May 2010

The big news this morning is that a clash aboard a ship trying to run the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza has left at least ten (the Jerusalem Post is reporting fifteen) people dead and numerous others wounded. The reports I’ve seen indicate that Israeli navy commandos boarded the ship to take it to Ashdod, where it would be inspected and its cargo–if actually humanitarian supplies, as advertised, rather than weapons–sent on to Gaza. According to Ha’aretz:

The commandos, who intercepted the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara after it ignored orders to turn back, said they encountered violent resistance from activists armed with sticks and knives. According to the soldiers, the activists threw one of their comrades from the upper deck to the lower after they boarded.

An Israeli military spokesman said some of the commandos were equipped with paintball guns but the non-lethal weapons were not enough against activists who charged in with batons.

“They had pistols with live ammunition as back-up, to defend themselves,” he said.

One of the commandos told reporters he descended by rope from a helicopter onto one of the six ships in the convoy and was immediately attacked by a group of people waiting for them.

“They beat us with metal sticks and knives,” he said. “There was live fire at some point against us.”

The reference to paintball guns may seem odd, but apparently the Israelis expected that the passengers on this ship, like those of the other eight ships of the “Gaza flotilla,” to be actual peace activists. Instead, they turned out to be mostly extremists from the terrorist-supporting Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which has been linked to Hamas and other Islamic terror groups. Those on the Mavi Marmara were apparently lying in wait, hoping to get some Israeli scalps, and if any of their people were hurt in the process, it would result in a propaganda coup.

The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Olav Fykse Tveit, certainly didn’t hesitate to use the incident that way at the beginning of the WCC’s “World Week for Israeli Capitulation Peace in Palestine and Israel”:

The call to be peacemakers is a holy call. This year the World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel (WWPPI) is once more timely … with people seeking to show the need for humanitarian aid going to Gaza being killed this morning … This year again we need even more than before to point to how settlements and occupation are real obstacles to a just peace. All parties must stop violence and find the way forward.

The mainline-supported U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation also weighed in:

In an international act of piracy and murder in international waters, the Israeli navy intercepted, boarded, and opened fire on humanitarian activists on a flotilla of ships attempting to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Israeli-blockaded Palestinian Gaza Strip.

According to news reports, Israeli commandos killed as many as 19 humanitarian activists on board one ship, and have abducted all 700 passengers on board the six boats composing the flotilla who are in the process of being sent against their will to Israel for arrest and/or deportation.

Notice what’s missing from these two responses? They’ll be typical, I’m sure, of the mainline reaction to these events. More to come.

UPDATE: Footage of the Mavi Marmara. The figures coming down a rope are the commandos, who are being let down from a helicopter. You can clearly see the unprovoked attack by the ship’s passengers on the commandos.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention before that the USCEIO’s hysteria over the incident being in international waters is bogus. CAMERA is on the case:

[A]ccording to the San Remo Manual, it is permissible under rule 67(a) to attack neutral vessels on the high seas when the vessels “are believed on reasonable grounds to be carrying contraband or breaching a blockade, and after prior warning they intentionally and clearly refuse to stop, or intentionally and clearly resist visit, search or capture.”

The PCUSA’s Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has put out a short paper entitled “The Conflict between Israel and Palestine,” about which it says:

This document is intended both to ground our own work in this area, and also to offer guidance for others, including commissioners and advisory delegates to the 219th General Assembly. It was approved by the National Committee of the PPF on May 24th, 2010.

It represents many years of combined experience of our members who have worked and lived in the Middle East, and a decade of intentional, thoughtful and prayerful engagement by the organization as a whole.

It’s actually three pages of standard issue boilerplate that essentially translates to, “we’re for anything that’s anti-Israel.” They endorse the the “Kairos Document,” they endorse boycott and divestment, etc. To their credit, PPF does use the word “terrorism” to characterize Palestinian targeting of civilians, though they partially vitiate that by drawing moral equivalence between that and so-called “state terrorism” on the part of the nation whose military has done more to avoid civilian casualties than any other in modern times. But for me the best part is where they explain about Israeli “apartheid”:

On Sensitive Language: Though we understand the strong feelings elicited by the word “apartheid,” and have sought to avoid such language, we find it increasingly difficult to describe the reality for millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza without using that word.

