Category Archives: Politics and Culture

The Nones

From the New York Times, an article by Eric Weiner: “Americans: Undecided About God?”

For a nation of talkers and self-confessors, we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?

The rest of us, it turns out, constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones, the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones….

Nones don’t get hung up on whether a religion is “true” or not, and instead subscribe to William James’s maxim that “truth is what works.” If a certain spiritual practice makes us better people — more loving, less angry — then it is necessarily good, and by extension “true.” (We believe that G. K. Chesterton got it right when he said: “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”)

This is certainly my experience.  Young people I know are looking for a life path that will help them be better people.  They are often very interested in mystical, reflective paths, which they have often seen very little of in Christianity.  Buddhism holds some attraction because it looks like it will help them to be calm and focused, and to roll with the punches.  They are not interested in preventing homosexual marriage, are increasingly moderate in their abortion views, and would like to see real help for the poor and the sick.  You could possibly sell them on some specific Christian doctrines, but not until they have seen that there is a form of lived Christianity that appeals to them.  If you lead with praxis, you can eventually move into theology.  I, for one, don’t see this as a step backward.  Aren’t we supposed to be inculcating virtues anyway?  And aren’t things like peace and patience supposed to be the fruit of the Spirit?  The American church needs to make some major adjustments here, but nothing that isn’t the right thing to do for other reasons.

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Of Myths and Monsters

I’ve been reflecting for a while on three different literary passages.  The first is from the Grapes of Wrath, a dialogue between poor tenant farmers and the wealthy land-owners and bankers.  The farmers have been trying to scrape a living farming a land that has been hit hard by drought.  The powerful wealthy folks are now about to remove them as tenants, and hire them as workers on larger, consolidated farmers.  Their small grip on autonomy is over–now they will work for wages determined by profit-driven land owners.  This is what Steinbeck wrote:

The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came…Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves…If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank-or the Company-needs-wants-insists-must have-as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained.

“You know the land is poor. You’ve scrabbled at it long enough, God knows.”
The squatting tenant men nodded and wondered and drew figures in the dust, and yes,they knew, God knows. If the dust only wouldn’t fly. If the top would only stay on the soil, it might not be so bad.

The owner men went on leading to their point: “You know the land’s getting poorer. You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it.”

The squatters nodded-they knew, God knew…

Well, it’s too late. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. “A man can hold land if he can just eat and pay taxes; he can do that.”

“Yes, he can do that until his crops fail one day and he has to borrow money from the bank.”

“But-you see, a bank or a company can’t do that, because those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t cat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.” …The bank-the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”

The squatting men looked down again. “What do you want us to do? We can’t take less share of the crop-we’re half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an’ ragged. If all the neighbors weren’t the same, we’d he ashamed to go to meeting.”

And at last the owner men came to the point. “The tenant system won’t work, any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster.”…

The tenant men looked up alarmed. “But what’ll happen to us? How’ll we eat?”…

“We know that-all that. It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.”…

“Sure,” cried the tenant men, “but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours-being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.”

We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.

Yes, but the bank is only made of men.

No, you’re wrong there–quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.

The second is a speech from President Eisenhower, delivered in 1961–the speech where he coined the term “military-industrial complex.”

Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

I have been reading those passages in connection with a third passage, from chapter two of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.

13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

The monstrous bank. The misplaced powers of the military-industrial complex.  The elemental forces and authorities of this world.  In different ways, all three passages are warning of the same thing.  When humans combine in organizations, something sometimes emerges that is no longer human, and no longer cares about humans.  It’s made up of men and women, but it isn’t interested in them.  The men and women who keep it running, cogs in the machine, may even hate what they are doing, but still it gets done.  No person wants war, but munitions manufacturers need clients.  No one wants to remove people from their livelihoods, but the bank must turn a profit.  We gather together–bankers and analysts and manufacturers and generals–and together something is formed greater and more terrible than the sum of its parts.  The elemental forces.

You can name the forces easily enough: Money.  Power.  Adulation.  Strike down any one of these demons in one place and it will shift form and come back somewhere else.  You can’t destroy it, because it’s made of people–people who are each doing the thing that seems sensible at the moment, and who together are pillaging the world.

Such monsters, our modern idols, demand sacrifice, just as much as Molech or Baal ever did.  We must give the bankers their bonuses, and we must keep them afloat–they are too big to fail.  If we have to cut unemployment benefits or Medicare to do it–well, that is the sacrifice we make to feed the monster.  In return, the monster promises that this will somehow create jobs.  War is expensive, in many, many ways, but the monster need new planes and new missiles, and new brave young soldiers, and so we feed it.  In return, it promises to safeguard our freedom.

It is the nature of nations (and none more than America) to present themselves as gods.  We won’t let a president claim divine status (though sometimes we edge near that line), but letting America herself be our God seems like the right thing to do.  America, and Capitalism, and Our Brave Men and Women in Uniform Around the World–our holy trinity.

