The Essential Intolerance of Liberalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, tempers will flare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More later.

The Intolerance of Egalitarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Clerisy and Occupy Wall Street

I came across possibly the best analysis I’ve seen yet of the phenomena that is Occupy Wall Street, from self-confessed Marxist Kenneth Anderson over at the Volokh Conspiracy. Anderson, referencing Christopher Lasch’s analysis of the protestors as part of a “New Class” of managerial workers, has this to say about the protestors, what has driven them into the parks, and what their demands probably really are:

The problem the New Class faces at this point is the psychological and social self-perceptions of a status group that is alienated (as we marxists say) from traditional labor by its semi-privileged upbringing — and by the fact that it is actually, two distinct strands, a privileged one and a semi-privileged one. It is, for the moment, insistent not just on white-collar work as its birthright and unable to conceive of much else. It does not celebrate the dignity of labor; it conceived of itself as existing to regulate labor. So it has purified itself to the point that not just any white-collar work will do. It has to be, as Michelle Obama instructed people in what now has to be seen as another era, virtuous non-profit or government work [italics mine – CHF]. Those attitudes are changing, but only slowly; the university pipelines are still full of people who cannot imagine themselves in any other kind of work, unless it means working for Apple or Google. 

The New Class has always operated across the lines of public and private, however, the government-university-finance and technology capital sectors. It is not a theory of the government class versus the business class — as 1990s neoconservatives sometimes mistakenly imagined. As Lasch pointed out, it is the class that bridges and moves effortlessly between the two. As a theory of late capitalism (once imported from being an analysis of communist nomenkaltura) it offers itself as a theory of technocratic expertise first – but, if that spectacularly fails as it did in 2008, it falls back on a much more rudimentary claim of monopoly access to the levers of the economy. Which is to say, the right to bridge the private-public line, and rent out its access.

Anderson goes on to say that the difference between these lower elites and the bankers of the upper elite is that the OWS protestors no longer have any social or economic position they can effective leverage in a global market. There is no demand for the skills they have, no desire to employ them at what they want to do, and thus they have absolutely no comparative advantage. And thus no rents to collect. As long as finance continued to produce the kinds of non-overtly subsidized profits that could continue to fund both the non-profit virtue industry as well as fund (and and other the end, pay for) student loans, then more then enough of the young and virtuous could be employed. But not anymore. As Anderson notes:

The asset bubble pops, but the upper tier New Class, having insulated itself and, as with subprime, having taken its cut upfront and passed the risk along, is still doing pretty well. It’s not populism versus the bankers so much as internecine warfare between two tiers of elites.

In effect, a generation of young people has educated itself very specifically, and now with the economy drying up, there is no demand for what they supply.

I think this is a fascinating analysis, and generally correct. It corresponds with some things that I have seen, embedded deeply in a seminary of a socially, politically and sometimes theologically liberal confession. Because what Anderson is describing is the clerisy, that class of educated professionals who have administered industrial democracy since its invention in the latter half of the 19th century. Economist Deirdre McClosky in her book on bourgeois virtues noted that the clerisy were deeply bourgeois in the values and social expectations but were also those group of bourgeois who were completely alienated from the actual production of wealth. They have no idea where money comes from, how value is added, how wealth is produced. Indeed, the clerisy tend to take the means of production, and the production of wealth, as a given.

The clerisy in the West is both secular and religious. But liberal protestant churches (such as the one I am in) are run by the clerisy, by people who effectively have no real understanding of, or much appreciation for, the creation of wealth. The general view of money and wealth for the liberal protestant  seems to be:

