in the south. It is a mountain redoubt, a place where David can rule independent of the internal politics of the north or of the south. The Levite refuses to stay in Jebus, full of people who are not Israelites. And would rather stay in Gibeah, one of main cities belonging to the tiny tribe on Benjamin.

14 So they passed on and went their way. And the sun went down on them near Gibeah, which belongs to Benjamin, 15 and they turned aside there, to go in and spend the night at Gibeah. And he went in and sat down in the open square of the city, for no one took them into his house to spend the night.
16 And behold, an old man was coming from his work in the field at evening. The man was from the hill country of Ephraim, and he was sojourning in Gibeah. The men of the place were Benjaminites. 17 And he lifted up his eyes and saw the traveler in the open square of the city. And the old man said, “Where are you going? And where do you come from?” 18 And he said to him, “We are passing from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, from which I come. I went to Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to the house of the Lord, but no one has taken me into his house. 19 We have straw and feed for our donkeys, with bread and wine for me and your female servant and the young man with your servants. There is no lack of anything.” 20 And the old man said, “Peace be to you; I will care for all your wants. Only, do not spend the night in the square.” 21 So he brought him into his house and gave the donkeys feed. And they washed their feet, and ate and drank.

I’m not sure if the old man is simply being hospitable or is also giving the trio here a warning when he tells them “do not spend the night in square.” What is clear here is that no one showed the Levite, his girlfriend, and his servant, any hospitality. No one invited them into their homes, or offered them a meal, or even spoke a kind word to them. Until the old man, who himself is only sojourning in Gibeah. He knows the place well enough, and is somewhere between insider and outsider in Gibeah. He, and he alone, is compassionate enough to extend hospitality to the travelers who have found themselves, after dark, in the middle of town with no place to stay.

What comes next will strike some of you as familiar.

22 As they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, worthless fellows, surrounded the house, beating on the door. And they said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him.” 23 And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing. 24 Behold, here are my virgin daughter and his concubine. Let me bring them out now. Violate them and do with them what seems good to you, but against this man do not do this outrageous thing.” 25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and made her go out to them. And they knew her and abused her all night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. 26 And as morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.

For what it’s worth, I think this is the original version of the Sodom story. While the men of Gibeah couldn’t be bothered to provide a place to stay and a meal to sojourners, they could insist upon raping them. Again, after dark, when a mob can do something like this with some amount of anonymity.

The people of Gibeah aren’t only violent rapists who don’t know the first thing about welcoming guests and travelers, they are also cowards as well.

But those in the house—the Levite and his elderly host—don’t come out very well either. To placate the rapaciousness of the men, who perhaps want to show their dominance over any visiting men by raping them, the host suggests they have at his daughter and (I think, because the pronouns aren’t quite clear) the guest’s concubine. So much for family values and biblical marriage. But mere woman will not placate the men surrounding the house. Again, I do not think this is a matter of lust so much as it is a really awful kind of hospitality and/or dominance ritual. “This is what we do to strange men passing through,” the men of Gibeah say. Most likely, most of these men were married with children. Not that it mattered. This was about showing visitors who’s boss.

You’d think the Levite would have known. You’d think this kind of thing would have gotten out. If nothing else, at least there would have been talk that people go to Gibeah, but they don’t ever come back. But he was insistent upon avoiding the city filled with foreigners.

(It makes me wonder: the old man, he too was sojourning in Gibeah, clearly with his family. Did the welcoming committee arrive at his house and gang rape him until the wee hours of the morning when he first arrived?)

And so the Levite (I think) grabs his concubine and tosses her outside, to the howling mob of aspiring rapists. And the mob appeared to be satisfied with this offering. They gang rape her death. At least I think she dies. It’s not clear, and the story doesn’t say specifically. The Levite seems far more concerned with his own life and safety rather than that of his girlfriend, but then again, Abraham and Isaac both passed their wives off as sisters to kings who hosted them because they both feared for their lives.

It also gets worse.

27 And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28 He said to her, “Get up, let us be going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey, and the man rose up and went away to his home. 29 And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. 30 And all who saw it said, “Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak.”

There she was, in the morning, the men dispersed, the woman clinging onto the door frame, trying to find some kind of sanctuary, some kind of safety. (Consider how the usurper Adonijah grasps the horns of the altar as he seeks sanctuary from Solomon in 1 Kings 1.) She has been violated all night, clinging to the house in some pathetic and pointless bid for safety, and the Levite—did he sleep through her cries and pleas, through the hooting and cheers and groaning of the mob?—has the nerve to get up and demand of this woman that she be ready to go.

She isn’t, of course. So, he loads her like a sack of wet grain onto the back of a donkey, and wanders on his way to the hill country of Ephraim. At which point, she is most certainly dead.

And then comes possibly the most gruesome detail in this whole story. The Levite cuts her up into pieces and then mails a piece to each tribe of Israel. (Even Benjamin?) King Saul will do the same in 1 Samuel 11 to an entire yoke of oxen in order to mobilize Israel to fight the Ammonites besieging Jabesh-Gilead. The unnamed Levite is calling Israel to war over this horrific act. The callous bastard couldn’t even take any risks to defend his woman, but he could muster enough outrage to demand that “something must be done.”

