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Friday, September 28, 2012

It's About the "Kerygma"

Wikipedia is not always useful, but I rather like their short post on the term "kerygma" that I linked to in my last post. I had referenced this term because I believe the resurrection of Christ is a core part of the Christian kerygma, or message, and that to raise questions about a Christian teacher's commitment to the resurrection is to raise questions not merely about their standing as an "evangelical" but to their central identity as a follower of Christ. Wikipedia says, I think correctly, that "the term kerygma has come to denote the irreducible essence of Christian apostolic preaching" and in summarizing that "irreducible essence" they draw on the writing of C. H. Dodd to highlight six elements of the Apostle Peter's preaching in Acts:

1.              The Age of Fulfillment has dawned, the "latter days" foretold by the prophets.
2.              This has taken place through the birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
3.              By virtue of the resurrection, Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God as Messianic head of the new Israel.
4.              The Holy Spirit in the church is the sign of Christ's present power and glory.
5.              The Messianic Age will reach its consummation in the return of Christ.
6.              An appeal is made for repentance with the offer of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, and salvation.

Notice the significance of the resurrection to this list. No wonder Brian was so emphatic when I asked him if he had ever written or said anything that would lead one to wonder if he believed in the resurrection of Christ. Mattingly’s flippant reference to Brian as an example of someone who is “foggy” about whether the resurrection really happened or “avoids answering” questions about the resurrection is an affront to Brian’s core identity as a follower of Christ and a preacher of the Word of Life.

Mattingly's Unsustainable Denial

Terry Mattingly has taken time to respond to comments at his blog and since he has blocked by his own admission 20 different comments from readers, including two by me, I will take a moment here to build on my earlier post and respond to his explanation of his post. Here are Terry's words:

Folks, back to journalism.
The tmatt trio is not about McLaren. And it’s not an orthodoxy test. It’s about asking questions that yield interesting info and these questions work well in this era when covering debates in Christian denominations and groups. Other groups would require different questions.
The goal is to pay close attention to the content of the answers. That is all.
I agree that the term “evangelical” has become vague to the point of being almost meaningless. That’s part of what the post is about. And, yes, there is no evangelical pope. There is no evangelical creed. There is no evangelical body of work by the Church Fathers. Etc., etc.
I simply wanted to start a debate about how to accurately describe McLaren in the public press. I think simple references to him as an evangelical leader have jumped the shark. It’s time for more specific info, in his case. This thread has contained some helpful debate.
As for the 20 or so comments I have spiked, not so much…..
tmatt, in Kiev at the moment

What Terry has written here is unsustainable by anyone who scrolls back up the page of his comments and rereads the actual post he wrote. Terry is playing a classic game of “bob and weave” in which he clearly questions Brian’s commitment to the resurrection and then when called out on it tries to claim that the question about the resurrection was “not about McLaren”. I am going to quote for you without alteration the key part of Terry’s original post and ask how this is not about McLaren:

I always assumed that the emerging folks were people from evangelical backgrounds who had staked out new, daring, nuanced, foggy stances on the basic doctrinal questions that, several decades ago, I wrote up as the “tmatt trio.” It’s been some time since I mentioned that trio, so here is a refresher:
(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?
(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?
(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Let me stress, once again, that these are questions that — working as a mainstream religion-beat pro — I found useful when trying to get the lay of the land on disputes inside various Christian flocks, on the left and right. The whole point to (sic) was to get information about doctrinal basics and, in our era, these are some hot-button subjects in a wide variety of groups. The goal is to listen carefully as people answered or, on many cases, tried to avoid answering these questions.

