I don’t normally comment here on current events, at least ones that don’t involve North Korea. But the killing of nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and an image of gunman Dylann Roof from his Facebook page, has prompted me to comment.

First, a little bit about images. One of the reasons I pay attention to North Korean media, and tend to discount speculation about events in North Korea from those outside the country, is that outsiders simply do not know very much. But the images, when examined thoughtfully, can tell us some things.

For example, after Kim Jong Un became supreme leader, following the death of his father Kim Jong Il, the Korean Central News Agency ran a series of stories featuring Kim Jong Un visiting military bases and embracing soldiers, sailors, and air force pilots. It was sappy and even a little silly looking.

But, how do you convince a nation that a 27-year-old (allegedly) who rose out of nowhere is fit to be the “father of the nation?” Easy — you show him physically caring for people. Even as the image didn’t tell us much, it told us a lot. We can get past mindless speculation (did Kim really kill his uncle with hungry wild dogs, or a mortar round, or an anti-aircraft gun? Does he like fancy cheese and Swiss cigarettes?) into seeing what the pictures themselves are communicating.

Which gets us to Dylan Roof. The photo from his Facebook feed is that of a sullen, and even angry, teenager in a black jacket with a couple of flags on it:

Specifically, the flag of apartheid-era South Africa. And below it, the flag of Ian Smith’s self-proclaimed white supremacist state of Rhodesia.

Now, some symbols are affectations. A friend from high school noted that a British flag, or even an anarchy patch, is an aesthetic affectation. They say something of the aesthetic preferences of the wearer. The young mod wearing the British flag is not likely swearing allegiance to Queen Elizabeth. (I hope I remembered that righ, because it has been a long time…) And the wearer of the anarchy pin or patch likely hasn’t given the “A” much real consideration. It likely means, at most, loud and angry music.

I would even go so far as to say the Stars and Bars the Confederate battle flag is an affectation, at least for white people who wear it. (I’m not denying the hateful potency of the symbol for black and brown folks, but merely saying many white people who embrace the battle flag do so for reasons that have little to do with overt racism.) It may say something about the politics of the wearer (or their personality), but mostly I suspect it tells us more about the wearer’s cultural and aesthetic preferences than it does their social and political views: the music they listen to, what they do and consume to have fun, who they think they are. (And aren’t.) It may be adopted consciously as a racist symbol by the wearer, but it doesn’t have to be. Especially if adopted carelessly and thoughtlessly, through a kind-of cultural osmosis. Because frequently, cultural affectations can be picked up carelessly or thoughtlessly, something adopted because those around have adopted them or they strike someone’s fancy.

Now a swastika, and most Nazi imagery, is more than an affectation. It cannot (or cannot easily) be adopted carelessly, simply because one is surrounded by people who wear it. It is not omnipresent in American society, and carries a fair amount of stigma in polite society. So, a swastika tells us something about the politics and worldview of the wearer, and not simply their aesthetic or cultural preferences, because it has to be very consciously and purposefully adopted.

Which gets us to Roof’s flags. These are not affectations. Thought and purpose had had to go into their adoption. Especially that Rhodesian flag, which is the symbol of one of the most repugnant and racist regimes of the post-WW2 era. It’s an obscure flag — I didn’t recognize it at first — and thus he had to do some work. Rhodesia didn’t strike Roof’s fancy, white supremacy mostly likely struck Roof’s fancy. The kind of methodical and brutal (and ironically, doomed) white supremacy that was Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa.

There is, unhappily, a subculture in America that venerates the days of white rule in southern Africa, particularly Rhodesia, but also Portuguese Angola and Mozambique, and especially looks longingly to the Rhodesian Armed Forces as a heroic example from a bygone era. It is tiny, very marginal, and once upon a time spent its days slobbering over feature articles and firsthand accounts in Soldier of Fortune magazine, and frankly is populated more by idle dreamers than actual doers.

Well, until yesterday.

The picture tells us a lot. Roof has communicated a great deal in this image. He has told us what he admires, and how he thinks the world should be organized. Who matters, and who doesn’t, and why. And he told us these things some time (though how long I am not certain) before he walked into an AME church and killed nine people.

My friend asked an interesting question, one I hope pundits, reporters, and police investigators will ask for some weeks to come — Did Roof wear these flags in public? Why didn’t anyone notice the flags, and what they meant, and say something? Or do something? What did the adults around Roof know and believe that he thought it was okay for him to wear the symbols of two white supremacist regimes — history Roof had to actually go dig out and find in order to learn?

