Archive for October 2012

Asking the Right Questions   Leave a comment

Kurt Willems has an excellent interview with Chris Haw over at his Pangea blog. The interview is about Chris’s book about his coversion to Catholicism. Since I’ve been heading in the other direction, I thought the interview would make an excellent subject for a post.  

Kurt begins by asking Chris about how his (Chris) almost anabaptist convictions square with his Catholicism. Chris  points out that some influential anabaptist thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas identify with Christian tradition as a whole, and denies any essential contradiction between Catholicism and the aspects of his faith that inspired his previous work.

Kurt follows up by asking if it is ever appropriate to push against church tradition. Chris admits to finding some Catholic documents weak or insufficient, but finds this insufficiency worth preserving church unity. He then mounts a counter argument, quoting Chesterton as he goes.

“It is rational to attack the police; nay, it is glorious. But the modern critics of [religious] authority are like people who attack the police without ever having heard of burglary.”

He then goes on to list various heresies and the various valued aspects of Christianity they threatened. He rounds off the argument in this way:

Now, its obvious that in some of these cases, the Catholic Church responded in a way that was far harsher than we would ever hope today. But we are partly judging the 5th century (or others) by the 21st century; a strategy about as harsh as saying, “if we had lived in the time of the prophets, we would not have murdered them” (a claim which Jesus denounces as false pride, and harsh judgmentalism).

I think this is, in most ways, a fair case. We probably would have murdered the prophets, but this case ignores the fact that the Catholic Church certainly murdered prophets as well. I’ve read some of the interrogations from persecution of protestants during the reign of Mary Tudor, and it is quite clear to me that some of the victims barely understood the theological disputes they were embroiled in. But they were firmly committed to living and praying a certain way, and thus were executed.

Chris argues for the preservation of church unity while ignoring how divisive the Catholic Church was and is, and he argues for a policeman while ignoring how many crimes happened not just under the eyes of, but frequently at the behest of the Catholic Church. The heresies that Chris condemns were not defeated by Christian charity and nonviolent resistance, nor even by something as blunt as argument or demographics. The heretics were supressed by violence and the threat of violence. Without state power to back it, the Catholic Church has managed to outlive some heresies, but it has policed none of them.

But Chris has anticipated some of this:

But, in all, I’d like folks to reflect on how their “anti-hierarchicalism” fails to consider how there are plenty of things worth kicking out of the Church. That it should be done, there should be little disagreement; how to do it is the hard part. (And if someone declares that hierarchy is the thing to be kicked out, we might then ask, by who? By what method would such egalitarians police the appropriate levels of egalitarianism? Its tricky.)

That’s a tough question. And it’s one that I don’t have an answer to. But identifying a tough question and finding a suitable solution are two very different things. I may have to worry about what to do with bigots in my church, but I do not have to worry about bigots with formal church authority over my conscience. And I don’t believe that Chris can say the same thing.

The next interview question has to do with Chris’ reaction to Catholicism’s stand on Just War Theory. Chris brings this back to ecclesiology as well, ending his response with:

While we never painted this tradition-preference with Catholic tones, we had a tone of refusing schism, of refusing to start a new “radical” church over and against the old one. We instead highlighted a path of refurbishing and participating in the crappy Church Peter handed down. That boundedness of the Body is a Catholic dogma that I heartily embrace and promote.

And here we see the inconsistency of the “preserving church unity” argument for Catholicism. I didn’t leave the Catholic Church because of the sex abuse scandal. I didn’t leave because I couldn’t participate in a church that condemned contraception. I left the Catholic Church because I thought it would be disrespectful to stay. I don’t mind being a dissenter in a church. My beliefs are different enough I expect to be dissenting wherever I go. But my Catholic upbringing lead me to believe that the Catholic hiearchy and a good number Catholic laymen would mind me being a dissenter in their Church. So I left.

I respect Chris’ desire to have both unity and some way to define what is not acceptable. I think, with the grace of God, it might be possible to have both. But you will not have both in the Catholic Church as it is currently constituted.

The interview ends with a question about the Catholic Church’s all-male hierarchy. Chris gives another Chesterton reference, which I now realize is a punt.

So many of my liberal friends wax nostalgically about “native religion”; but the natives were more democratic than we enlightened by modernity; for they included their ancestors in the voting process. Catholic tradition, as Chesterton penned, is the democracy of the dead. And democracy is always disappointing for many participants.

Except that we don’t really include our ancestors in the voting process. Their slavery, their torture, and their misogyny we denounce and ignore. Aquinas’ views about the proper role of women in society are not simply voted down, they are not consulted in the first place. This particular argument for tradition simply begs the question of which ancestral votes count and why?