The Lectionary This Week – More and More, Less and Less

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Lectionary 33, 16 November 2014 (Year A)

  • Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
  • Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
  • Matthew 25:14-30

Sigh. What a dismal set of readings this week, full of violence and destruction and the consigning of worthless slaves to outer darkness. Not even the psalm is much relief from the general tone of doom, judgment, and wrath. Might be a good Sunday to take off and go golfing.

But, of course, that just makes it interesting. So, I’m going to dive right into the gospel reading, the last parable Jesus tells in Matthew before he gives his account of the final judgment:

14 “For it [most likely the kingdom of heaven] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more. ’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master. ’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more. ’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master. ’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours. ’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:14-30 ESV)

Not much of what we understand as grace — God’s unearned mercy and love — in this. “I knew you to be a hard man … so I was afraid.” If the master is God, or Jesus returning to claim his disciples and followers (since the signs of the “close of the age” are what Jesus is telling his disciples about here in Matthew 24 and 25, it is a pretty good guess that the master is a stand-in for Jesus, just as the bridegroom was in the previous passage), there’s no grace here. This is about a trust, being given something, and then using it to some effect, to multiply what one has been given, return it to the master, and “enter into the joy” of the master. (Shades of the parable of the tenants from Matthew 21:33-46, where the crime of the tenants wasn’t so much the killing of the servants—or even the son—but rather the desire to keep all of the produce of the vineyard to themselves, and to refuse to give back to the landlord what belonged to the landlord. And note, the story of the coin and taxes to Caesar comes soon afterwards, noting that things are owed to God.)

The master has trusted his servants with something, and has some expectations of them—to produce a “return” on that trust.

The key phrase here is, I think, the very final verses of the parable:

For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 

This phrasing appears once previously in Matthew, in chapter 13 with the long presentation and explanation of the parable of the sower, which goes like this:

1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 13:1-9 ESV)

The disciples then ask Jesus why he speaks in parables, and he tells them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them [the great crowds, I think] it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:12-13 ESV)

For Matthew, the kingdom of heaven is a place of increasing marginal returns, where the more one has, the more one gets. Whether one is good soil, or rocky soil, or is eaten by birds, seems entirely random. But the focus isn’t at all on those that don’t hear, or don’t bear fruit, but rather on those that do. These parables are for them, and the seed that fell on good soil “is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Note here how 30 and 60 and 100 are the same. Because the issue is bearing fruit itself, not how much fruit is yielded. In the parable of the talents, the master is deeply unequal in what he trusts his slaves with. One gets five, another two, another a single talent. The servants who double their yield receive the same reward, regardless of what they started with. “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Now enter the joy of your master.” So, there is little doubt the servant with the one talent would have received the same reward had he had not put what he was entrusted with to work in the world so he could return it with more to the master.

“I was afraid,” the servant says. And that fear paralyzed him into inaction. And he was not wrong to be afraid. The master does reap where he does not sow, and gathers what he does not scatter (again, Matthew 13 and the parable of the weeds; the man sows some, an enemy sows some, but the man who planted the good seed reaps all of it.)

The servant lets fear paralyze him. So much so he buries the money, the thing that has been entrusted to him, as if he is afraid of it. Afraid not just of his master, but what his master has entrusted to him. And given all that Jesus has been telling his disciples about what is coming—the judgement of Jerusalem—and what Zephaniah describes as coming, it’s easy to be afraid. To hunker down and hope the storm will pass over, that the judgment will come and go and if we stay very still and act like we are not here, maybe it will miss us completely.

But we are not called to live in that fear, to hide our light underneath bushel bushel baskets or bury it in the backyard (where someone could have stolen it!). Think of these talents, again, the way I thought about the oil last week—as the things Jesus has commanded us to do as we live as his followers, his called-out people, in the world. To live as Jesus tells his disciples at the end of this chapter, when the king tells those at his right hand:

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. ’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? ’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:34-40 ESV)

This is what the master has entrusted to us—a life of self-giving love. And it bears fruit—a hundred, sixty, even thirty—when this trust is taken out into the world and spent and traded scattered far and wide! It is in this doing of righteous good deeds (to borrow a Qur’anic phrase) that we live and make the kingdom, that we prepare and wait for his coming.

* * *

As for Zephaniah, well, I won’t say much, except that this is a very blunt and even brutal account from God of what God will do to rebellious Israel. God is the author of the coming judgment, in all of its destructive wonder. I won’t say much about the Zephaniah passage–it’s typical judgment stuff–but God is explicit in the passage that God, and God alone, is the cause of Israel’s distress. While this could be universal destruction, the word here for “earth” is הָאָֽרֶץ, and it also means “land.” So the fire may merely consume the whole of land.