There may be other questions too, I do not know.

Intolerance and Egalitarianism: A Follow Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, But Why Is It Worth Saving?

Even discarded bits of pop culture can prove illuminating. Some years ago, Jennifer and I were listening to the Big Broadcast on WAMU in Washington, and one of the very old radio programs Ed Walker was running was Space Patrol, which in the early 1950s told the story of Command Buzz Corry and his faithful sidekick, Cadet Happy, as they patrolled the Solar System for the United Planets battling evil, accented villains such as Prince Baccarati [sp?], a generic Commie-Nazi villain of American post-war pop culture, who wanted to destroy the peaceful democratic order of the United Planets and restore his dictatorial monarchy.

In one episode, Corry and Happy, on patrol somewhere between Neptune and Planet X (Baccarati’s home base, where he plots his evil with all of his enslaved minions), are talking about why the Space Patrol is so vigilant in trying to stop all of Baccarati’s plots before he can carry them out. Being new to the outfit, Happy wants to know. Corry responds by saying something like:

If we don’t, Baccarati may stage such a spectacular attack that the people of the United Planets will be frightened into surrendering, traumatized into giving up without a fight.

The program’s sponsor was Ralston-Purina, the maker of Chex cereals, and test pilot Chuck Yeager was RP’s spokesman for many of the show’s adverts. A clear connection was made between Air Force test pilots and the valiant men of Space Patrol, between the imagined villains of Corry’s solar system and the real villains America faced in the 1950s.

Growing up in the military, and around those who made participation in the defense of the country the life’s calling, I’d always discerned something of a mixed message from them — they staunchly defend a country they aren’t entirely sure (because of its decadence, cowardice and lack of gratefulness) truly deserves to be defended. Nowhere had I heard this more clearly articulated than in this lost bit of popular culture. And not a terribly significant piece either.

But this idea doesn’t get talked about much. I do believe history belies much of this thinking — Americans did not capitulate after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and no one simply curled up and called for surrender after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Northern Virginia. But this idea, that Western societies are too fragile and too cowardly to defend themselves, especially when faced with the conspiratorial evil of Communism/Islamism, and thus need to be defended by a vigilant elite willing to do just about anything to ensure that those societies are never “traumatized” by attack, does appear to be pernicious, and it does appear to be bigger than America, as Stephen Walt notes in a recent blog entry:

What is even more striking about conservative extremists like Breivik is their utter lack of confidence in the very society that they commit heinous acts trying to defend. On the one hand, they think their idealized society is far, far better than any alternative, which is why extreme acts are justified in its supposed defense. Yet at the same time they see that society as inherently weak, fragile, brittle, and incapable of defending itself against its cruder antagonists. 

This is really an old story: American hard-liners used to believe that the decadent Western democracies couldn’t stand up to Soviet communism, and previous generations all believed that the current wave of immigrants would bring some sort of fatal infection to an otherwise healthy body politic. We’ve suffered a similar wave of paranoia since 9/11, somehow believing that a handful of radicals in Central Asia posed a mortal threat to a society with 300 million people and a $14 trillion economy. (Of course, the real threat turned out to be the self-inflicted wounds that we suffered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on Wall Street.) By contrast, those of us who are more sanguine about such matters have greater confidence in the inherent strengths of a liberal society and are therefore more worried about departures from these principles undertaken in the name of “national security.”

For many on the right who think and speak this way, they have reduced the communities and societies which they wish to save to abstract ideals, bereft of any real people. Indeed, real people just get in the way of defending the good. I’m not sure which is more attractive here — being the virtuous defender of a noble idea, or being virtuous battler of irredeemable evil.

Includes Roman Catholics, Communists and Muslims Too!

Stanley Fish, in a column about the public discussion of Jews and Jewishness in the West today, writes this at the New York Times:

An important part of the protean and shape-shifting history of anti-Semitism is illuminated by Matthew Biberman’s brilliant book Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature. Biberman traces the intertwined careers of two characterizations of the Jew — the Jew as devil, an impossibly strong alien being who blocks and destroys everything that is good, and the Jew as sissy, an effeminate, slight, pasty figure who stays in the background and assimilates, but who, because of his having disappeared into the woodwork, is able to rot it out from within. (This quick summary does not do justice to the richness of Biberman’s analysis.) So you can have the fierce barbaric Jew (Israel as the atom-bomb wielding destroyer of Arab armies, at least in 1967) and the insidiously bland Jew, the obsequious figure who, while no one’s looking, takes control of everything. That means that whatever a Jew does there are a number of pre-packaged, and often mutually exclusive, narratives in which to place him, and, by and large, they are not positive ones.