Gods appear where questions cease and myths arise.  America has many potent myths.  They have titles like “The Military that Only Fights to Protect Your Freedoms,” “The Greatest Healthcare System in the World,” and “The Land of Opportunity.”  To question is heresy; just bow and nod.  Write your check; send your sons and daughters.

Humans are highly susceptible to these myths and monsters.  If the powers tell enough people in the loud enough voice that Exxon shouldn’t have to pay any tax, because they stimulate our economy; or that mega-rich Walmart should get a subsidy from our city so that they can sell us cheap things, then we tend to believe and fall in line.  My gods provide the fuel that makes my car run.  My gods give me cheap toys from China and cheap shirts from Mexico.  Who am I to question their benevolence?  Cut their taxes again.  My gods kill people in Afghanistan so that I can have freedom of speech here.  How that works is a divine mystery, but it is the story we live.  Goodbye, my son; we thank you for your service.

Steinbeck and Eisenhower warned us, but it made no difference.  Everything they feared has come to pass, and more.  No one wanted it to.  The monsters are made of men, but they aren’t like a man.

What Christianity should do is provide us a myth to believe that breaks the power of the other myths.  When your story is “The God Who Rejected Power Even Though It Meant His Death,” or “The God Who Shows His Love Through Service To The Weak and Poor,” then the world-shaping abilities of the elemental forces have met their match.  What Christianity ought to do is give us an alternate story to live–the story of the cross.  And from the vantage point of Calvary we can see how sick and shameful the monster-idols of the world actually are.  We can expose the true names of Money, Power and Adulation: Greed, Oppression and Deception.  It may–may–be possible to do that without an alternative story, but I’m not convinced that there is any such thing as a person who isn’t living out a story, consciously or not.  And if we are going to choose a story, better to choose the one that stands against and breaks the power of the stories that keep breaking us.

And here the church has failed miserably, shamefully, horrifically.  Rather than rejecting and denouncing the monsters of national pride, military conquest and corporate greed, the church has partnered with them, supported them, and fought for them, spending so much time dining with idols that she has cheapened herself and drained her own power.  We set the flag on a pedestal beside the altar, pray for our troops and curse our enemies, support the machinery of torture and death, and do our best to be sure that we have our share of Money, Power, and Adulation.  Tacking Jesus’ name on to that prayer only adds blasphemy to the heresy we’ve already adopted.  By leaving the path of the cross, the members of the church become cells in the ever-expanding bodies of the monsters.  We may hate what they do, but they are us.

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A Hymn for Atheists

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Mother Teresa, Saint or Sinner?

mother_teresa_costume218Ever since the publication of Christopher Hitchens book, The Missionary Position, I keep hearing from people who believe that Mother Teresa was twisted person who intentionally perpetuated poverty rather than relieving it because she believed things were better that way.  I attended a discussion for an unrelated book last night in which one of the audience member commented that Teresa kept people poor because she thought it would help them get to heaven.  The moderator pushed back at that idea, but it obviously had some currency with those present.

I’m not an expert on Teresa, and I haven’t gotten around to Hitchens’ book.  So no answers here, but I do have this question.  I wonder whether its the case that Mother Teresa’s admirers and detractors would all essentially agree on the facts of what she did, but interpret them in almost opposite ways.  Could it be that she chose to focus on comforting the sick and dying rather than relieving poverty because that was her calling, her charism, and she needed to focus on bringing a personal touch to as many people as possible in Calcutta?  Those who fell under the influence of her ministry certainly seemed grateful.  Hitchens, whose vision goes no further than the material comforts of this life has no appreciation for a touch of grace to the dying because it doesn’t solve anything he can see.  It has no tanglible results.  But with every hug, every bath, every spoonful of soup brought to the lips of an invalid, Teresa was sowing grace amidst despair.

I’m not opposed to poverty relief efforts–quite the opposite!  But I do recognize that there is more than one kind of good work in the world.  I’d be cautious about criticizing someone for doing a kind of good work different than the one I prefer.  There’s room for both.

And I’m definitely of the opinion that Teresa is just too tempting a target for my atheist friends.  There’s a little too much glee in the criticisms.  What a delight it is to show that the woman so admired around the world was a fraud!  If the iconic holy woman of the modern age was really a pathological deviant, then there can’t be anything to that Christianity stuff after all, can there?

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Slavery in the Modern World

Not For Sale: There are 27 million slaves worldwide right now.  Here’s a map of where they are.

For many people, awareness of modern slavery—especially slavery in America—began with John Bowe, when his article “Nobodies” was published in the New Yorker in 2003.  That was subsequently followed by a book of the same title, part of which became the basis for This American Life #344 “The Competition.”  Here’s Bowe on NPR’s Marketplace as well.

Now ethicist David Batstone (interview) is devoting his time to abolishing slavery, through his book Not For Sale, and through co-founding the Not For Sale Campaign, which “equips and mobilizes Smart Activists to deploy innovative solutions to re-abolish slavery in their own backyards and across the globe.” Here’s an excerpt from the book.

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