17 I will bring distress on mankind,
so that they shall walk like the blind,
because they have sinned against the Lord;
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
and their flesh like dung.
18 Neither their silver nor their gold
shall be able to deliver them
on the day of the wrath of the Lord.
In the fire of his jealousy,
all the earth shall be consumed;
for a full and sudden end
he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth
(Zephaniah 1:17-18 ESV)

(Me? I wrote a song based on 1 Thessalonians 4-5. I had some stuff around those who have getting more and those who don’t having even the little they have taken floating melodically through my head, but all in a minor key. And that really isn’t for kids. The 1 Thess song is almost bouncy…)

The Jesus Prayer

I started going to daily mass again this week at St. Peter & Paul Catholic church, one of three churches in Blessed Sacrament Parish, the parish we live in the midst of here in McKinley Park. The neighborhood used to be largely Polish and German, but they have long since absconded to the suburbs, and all that remains of them are a few old men and women who hobble slowly to church, a collection of churches bearing inscriptions in the languages of the old country, and a mess of tiny, struggling funeral homes with names that have far too many consonants in them.

Today, McKinley Park is largely working class Latino and Chinese. St. Peter & Paul Church is a well-maintained cavernous old building that fills maybe with a score of people for English-language worship on Sundays (and, God bless them, we struggle to sing a few Polish hymns), but has standing room only for the Spanish services. I imagine the older Poles struggle to understand the priests, who all deliver their homilies in Spanish-accented English. I struggle to understand them, sometimes.

One of my visions for a church — hopefully I will get to pastor and lead worship somewhere someday — is daily worship. I like the discipline of it, and I always have. This is, of course, more honored in thought than in deed (right now, my wife and I struggle with the motivation to get out of bed in the morning). But I honor it.

I hadn’t gone for a while because, in this long and difficult wait for my book to come out, I have not been able to find work — real or otherwise — and Jennifer and I have spent more times demoralized than we’d like. So, for a bit, especially after our financial circumstances collapsed in early summer, I simply abandoned going to mass. There was no reason — I needed the devotional, arched for it5, but I simply gave up on it. I wasn’t depressed, and there was no despair, there was just … I don’t know, listlessness, a lack of bother?

Daily mass is at 6:30 in the morning. It’s a short walk, even in awful weather, down the street and around the corner, to that old Polish church. I said it’s a well preserved church, and it is. They had some work done on the ceiling sometime in the 1990s, I think, based on the architectural style (which reminds me of the inside decor of the Heritage Foundation). In the morning, there’s usually only a dozen or so people there for mass, mostly older men, which I find odd. And a little gratifying. When I would occasionally attend Latin Mass at The Institute of Christ the King, nearly all the parishioners there were women. But there are a few elderly women at St. Peter & Paul, some middle aged woman, and one young woman who is always on her kneeler, fervently praying, and never coming forward for communion. And a vibrant young couple who look like they’ve just gotten off the jumbo jet from La Paz, the husband (I’m making an assumption here) being a dead ringer for Bolivian president Evo Morales.

I love the simplicity of the daily mass. Of the fact the priest sings so badly (as do we all at 6:30 in the morning), and almost always looks like he’s just gotten out of bed. Because even in all its simplicity and shabbiness, this is the most important work in the world. Here, in this place, in the cold semi-darkness of mid-autumn, in the cavernous, nearly empty church, Christ is present. Repentance is made, the word is preached, grace and forgiveness are proclaimed.

One of my devotional practices is to say the Jesus Prayer before and after mass. I love the Jesus prayer. I discovered it seminary the summer between my first and second years, and have customized it a bit — because that is allowed, and it is done:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and deliver me this day.

The first bit, up to “and deliver me this day,” is the classic Jesus prayer. That last portion comes from one of my favorite prayers in all of scripture, from Judges 10. Israel has fallen into idolatry yet again, worshiping the gods of its neighbors, and as a result, they are conquered and oppressed by their neighbors. So, Israel returns to God for relief:

10 And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, “We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.” 11 And the Lord said to the people of Israel, “Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? 12 The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. 13 Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. 14 Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.” 15 And the people of Israel said to the Lord, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.” 16 So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel. (Judges 10:10-16 ESV)

The thing I love most about this passage is that, for a moment, God well and truly abandons God’s people. “I will save you on more,” so go and ask the gods you now worship to save you. “I am done with you,” God says.

In response, Israel confesses its sin, and throws itself upon the utter mercy of God. We are yours. And we know we are unworthy. We have it coming. So do whatever you want with us.

Only do that later. Deliver us today.

Our deliverance, like our sustenance, is daily. We ask not to never be hungry again, or safe and secure forever more, but only to be fed today. And only to be saved today.

Put enough todays together, however, and you have a week. A month. A year. A lifetime.

And God is moved by this plea.

I try to pray this short little prayer 33 times before mass. I’ve never been able to finger prayer beads properly, either as a Muslim or a Christian (I have a round of Islamic prayer beads made in Syria and given to me long ago), my hands just cannot finger beads well. But at a masjid in Merced, California, I learned how to use my fingers to keep track of my prayers, something a group of Yemeni Muslims taught me.