This notion of the almost supernaturally strong, essentially evil enemy who is at the same time weak and cowardly and blends in so as to destroy society from within also forms the substance of English anti-Catholicism (though it tends to focus on the person of the pope, rather than average Roman Catholics), was central to anti-communism and has found new life in anti-Islamism in America.

I cannot speak to how other societies view enemies real and imagined, but it seems the kind of paranoia reflected in English anti-Catholicism/Semitism/Communism/Islamism is an essential fact of Protestant Anglo-American culture. It is foundational, an essential fact that some in the culture can transcend in times and place, but not for any great length of time. It is something that cannot be explained so much as it explains. It is so much a part of the culture that many Jews — particularly right-wing supporters of Israel — have embraced the language, images and logic of this paranoid-conspiracy thinking when they intellectually deal with Muslims and Islam (and even Arabs in general).

This fear is not grounded in much fact, and so reason cannot explain it away or even ease the fear much. (In the 18th century, there were never more than 100,000 Roman Catholics in England, and yet occasionally the English public would erupt into paroxysms of violent anti-Catholicism in which fear of a take-over of the country by the pope — that century’s version of the sharia scare — was primal, and said take-over would end English liberty because rule by the pope was the very definition of tyranny.) But it is grounded in some fact — Roman Catholic Stuart pretenders hung around in France making ominous noises for decades after the Revolution of 1688; Jews did seem to play a overly huge role in finance and the professions Europe in the 18th and 19th century during a time of several social dislocation; Communists did actually believe they were going take over the world (science allegedly proved the inevitability of revolutionary socialism); and Revolutionary Muslims did attack the United States throughout the 1990s and spectacularly on September 11, 2001. But the fear departs from the fact by creating a moral universe of both irredeemable evil and cowardly weakness incarnate in the same opponent.

I wish I understood where this fear comes from. It does seem to be primal to Anglo-American Protestant existence. (The King of England would take on many of the features of the pope in the run-up to the American War of Independence.) I want to root this with the Scots-Irish protestant, but it appears to be just as English as it is Scots-Irish. So I have no idea where it comes from. But it is fascinating. And frightening to behold.

What Does it Mean to Be Faithful?

What does it mean to be church? In the latest issue of the American Conservative, Richard Gamble reviews a book I might have been tempted to read, James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Thankfully, because of Gamble’s review, I don’t have to read the book and be disappointed (whew!). Gamble concludes:

Christians who have a higher allegiance to the church than to American society will not take encouragement from Hunter’s recommendations for “faithful presence.” Social benefits from such a reconfigured orientation to the world may be real, but Christians ought to have their eyes open to the costs involved. A church that trades less effective techniques for more might lose its integrity, the very essence of what defines it as an institution unlike any other, and the unique message it brings to the world. Anyone who spends much time with young Christians these days knows that a generation has been raised by spiritually nomadic church-hopping parents—or even by radically de-institutionalized “home church” families—who have not bothered to initiate their sons and daughters into the life of the church. They have sent their children to the right schools and to worldview boot camp, but they have left them unbaptized, uncatechized, unaccountable, and unhabituated to regular public worship. This trend is becoming increasingly noticeable even among the offspring of conservative homes. A higher and more urgent calling than engaging the world might just be engaging the church.

Hunter agrees that the church in America is unhealthy. Indeed, it is the premise of his book. But for him the evidence of good health is a church that “exercises itself in all realms of life, not just a few.” Hunter’s call to that comprehensive outworking of the gospel offers both diagnosis and prescription for the “post-political,” “post-Constantinian” church as it faces an increasingly alien “post-Christian” culture. His book will perhaps redirect the strategy, funding, and vocabulary of transformationalists aspiring to be among the cultural elite, but it will not challenge their most cherished presupposition, that the church’s faithfulness ought to be measured by the degree to which it changes the world.

The liberal church — and by that, I mean the church of just about any political and social stripe in the social democratic or liberal democratic nation-state — since the 19th century has decided that faithfulness is a matter of, to borrow from Marx, changing the world. But in doing so, the church becomes just another actor in the liberal democratic state, another bit of “civil society” debating terms set solely by modernity and playing solely by the liberal state’s rules. The end result of all this is influencing the actions of the state. That’s what it means to be effective, and its how the various flavors of the liberal church measure themselves.