  • Money is icky and bad …
  • … But no one should ever have to struggle for money.
Now, there is a reality of any sophisticated, civilized society — that there will be enough surplus economic production to support a class of people who produce nothing of value, or something of unquantifiable value, and in doing these things, contribute to the well-being of the society. Clergy, government clerks, artists, poets, scholars, all of these people are subsidized to one extent or another because they do not “produce” or aid significantly in the production of goods and services. What the clerisy Anderson describes, people yearning to do “virtuous non-profit or government work,” forget is how dependent their work is on the wealth produced and either shared or extracted from others. Whatever the sins of the financiers — and they are legion — you cannot create a large class of people who exist solely on the backs of others. And across the Western world, from California to Greece, governments have found themselves unable to keep the promises made to government workers because they end up being far too costly. Every dollar paid to public employee or retiree has to come from somewhere. 
One of the great puzzles that mass society/social democracy/industrial capitalism has never been able to fully solve has been the puzzle of what to do with the fact that thanks to capital, fewer and fewer people can produce more and more wealth. What becomes of those who are superfluous? If John Taylor Gatto is right, a little more than a century ago, capital tried to permanently organize the world so that there was a place for everyone, and that everyone would find their place. But that arrangement did not hold for very long. Creating do-nothing managerial work, making some the permanent keepers and managers of others — especially earnest, angst- and guild-ridden young people who desire to do good and think the best way, or the only way, to do so is in the context of the therapeutic state — was one solution. But it may be in the process of falling completely apart as well. 
Which gets me to my last point in this missive. Anderson is right that the clerisy does not dignify labor. Indeed, the clerisy — particularly that of the liberal church — denigrates labor. The only work it truly values is work done on computers in cubicles. The only product it truly understands is paper. It does not know what to do with or how to value any other kind of labor. In this, I am with John Robb, that the future belongs not to those who lobby the state, but those who build resilient communities. The protestors are right to bring the sins of finance to the attention of whoever will listen — to borrow a slogan from ACT Up, I’d like to see someone wave a sign that said “Investment banking = death” — in hopes that someone’s conscience will be pricked enough to prompt action. Just don’t count on it.
It is, however, a fool’s errand to expect or demand that not-for-profit virtue work be made available again. It is also extremely arrogant, selfish and self-centered.
The only way for individuals and communities to survive in the coming age is for people to work together, and for individuals to have a real skill and to be willing to do hard work. By real skill, I mean making something you can sell, or fixing something so it can work again. And by hard work, I mean hard work — not in office buildings, not in business casual, not demanding professional credentials, and not producing paper. 

How Not to Hear to God

Over the course of my very short (so far) pastoral career, several people have thrust into my hands copies of Craig Rennebohm’s (with David Paul) Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets, mostly because I have worked with the homeless and the mentally ill on Chicago’s north side (at Uptown Lutheran Church) and have loved every minute of it. Rennebohm is a UCC pastor who has worked with the homeless and the mentally ill in Seattle, and he appears to have done it with compassion with faithfulness.

I am about a third the way through the book, and so I make this comment knowing he may deal with this matter later in the book. But I’m also somewhat bothered by an attitude that Rennebohm and Paul take in the book. In the fourth chapter, “Approaching Mary,” Rennebohm and Paul tell several stories of people who struggled with mental illness, and how often the grandiose — religion, government, extraterrestrials — are present in the hallucinations and visions of the schizophrenic. They write:

Each type of illness expresses itself according to its own patterns. Hallucinations and delusions, for example, are generally symptoms of schizophrenia–as when a woman I’ll call Veronica believed she saw a store-window mannequin come alive and start talking to her, or when Al heard God’s voice in the shower telling him to stop washing because he was hopelessly dirty and there was no way he could ever be clean. Both were in fact experiencing schizophrenic episodes. (pp. 60-61)

After a brief discussion of the role guilt plays in depression, the authors then emphatically state the following:

God was not speaking to Al in the shower; his neurotransmitters were creating hallucinations and playing havoc with his sense of reality. (p. 61)

I find this statement troubling. Very, very troubling.

Some years ago, my friend John Hartwell (God rest his troubled spirit) told of a a time he had spent in a mental hospital, and of a young lady who claimed God was speaking to her. “What was God saying to her?” I asked him. “Oh, that we should love and care for each other,” John responded. “Was God really talking to her?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “She wouldn’t stand still long enough for me to ask. She liked to jump up and down.”

