See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Category Archives: Religion

A Wanderer’s Rest and Reflection in the Moment Between Grief and Joy

From last year, a favorite.

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Holy Saturday is a pause. It is the narrator of a tragic tale silently waiting on stage refusing to leave. And the Christian watchers have already had the ending spoiled for them. At the Episcopalian service that I attended last night, the liturgical service ends in silence. We were to leave the sanctuary dark like a tomb, but stilled and at peace. The effect was diminished somewhat by parishioners chatting gaily upon entering the vestibule. It was the first time in a long time I felt I belonged, if only for now.

Allow me to recap the end of my conversion story. It has been a long time since I’ve been to church. I mean sure, there have been the stop-offs at an Easter Vigil here and there. (Say what you will about the Catholics, and I have, they know their ritual). And there are the funerals and the weddings…

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Good Friday

From two years ago.

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The hero has been beaten, broken, and slain

the sun retreats in sorrow

the darkness will take us soon.

The joy of Christmas has turned to ash

the powers drown out the angel’s chorus

salvation has died on the cross and hope is next.

The storyteller has fallen silent

but he has not left.

He remains

patient, patient, patient.

Sunday is coming.

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The Heretical Gospel of Trump

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has a column out in the Week tracing Donald Trump’s evangelical support to two factors: Christian nationalism, and the prosperity gospel. As is often the case, I almost agree with Gobry about the prosperity gospel. Gobry:

In its most crude forms, the prosperity gospel says that God rewards financially those who pray. If you don’t have the car you want or the house you want, if you pray hard enough, God will give it to you.[F]orgetting […] that sometimes the righteous have to suffer […] and that a man’s worth is never, ever judged by his possessions.

The prosperity gospel is one of the most vibrant heresies in America today, […and…] one of America’s most powerful religious leaders is undoubtedly Joel Osteen, who is a prosperity preacher. It’s obvious why someone taken in by the prosperity gospel would see no glaring contradiction between Trump’s assertion that he’s a “very strong Christian” and his gaudy lifestyle and ostentatious wealth.

So far so plausible. Prosperity gospel breaks orthodox Christianity’s view of wealth and creates the idea that being a good Christian is positively correlated with wealth, Trump is wealthy, so prosperity gospel believers think he’s a good Christian, so prosperity gospel is at fault. But if you look at how prosperity gospel churches actually work, and how Trump supporters behave, it doesn’t quite match up with their optimism and their activism.

The prosperity gospel is a very optimistic approach to religious life. The kind of twisted optimism that casts cruelty as a shadow. As I’ve discussed before, the inevitable consequence of believing that if you just pray hard enough you’ll be wealthy and healthy is that if you are not wealthy and healthy, you believe that it is all your own fault. Trump supporters do not believe it is their fault. They are not optimistic and about their personal ability to do things, they believe they need some savior billionaire to wreck/beat all the other countries. Hell, there is a lot of evidence that they don’t even believe that. Instead, they believe that Trump can’t change things, but he can help them give a big middle finger to everyone who has looked down on them or otherwise messed with their lives. And their anger seems to come from the standard issue places: socioeconomic class resentments, personal prosperity, Jacksonian ideas of national dignity and so on. No reason to reach for some sort of psychological inversion of the self-blame the prosperity gospel engenders. Trump’s Evangelical followers aren’t going to this church enough to shape their thinking in this way. Hell, they’re just not going to church much at all. Which brings us to the activism gap.

Prosperity gospel churches trend heavily towards a highly active church life with big asks. Now, most other Christians sneer at this, because the theology of the prosperity gospel asks pretty much none of the hard things, like embracing your enemies, faith while in fear and trembling, and charitable conduct and thought. But prosperity gospel churches ask a lot in simpler ways: cold hard cash. Tithing, going to church activities, evangelizing for the church, buying the preacher’s latest book, buying a book from the church store for this month’s sermon, providing free labor for the church’s commercial bookstore – there are plenty of big asks, especially for the poor who don’t have much to give. Trump has done none of these. Except that one time he screwed up giving money during communion. He can’t even rely the subtle linguistic cues of someone culturally Christian to signal that he is “one of us” to the Evangelicals who support him. He is not one of them. So who are these supporters anyway?

Evangelical supporters of Trump may not actually be Evangelicals the way we tend to think of them. They’re probably more like Mr. Young from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet’s Good Omens:

He quite liked nuns. Not that he was a, you know, left‑footer or anything like that. No, when it came to avoiding going to church, the church he stolidly avoided going to was St. Cecil and All Angels, no­ nonsense C. of E., and he wouldn’t have dreamed of avoiding going to any other. All the others had the wrong smell‑floor polish for the Low, some­what suspicious incense for the High. Deep in the leather armchair of his soul, Mr. Young knew that God got embarrassed at that sort of thing.

Gaiman and the late Pratchett were writing Mr. Young in an English context, but change the set dressing a little, and you get that everywhere religion has just enough hold on a people to give them a tribal affiliation but not enough to give them religiosity. They probably know a lot of churchgoers, they’re related with churchgoers, probably even married to churchgoers. But you don’t need to believe Christian ideas to identify as Christian on a poll. You don’t need to believe to get upset about people saying “Happy Holidays” or telling you to stop saying “God bless you”. You don’t even have to disdain the outsiders doing it, you just have to perceive their disdain for you. That’s tidy, isn’t it?

But, but, but, what if there are, actual religious evangelical Christians in the Trump coalition and it can’t be explained away by personal idiosyncrasies? Well, certainly it’s going to be a further step in the Faustian bargain with secular power Christians have made since suborning Constantine into the flock. Christianity is deeply suspicious of secular power, but if a Christian takes the idea we live in a fallen world seriously grasping at power is inevitable. But why Trump and why were they doing it while other candidates still seemed viable? And this is where we get into a twisted up understanding of evil. Which is to say, too many people think that evil works better than good.