Look at your hand, palm up. Each finger has two lines on it where the joints are, dividing it into three sections. The thumb only has two, but treat the thumb like it has three. I use my left hand to count, starting with the index finger to count three on the thumb, and then the thumb to count on each finger. If you count right, you’ll get 15 for a complete run-through of one hand. You then double back, and then do the thumb twice the last time around to get 33. (The Yemeni Muslims repeated “Allah Akbar” — God is greater — 33 times, and then “Subhana Allah” — Glory to God — and then “Istaghfir Allah” — God forgive — for a total of 99 little prayers, followed by a final prayer which I never learned. Supposedly, if you did this, all your sins would be forgiven. At least that’s what they told me.)

For each little section, I repeat the prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and deliver me this day.

And then I follow with the Lord’s prayer and the surat al-fateha in Arabic (because there’s nothing in the fateha, the first chapter of the Qur’an, that directly contradicts any biblical or historic church claim, and some of it actually parallels the Lord’s Prayer). I don’t do this to get anything from God. This is not about seeking forgiveness of sins, or hoping to earn God’s favor, or anything like that. I am not putting a coin into a vending machine expecting to get something out of it. That is not how God works.

I do this to focus myself, remember who and what God is, and remember who and what I am. It’s a confession. I can even sometimes focus my mind and soul on the words, and even get lost in them. I do this as a way to live into the redemption and forgiveness God has called me up into, made me a part of.

Yes, I can this little thing anywhere. And I frequently do. But along with the mass, the daily proclamation of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is something important to me about this. And something special about this little act in this place.

It doesn’t make it any easier to get out of bed every morning.

On the way out, I will frequently stand and say a small prayer before a half-life sized crucifix in the narthex. Sometimes, I will just say “thank you.” Sometimes I will look at the Jesus hanging there and say, “You called me to follow, and I left everything and followed. What choice was there?”

And sometimes, angry over what have been some of the consequences of my following, I have looked at Jesus, at the blood on his nailed hands, and the wound in his sides, and told him, “You had this coming. You had this coming. If you had just stayed dead, if you had never told me to follow, it would have been better for me.”

But mostly, I say nothing. I will look at him, and think to myself:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and deliver me this day.

Most Interesting Reads of the Week (November 8, 2014)

Here are some of the more interesting things I’ve read this week:

  • The never-ending war in Syria. “Syria and Iraq are full of armies and militias that don’t fight anybody who can shoot back, but the PKK and its Syrian affiliates, the PYD and YPG, are different. Often criticised by other Kurds as Stalinist and undemocratic, they at least have the capacity to fight for their own communities.”
  • The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is more a political creature than a religious one. “The sense in which Al-Baghdadi and ISIS have legitimacy among some Sunni of Iraq and Syria is as an opposition force to their respective governments (although the extent to which ISIS poses a threat to these governments is probably radically overstated). Their aspirations are local rather than global. Al-Baghdadi’s rhetoric notwithstanding, most ISIS recruits are not interested in some global or cosmic war.”
  • Why no one looks to America as a model for good democratic governance. “The rest of the world’s countries tend to pay far more attention to us than we do to them, and they’ve noticed what a mess our society is in. I’m not just talking here about the usual agonizing over American ‘declinism,’ the general perception of diminished U.S. influence around the globe. I have a more specific problem in mind: America’s dwindling attractiveness as a model of democracy.” [A question I think piece poses without actually doing so: what if more democracy will makes things worse, and not better?]
  • The myth of Chinese schools. “Chinese students regularly win any competition that depends on test performance. Where they fall short is creativity, originality, divergence from authority. The admirers of Chinese test scores never point out that what makes it the ‘best’ education system is also what makes it the worst education system. It is very effective in ‘eliminating individual differences, suppressing intrinsic motivation, and imposing conformity.’”
  • What is the purpose of freedom in American Conservatism? “Fusionism’s success was, however, more due to its ability to fashion resonant appeals to lots of constituencies than to its uncomplicated synthesis of mutually dependent ideologies. After all, I have never seen an effective answer to the question hardline traditionalist Brent Bozell posed to early fusionists in the 1960s: freedom or virtue? Is it more important to exercise freedom of choice regardless of the moral outcome, or is it more important that an individual’s choices align with traditional moral dictates?”
  • How Shel Silverstein became a children’s writer. “… Silverstein never intended to write or draw for children. He was often impatient around kids and, Rogak claims, ‘made no secret of the contempt he felt’ for most children’s books. ‘Hell, a kid’s already scared of being small and insignificant,’ he once said. ‘So what does E. B. White give them? A mouse who’s afraid of being flushed down the toilet or rolled up in a window shade and a spider who’s getting ready to die.’ But writing kids’ books was the complete opposite of the work he was doing for Playboy and, maybe for that reason, and with the prodding of a savvy editor, he decided to try his hand at it.”
  • I hope Russell Moore really means this on the end of the relationship between church and culture in America. “The church now has the opportunity to bear witness in a culture that often does not even pretend to share our ‘values.’ That is not a tragedy since we were never given a mission to promote ‘values’ in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and of judgment, of Christ and his kingdom. We will now have to articulate concepts we previously assumed—concepts such as ‘marriage’ and ‘family’ and ‘faith’ and ‘religion.’ So much the better, since Jesus and the apostles do the same thing, defining these categories in terms of creation and of the gospel. We should have been doing this all along. Now we will be forced to, simply in order to be understood at all.”
  • The delusions of being Israel. “One has to bear in mind that Israelis live in a largely mythic world, a somewhat modified and vastly simplified version of the Iliad. In this starkly polarized vision of reality, in which Israelis are by definition innocent victims of dark, irrational forces operating against them, heroic death in war always makes sense, and violent coercion is the option both of necessity and of choice. The Hebrew proverb says: ‘If force doesn’t work, use more force.’ But this summer the proverb failed to deliver.”
  • One mother’s attempt to kill her autistic daughter. “It is socially acceptable for parents to complain about, feel oppressed by, and even resent their children. But a parent who presents herself as a genuine victim of her own child is approaching a taboo. A mother is not supposed to cower before her child. That power dynamic seems to defy the rules of nature.”

