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Christians in the Military?

February 28, 2010
There's a lot of debate right now over whether or not we should openly permit gays to serve in the military; but hardly any Christians seem to be asking the much more important question--should Christians serve in the military?  The early Church Fathers, as a general rule, thought not.  Ah, we say, but that's because they were pacifists, and we know better than that now.  Well, no, not necessarily--for one thing, opposition to killing is not the primary reason they cite for their concern.  Rather it is, as we see in Tertullian's The Military Chaplet, a concern that enlisting in the military would require a kind of allegiance and loyalty that only God could properly command, that it essentially committed one either to idolatry, or to invite severe punishment by refusing to engage in the practices required of a soldier.  Ah, we say, but this does not apply now.  Rome was pagan, and so their military was deep in idolatry, but we're secular, and so none of our practices can be idolatrous.  
Unfortunately, it's not that simple.  

February 28, 2010
(The following experimental thoughts were inspired by some fascinating remarks by Oliver O’Donovan in recent class.)

Christian conservatives have an odd tendency to divorce social and moral problems from economic problems.  A classic example is the issue of women in the workplace.  I grew up in a small subculture that strongly opposed the idea of women having careers and that traced many of the ills of our society to the feminist movement, and the loss of a proper understanding of the family and the gender roles it presents to us.  Interestingly, feminism seems to have largely missed some of the economic roots of the problem as well.  According to the conservatives, the problem was that a proper understanding of the family collapsed, feminism went around persuading women to be uppity, and, thinking they had to prove themselves, women marched out into the workplace.  According to the feminists, the workplace was full of sexists who wanted to keep their power over women by refusing to let them work, and it took a sustained and aggressive campaign by women to get equal employment rights.  

While there is truth in both of these narratives, both ignore another tremendously significant factor--namely, that the world of business had a very good reason for wanting to haul women in, rather than keep them out: wages.  

The Sludge of Drudge

February 25, 2010
Now for an incredibly petty personal vendetta.
I’ve finally had it with the Drudge Report.  I know I’ve said that many times before, but I keep finding myself going back there, either because it’s simply one of the best websites for linking to news stories available, or because I want to find out what the right-wing creeps are up to.  But the man never ceases to amaze me in the depths to which he will stoop to advance his highly partisan agenda.  
What he has managed to do is really quite remarkable--to assemble a tremendous engine of ideological propaganda without doing any journalism of his own, any writing of opinion, any altering of the facts, etc.  Everything on there is news that’s been reported by someone else.  Drudge has managed to harness the power of headlining as a way of distorting the truth even while telling it.  Recognizing that headlines often make a much greater impression on people than stories themselves (especially since many people are speed-browsing and will not actually read the stories), he has found three remarkably effective tools of turning his “news” into propaganda:

"The Sweet Odor of Gain"

February 25, 2010

The Protestant ethic may have been a friend of capitalism, but Martin Bucer certainly wasn’t.  Some of the most interesting passages in his De Regno Christi are the extensive advice he gives magistrates about economic affairs, and in which he rants against the profit-seeking proto-capitalists.  Two sections in particular intrigued me.  
First was his treatment of the issue of the enclosures, a matter of which I’d never heard before last semester, but which came up a number of times in Theology and the Global Economy class.  The enclosures were the expropriation of small landowners by larger magnates, who wanted to use their property to expand their sheep herds for the lucrative wool industry.  This took place as a result of the breakup of the monasteries, and the distribution of their enormous lands to the members of parliament who supported the king.  These were thus in a position so superior to the surrounding small farmers that they could readily buy them out.  Hilaire Belloc argues that it was these expropriations, transforming England from a society of free small landholders to one of a propertyless working class and a propertied upper class, that enabled capitalism to take root in England, and in such a vicious form as it did, because a division between the capital-owners and the laborers had already been created.  