Take, for example, the Rev. Brian D. McLaren — the writer, preacher, thinker and doctrinal futurist whose picture could almost certainly accompany the “emergent evangelical” entry in the mainstream-press religion dictionary of the past decade or so. (emphasis added)

Terry has specifically singled out in this text Brian McLaren as the perfect example of someone who "avoids answering” questions about, most significantly, the resurrection of Christ. He has quite clearly offered Brian up as an example of someone who needs to be pressed on these questions but now he gives us more of his “journalism” by denying that this is what he has done. Allow me to suggest that Terry should consider a new trio of questions before he writes further about Brian McLaren:

(1)                 Have I read Brian’s work enough to merit using him as an example of someone who avoids answering questions about a core part of the kerygma, or essential proclamation, of Christianity?
(2)                 Have I spoken to Brian, ever, about how to label him as either an evangelical, emergent evangelical or “liberal mainline Protestant” of the ilk that are “foggy” about the resurrection of Christ?
(3)                 Do I equate questions about the definition of marriage with questions about the resurrection of Jesus Christ? If so, what definition of Christianity do I hold and should I share that definition with my readers?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Brian McLaren Responds to Terry Mattingly's Scurrilous Question

"Not only do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I base my life on it.”
Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren
Terry Mattingly
[Part two of this post is now up following new comments by Mattingly]

A few months back the NBA Commissioner, David Stern, made news when during a heated interview with broadcaster Jim Rome, Stern suddenly asked Rome whether or not he still beat his wife. It was a jaw-dropping moment because Rome has never in any way been accused of beating his wife. I mention this story in light of an extraordinary post by the noted religion journalist Terry Mattingly. Terry has a theory about emergent evangelicals in general and Brian McLaren in particular. He believes that Brian is really a “liberal mainline Protestant” of the type who have questioned fundamental Christian creeds like the resurrection of Jesus Christ for decades. He even presents a list of three questions that he has used for years to determine if someone fits this “label”. The first and, by any historic understanding of Christian history, most important question Terry poses reads like this: “Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?” Terry says the reason he asks people  a question like this is "to get the lay of the land on disputes inside various Christian flocks, on the left and right…to get information about doctrinal basics…to listen carefully as people answered or, on many cases, tried to avoid answering these questions.”

Now one would imagine that for a serious journalist to say that a person of McLaren’s stature deserves to have this question posed to him then there must be something in that person’s writing or speaking to make that question seem relevant. One might even expect that if the goal of raising questions about a person’s belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is “to listen carefully” then we would expect the interviewer to actually ask the person the question. The Brian McLaren I know welcomes questions, and in fact frames his ministry around trying to answer questions he hears in our culture. So, I picked up the phone to see if Brian had ever spoken to Terry and if Brian had ever said or written anything that would in anyway be construed as doubting the resurrection of Christ. Brian said he had never spoken to Terry Mattingly and answered without hesitation with the quote attributed to him above, that “Not only do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I base my life on it.”

Of course, I knew that would be the answer to the question. I have never seen or heard anything from Brian that makes me doubt that he loves Jesus Christ and seeks to follow Him faithfully. Brian has never in his entire public ministry said anything that would lead one to wonder where he stands on a doctrine so central to Christian identity as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Now Brian has certainly said and written things that do raise important questions about his beliefs and interpretations of Scripture and he has never backed away from those questions. In fact, one of the things I have appreciated about Brian is that he listens to questions and tries to give thoughtful answers, something I saw in my recent interview with him for Patheos. In the course of his writing and speaking Brian has expressed beliefs that I disagree with, sometimes strongly. I know that many people will be deeply troubled by the New York Times story that Terry quotes that refers to the gay marriage of Brian’s son and Brian’s participation in the ceremony. It will require respect and a genuine willingness to listen if we are to arrive at answers to what these actions by Brian mean about his views on gay marriage and how he relates those views to Christian Scripture and Tradition. But this controversy will also be a moment that reveals the broader agenda of some who will raise those questions, and the broader character of those who would use this occasion to imply that Brian is doubting creedal Christian beliefs about the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the absence of any evidence to suggest it.

Terry Mattingly rather crudely raised the metaphor of “jumping the shark” in his post as a way of saying that it is obvious that Brian should no longer be considered an evangelical, but the manner in which he goes about explaining his conclusion makes clear that the shark that has been jumped is journalistic integrity and the person who has leaped it is Terry himself.