The Lectionary This Week – Fill Your Lamps

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Lectionary 32, 09 November 2014 (Year A)

  • Amos 5:18-24
  • Psalm 70
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
  • Matthew 25:1-13

I’m going to a little something different as I consider these lectionary readings this week.

The last time these readings rolled around was 2011. Kurt Hendel, a professor of church history and Lutheran confessions at LSTC, asked me to play a song I’d played earlier in the semester, “No People, No Pity,” one of two I wrote on prophetic judgment and promise for the confirmation kids at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Somonauk, Illinois, for a sermon he was set to preach in the seminary chapel the week of these readings.

I was not keen on playing the same song twice in one semester, so I told Dr. Hendel I’d write him a pair of songs based on the Amos reading and the Matthew reading. It wasn’t a commission as such, but what came out of this was “Fill Your Lamps” and “Let Justice Roll Down.” And writing these songs about this bit of the lectionary was actually quite eye opening.

First, the readings. I’ll start with Amos:

18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
19 as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 5:18-24 ESV)

What we have hear is the passing of judgment on the Kingdom of Judah, following the long indictment of Israel and Judah (which themselves come after an indictment and judgement of Israel’s neighbors). It proclaims the “Day of the Lord,” which apparently some in Judah are eagerly awaiting. (Rapture, anyone?) Amos says that day will not go very well for those who actually want it to come. It will be a dark and frightful day, full of dread, and pain, and suffering, and death.

And now, the Matthew reading, which at first glance struck me as utterly unrelated:

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him. ’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out. ’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves. ’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us. ’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you. ’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13 ESV)

Again, this is a judgment text, in a long line of Matthew judgment texts. And for Matthew, for the community Matthew speaks to (and for), escaping the coming judgment is hugely important. That some will be swept up in that judgment, and not ready for it, is also crucial to Matthew. I have written at length about judgment previously, and so I will set that aside today.

When I looked at these two texts, and considered how to make songs out of them, the thing that struck me most was how to balance them against each other, and how to make sense of them in terms of each other. The editors of the Revised Common Lectionary didn’t just simply pull them out of hat, or matched them together on a whim. There was a reason. To quote Craig Satterlee, “They may have actually known what they were doing.”

The link, I decided, was in the judgement of the deeds in question. In the Amos reading, God utterly rejects Israel’s worship, its sacrifices, its praises. They are meaningless, and God has promised to flood Israel and destroy it rather than heed worship and praises that were empty and pointless. The justice God plans is an annihilating justice, and it reminded me of desert storms that seemed to come out of nowhere, dump an intense and overwhelming amount of rain, and then as quickly as they came, simply move on or disappear. Gullies become temporary — and frequently dangerous — temporary rivers.

“Let Justice Roll Down” is a fairly straightforward rewording of the text, with my experience of desert rain (From New Mexico, California, and Saudi Arabia) informing how I understand the flood of justice that Amos is calling down. I’m not a “social justice” Christian, and I frequently find social justice talk smug and self-righteous, as most of those talk that talk seem to me to assume they are always on right side (or will be) of God’s justice. Amos here is reminding all who listen that God’s justice is overwhelming and annihilating — it destroys all in its path (Noah’s flood, for example).

We experience that annihilating justice as mercy in baptism. Because in baptism, we are put to death, we are annihilated, and then raised again. There is the prophetic promise of new life that Amos leaves to the last few verses of his long and somewhat frightening declaration of judgment. And at Kurt Hendel’s suggestion, I altered the repetition of the last verse to reflect the fact that even though these quick desert storms wash away and destroy, they also provide the necessary water for the plants of the desert to bloom. Desert plants bloom quickly and furiously after a even a short rain. New birth, new life, coming from the annihilating flood.