In the Israeli-Palestinian context, the word “apartheid” is totally without application. (I sliced and diced the comparison here.) It’s false, irrelevant, and pernicious. But the PPF finds it “increasingly difficult” to speak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without using it. Why?

The PPF uses a loaded term that is neither accurate nor fair, that is completely unhelpful to any efforts to actually make progress toward peace, and that exposes its user as a propagandist uninterested in making a positive contribution, but implies that it is somehow being forced to use the term. Who could be compelling them to do something like that? I think it must be these guys:

I don’t envy military chaplains their jobs. Among other difficulties, they have to walk the church-state line, being faithful to their calling and God while having their actions examined under a microscope by people who think the republic is endangered by a handful of words.

Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota had offered an amendment to the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act that would have given chaplains the freedom to pray according to their conscience and their faith. You can argue the merits of the proposal and I have no particular opinion about it. Given that it pertains to settings where adults comprise the audience. it seems pretty innocuous. But you wouldn’t know that from Joseph Conn’s hysterics. Writing at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, he sees this as part of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy to turn the military into Crusaders or something:

[C]haplains are employees of the government, and they serve a diverse constituency, not just members of their own tradition. They are sometimes asked to offer invocations at military events where personnel from many faiths are present. At those, nonsectarian prayers may be requested.

Religious Right forces are up in arms about this attempt at inclusivity, insisting that fundamentalist chaplains should have the right to slip a little not-so-subtle proselytizing into their invocations and benedictions. It’s one part of a deeply disturbing crusade to target service personnel for fundamentalist proselytizing and cast a conservative Christian mantle over our armed forces. [Emphasis added.]

Now, this is what the amendment says:

If called upon to lead a prayer outside of a religious service, a chaplain shall have the prerogative to close the prayer according to the dictates of the chaplain’s own conscience.

Got that? It means that Christian chaplains can conclude prayers with “in Jesus’ name.” (Presumably, Muslims could end a prayer with “in the name of Allah, the merciful, the compassionate,” etc.) That’s what qualifies to AU as “not-so-subtle proselytizing.” Because just hearing the name of Jesus in a public place is liable to turn men and women with heavy weaponry into right-wing culture warriors, and we all know where that leads…

I’ve long contended that there is a fundamental difference between advocating biblical principles and advocating specific prudential means to enact those principles. It is possible for Christians on all points of the political spectrum to stand for a given ethical command, but where we go wrong is in confusing the command with the means to achieve it.

For example, a couple of years ago a resolution was proposed at the EPC General Assembly that would put the denomination on record as supporting an amendment to the federal Constitution outlawing same-sex marriage. I opposed that resolution, not because I oppose the ethical principle regarding homosexuality, and not because I support same-sex marriage. Rather, I argued that while it is perfectly legitimate for the EPC to take a stand on homosexual behavior and marriage, it was not our place as a denomination to say what specific legal means should be used to enact the principle. That’s a prudential question, and a Christian assembly does not have the competence to decide such questions. We should stand for the principle, I said, and allow those who have the necessary competence in law, government, and politics pick up the baton and run with it. Doing otherwise would be making the same mistake the mainline denominations have been making for decades.

Well, I lost that vote, but I will continue to make that argument, because I believe to do otherwise has the effect of frittering away our spiritual authority, trading it for a mess of political pottage that has little if anything to do with the church’s mission.

Anyway, I’ve thought about all that because there’s a textbook example of what I’m talking about to be found in a column today by Sheldon Good of Sojourners. He takes to task Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul (of whom I’m no fan, by the way) for his comments last week on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Good writes:

Rand Paul, who won the Republican Senatorial primary in Kentucky last week, gave us a newsworthy example of how racism is still alive today. Paul was recently asked about the 1964 Civil Rights Act…

Paul said “I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws.” He also said he’s “not in favor of any discrimination of any form.”

But wait. Paul then wouldn’t answer [MSNBC host Rachel] Maddow as she repeatedly asked him whether he supported using federal law to enforce non-discrimination in privately owned businesses. Paul responded, “Had I been around” in 1964, “I would have tried to modify that.”