Mark Galli on CT’s Coverage of David Jang

I always enjoy reading “story behind the story” pieces in magazines, and even more so when the story in question involves serious investigative journalism. Mark Galli, the Senior Managing Editor of Christianity Today, wrote an interesting “Inside CT” column in the issue that features the David Jang “Second Coming Christ” scandal. If you have not read Mark’s thoughts yet, be sure and take a look at them. This quote in particular struck me because it spoke to the lengthy process of investigation that led to the story and to the explosive nature of the charges against Jang:

Five years ago, we began to receive reports of a new network of ministries rapidly expanding in East Asia. Given our many global partnerships with international Christian media, we were intrigued. However, our contacts warned us that the group seemed to have ties to the Unification Church and taught that its leader was the “Second Coming Christ.” When we asked representatives of one ministry whether such ties existed, they threatened to sue and ended the conversation.

Gary Wills on Myths About Christendom

One of the most unsettling things to me about much of the writing coming from Alan Hirsch and a number of progressive Christian writers is their simplistic, cartoonish reading of Church history. You might recall that Hirsch and his coauthor Tim Catchim chose to respond to my criticisms of their book The Permanent Revolution by declaring my concerns reflective of "reactionary" thinking. I thought of this laughable charge while reading Gary Wills' important and substantive review of Peter Brown's new book Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and  the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Wills, one of America's leading historians, is hardly a "reactionary" Christian, but he is a deep student of history and he knows that what so many Christians accept as vital fact--namely, the notion that Christian history can simplistically be divided into pre- and post-Constantine--is rubbish in light of the actual historical record. While Wills' review is behind a subscriber wall at The New York Review of Books, the paragraph that I found most interesting is not. Wills is here describing three myths that he assumes most educated people have long since been "dislodged" of.

One myth was that the Roman Empire (but only in the West) “fell” overnight when barbarians invaded and brought it down. The light of classical times blinked out and we stumbled straightway into the Dark Ages. Myth two (without a neat chronological fit) was that Constantine in the fourth century took Christianity out of the martyrs’ arena into the seats of power, making the persecuted become persecutors. Myth three (again only approximately synchronous with the others) was that a primitive Christianity lost its purity and became rich in its own right. Thin apostles could get through a needle’s eye, but fat bishops (like camels) could not. Those beliefs, previously dislodged, have by now evaporated.

Boyette's Latest on Sudanese "Peace" Commitments

Sudan’s Commitment to Peace Made Clear…

If you have been a reader of my blog you know of my relationship with Ryan Boyette and his unique reporting for the global media on the ongoing situation in Sudan and South Sudan. This is his latest report sent to me by email this morning. By way of background, Ryan lives with his Sudanese wife in the Nuba region which is a part of Sudan that borders with the new country of South Sudan. You can follow the story at this site that Ryan and others report at and he will have further updates there as they become avaialbe. I have highlighted in bold particularly striking aspects of Ryan’s latest report.

At exactly 10:30am on Thursday, September 27, 2012 the Sudan Government dropped 6 bombs on the village of Heiban.  What makes this bombing unique is that every Thursday is market day in Heiban and as many as 2,000 civilians come from all over Nuba to the market on this day to sell what little possessions they have to get money to purchase food for their families.  Six civilians were badly injured in the bombing and 1 woman was killed.

The other fact that makes this bombing unique is that it happened within the same hour that Sudan was signing an agreement with South Sudan.  At the very time that the pen was on the paper the plane was in the air with the mission to bomb one of the largest weekly markets in Nuba.  Sudan claims that the South Kordofan conflict is a proxy of South Sudan.  It seems to me that the agreement in Addis is distracting from a conflict that is taking place right now.

We have more details to come as well as video footage and pictures with GPS coordinates of the bombing.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lynda Rutledge’s Great First Novel

Wow. What a read! I’m talking about the debut novel of Lynda Rutledge, who some of you will know as Lynda Stephenson, the wife of publishing guru Don Stephenson. Lynda has written a deeply human novel, Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale. Set in Lynda’s beloved Texas this book speaks lovingly and movingly to the power of memory, family and place. Here is a taste of her writing from a chapter in which Faith Bass Darling is struggling to remember, and not remember:

Just then, however, the elephant clock perched on the porch steps struck the hour, and Faith turned toward it. And as she watched its bronze-cast elephant’s trunk swaying with each chime, the gilded clock began to slowly shimmer with memory and meaning until it was absolutely aglow with Faith’s entire childhood, a childhood full of comforting elephant clock nights. For a breath-snatching moment, Faith Bass Darling, here eyes now locked on the old clock, experienced the comfort as fully as she had as a child—clock ticking, elephant trunk swaying, rocking her gently, so very gently, a soothing motherly tick-tock warmth lulling her to sleep. Then, suddenly, she saw it rocking another child to sleep—her daughter—her blond-haired little girl.