And now that I look at the passage, the desert comparison is even more apt, because Amos also wants “an ever-flowing stream.” After washing away the old, this new water will not be subject to the vagaries of the monsoon cycle, but rather, will bubble up and provide water so a garden can grow and thrive where once only parched plants and the hardiest of critters struggled to survive in the harshest of conditions.

I don’t remember if I played that revised second refrain in chapel or not when Dr. Hendel preached it. It wasn’t part of my original lyrics, and I’ve scrawled them at the bottom of the lyric page.

Okay, but how does this relate to the Matthew reading? I mean, aside from judgment, which I’m not really dealing with today? I thought a lot about the relationship between the actions condemned in Amos and approved of in Matthew. What might be the difference? God condemns empty worship for the sake of empty worship in Amos. But why might those who fill their lamps be the young women ready to meet the bridegroom here?

This is where I got creative with “Fill Your Lamps.” I’m going to post the lyrics to the son as well, and I hope you can see what I’ve done.

Fill your lamps with the oil of gladness
Fill your lamps with the oil of kindness
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of healing
Fill your lamps with the oil of blessing
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of patience
Fill your lamps with the oil of celebration
Wait for the Lord to come

Dark midnight’s coming, yet the Spirit pours
Abundant oil to anoint and to restore

Fill your lamps with the oil of friendship
Fill your lamps with the oil of worship
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of compassion
Fill your lamps with love in action
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of mercy
Fill your lamps with the oil of hospitality
Wait for the Lord to come

Behold, it’s midnight, and the bridegroom’s here!
In our darkest moment God’s light appears!

I made the oil, and the filling of the lamps, a metaphor for the commands Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere in Matthew, on how we should live together as the people of God. In effect, we fill our lamps and “wait for the Lord to come” by living as Jesus has called us to live — with self-giving love, compassion, mercy, and kindness. Our lives together as a community of people, the love we show to each other and to the world, is itself a form of waiting for the Lord. Yes, the implication is some will be ready and some will not. But that message is central to Matthew — some will, in fact, be ready, and some will not. Judgment is coming, the master is coming, the bridegroom is coming. We don’t know when. So be ready.

The main difference I saw when I wrote these two songs — Amos condemns acts aimed at solely pleasing God for the sake of pleasing God. By “filling the oil” with the content of the beatitudes here, Jesus is encouraging acts intended not to please God but to show love to neighbor by noting that such acts will also please God.

This song is an exhortation, and not a condemnation. But if I want to go that route, then something this approach to the reading suggests is that this Christian way of living together is not a commodity, not something that can be bought or bartered or traded. It cannot be given away either. It must be carefully cultivated, and it cannot simply be acquired at a moment’s notice. (And even the virgins who are ready fall asleep, and are awoken by the bridegroom.) Kindness. Mercy. Generosity. Love. These are not easy things. They are hard, and hard to live in an unkind and violent world.

Now, perhaps I am doing a tremendous injustice to the passage by making the oil (and the lamps) so metaphorical. I don’t know. I do know I like “Fill Your Lamps,” and it was one of my more inspired melodies. Because I don’t actually write musical notation, it took concerted effort to remember this melody (that happens a lot), some deliberate dwelling on it before it got properly lodged in that part of my memory that contains song melodies.

And so, I will be playing this song this coming Sunday at Grace Lutheran Church in Westchester, Illinois. Come out and listen, and maybe even sing it with me!

Holding Power Accountable… Somehow

This isn’t really much of a surprise…

Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence related to adolescents keeping the faith into their 20s, according to new findings from a landmark study of youth and religion.

Just 1 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid- to late 20s.

“No other conceivable causal influence … comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth,” Smith said in a recent talk sharing the findings at Yale Divinity School. “Parents just dominate.”

I appreciate that I am something of an outlier here, being a very religious person despite my parents’ lack of overt religion (though my mother and I talked of faith and ethics a fair amount when I was a teenager). And I won’t add much to this, except to say that some community and institutional practices always seemed to bother me. The church I did my first internship, for example, had a fair number of confirmation students (junior high schoolers) who were dropped off for obligatory religious education by parents who otherwise rarely or never attended worship. I wasn’t entirely sure what the point of that was, except to impart a very limited understanding of the role of faith in life. That belief and practice play no real part, save a basic body of knowledge that help form some kind of identity.

“I am a Lutheran,” as if somehow there’s no content, no practice, no way of living greater than cultural or social belonging or expectations, to that declaration.

“Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence…” A little on this. One of the things I’ve noticed about those with power, having spent much of my life on the wrong side of such people, is the sense so many of them have that they must be judges only by what they say about themselves. That their actual deeds, they way the treat people, are actually not open for critique or judgment.

I realize this is wandering a little far afield from the original subject of this blog entry, but this is actually a big deal for me. One of the things I’ve observed most of my life is the sense that somehow power, and the powerful, are never accountable, and never should be accountable, and that power, how it is used, and who uses it, can never be held to any standard save the standard that power pronounces for itself. “Do as I tell you to do, and not as I actually do.”