The Catholic Church poses the right questions, and I think it poses them so compellingly that most people don’t get to the point of examining its answers. They’re questions that still trouble and haunt me, and leaving the Church has done nothing to resolve them. But asking the right questions is of no use at all if all your answers are wrong.


Diversity of Perspective   Leave a comment

Today I thought of a line that I really liked and got very attached to very quickly. I also happen to think it’s got some good content, so I’m sharing it.

If you want diversity of perspective, don’t read about what life was like on the other side of the world two thousand years ago. That will only give you your own perspective on what someone said life was like on the other side of the world two thousand years ago. If really want diversity of perspective, just read someone radically different from you, and what they have to say about the town your living in.

Posted 10/28/2012 by reluctantliberal in Thought Bursts

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Repost: Documenting Israel’s Human Rights Record   Leave a comment

Here’s a good post from Juan Cole about the Israeli state’s blockade of the Gaza strip. I really hope and pray that the Palestinians are accepted into the ICC, so that they can finally get some semblance of justice.

The food blockade had real effects. About ten percent of Palestinian children in Gaza under 5 have had their growth stunted by malnutrition.

A recent report [pdf] by Save the Children and Medical Aid for Palestinians found that, in addition, anemia is widespread, affecting over two-thirds of infants, 58.6 percent of schoolchildren, and over a third of pregnant mothers.

And here’s another story from Mondoweiss about the human right of education.

As countless students around the world took the SAT a week ago, Palestinians from the West Bank could not join their ranks. The October SAT exam was cancelled for students in the West Bank: The Israeli authorities held the exams sent by the College Board for weeks, not releasing the tests to AMIDEAST’s office in Ramallah…

This SAT cancellation has been devastating for high school seniors across the West Bank who were planning to apply to college in the United States—including those from the Ramallah Friends School. As alumni of the school, we are proud of its emphasis on global citizenship. RFS has a rich history in Palestine. It was established in 1869 by American Quakers and has since been certified by the International Baccalaureate Organization in Switzerland. About half of RFS students are Palestinian Muslims and the other half are Palestinian Christians—the latter are descendants of the very first Christian community. We have been nurtured by values of peace, nonviolence, social justice, and equality—principles to which many Palestinian families are deeply committed.

And then there’s the deprivation of economic rights:

  • In the West Bank, over 7,500 olive trees belonging to Palestinians were damaged or destroyed by Israeli settlers between January and mid October 2012, some 2,000 fewer than during the equivalent period in 2011.
  • Only one of the 162 complaints regarding settler attacks against Palestinian trees monitored by the Israeli NGO Yesh Din since 2005 has so far led to the indictment of a suspect.


Posted 10/18/2012 by reluctantliberal in Repost

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Repost: Malala and Education   Leave a comment

Content Note: Malala, Shootings, Gender Inequality, Unequal access, Illiteracy

Juan Cole has a mostly excellent post on Malala, the Taliban, and female education in Pakistan.

So the Taliban are fringe, tiny and highly peculiar and their bizarre ideas have all along been out of sync with the Pakistani mainstream. The Taliban extreme male chauvinism is a huge problem for women in the small areas of Pakistan where they are influential. But arguably, millions of Pakistani women are deprived of an education not by the malevolence of a few sectarians but by the failure of elite men to care to see peasant girls have a school in their village.

Repost: Happy Ada Lovelace Day   Leave a comment

This post from Unequally Yoked clued me in to Ada Lovelace Day, which seems like a day worth celebrating to me. You should check it out.

Ada Lovelace Day was launched in 2009 with a simple pledge on British civil action site, Pledgebank. Nearly 2,000 people signed up to blog about a woman in technology whom they admired on 24 March. The day was an astounding success, with contributors writing blog posts, newspaper columns and even a webcomic, Sydney Padua’s Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. The media covered Ada Lovelace Day with enthusiasm, including coverage from The GuardianThe Telegraph, the BBC and Computer Weekly amongst others.

Posted 10/16/2012 by reluctantliberal in Repost

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Philemon, A Study in Hierarchy   Leave a comment

Content Note: Authority, Slavery, Passive Aggression


I was reading Slactivist the other day when I came across this post about the Biblical book of Philemon (I’ve reproduced the full text of Philemon at the bottom of this post). I like Slacktivist. He does good work. His deconstruction of the Left Behind series is, for me, the gold standard of internet deconstructions.

But I did not like the post.