It is a novel full of life and humor, a delight to read and share.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Frank Schaeffer: Progressive Demagogue? (Update)

I am stuck on how exactly to respond to the post by Frank Schaeffer about Christianity Today's Mark Galli and his review of the new film Hellbound. I was determined that I would simply let a comment by me at his post stand as my reply, but having seen Frank's response to my reply I think a bit more needs to be said. Before sharing my comment and his, a bit of background. I have written serious and sustained critiques of Christianity Today on the subject of Samuel Rodriguez and Heidi Baker. Anyone who reads my work knows that I believe serious, thoughtful analysis and criticism of Christian media is important and necessary. I have been very frustrated with their coverage of many issues and I believe that they deserve to be challenged on things, but I firmly believe that there is a difference between thoughtful criticism and demagoguery. Here is one definition of a demagogue: "A leader who obtains power by means of impassioned appeals to the emotions and prejudices of the populace." I think Frank would admit that for many years his work fit that defintion. The question, and I think it is a serious one for Progressive Christians at Patheos to consider, is whether or not Frank is not still a demogague though this time with a different "populace" with different "prejudices" to appeal to. His Patheos column from last week entitled "Everything You Always Hated About Christianity Today (But Were Afraid to Say)" is perhaps the clearest example of how the progressive Schaeffer still employs the same rhetorical knife he used in the past (see also his Huffington Post column on the film entitled "Pro-Hell Evangelical Bastion Smears New Movie Because it is Anti-Hell"). I will leave it to you the reader to take in his full column and decide for yourself, but here are key quotes from it that I think point to a man still in the style of a demagogue. 

1. Christianity Today workers are "keepers of the flame of second-rate Christianity" and CT is "a little obscure rag on the Christian right that wouldn’t know a nuance if one bit them."
2. On CT's Mark Galli: "how odd and yet somehow typical that Christianity Today would assign this review to Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today and author of God Wins, a book that simultaneously tried to cash in on the best-selling title Love Wins while at the same time “answering” the book in order to defend the evangelical establishment view of a literal hell, say the kind of hell all those Jews gassed in WWII went to seconds after they died because  they never 'accepted Jesus.'...I guess that’s the best you can expect when CT assigns a professional theologian with a personal commercial ax to grind rather than a professional film reviewer to the case...Overall I would say Mark Galli is really upset he wasn’t interviewed. This review sounds a lot like a “What about me?” protest."
3. In his Huffington Post version of his article Frank says "you have to wonder what's wrong with a 'Christian' publication so attached to hell that they have to smear a great new movie -- even lie about it -- to make a pro-hell point.  Christianity Today magazine is the send-all-the-sinners-to-hell gatekeeper of the evangelical establishment. And they are trying to stop their evangelical readers from even considering the anti-hell, anti-damnation, anti-retribution version of our collective human destiny"

In response to his article I posted this comment at his blog: "I have criticized different columns/articles from Christianity Today before and I have definitely had and still have at times great frustration with things there, but this response is so vicious and so wide-ranging as to cry out for a deeper explanation from you for you and your father’s disdain for the magazine. I also have to say that the Mark Galli you describe here is not the Mark Galli I know. Even when I disagree with him or his editing, I never sense in him the kind of craven, egotistical man you paint here before us. Instead, what I see in this piece is more of the same painfully raw wounds in Frank’s soul. I pray for you, brother. It feels sometimes that you have just replaced one group of people that you hate with another group of people that you hate, but the hate is still there. Please try to disagree agreeably. This is not modeling a deeper spirituality or a vision of journalism any better in anyway than what CT, warts and all, provides."