Drilling through Hard Boards

I'm sure I will have much more to post on from this masterful essay in political thought, but for now, I thought I would share the stunning conclusion of Weber's "The Profession and Vocation of Politics" (a lecture delivered in Germany in 1919):

"What lies immediately ahead of us is not the flowering of summer but a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group wins the outward victory now.  For, where there is nothing, not only has the Kaiser lost his rights but so too has the proletarian.  When this night slowly begins to recede, which of those people will still be alive whose early summer seems now to have flowered so profusely?  And what will have become of you all inwardly?  Embitterment or philistinism, sheer, dull acceptance of the world and of your job--or the third, and not the least common possibility, a mystical flight from the world on the part of those with the gift for it or--a frequent and pernicious variant--on the part of those who force themselves into such an attitude because it is fashionable....

A Jurisprudence of Aspiration

Here follow some rather informal meditations on the relationship between law and morality, which I typed up at the suggestion of Oliver O'Donovan as groundwork for my paper on Old Testament Law.  They are something of a stab in the dark, and may be off the mark, and at points they may be simply stating the obvious.  But they helped me make sense of some ideas that have been banging around in the dark recesses of my mind since I came upon the quote regarding a "jurisprudence of aspiration" in an essay by Stanley Hauerwas, a kernel long buried that is now proving extraordinarily fruitful for my work in Old Testament Law.
In today’s permissive liberal society, we draw a rather stark distinction between law and morality.  Indeed, one could say that such a distinction is a pillar of Western liberalism, which, abandoning the goal of a public consensus regarding virtue, restricted the task of law to that of restraining vice, and thus protecting a vast sphere in which individuals or groups could pursue their private conceptions of morality.  The original impetus for this was ostensibly not the atomization of the quest for virtue, but the tolerance of various Christian denominations to pursue their differing visions of dogma and morality.  Virtue was still conceived, within many of these Christian groups, as public and social, to be regulated by authority and pursued for the common good.  Nevertheless, the trajectory set by liberalism proved difficult to restrain, and increasingly the communities engaged in shared pursuit of public virtue were dissolved until society consisted of myriad warring private pursuits of moral virtue, all permitted within the broad parameters of public law.  

An AP article yesterday entitled "Can low-paying garment industry save Haiti?" highlights how depressingly hypocritical US commitment to helping Haiti really is.  Using the quake as an opportunity to kick into high gear a plan formulated last year, the UN, Obama administration, and American business community are planning to expand the sweatshop industry as a means of helping Haiti's economy recover from the disaster.  

Quotes from class yesterday:
"The Roman Catholic Church is an ocean-going liner that takes a large space to turn around."
"People blame Margaret Thatcher, but all that Margaret Thatcher was was the person sitting on the see-saw when it finally went off-balance."
"Conservatism in Europe and North America are very different things.  In North America, conservatives are always redneck country boys crying 'foul' from a position of impotence."  

The Guise of a Miracle

Some nuggets of brilliance from Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition:
“It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.  This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings and in all origins....The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.  The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. 

Aquinas on Old and New Laws

February 17, 2010
In his intensely provocative and insightful discussion of law in the Summa, Aquinas alleges three fundamental differences between “the Old [Testament] Law” and “the New Law.”  I’m not convinced on any of three headings:
“First, we have stated that the purpose of law is to be ordained to the common good, and this can be twofold.  The one is material and earthly benefit; this was directly envisaged by the Old Law, which from the start invited the chosen people to the promised land of Canaan.  The other is spiritual and heavenly good; to this we are directed by the New Law.  At the opening of his ministry our Lord invited us to the kingdom of heaven: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matt. 4:17).  Accordingly Augustine (Contra Faustum 4.2) says that the Old Testament contains the promise of temporal things, which is why it is called ‘old,’ whereas the New Testament offers the promise of eternal life.

Leo on Labor Justice

February 17, 2010

"If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice."

This concept from Rerum Novarum, blindingly obvious but almost wholly obscured by a century and a half of capitalist ideology, expresses perfectly what I spent more than a year struggling to express, recognizing that something like this must be true, but so indoctrinated that it was impossible to see it clearly.  Here's the full context for that statement in the encyclical--great stuff:

Bucer on Capital Punishment

In one of his less charming passages, Bucer acknowledges that the civil laws and penalties of the Old Testament are not binding in detail, only in substance, but goes on to insist in a thorough, across-the-board application of their stringent standards of capital punishment in a Christian commonwealth:

Bucerian Totalitarianism?