A lot of this is the engagement with modernity, an engagement the church somehow has to pull-off (Rome tried not to engage modernity for many decades and looked silly doing so) and yet also emphatically state that the question the church deals with — the salvation of humanity and humanity’s encounter with God — pre-dates modernity and will long outlive modernity. Liberal Christianity has surrendered to modernity. Neither refutation nor surrender works well.

But the church needs to be much more emphatic about what the sanctified community really is. Liberal Christians confuse that community with the nation-state (I think this is what Gamble means when he writes of a “mythic civil religion that commonly fails to distinguish between Israel and America,” Israel in this instance being the called people of God, and not the nation-state of Israel) and thus act as if the promises made to the church and to the world through the church are made to the nation-state and through the nation-state. (This is an especially American problem, one Jim Wallis is just as guilty of as Pat Robertson.)

This is why I espouse a theology of exile. The church is not really at home in the world. We are in that moment before the eschaton where the promise, while real and manifest in times and places in the world (there are fleeting moments when I know I am living in that promise), is not the ruling reality of human existence. We are — and should always remember that we are — a wandering people who, outside of our communion of Christ, do not yet have earthly homes.

Recycle or Reuse?

Noticed this on the back of a bottle of Simply Limeade. A bottle that I have been reusing to keep limewater in…

I mean, I don’t get it. Isn’t reusing a form a recycling? Well, whatever. So far, I’ve not dropped dead or gotten sick, nor has the bottle sprung holes or disintegrated. So why they say “Do Not Reuse” is beyond me. Don’t know if this is another federal law or rule that I’m disobeying (because I am likely in violation of some number of federal laws and rules at any moment I am breathing), but if it is, maybe I should say that I’m planning to recycle the bottle now.

I’m not. It’s a nice bottle. For reusing.

Joe Friday, Call Your Office

I have to admit, Jennifer and I are fans of police procedurals, radio and teevee shows which “show” how cops and prosecutors “do things.” Stuff doesn’t really work this way, these shows are fantasies full of over-competent cops, shiny technology in which mistakes are rarely made and always fessed up to. The guilty always confess, and those who confess are always guilty.

They make for neat little morality tales. I admit — it would be nice if the world really worked the way it does is Dragnet or Law & Order. But it doesn’t. The world is probably more like DaVinci’s Inquest, the first season of which was absolutely incredible. Jennifer and I just enjoy the entertainment.
The police procedural began with the Dragnet radio show in the very late 1940s. After playing a string of overly hard boiled private detectives, Jack Webb hit his stride as LAPD “Detective Sergeant” Joe Friday. The original radio show had an interesting edge: Friday had a home life (he lived with his mom, showed an interest in girls), but that and the early 1950s teevee show (Joe actually had a girlfriend, her name was, I think, Ann) were done in the era before the Miranda Warning. (Quick quiz: how many of you know the Miranda Warning by heart because you watched the late 1960s Dragnet or Adam-12?) Friday and his partner could, and often did, enhance their interrogation techniques. One radio episode had Friday and his partner frog-march a suspect (played by Harry Morgan, Webb’s future teevee partner) around downtown Los Angeles in 100-degree heat for four days looking for an apartment, for example. The bad guys are bad, the good guys follow the rules, and everything works out for justice in the end. Again, nice fantasy.
Law & Order is just Dragnet with lawyers attached on the back end. Jennifer and I watch for the characters, mainly, though the various L&O franchises (SVU is Dragnet: Sex Police, a role I could never see Joe Friday doing, and CI is Dragnet+Columbo, which again is a role I could never see Webb filling on his own) help assure both of us that the world is a rotten place full of rotten people who do rotten things. And there’s the morality tale. I claim not to like happy endings, but I’m sort-of lying when I say that. But only sort-of.
While the shows are very much the same, there’s an intriguing difference. Joe Friday has to carry around a pocketful of dimes for pay phones, and he frequently asks to use someone’s phone to call his office. (In the radio show, several minutes of one episode are taken up when Friday calls “long distance” from LA to somewhere in Idaho, as operators connect to exchanges and hook the call up.) There are times, when he’s not in the car at his radio, or not near a payphone, when Joe Friday is incommunicado. All of the L&O cops have cell phones, and can always be reached (unless the writers contrive a situation to put them out of reach). Calling Idaho is no problem.
It’s interesting, this change in telephone affairs, and is more noticeable than any other difference in the two shows.