This is Frank's reply: "I think it is time for evangelicals who want to play critic to grow up. I think you should read the posts by me and others on Huffington Post where I live most of the time pro or con and use that perspective when reading my post, not Sunday school etiquette. If CT wants to play critic of movies being released into the larger culture then they should bring knives and forks to the food fight. Where have you been living? All the sobbing over tone is odd. This was an answer to a movie review by a crumby little mag. Why should I have been nicer? CT is a multi-million operation, not the old lady down the street."

I have to say that Frank's response baffles me. Of course context matters and of course harsh criticism is in order at times. But perhaps I don't want to believe that Christians should ever want to resort to a "food fight" or use of "knives" that reflect the larger culture, but rather I want to imagine a world in which we as Christians don't view questions about how we say things as "sobbing over tone" but rather as honest attempts to be sure that we "speak the truth in love."  Am I missing the boat on this? Am I going too far the other way in calling Schaeffer’s work an example of demagoguery? I freely admit that I am biased in my view of Schaeffer because I was so hurt by the work he did for many years on the religious right and later as a kind of “Orthodox fundamentalist” against Catholicism. Am I allowing that bitterness to taint my view of him now? Or am I just able to see that having been hurt by him in the past I can now see that even if his politics aligns with mine I can’t ignore his similar use of inflammatory, simplistic rhetoric?  

UPDATE: This is how Frank responded to another person who commented with concerns about his tone. "Again stop with the “tone” nonsense. I was answering a MOVIE review by a multi-million dollar organisation of bullies picking on one brave film maker. This ain’t Sunday school Lee. It doesn’t even have anything to do with religion. It has to do with a vast establishment protecting its corporate ass. Sticking up for CT in this context is like sticking up for Bain Capital or the Koch brothers in the context of politics. Get real and quit hand wringing."

Friday, September 21, 2012

Tim Dalrymple on The Christian Post and the "Second Coming Christ" Scandal

It is not a short story, and once you read the initial article you have to read the follow up story, but the Christianity Today article on David Jang and the "Second Coming Christ" scandal is one of the most important articles on religion you will read this year. It is deeply troubling and the permeations from what has been uncovered and exposed will be felt for years to come. One of the implications of the story is an immediate one: the integrity of Christian media in general but specifically the standing of The Christian Post. Tim Dalrymple, Director of Content at Patheos, has written a two-part story reflecting on exactly these implications. I hope you will take time to read these pieces by Tim because I think they raise urgent questions about a major source of Christian information around the world. The Christian Post is intricately tied up in the story of David Jang and in the advancement of his work. Their response to the Christianity Today story was very troubling and Tim summarizes it well:

I expected a defense along these lines: “We disagree with the thrust of Christianity Today‘s article, but more importantly The Christian Post really has very little to do with David Jang.  We have complete editorial independence and we are no mouthpiece for David Jang or the movement he has inspired.”  Instead, what they issued was a full-throated defense of David Jang and an even more rip-roaring excoriation of Christianity Today and every person who criticized Jang within the piece.  They issued, in other words, a performative affirmation that they are, in fact, David Jang’s mouthpiece.

The purpose of the response was to defend David Jang.  If possible, however, thenature of the response was even worse — presented as journalism, it was actually a no-qualifications, no-holds-barred defense.  There was not a single criticism of Jang that possessed any merit whatsoever, and none of the figures cited in Christianity Today‘s article were anything but complete and utter liars.  Meanwhile, the people who defend Jang and who attack his critics, even if they themselves work for Jang-affiliated companies, possess unquestioned authority and good will.  This is not journalism; it’s public relations.  It’s not reporting, but spin...
[From Part Two]  When Christianity Today published its report on David Jang and the Olivet movement, the controversy that ensued did not have to be about The Christian Post.  But with their response — defending David Jang at the top of their voice, taking a flamethrower to anyone who criticized Jang and Olivet, and rushing out a piece on the flimsiest of evidence accusing one of the coauthors of facilitating child pornography – The Christian Post made it about them.