I find myself wondering about Rennebohm’s God. How exactly is that God present with people? How does that God speak to humanity? And, if every voice we ever hear God say to us is merely malfunctioning neurotransmitters, are we really capable of listening to God? Or are we now missing something?

Rennebohm could have said that Al wasn’t hearing God’s voice because of what God said — a kind and compassionate God would never have said such a thing. But he didn’t said that. Instead, Rennebohm made a categorical statement: the voice of God, as such, doesn’t exist — it is merely our brains going haywire.

Which makes me wonder — what then of all the times God speaks in scripture? To Abraham? To Moses? What of all the speaking God does to and through the prophets, many of whom see, and speak, and act in ways that would today be clearly indicative of some kind of illness. What would Rennebohm have made of Hosea marrying a prostitute on the “command” of God? Or Ezekiel’s visions of cherubim and wheels and the scroll he ate that gave him the power to prophesy judgement to unfaithful Israel? What of the word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah, which included a command not to pray for God’s people because God won’t hear that prayer? Or Isaiah’s unclean lips, made clean with a burning coal? Or Mary’s “meeting” with the Holy Spirit? Or Paul’s being struck blind on the road to Damascus?

For Rennebohm (at least so far in the book), God’s presence seems merely to be a non-anxious, compassionate, professional and caring presence. And this is fine. But it is limited entirely by being incarnate. In this construct, God can only be present to us as and in another human being. There can be no supernatural presence, no communication from outside our ordinary experience. Nothing save the sweet and pleasant presence of the rightly guided and properly trained.

I bring this up for several reasons. First, because twice in my life, God has spoken directly to me. Been in my head. (At prayer, alone, in mosques in San Francisco, 1991, and Columbus, Ohio, 1994.) It is an absolutely terrifying experience, one I do not hope to ever repeat. I have also had other-than-ordinary encounters (I do not know any other way to explain them) with something divine, at the Greyhound bus depot in San Francisco in 1991 and again at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Someday I will explain these things in greater detail. But not today.

The point is, God is still speaking to human beings in ways that don’t involve being incarnated in some non-anxious professional listener. God has at least spoken to me, and I know that God has spoken to others as well. As the UCC is happy to say, God is still speaking.

Which leads me to my second point. Are we still capable of listening? Are we so concerned with health and wellbeing on the one hand, and conformity to social norms and having people become well-adjusted contributing members of society that we are no longer capable of hearing God when God speaks to us through prophetic voices? Many compassionate, caring people wish to see others conform and be well-adjusted, but the desire to have people conform and be “properly socialized” and well-adjusted can also be an incredibly brutal, uncaring and violent act, one that damages people.

Would Isaiah (or any of the three Isaiahs) been able to give us any of those visions had they been medicated and hospitalized? What of Jeremiah on prozac, to make him better-adjusted, and thus more supportive of the government? Or Ezekiel on haldol and risperdol? What of his visions? It may be that God no longer speaks to God’s people prophetically, but it may also be that we, in our “scientific” understanding and acculturation, and our desire to create and impose a very narrowly constrained normative human existence, with the ability to medicate people toward that norm, it may be we are simply no longer capable of listening. Or even hearing.

And this brings me to my final point. I do not have a major, or even minor, mental illness, so I do not have that struggle. I do not wish to seem uncaring, but I have come to believe that what we call mental illness tells us something fascinating about God. I have come to believe that all human beings are whole and complete, and each whole and complete human being says something wonderful and interesting about the God whose image we are made in. My wife is severely dyslexic. This is not a disorder, and she is not incomplete because of her dyslexia, as difficult and painful as it is for her to function in a non-dyslexic world. But her dyslexia tells me something about the God whose image she is made in.

I see the same with the “mentally ill” that I have met. To treat someone who has schizophrenia as someone who is somehow not whole or right is to miss what such a thing tells of us God. The God whose image they were made in, the God whose wholeness and perfection they reflect. Mostly, I find this something to meditate, to help me as I encounter the “mentally ill.” And no doubt the Rennebohm does too, at least to an extent.