So here’s the deal. Good quotes Paul as saying that he abhors segregation and thought Jim Crow should be abolished. He grants his sincerity in the next paragraph. But he starts off by saying that Paul’s comments “gave us a newsworthy example of how racism is still alive today.” How are Paul’s remarks racist?

This is the classic confusion of ends and means. Paul and Good agree on the end of wiping out segregation. But they disagree on the means (for the record, I think Good is right on those). But instead of recognizing that there’s a difference on a prudential question of how to achieve the agreed upon end, Good jumps to the conclusion that difference on means is an indication of racism (in the words, if not the person). On the basis of his ideology, Paul thinks the Civil Rights Act was flawed. On the basis of the biblical teaching that all of the works of humanity are tainted by sin, I can agree. But for Good, even suggesting that the Act was less than perfect, and perhaps should be revisited, is an indication that racism is still with us. He goes on to this absurd conclusion:

From one white male to another: Dr. Paul, stop furthering racial discrimination. It is our responsibility as people with inherited power and privilege to open up dialogue around points of difference. And Dr. Paul, you’re not helping the cause.

In fact, it is Good, with his charges of racism, that is trying to shut down “dialogue around points of difference.” For Good, the Civil Rights Act is apparently divinely revealed, and no dissent about its effectiveness or scope is permitted.

Sojourners, and its political allies in the mainline churches, make this mistake all the time. A wonderful example is the positions they take on economic legislation. Raising the minimum wage, increasing the capital gains tax, more regulation of financial institutions–these and many more are taken as examples of “justice,” and so opposing them is to oppose “justice.” Evidence, e.g., that raising taxes may hurt job growth, and thus the poor on whose side the angels are, is simply dismissed, because it doesn’t support the preferred political position, which is assumed to be God’s position, because He is on the side of “justice.” In fact, the evidence is irrelevant, because the ends and means have been confused, so to oppose the means of increased taxes on the wealthy is automatically to oppose the end of helping the poor.

Conservatives do this as well. For instance, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 2007 supporting a federal marriage amendment to the Constitution and California’s Proposition 8. As a matter of prudential political judgment, I agree with the resolution, but I still would have opposed it as beyond the purview of a Christian assembly that inevitably contained thousands of people who had no particular understanding the legal issues, but who took a stand on the means because they wanted to stand for the proper ends. Confusion again.

Well, that’s “Theology and Politics 101” for today. If you disagree, try to change my mind.

I began thinking of the truth about poverty and a couple of things occurred to me. First, I believe the truth is we don’t have to have poverty. Second, a great many of our people are more committed to the economic theory of capitalism than they are to the eradication of poverty.

Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society

For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them.

–Jesus, Mark 14:7

(And no, the contrast here is not between helping and not helping the poor–the contrast is between Jesus and one who claims to know better than He.)

Chris Hedges, the former New York Times reporter whose career has devolved down into writing unhinged, vitriolic rants against conservative Christians, has a new screed out at far-left site TruthDig. That wouldn’t normally grab my attention, except for the fact that the PCUSA’s Presbyterian Voices for Justice (as the merger of the Witherspoon Society and Voices of Sophia styles itself) thinks the piece worthy of trumpeting:

Could we hear this as a passionate call for the church – like, maybe our PC(USA) – to care to stand up and do its job? Not to save the church, but to save the world.

So what is it that has PYJ thinks is so inspiring?

It is hard to muster much sympathy over the implosion of the Catholic Church, traditional Protestant denominations or Jewish synagogues. These institutions were passive as the Christian right, which peddles magical thinking and a Jesus-as-warrior philosophy, hijacked the language and iconography of traditional Christianity. They have busied themselves with the boutique activism of the culture wars. They have failed to unequivocally denounce unfettered capitalism, globalization and pre-emptive war. The obsession with personal piety and “How-is-it-with-me?” spirituality that permeates most congregations is narcissism. And while the Protestant church and reformed Judaism have not replicated the perfidiousness of the Catholic bishops, who protect child-molesting priests, they have little to say in an age when we desperately need moral guidance.