Reagan, Obama and Israel

A president of the United States had fierce disagreements with a conservative Israeli leader due to potential actions by Israel against a Middle East foe. Does this sound like a description of Obama and Netanyahu over Iran? Try Ronald Reagan relating to Menachem Begin over Lebanon. How serious were their disagreements? At the time Reagan wrote in his personal diary that he had told Begin that Israel “had to stop [bombing Beirut, Lebanon] or our entire future relationship was endangered”.

We are heading into tense times in the relationship between Israel and the United States, but we have been through tough moments before. While many on the Right trumpet a narrative in which President Obama would appear to be the first president to ever have had significant disagreements and frustrations with Israel, it is worth remembering the 1982 tensions between Reagan and Begin over Lebanon if for no other reason than to remind ourselves that disagreeing with an Israeli leader over their military actions is not a sign of betrayal or weakness. Here is an excerpt from a story about Reagan's time in office:

Israel’s involvement in the Lebanese civil war began in June 1982, when it invaded its northern neighbor. Its goal was to root out the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had set up a state within a state, and to transform Lebanon into a Christian-ruled ally. The Israel Defense Forces soon besieged P.L.O.-controlled areas in the western part of Beirut. Intense Israeli bombardments led to heavy civilian casualties and tested even President Ronald Reagan, who initially backed Israel. In mid-August, as America was negotiating the P.L.O.’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Reagan told Prime Minister Menachem Begin that the bombings “had to stop or our entire future relationship was endangered,” Reagan wrote in his diaries.

Gerson Blinks, Brooks Doesn't

I have been laying low about the whole 47% video, very much content to see big-time center-right thinkers like David Brooks lay bare the reality of the Romney-Ryan ticket’s adoption of the worst elements of conservative/libertarian social policy. Now, however, I am breaking my silence because another significant center-right figure, Michael Gerson, has written a column, “Ideology without promise”, for the Washington Post that I think misses the crucial point. While Gerson does go to great lengths to distance himself from the spirit of Romney’s 47% comments, and to suggest alternative rhetoric to replace it, he completely misunderstands the policy reality that the GOP’s Romney-Ryan ticket represents. He asks the right central question: Does the video reflect “Romney’s view of the nature of our social crisis?” but the muddled answer he gives is profoundly mistaken and very much at odds with David Brooks’ (correct) view. Instead of weighing the policy proposals, vice presidential selection and views of wealthy donors to the campaign—all things that would reasonably suggest whether or not the video is “Romney’s view”—Gerson falls back on a familiar center-right dodge. He claims without evidence that Republican politicians, chiefly Romney, are merely “mouth[ing] libertarian nonsense”, “parroting” Randian concepts and playing to “stereotypes” of conservative Republican ideology. Gerson suggests that Romney policies will be something different all together than the abundant rhetoric flowing from Romney, Ryan and GOP leaders. This hopeful view fits Gerson’s understanding that there are only a “few libertarians” in the GOP who actually believe this stuff, but Republican politicians and operatives have mistakenly turned to that rhetoric rather than the language of “Burkean conservativsm” and the “Catholic tradition of subsidiarity” to explain their policies and vision. Instead of seeing the GOP and the Romney-Ryan ticket as a reflection of the radical libertarian policies of the Tea Party movement Gerson believes that “Given Romney’s background, record and faith, I don’t believe that he” is one of the “few libertarians” in the GOP.

Make no mistake, Michael and I would agree that if libertarian policies were the true nature of the Romney-Ryan ticket then it would be awful for the country. He rightly and eloquently says these views offer “No sympathy for our fellow citizens. No insight into our social challenge. No hope of change…relentless reductionism… Social problems…reduced to personal vices. Politics …reduced to class warfare on behalf of the upper class.” Amen, I say. But where Gerson and I disagree is with his faith-based notion that Romney-Ryan do not actually share those views but are just speaking as if they do. It is striking to me that Gerson offers no concrete policy proposals from Romney-Ryan that show that they will govern in accordance with “Burkean conservatism” or “Catholic subsidiarity” rather than “ideology pitting the 'makers' against the 'takers'”. In the absence of facts and policies to buttress Gerson's faith I will continue to believe the words of David Brooks:

The Republican Party, and apparently Mitt Romney, too, has shifted over toward a much more hyperindividualistic and atomistic social view…[and] doesn't have a basic commitment to provide a safety net for those who suffer for no fault of their own.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Friends Don’t Let Friends Get Called “Anti-Semite”

I have never met Margaret O’Brien Steinfels in person, but I consider her a friend. I have corresponded some with her, but mostly I have read her work and found in her an intellectual and spiritual mentor. She and her husband Peter have had an enormous influence on one of America’s great magazines, Commonweal, and through that an impact on American religion, politics and culture. It is more than a bit dismaying, therefore, to read at the website of another of America’s magazines, Commentary, the ridiculous charge being made that Steinfels is “antisemetic” and on par with the notoriously anti-Semitic priest of the early 20th-century Fr. Charles Caughlin. She is, according to Jonathan Tobin, one of many associated with Commonweal who are “apologists for the Iranian regime and rabid anti-Zionists”,  and share “Jew-hatred” with the likes of "Pat Buchanan".

What’s going on here? It is simple, really. It is called the “neoconservative way of argument.” In this style of “discourse” every foreign policy moment risks being “another Munich” and every disagreement with the leadership of Israel gets twisted into an expression of anti-Semitism. It is very much in keeping with the Manichean view of the world that so often leads to unnecessary wars and conflicts. And that is really the issue—Margaret Steinfels is a determined critic of Israeli and American momentum towards a new conflict with Iran. She writes with an edge, with satire and with outrage. There is certainly room to disagree with her, to challenge her and to match her sarcasm with biting wit. But the idea that somehow Margaret has written anything that can be construed as anti-Semitic is a sign of intellectual weakness on the part of Tobin and by extension Commentary. It is also a terribly counterproductive action if one is truly outraged by the numerous and disturbing examples of real anti-Semitism in the world today because it cheapens the term when it is used as a bludgeon to discipline one’s ideological opponents.

Margaret Steinfels is concerned that the policies of another country are damaging to the world and that  America is damaging her own position in the world by parroting that country's policies. She might be wrong, she might be short-sighted, or she might be right. But the fact that the country she is speaking of is Israel is in no way a sign that she is a Jew-hater or anti-Semite any more than if than she would be an Orthodoxy hater  if the country in question were Russia. Nothing Tobin writes in his article in anyway justifies his characterization of Steinfels and seems instead to hint at an air of shameful demagoguery in the interest of advancing a specific policy goal towards Iran. Anyone committed to civil, spirited discourse should be alarmed by Tobin’s inflammatory rhetoric. Margaret has written a short response and promises a fuller rejoinder soon. For now, I will close with her closing remarks: "Read my current column on Netanyahu's demand for red lines and consider whether support for the sanctions and opposition to bombing Iran is anti-Semitic. Or just opposed to another U.S. war in the Middle East."

Bacevich on "How We Became Israel"

In the late-90s I decided to get my Masters in International Relations at Boston University because of the opportunity to study under Andrew Bacevich. At the time Bacevich was relatively unknown in the broader political culture but I had been reading him for years in a number of smaller publications and appreciated his bracing anti-imperialism as well as his middle-America disposition and Catholic sensibilities. It was a wonderful experience to study under him and I eventually had the chance to work as a research assistant for his landmark book American Empire. Bacevich still teaches at Boston University, but he is a visiting professor this year at Notre Dame. One of the undercurrents in his writing and speaking for years has been his ability to compare and contrast American and Israeli defense policies. That unique blend of expertise is on full display in an important article now up at American Conservative. To my knowledge it is Bacevich’s fullest articulation of his view that America is dangerously mimicking Israel’s style of defense strategy. His focus is not on whether or not Israel’s strategy has been good for Israel, nor is it on the effects of the United States’ strong commitment to Israeli security; rather than those things, Bacevich zeros in on the way that American political and military leaders have embraced as our own Israel’s (seemingly) unique stance to the wider world. It is an important article, an urgent one perhaps, and it concludes with this:

The process of aligning U.S. national-security practice with Israeli precedents is now essentially complete. Their habits are ours. Reversing that process would require stores of courage and imagination that may no longer exist in Washington. Given the reigning domestic political climate, those holding or seeking positions of power find it easier—and less risky—to stay the course, vainly nursing the hope that by killing enough “terrorists” peace on terms of our choosing will result. Here too the United States has succumbed to Israeli illusions.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Lisa Sharon Harper on Race and Economics

I am very excited about the newly released A New Evangelical Manifesto, edited by David Gushee. My interview with David is up at Patheos, but I want to highlight some other parts of this fine collection of essays providing, as the subtitle puts it, “A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good.” The book is divided into three parts, with part two about “Holistic Love of Marginalized Neighbors”. One of the chapters is on Race and it is written by Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners fame. Harper explains why in spite of improvements in “individual feelings, thoughts and relationships” race still impacts American political and economic life. Her  summary of American history is helpful and includes the following:

Thus, woven through the fabric and patterns of America’s early years, “race” as we know it was invented and levied to establish and protect an economic and political system that granted white people extreme privilege…
The genesis of the United States is permeated with the creation of systems, institutions, laws and social structures created to ennoble the status of people of European descent while subjugating people of color to a permanent status of serfdom, particularly African Americans and Native Americans. Thus the struggles for political and fiscal fairness are at the heart of the quest toward the reconciliation of American institutions to all people made in the image of God…
[U]ntil the United States and the church take bold action to dismantle and re-form our nation’s racialized political structures and its economic policies that have racialized outcomes, then race will remain a relevant focus of analysis and repentance in society and in the church.

My Interview with David Gushee now up at Patheos

The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good has produced a stimulating new book, A New Evangelical Manifesto: A Kingdom Vision for the Common Good (Chalice Press). I have done a two-part interview with the editor of the book, David Gushee, and one of the contributors to the book, Brian McLaren. The first part of the interview is now up at Patheos. Among the gems is this from David Gushee:

Over my twenty years of association with the evangelical world, I have regularly observed the effects of fear-based decision making, in which scholars or activists pulled their punches on a piece of writing or a statement or policy position so as not to garner the wrath of politically powerful Christian conservatives whose complaints about something or someone could sometimes amount to a veto or excommunication. I have also seen the problem of trying to keep an evangelical coalition together that can involve the evangelical right, center, and left, and in the end what results doesn't really please anyone. I am trying for the rest of my own career to never make a writing or activism decision tinged by fear of making anyone to my right (or left) unhappy. I think I am called to conscientious Christian faithfulness instead.

Remembering Antietam

As we continue as a nation to remember the 150th anniversary of the Civil War we come upon certain days that stand out more than others. Living in Maryland has only heightened my sense of the Battle of Antietam as a “hinge of history” if ever there was one. So many things led to and resulted from that day, September 17, 1862, and a battle that is even now “the bloodiest day in American history.” As is fitting of a day of such consequence, the Associated Press has published a stirring article on the story of Antietam. That fine piece includes the following:

It's easy to see inevitability in events as consequential as the Antietam struggle. But many who've studied it, from participants to scholars generations later, dwell on the razor's edge of chance or fate or providence on which this event teetered.
Interestingly, Lincoln told his cabinet during the unsettled days back in July that he'd made a private vow to read the outcome of the next battle, for or against the North, as an indication of divine will on the question of emancipation. God, he concluded, had "decided this question in favor of the slaves."
Maj. Walter Taylor, an aide to Lee, also perceived a divine hand, but in a different place. He called the lost order a turning point and concluded, "It looks as if the good Lord had ordained that we should not succeed."
Looking back, Lee himself said, "Had the Lost Dispatch not been lost, and had McClellan continued his cautious policy for two or three days longer, I would have had all my troops concentrated on the Maryland side, stragglers up, men rested and intended then to attack McClellan, hoping the best results from (the) state of my troops and those of the enemy. Tho' it is impossible to say that victory would have certainly resulted, it is probable that the loss of the dispatch changed the character of the campaign."