I have no easy answers. And I know how some of this might sound to those who struggle with mental illness. And I fear, perhaps too much, the desire of some to make others conform to a norm, whatever that norm may be. Tolerance, for me, is how much room is open for non-conformity, for the weird, the odd, the aberrant, and tolerant bourgeois social democratic liberalism is rarely as tolerant as it claims because its desire for conformity — however expanded and inclusive that conformity might be — is so powerful and unyielding.

But it may be that the God that bourgeois sensibility has reduced to a sentimental, non-anxious professional presence is too small a God. Far too small a God. The Israelites, and the followers of Jesus throughout history, often times found the experience of God to be as terrifying as it was comforting (and often times terrifying and comforting at the same time). To be met by God was to be overwhelmed (as Mary was), to be engulfed, to risk annihilation at the very hands of the infinite. This terrifying God who calls, gathers, redeems and loves God’s people may sometimes only be truly be apprehended by human beings on the ragged edges of reason and sanity, a God whose infinity fills our finiteness and utterly overwhelms us. I’m not sure Rennebohm gets that God.

And I’m not sure how much the church really gets that God either.

Modernity and Tragedy

Ugh. After a long period of being very sick, and an even longer period of not wanting to blog (blogging comes in bursts with me, it seems), I’m finally up to comment on something.

David Brooks has an interesting column in today’s (Friday, 15 July) New York Times. He’s wrong when he writes “[t]he fiscal crisis is driven largely by health care costs,” (it’s driven most by America’s insistence on living beyond its means, whether that “living” is waging war in the Middle East and dominating the world or being “generous” to the poor and supporting the elderly) but he is correct when he notes:

We have the illusion that in spending so much on health care we are radically improving the quality of our lives. We have the illusion that through advances in medical research we are in the process of eradicating deadly diseases. We have the barely suppressed hope that someday all this spending and innovation will produce something close to immortality.

There is, I believe, a larger point to this. The aim of Modernity and the Enlightenment — both stated and unstated — is the eradication of the tragic. Specifically, Modernity and Enlightenment seek the end of death, suffering, accident, inequality, misery and poverty. Modernity and Enlightenment believe that human reason, combined with science (technology and industrial production) and rightly guided (by Morality and Reason to become Progress) can effectively bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, or something akin to that kingdom. It may be these ideals are not as passionately felt as they were 100 years ago, but they are still very intensely felt, and the desires of Modernity and Enlightenment have been almost completely impervious to human history, and humanity’s inability to alter the tragic conditions and nature of human existence.

Modernity and Enlightenment have been quite capable of staggering change, mostly in terms of technology and organization. But that change has mostly been engineering, not moral. It has not altered the fundamental nature of human beings because it cannot. It cannot eradicate sin and all that springs from human sinfulness. And it is a delusion — albeit an incredibly powerful delusion — that somehow this engineering and organizational change can facilitate moral change. It cannot. We cannot evade the tragic, no matter how much we try. There will always be poverty, suffering, misery, accident, inequality, hierarchy and death as long as we are humans existing this side of the eschaton because those tragic elements are essential to the human condition. No amount of production, no amount of wealth, no amount of communication, will make us good enough to share what there is with all who need. Not because there isn’t enough, but because we are people incapable of doing that kind of good.

In scripture, God may promise an eventual transcendence of the tragic, and we who are called by God in Christ to live that kingdom live out that transcendence. But we do so also knowing that God came into the world not to negate or eradicate tragedy but to participate in it, and to be present with us in the midst of it. The goals of Modernity and Enlightenment are misguided, and the Liberal Church is deeply misguided when it mistakes Modernity and Enlightenment for the Kingdom of God. When it mistakes the goals of Modernity and Enlightenment with the promises of God. And when it mistakes society and the nation for the church, the community of people called out to follow.

On Justice. And Making Someone Walk an Extra Mile

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a fan of the concept of “justice” as espoused and advocated for in the culture of the liberal-progressive West (both religious and secular, since it’s basically the same claim). Justice is little more, I think, than a form of social vengeance, a combination of “gimme” combined with “it’s not fair” married to laws and guns. Many advocates for “justice” also seem to want to create (or recreate) a world in which there is no need for mercy, and that frightens me no end. A world without God’s mercy is a world in which human beings are left to our own cruel devices, one in which our ideological self-righteousness in the name of “justice” is an excuse for unbending and unyielding cruelty.