Right. There’s not nearly enough left-wing political activism in the mainline Protestant churches for Hedges. That’s not surprising, really, since they have no other purpose:

I grew up in the church and graduated from a seminary. It is an institution whose cruelty, inflicted on my father, who was a Presbyterian minister, I know intimately. I do not attend church. The cloying, feel-your-pain language of the average clergy member makes me run for the door. The debates in most churches—whether revolving around homosexuality or biblical interpretation—are a waste of energy. I have no desire to belong to any organization, religious or otherwise, which discriminates, nor will I spend my time trying to convince someone that the raw anti-Semitism in the Gospel of John might not be the word of God. It makes no difference to me if Jesus existed or not. There is no historical evidence that he did. Fairy tales about heaven and hell, angels, miracles, saints, divine intervention and God’s beneficent plan for us are repeatedly mocked in the brutality and indiscriminate killing in war zones, where I witnessed children murdered for sport and psychopathic gangsters elevated to demigods. The Bible works only as metaphor.

Actually, the Bible doesn’t work as metaphor. If that was all it was, I’d much rather join the Church of All Worlds. Hedonists have so much more fun, doncha know. The truth is, if what the Bible says is nothing but metaphor, and you simply want to use it to prop up your far-left politics, just chuck it and go straight to The Communist Manifesto. At least then you’d be honest.

The institutional church, when it does speak, mutters pious non-statements that mean nothing. “Given the complexity of factors involved, many of which understandably remain confidential, it is altogether appropriate for members of our armed forces to presume the integrity of our leadership and its judgments, and therefore to carry out their military duties in good conscience,” Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien, head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, wrote about the Iraq war. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, on the eve of the invasion, told believers that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a menace, and that reasonable people could disagree about the necessity of using force to overthrow him.

Apparently Hedges never saw “children murdered for sport” in Iraq, and thought Saddam, far from being a “psychopathic gangster elevated to demigod,” was a peachy guy who should have been allowed to stay in office and kill as many Iraqis as he thought necessary. The stuff that causes him to dismiss God only happens in Israel and the United States.

A Gallup poll in 2006 found that “the more frequently an American attends church, the less likely he or she is to say the war was a mistake.” Given that Jesus was a pacifist,

But didn’t actually exist, according to Hedges.

and given that all of us who graduated from seminary rigorously studied Just War doctrine, which was flagrantly violated by the invasion of Iraq, this is a rather startling statistic.

It isn’t actually a statistic, but never mind. That the Iraq war violated just war doctrine is a much debated question, except by people such as Hedges, for whom there is no need to debate what should be obvious to all sentient beings.

But I cannot rejoice in the collapse of these institutions. We are not going to be saved by faith in reason, science and technology, which the dead zone of oil forming in the Gulf of Mexico and our production of costly and redundant weapons systems illustrate. Frederick Nietzsche’s Übermensch, or “Superman”—our secular religion—is as fantasy-driven as religious magical thinking.

He’s certainly right about Nietzsche. The idea that he puts the German philosopher whose ideas formed the foundation for National Socialism on a par with Christianity, on the other hand, says a great deal more about Hedges than about the subject at hand.

We are rapidly losing the capacity for the moral life. We reject the anxiety of individual responsibility that laid the foundations for the open society. We are enjoined, after all, to love our neighbor, not our tribe. This empowerment of individual conscience was the starting point of the great ethical systems of all civilizations. Those who championed this radical individualism, from Confucius to Socrates to Jesus,

Who didn’t actually exist, according to Hedges, which if true means that it is the Church that goes by His name, and that Hedges so vociferously condemns, that actually taught in such a way as to “empower the individual conscience.”

fostered not obedience and conformity, but dissent and self-criticism. They taught that culture and society were not the sole prerogative of the powerful, that freedom and indeed the religious and moral life required us to often oppose and challenge those in authority, even at great personal cost.

Again, this isn’t actually what concerns Hedges. From the standpoint of the reigning cultural liberalism of the 21st century West, there’s a great deal of dissent among conservative Christians, and far more reflective self-criticism than Hedges has ever shown himself to be aware of. What he’s actually looking for, of course, is for the churches’ to buy into the left-wing political agenda for which he stands. Anything that might help further that goal, including churning out mush like this, is worth the effort.