February 15, 2010
Since moving to Europe, and also reading more widely in the Christian political tradition, I've become increasingly convinced that American Christian opposition to a wide-ranging role for the State is rooted not primarily in Christianity, but in Americanity (not that there aren't good Christian reasons to oppose the state, but it seems to me that those are not the reasons generally given these days).  Americans, from our political founding, have a powerful suspicion of civil government, and are very jealous to protect the freedom of our private lives from its grasp (a lot of good it's done us!).  This is simply innate in our disposition, and is simply not shared by Christians in Europe, despite the fact that they have suffered plenty from over-grasping States as well.  Also, despite the fact that all our conservative narratives tell of this explosion of state authority in the past 200 years that was part of a godless messianic impulse in the State that wanted to take over the whole of life and drive Christianity out, almost all of the state functions that Christians protest against have been around for a very long time, and were advocated strongly by Christians, going at least back to the Reformation.  At the moment, my interest is not in discussing why Americans and Europeans have had the attitudes they've had, nor in pinning the blame on the Protestant Reformers for initiating this fondness for statism (though they certainly played a big role), but simply to show how much of what American Christians decry in the State is neither new, nor, apparently, alien to Christianity.  

Conservative Totalitarianism

February 13, 2009
Oliver O'Donovan suggested in class yesterday that Burkean conservatism was, to a large extent, responsible for the development of the totalitarian nationalist state.  Not, of course, that Burke caused the totalitarian nationalist state (O'Donovan is rightly skeptical of all claims of historical causality), but the lines of development and logical connections are certainly clear.  By renouncing universal abstract claims about the nature of rights and the state, and focusing attention on the historically contingent character of individual states, which ought to reflect the national characters of their own people, and create institutions suitable thereto, Burke's conservatism paved the way for an understanding of the State as embodying the personality, the soul, of the nation.  What feature of national life, then, lay outside the legitimate scope of the State?  
A jarring narrative, but a persuasive one.  Perhaps then the recent mutation of conservatism into fiercely patriotic nationalism is not such a mutation after all.  

Irksome Problems

You may have noticed that since the blog template switchover, there have been a couple of irksome problems: 1) the dates of the posts are not showing up at the top, 2) odd blank spaces keep appearing at the top of posts, 3) the font has been too small, or of oddly varying size.  To the first problem, I can find no solution except to start putting the dates in myself at the top of each post.  As far as the second and third, I have been wrestling with the blog demons all week, and they still seem to be getting the better of me.  But I'll keep experimenting, and find some solution.  Think of the constantly-changing font as an extra incentive to read this blog--you never know what you're going to get each time you peek's like a fortune cookie. :-)

Since this has recently been pushed to the forefront of debate in Moscow circles, and is something my wife and I have been thinking about a lot ourselves, I decided to try to crystallize some thoughts in these thirteen theses.  They are not very eloquent or gripping, I'm afraid, but that's what happens when you're trying to cover all the bases.

As I believe Martin Luther showed us well, the point of posting theses is to get people to have at it.  So, if you have a desire to debate any of these, please do so:
  1. Since God created us with bodies designed to work in certain ways and eat certain foods but not others, we have a duty before God to exercise good stewardship over our bodies, so that we can use them and our resources effectively in his service, rather than becoming weak or expending enormous resources on treating preventable diseases.  This means that we have a responsibility to eat food that will benefit, rather than destroy, our bodies.

Aquinas offers an excellent sketch of the dynamic of nature and grace in civil government in On Kingship, recognizing that, while a civil government will never be able to guide society to true beatitude and virtue in itself, since only the divine power in the Church can accomplish that task, it must nevertheless orient society in that direction, rather than pretending to provide merely neutral human goods.  Human goods cannot be neutral, because true human good is found in God; therefore the government must manage the resources of society so as to pursue that true good, while humbly recognizing that the full accomplishment of this task lies outside their power.  But don't listen to my poor attempts at summary--he says it much better:

In Book 2 of the City of God appears a truly remarkable passage, in which Augustine criticizes Roman society and law in terms that seem as if they were aimed directly at our own modern liberal society.  It is worth quoting in full:

"'So long as it [the republic] survives,' they say, 'so long as it prospers, rich in resources, self-confident in victory, or, better still, secure in peace, what difference does it make to us?  What matters is that there is money to be made to support our lavish style of life, and to give the stronger their hold over the weaker; that the poor treat the wealthy with compliance, to ensure their daily bread--the poor depending on the patronage of the wealthy for a quiet life, the wealthy calling on the poor for support to boost their public standing.  Popularity should accrue not to those whose policies promote public welfare, but to the big providers of public entertainment.  