This seems to be a very human desire, and I’ve experienced it among all sorts of people, religious and not. But it’s most articulated in my understanding of Law & Gospel, and particularly the uses of the Law (the teaching of God, torah), that the Lutheran confessions teach.  Since I’m no longer in any formal Lutheran church ordination process, I can admit — my biggest disagreement with Lutheran teaching is with law and gospel, and the uses of the law. I don’t think “law and gospel” as Lutherans have outlined it accurately describes what actually happens in scripture or how God really acts. (“Gift and response,” using Matthew Frost‘s words, better describes how God interacts with God’s people in scripture.) My disagreement is primarily with the civil use of the law. I don’t see much restraining of sin by anyone or anything but other sinful human beings. This understanding of “the law” is somewhere between deluded and wishful thinking and an outright lie. (This is also the root of my objection to anything that calls itself Natural Law.)

From all I’ve seen of the world, the sins of those with power, privilege, and position will always go unrestrained. In fact, half the time, such sins will be called righteousness. Because they are the sins of the people enforcing the law. They are the sword, and they can do no wrong.

But back to why this is here. This confessional approach to the law makes it the consequence for which there can never be judgment or consequence. The law, in this understanding, is never unjust, never wrongs anyone. Because anyone on its wrong side has it coming — they have sinned. In reality, however, It becomes the theological, intellectual, and moral justification for the kind of exclusion, marginalization, or brutality that claims to be lawfulness, but really is only the abuse of those who have little or no power and no recourse.

And yet, those who are wrong end of the law and the baton, on the wrong end of constant moralizing, hectoring, and abuse, we watch. And we judge. We know the different between words said and deeds done. Even if we cannot hold power, and the law, meaningfully accountable — cannot stop it from being callous and brutal.  We can always walk away.

Christendom and Dar al Islam Were More Alike Than Different

Over at The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid has a fascinating and very long essay on the appeal of Islamic political movements, and what they share. There’s a lot to like about this essay, particularly the differing approaches that groups like ISIL and The Ikhwan al-Muslimin (The Muslim Brotherhood) take to the state. (The discussion about fierce states and weak states reminds me of Nazih Ayubi’s  Overstating The Arab State, one of the more important readings I had while I was at Georgetown 15 years ago. I’d say more about this, but the book is in the bottom of a box and I’d rather not go spelunking for it right now…)

It’s an informative essay that gets some important things right. But Hamid also gets some things wrong. Like this:

In contrast, the early Christian community, as Princeton historian Michael Cook notes, “lacked a conception of an intrinsically Christian state” and was willing to coexist with and even recognize Roman law. For this reason, among others, the equivalent of ISIS simply couldn’t exist in Christian-majority societies. Neither would the pragmatic, mainstream Islamist movements that oppose ISIS and its idiosyncratic, totalitarian take on the Islamic polity. While they have little in common with Islamist extremists, in both means and ends, the Muslim Brotherhood and its many descendants and affiliates do have a particular vision for society that puts Islam and Islamic law at the center of public life. The vast majority of Western Christians—including committed conservatives—cannot conceive of a comprehensive legal-social order anchored by religion. However, the vast majority of, say, Egyptians and Jordanians can and do.

Well, no. What Hamid misses here is Christendom, the intrinsically Christian state Christians quickly and naturally created once they became a ruling majority wherever they were. Westerners have long emphasized and over-stated the distinction between the way Christianity and Islam developed and spread, and between their approaches to empire. Christianity spread throughout Rome fairly slowly, eventually capturing the empire in a top-down maneuver. Islam burst out of an “ungoverned” portion of the Arabian peninsula (a place between empires) and conquered several decaying states — a Greek-speaking Levant and Sassanid Persia — in a bottom-up maneuver. But both end in Empire.

Hamid also seems to assume, as do modern Islamists and Muslim revolutionaries, that sharia sprang up, full blown, during the Prophet’s time governing the small (rapidly growing) community of believers in Yathrib (soon to become Madinah). Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sharia took many centuries to evolve, not truly emerging as a full-fledged law code until the expansion of Ottoman rule in the 15th and 16th centuries. Early Muslims (and later Muslim states) easily adopted and used the laws of the places they conquered, only altering them when they were significantly out of sync with the injections of Qur’an as they understood them. (All of my sources for this are books in boxes; this comes, if I remember correctly, from Richard Bulliet’s Conversion to Islam in The Medieval Period.) The Christian approach to governing the Roman Empire was similar (from Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine). You take the laws, and the assumptions about the world, you have at hand. I cannot think of a form of conquest (or even revolutionary state-building) where laws and legal systems were tossed out and redone wholesale. Revolutionary France, maybe, or Russia after 1917.

Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in 1077 doing penance so he can have his excommunication lifted, and be a proper Christian emperor again.