Actually, my reaction to what the post was saying was so negative that I realized I didn’t like the book of Philemon, either. The post was revealing because it demonstrated in a more straightforward way the screwed up power dynamics that are present in Philemon. Which is actually kind of sad, since the story of Philemon and Onesimus is mostly a nice story.

Once upon a time, Philemon was a man and a Christian, and Onesimus was his slave and a Christian. Onesimus ran away from his master, and came across a Christian named Paul. Paul and Onesimus took care of each other for a time, and then Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, expecting him to be welcomed not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Presumably, Onesimus was welcomed with open arms.

It’s a nice story, and there’s a lot of goodness in it. Paul even goes into it trying for the right effect. Paul requests that Onesimus be welcomes:

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.

That’s a nice thought, and a good idea.  It would be most beneficial for Philemon if Philemon acceded to Paul’s request because “He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” That result is the one that would allow Onesimus to return “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”

Unfortunately, that result is no longer possible. Why is that result no longer possible? Because hierarchy, that’s why.

Seriously. Paul can croon about how they’re all brothers in Christ, but it isn’t really true. And Paul knows it isn’t true. Let’s look at what else Paul says to Philemon, besides the Brothers in Christ bit.

I could be bold and order you.”

“If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.”

Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.”

It should also be noted that the letter wasn’t just addressed to Philemon, but to Philemon, a few other people, and the entire church that meets at Philemon’s house. This was not Paul taking Philemon aside and saying, “This is what I think you should do.” No, this was Paul calling out Philemon in front of Philemon’s entire church. And Paul ends by saying that he’s planning to visit them soon. So Paul’s suggestion is accompanied with a “I’m going to be checking up on you soon, so don’t screw this up.”

Essentially, it is impossible that Philemon could refuse Paul’s request. Which also means, in many ways, it is impossible for Philemon to accept Paul’s request. Philemon can choose how to feel about following Paul’s order, but that’s basically it.

Which, I guess, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

I mean, we’re talking about the difference between Onesimus being welcomed as an equal a Brother in Christ and Onesimus being punished for running away before returning to work as a slave. So Paul pulling rank isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least in this situation.

And that’s the thing. Hierarchy can be useful. It can help. It can work for marginalized people as it did when the Civil Rights movement used the federal government to force state governments to clean up their acts. But it can’t ever be the foundation for a really Christian relationship.

“I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love,” Paul writes. It’s a good thought. It’s the right thought. But given the hierarchal relationship between Paul and Philemon, it isn’t a workable thought. And so we find hierarchy, as it so often does, masquerading under the guise of a request that isn’t a request. But that’s what the book of Philemon is. It is a command posing as request. It is a letter based on a falsehood. It is hierarchy hiding itself in a polite lie. And we shouldn’t ever forget that when we read about Philemon and Onesimus.




New International Version (NIV)

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus,[b] who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

The Bible   Leave a comment

I was thinking about writing a post criticizing a particular book of the Bible. But I realized it would be helpful to get a few things out of the way before I did that.

First, I consider myself a Christian. I believe that God actually became man, suffered, was crucified, and rose from the dead. I believe in the Trinity. I believe in heaven.

But my belief is a belief about reality. To me, the most reasonable explanation for something existing rather than nothing is God (which a completely different post entirely). And the God most likely to create everything we see is the Christian God, a God who would reach out to creation.

And that’s why I believe in Christianity. The Bible doesn’t add to that. In fact, I don’t really trust the Bible.

The God that I believe in is not the God of the Bible. Or, at least, not the God portrayed in parts of the Bible. My God would not command the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites. He wouldn’t goad Pharaoh into provoking Him just so he could show off by killing a bunch of Egyptians. He wouldn’t do about a quarter of the things talked about in the minor prophets.

I don’t buy the “fear of the Lord” thing that’s so popular in the Old Testament, especially since, “Perfect love drives out fear.” I think Revelation is best ignored by people who don’t have the background information of a Biblical studies PhD student. And I don’t like the general thrust of Philemon, which I’ll talk about in my next post.

So I don’t trust the Bible. Period. End of story. I think it is the most important document in understanding Christian history, and there are more than a few really valuable things in it, but I don’t trust it.

I know people who say they read the document as the story of a loving God gradually revealling Himself to falible people who keep getting the message wrong. And I think there’s very likely some truth to that. But the fact of the matter is, if I want to know how to approach something as a Christian, I’m going to turn to Desmond Tutu a lot faster than I turn to the Bible. 

  Still, the Bible has provided the starting point for most Christians. It infuse Christian vocabulary, shapes Christian thought, and needs to be dealt with if one is going to engage with the broader Christian community. I just think it needs to be dealt with critically.

And I’ll do that in my next post.