Society and the Common Good

Last Friday, I had the wonderful pleasure of classes with the two O’Donovan’s back-to-back, the first discussing Anthony Rosmini’s Society and Its Purposes and the second Augustine’s City of God, and the two texts entered into a fascinating dialogue in my mind.  
Anthony Rosmini was an Italian priest writing in the wake of the French Revolution and trying to synthesize the insights and freedoms of liberal politics with more traditional conservative thinking.  In this text, however, he puts himself into a very interesting bind as he tries to have his cake and eat it too, and in the end, I’m afraid he loses the cake altogether.  The tension we identified concerned what was really the crucial question of the whole text--does society exist to provide space for individuals to seek their own ends or goods (liberal model), or do individuals exist to seek the good of society (traditional conservative and also socialist model)? 

The Politics of Self-Interest

Some time ago, when I blogged about the problems of US foreign aid, I promised to follow it up with a more theoretical consideration of how capitalism's understanding of generosity underlies the perverse contemporary consensus on foreign policy.  You may have noticed before that I generally try to keep such promises, but am usually very tardy in doing so.  So, here's the payoff on that particular promissory note.

US foreign policy in recent decades displays an odd paradox, which is baffling to internal and external observers alike.  Two recent illustrations got me thinking about this.  First, my father came back from a trip to Israel, and while there, he had talked a lot with his Palestinian guide about the politics of the area.  He learned that the Palestinians' view of the US was not nearly as negative as one might expect--it was in fact rather confused.  For the Palestinians observed that on the one hand the US seemed to support brutal Israeli policy against the Palestinians, making life very difficult for them, and on the other hand, USAID provided a tremendous amount of humanitarian support for the Palestinians, leaving them very grateful.  All in all, it was rather puzzling--with one hand we're beating them, with the other, we're holding out gifts.

“The legislation, which encourages each family’s ownership of land, has contributed to the Western ideal that every family has a right to own property.  The view of land ownership herein, however, is revolutionary.  It does not promote the ownership of private property in a way that allows the rich to amass large tracts of land, displacing the poor, nor does it permit the speculative buying and selling of land that feeds inflation, which in turn increases poverty.  Neither does this manifesto promote a social or common ownership of land.  Instead, this legislation prescribes a classless society in which each family has an inalienable ownership of a plot of land.  It promotes responsible work that attends ownership of property, and at the same time it promotes responsible brotherhood of all Yahweh’s people arising from their faith in Yahweh.  Those who are more prsoperous assist their poorer brothers, raising them to their own level, because they fear Yahweh.  Kinsman helps kinsman, neighbor helps neighbor to face and to overcome economic hardship.  Greed and covetousness are broken.  This wonderful manifesto will continue to feed both the eschatological vision and utopian thinking until the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ is fully established.”
--John E. Hartley, The Word Biblical Commentary on Leviticus

Avatar's Gross

On Tuesday of this week, Avatar completed its Triple Crown of all-time box office records, all of which it captured from James Cameron’s previous hit, Titanic--first it took the record for foreign gross (previously $1.2 billion; Avatar is now at $1.5 billion), then the record for worldwide gross (previously $1.8 billion; Avatar is now at $2.1 billion), and now finally the $600 million record for domestic gross. 
There are many things one can say about all this success, such as wondering why a movie should be so successful which, despite its breathtaking visual beauty, offers a completely vapid and cliched story.  But then one remembers that other mega-blockbusters of recent decades have scarcely had more to offer--Titanic, E.T., Jaws, and Star Wars, for example. 