Implicit here in Hamid’s essay is that presumption — church and state were always separate in Christendom (the medieval struggle between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor as one example) in ways they were not in Dar al Islam. Perhaps, but I’ve always found this to be a difference without a distinction. Christians hang this on Jesus telling his disciples to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” but that’s a tiny phrase to hang a lot of doctrine that is more dependent on the accidents of history than it is on the worlds of Jesus. (Assuming Jesus says anything besides the coin in question actually belongs to Caesar, which is debatable.) While Islam lacked a formal “church” structure (no Pope to struggle with a recalcitrant Caliph), the whole corpus of hadith — the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad — upon which much of the sunnah and sharia is based was compiled by scholars who sought to keep the Caliph accountable (with some suffering significantly for their efforts). And failed.

If Muslims truly had a sense of what an intrinsically Islamic state looked like in the way Hamid is claiming here, they would not be arguing over what political form it would take. And yet, Muslims have struggled historically with their political arrangements — the morality, effectiveness, and scriptural validity of those arrangements — as much as Christians have. Because in neither case is scripture a particularly good guide to the shape of God’s desired form of government for the community of believers (absent the charismatic, prophetic leader). Much less for all of humanity.

And there was, in both Christendom and Dar al Islam, an understanding as to what it meant to be faithful people living together. As Benjamin Kaplan noted in his book Divided By Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, the Christendom communities, principalities and states of pre- and post-Reformation Europe saw themselves as organic wholes, in which faith, and public adherence to a shared confession, was essential to the well-being of the entire community:

For Europeans, every town and village had a spiritual dimension: more than a convenient, worldly arrangement for human cohabitation, it was a religious body—a “corpus Christianum.” Viewed through the prism of Christian piety, its unity was an expression of Christian love, its peace godly, and its provision of mutual aid an exercise in charity. The communal welfare it existed to promote was spiritual as well as material. Indeed, the word welfare and its cognates, like the Latin salus and German heil, meant both, for no one dreamed the spiritual and material could be kept separate. God rewarded those who deserved it, and the blessings he bestowed included peace and prosperity in life as well as salvation after death. The fate of entire communities, not just individuals, depend on divine favor. Gaining it was therefore a collective responsibility. Protestants and Catholics did not differ on this point, except where Protestants focused their prayers and hopes on the divine will, Catholics directed their supplication also to the Virgin and saints. (Kaplan, p.60)

And this

Just as the welfare of town and villages depended on God’s favor, Europeans believed, so did that of countries. A kingdom such as England was not, in Christian teaching, merely an arrangement of convenience, fashioned by humans for purposes of dominance or defense. Rather, it was part of the divinely appointed order of this world. As all human affairs were directed by divine providence, so were the formation and fate of states. “Ordained” in their office by God, acting as his “vicars” and “lieutenants,” their rulers preserved the peace and dispensed divine justice—or, if they were wicked, inflicted divine retribution. They, as heads of state, and subjects as “members” of the state, formed a single “body politic.” Mystically united, head and members formed a Christian community that would prosper of suffer, depending on whether it earned God’s blessing or wrath. In that recurrent encounter with divine justice, the fate of the realm hinged on the piety and virtue of its ruler and all its people. In short, like a town or village, a Christian state was a corpus Christianum.

So too, on a vast scale, was Christendom, which Europeans still on occasion saw God’s hand stretching out to punish. (Kaplan, p.100)

Clearly, Christians had a sense of an intrinsically Christian state and the purposes it should be put toward.

As to Hamid’s claim that the “vast majority of Western Christians—including committed conservatives—cannot conceive of a comprehensive legal-social order anchored by religion,” what to make of Conservative Catholics arguing for a Natural Law understanding of marriage in their opposition to state-sanctioned same-sex marriage? Or the entire corpus of Natural Law itself, which is can be looked at as a kind of Catholic form of sharia? (I’m going to assume, for a moment, that Christian Reconstructionism is not a serious endeavor. But it also seeks a comprehensive arrangement of human society based not on church teaching, as in the case of natural law, but on scripture itself.) Or what of the attempts by pious American Christians to place the Ten Commandments in public spaces (like schools) and practice very public forms of sectarian prayer? Are these not also attempts to, if nothing else, at justify the existing legal-social and in some way anchor it in religion? Western Christians have not stopped seeing their legal-social order buttressed by religious faith. But they have tended to look to other forms, such as technological and social progress, to be the evidence of that faith.

In fact, my guess is that Baghdad and Aix la Chappelle in A.D. 1000, or Cairo and Paris in 1400, were probably more alike than different. Piety would have been similar, the day broken up by worship services (with Christians ringing bells while Muslims had a human voice call the faithful to prayer), and little difference in technology or even, for that matter, law and governance. Except Cairo and Baghdad were bigger cities, and nicer places to live.

A more interesting question, and one I won’t even try to answer here (but one that takes up a fair amount of space in my head) is what does the secular state inherit from the Christendom state? What does secular society inherit from Christendom? Because the secular state was hardly the state made anew, an arrangement for human governance written on a blank piece of vellum without any reference to the past. What assumptions and understandings do secular moderns bring with them that they don’t even know about or comprehend?

And how similar is an “intrinsically secular state” to an “intrinsically Christian” one?