Plus, there is also the simple desire to wield power, to lord it over others, to bend people and the world to their will. I think that motivates more “justice” seekers than they care to admit.

An important thing to note is that “justice” is not objective, it is very subjective. Two very thoughtful and faithful people can come to some very different understandings of what is “just” and how “justice” ought to work in the world. Even if they start from the same place. (Our vision of “justice” is rooted in notions of political, social and economic equality — notions almost no one had 200 years ago and notions no one may have 200 years from now.) Thus, all that is left is force of arms, is might, to determine which version of “justice” is “just.”

As an anarchist — as someone who believes quite deeply in the fundamental moral illegitimacy of force and coercion in any form — I do not believe in engaging much in partisan politics. Politics is about controlling the machinery and meaning of the state, and the state is nothing but force and coercion. I don’t so much care about the society (which cannot function without coercion and violence), but I do care about the church (which is called to show the world what a community of non-violence and non-coercion looks like). We as church have no business advocating on behalf of state violence, or taking a stake in state violence, regardless of how just we believe the cause the state is pursuing. That makes us as church complicit in the violence.

The only things we as church should be saying to the state are: “No.” “Don’t.” “Stop.”

I’ve long believed this. I believed this even when I was Muslim, this belief in the non-legitimacy of violence to make changes in the world. (In fact, I came to this belief as a Muslim.) But until recently, I’d never really had solid scripture to hang this upon. But studying the Sermon on the Mount for a song I was writing for the confirmation class, I read this:

[38] “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ [39] But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. [40] And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. [41] And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. [42] Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42 ESV)

Yes, I’ve read that passage a lot. You have too, probably. But as I was working on that song, it occurred to me that when we engage in political activity as Christians, we become the people who slap cheeks, take tunics, beg and borrow, and force people to walk a mile. We become what Christ tells his disciples is clearly evil.

Again, it doesn’t matter that we think we’re pursuing “justice.” We will have to injure someone to get there, and in doing so, we become enamored of our self-righteousness and believe that those injured deserved it. To defend a neighbor with violence means to rob another human being of their status as neighbors. There is no love of neighbor that can ever articulate itself as or in violence against that neighbor. Ever.

(On this point, I realize that I am at great odds with not only the teaching of my Lutheran confession, but also with historic Christendom, which has always given the agents of the state some moral leeway to engage in violence for some ephemeral common good. As much as I appreciate the wisdom of history and of the church, I believe there are some things it got wrong, or at the very least, understood some things — state and society — in a way that gives far too much leeway for violence and compulsion. That is another argument for another essay.)

There is one other point that came to me in reading this passage. We ourselves, as good bourgeois American Protestants (progressive or otherwise) are unwilling to live out the grace we seem to demand others live out when we force it upon them. We compel people to walk the mile on our command, grumble that they should walk the extra mile (because Jesus says so!), but we ourselves are utterly unwilling to walk even the first mile, much less the second. Again, a lot of this stems from the Protestant desire to create a world of perfect “justice,” a world in which the mercy of God (and human beings) is not needed because all of the systems of the world will be arranged “justly.” (This has been an element of Protestant utopianism since the 16th century.) Personally, this articulates itself in a social view that basically says, “If you actually need God’s mercy, you clearly don’t deserve it.”

Mostly, I don’t think Liberal Protestants (particularly their corporate church bodies) really believe in the transformative power of love. They don’t see love as an effective way to engage the world. It doesn’t change the world in the ways they believe the world needs to be changed (or worse, in the ways they believe God wants the world changed). Instead, they have come to believe in “justice,” and have come to invest themselves in the violence and force necessary to be “effective” at “pursuing justice.”

But we are not called to be effective. We are called to be faithful, to love as God loves us. And that is all we are called to do.