Martin Bucer's De Regno Christi (On the Kingdom of Christ) is an utterly fascinating book, revealing better than any text I know the tensions and contradictions that dogged the Reformers' attempts to simultaneously retain a strong ecclesiology and strong view of the civil authorities' role in promoting the kingdom.

The chief question I brought to this text was: Is the Church in itself the kingdom of Christ, or is the kingdom the joint work of Church and State under Christ's lordship?  Bucer begins by unequivocally stating the former, and articulating what seems to be a robustly political idea of the Church--it is itself a kingdom, analogous to, but set over against, "the kingdoms of this world," which refers to all political powers, Christian or secular.  The Church too is a kingdom that seeks to unite its citizens in a community peace, in the pursuit of a common good that affects every area of life, and which seeks to order the lives of each to assist the whole, but it does so through the word, not the sword.  With the Church as such a seemingly autonomous political entity, standing over against even Christian civil governments, one wonders how Bucer is going to take this treatise in the Erastian direction that we all know he is going to.

But then he begins citing Scripture passages that describe the kingdom, and what seemed so solid, physical, corporate, and political begins to vanish into mist.

I'll be mailing this tomorrow.  [edit: I initially addressed this to the Dean, but it appears now that the Canon Chancellor is the appropriate person.]

To the Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser,
I am writing to you to express my deep concern and disappointment over a sermon preached a couple weeks ago, on the Sunday of the Conversion of St. Paul during Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The sermon in question was preached by the Revd. Mark Oakley of Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair, and was, quite frankly, the worst sermon I have ever heard in an Anglican Church.  As a new Anglican Christian, I was embarrassed for my adopted Church, having brought to the service two non-Anglican friends who were touring in London.
Now, of course, let’s be honest--one doesn’t expect much of the sermon these days when visiting services at cathedrals and the like.  A watery ten-minute homily offering some vague remarks on the reading for the day and some general words of encouragement or exhortation is, perhaps, par for the course in this day and age. 

More Gems from de Maistre

Here's a selection of some more excellent quotes from de Maistre, on three themes--law and constitutions, the necessity of religion for a good society, and the Enlightenment.  Enjoy, and if you do enjoy, let me know which ones you most enjoyed. If you don't enjoy, then pick a fight.

On Law and Constitutions
I: “reason and experience agree that a constitution is a divine work and that it is precisely the most fundamental and essentially constitutional elements in a nation’s laws that cannot be written.”
II: “the essence of a fundamental law is that no one has the right to abolish it: but how is it beyond human power if it has been made by someone.”
“Locke sought the characteristic of law in the expression of combined wills, an unlucky chance to choose the precise characteristic that excludes the idea of law.


Alright folks, the new layout is basically here!  There's a few bugs still, but I'm reasonably satisfied and I hope you are too.  You may notice that when I changed the template, the expandable post summary code (the part that makes it say "Read More") disappeared for all posts.  I've fixed it manually for the first few, and will gradually go back through and fix it, but for now, older posts appear in all their overlong glory.  The upside is that the new way of doing the expandable post summaries won't share the bug of the old way--that it says "Read More" whether or not there is any more to read!

A brief note on the rationale...a couple months ago it struck me that my blog sounded rather violent--"Target Practice" was the title, and the tagline said it was "an arena for lobbing shots at anyone who I disagree with" or something obnoxious like that.  Given that I have in the last couple years come to feel strongly about the Christian opposition to violence (again, I'm not a pacifist, but Christians today are so far from pacifism that we need to lean in that direction to achieve any kind of godly balance) this seemed rather out of character.  It also (despite what I remember as my resolute intent at the time) comes across as rather brash, obnoxious, yea, even arrogant.  While "lobbing shots" (do you "lob" shots??) may happen here from time to time, and indeed will be necessary from time to time, it is scarcely the point, which is to constructively seek harmony and growth in the Church and our societies.  

Plus, the whole blog was looking rather stale and ugly to me...hence the total makeover.
(Special thanks to Donny Linnemeyer for helping fix a few bugs.)

Under Construction

I'm making some wholesale changes to my blog, which was hideously outdated and out of character. Unfortunately, I'm running into some serious obstacles along the way.

So things are a bit messed up right now. I hope to get everything tidied up soon, and I hope you'll enjoy the new look.

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