The great religions set free the critical powers of humankind….They challenged the power of the tribe, the closed society. They offered up the possibility that human beings, although limited by circumstance and human weakness, could shape and give direction to society and their own lives.These religious thinkers were our first ethicists. And it is perhaps not accidental that the current pope, as well as the last one, drove out of the Catholic Church thousands of clergy and religious leaders who embodied these qualities, elevating the dregs to positions of leadership and leaving the pedophiles to run the Sunday schools.

By this rhetorical standard, pedophiles are running American public schools, since hundreds of public school teachers have sexual relations with their students every year (that’s just the ones who are caught and charged). But again, the facts don’t matter here. To someone like Hedges, what the rest of us call “facts” are just reactionary constructs designed to foil the development of revolutionary consciousness on the part of the masses, or something like that. The fact that the vast majority of priests and bishops are faithful, moral servants of their parishioners is of no consequence. If it’s necessary to libel them in order to undermine their authority, so be it.

These religious institutions are in irreversible decline. They are ruled by moral and intellectual trolls. They have become arrogant and self-absorbed. Their sins are many. They protected criminals. They pandered to the lowest common denominator and illusions of personal fulfillment and surrendered their moral authority. They did not fight the corporate tyrants who have impoverished us. They refused to denounce a caste of Christian heretics embodied by the Christian right and have, for their cowardice, been usurped by bizarre proto-fascists clutching the Christian cross. They have nothing left to say. And their aging congregants, who are fleeing the church in droves, know it. But don’t think the world will be a better place for their demise.

Isn’t that sweet? “They’re pond scum, but maybe they can be useful idiots for our agenda, so let’s not throw them completely overboard yet.” And the spectacle of an apostate who thinks Jesus never existed using a term like “heretic” as a swear word is so delicious that it is a virtual lock to win this year’s “‘Look On the Bright Side of Life’ Award for Industrial-Strength Irony”:

And this is the kind of guy with which the PVJ wants to identify? Even if you aren’t acquainted with the organization, that probably tells you all you need to know to wonder why anyone in the PCUSA would ever listen to them.

UPDATE: I’ve updated the title of the post, which was stupid, to something more descriptive. I’ve left the permalink as it was, however,  in case anyone had already linked to it, so as not to mess them up.

Lisa Sharon Harper of New York Faith and Justice is very proud of herself this morning. You see,

Last Monday I got arrested.

Yessiree, it’s man-the-barricades time again. It’s Freedom Riders in Mississippi, risking their lives to end segregation. It’s Martin Luther King and the protesters in Birmingham, risking life and limb against the snarling dogs of Bull Connor. It’s Rosa Parks and the 16th Street Baptist Church and the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.”

Except, it’s not.

Harper’s pathetic description of her moment in the sun makes that clear:

In the shadow of Arizona’s immoral immigration law, I locked arms with 15 other faith leaders, labor union leaders, and two city councilmen. Together we moved into the street and blocked traffic in front of 26 Federal Plaza.

That would be 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan. She didn’t go to Phoenix or Tuscon or Scottsdale to protest the law–she went to the very pulsing heart of Liberal America. There, she didn’t do anything that actually made a connection with the law she was protesting–she blocked traffic. She got arrested for blocking traffic 2500 miles away from place where the immigration law she was protesting was passed.

In the shadow of 12 other states moving toward the adoption of similar draconian measures, 16 soprano, alto, and deep bass voices belted an old spiritual with new life: “We shall overcome!”

In the shadow of politicians who insist on using immigration reform as a political football rather than as a real problem to be solved, onlookers wept openly as one by one these community leaders were handcuffed and loaded into police wagons.

At which point they were no doubt taken to a police station, charged with being nostalgic in public, and released on their own recognizance. And because this courageous display made the protesters feel so good about themselves, they’re going to do it again:

Today, in the shadow of our action last week, three NY Faith & Justice colleagues (a board member, a program leader, and an organizational partner) will stand in solidarity with “the least of these” (the immigrants within our borders) along with a spectrum of interfaith, labor, and civic leaders. They will be arrested today (Monday, May 24) at noon, 26 Federal Plaza. And still more will be arrested on June 1 — same time, same place.

At which point they will be arrested for being a public nuisance with no discernible purpose, and deported to Arizona.

Billy Joel nailed people like this in “Angry Young Man”:

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