Way back when America was grappling with whether or not to torture – sorry “use enhanced interrogation techniques on” – captured suspected terrorists in order to get information. And according to the Republican Presidential candidates, we should relitigate that debate. So here it is: torture is not a superior, always works like for Jack Bauer on TV, method of interrogation. Torture doesn’t give you information. Torture gives you compliance, a compliance that is agnostic to truthfulness. We know this because of the several thousand year known history of regimes torturing people into confessing crimes they didn’t commit. So, while we can construct scenarios where torture is both effective and forgivable, they are not the general case. The general case is torturing someone until they break.  And yet there are clearly people who think it is universally effective, purely because the bad guys do it and we won’t (anymore). But sometimes evil is evil agnostic of its effectiveness. And sometimes evil is evil because it is so ineffective.

Trump is more than America’s pro-even-worse-torture candidate. He’s America’s pro-evil candidate. He’s selling the idea that he’s evil, he’ll be evil for America, and that will make America win again. And even before we embrace evil because it is effective, we have to remember that evil is not effective. Trump represents a number of challenges, and one of them is religious. A number of Evangelicals have failed that test, God help them. And more are to come unless we can convince them otherwise.

Don’t Answer Pain With Doctrine

Something finally clicked for me just now about why the typical small-c conservative Christian responses to  gay, lesbian and transgender people and issues has bothered me more and more over the years. It’s this awful tendency Christians have had to answer pain with doctrine.

Let me be specific.  Jana Riess is a progressively inclined Mormon convert with a great heart for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and the transgendered. She also loves her church. So the recent business about how the children of those who are same-sex married was obviously painful, especially when a high ranking member seemed to suggest it was a revelation from God, no dissent proper.

I sit here heartbroken that the Church is not only standing by this regrettable policy but enshrining homophobia as God’s will.

It seems that now, by holding these views I am not just objecting to a here-today-gone-tomorrow policy in the handbook. I’m actively resisting the will of the Lord as revealed through his holy prophets.

Elder Nelson closed with dire warnings about people like me. “The somber reality is that there are ‘servants of Satan’ embedded throughout society,” the Salt Lake Tribune quotes him as saying. “So be very careful about whose counsel you follow.”

As I’ve said elsewhere, this is heartbreaking to see. Loyal dissent is doubly painful because not only do you strain relationships with those who you agree, you don’t get any new friends, as they look down on you for maintaining your ties to disreputable people. Keep that in mind when reading one of the first comments:

Yes. In fact, some of us have viewed your writings that way for some time now. But please, continue to kick against the pricks and advocate that this policy is not inspired and that the 15 apostles who prayed about it must have been wrong and you are right. I see no problem there. 😉

It’s the emoji that really seals the deal. I don’t care how right you think you are and how wrong you think Jana Riess is to stand against the leaders of your church, this is an inhuman way of responding to someone in pain. So is this:

Jana wrote: “I don’t believe God is behind this policy.”

Then are you not ethically bound to refrain from sustaining the church leaders?

Jana wrote: “By rejecting this policy, are active LDS church members like me, people who hold a calling and a temple recommend …..”

To be “worthy” of a temple recommend one must sustain the LDS Church leaders. And to “sustain” them one must uphold their “revelations.”

Since the Church is adamant that their anti-Gay policies are revelation, isn’t it an obvious conclusion that any temple recommend-holding member (who honestly answers the recommend questions) agrees with the Church’s policies regarding Gays?

At what point do you say, “Enough,” Jana, and separate yourself from this organization?

I don’t care how wrong you think Jana Riess is to stand by her church, this is an inhuman way to respond to someone in pain.

Yes, yes. Blog comments are the worst. I can attest to that being a frequent maker and reader of blog comments. But it also happens in other ways. Like a two thirds majority of Anglican churches  rebuking the Episcopal church [see update below] over their acceptance of non celibate gays and same sex marriages. Like those same two thirds taking the time to reiterate what we all know to be their position:

 “The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union,” the statement also notes. “The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.”

Like those same two thirds rebuking the Episcopal Church and making sure to point out how hurt they were that the Episcopal church went and did nice things for gays when we don’t wanna. Wasn’t that mean of them?

I suppose I should add that I’m actually sympathetic to the conservatives and their position on marriage. I burn a lot of time, credibility and friendships defending both the people I know and love who are conservative on marriage doctrine and total strangers who hold the same. I concede they have an excellent case, and I think they might be right as a doctrinal matter. But, but, but, everything seems wrong. Dreadfully wrong. Witnessing a frustrated parent scream at their child in public wrong.

Witnessing has a special place in Christianity. It’s used as a synonym for proselytize, but it really means so much more. Christians believe they are witness to the gospel – the good news about sin and salvation, carrying on the message from Jesus’s apostles all the way to the present. Christian witness is the obligation to speak the truth of such weight matters, as if in court under subpoena. Now that we know, we must speak. And since communication is service, we should speak well. As you well know reader, we don’t.

Witnessing is more than just spitting out your beliefs and calling it testimony. It’s answering the question you’re asked when you’re asked. Witnessing is still communication, and that means witnessing is about listening.

So when gays and lesbians and the transgendered or anyone else comes and says that they are in pain, that is not the time to spit doctrine at them. When gays and lesbians and the transgendered have suffered at the hands of Christian authorities and mobs, specifically because the mob wanted to pick on a sexual minority, that is not the time to point out that Christ said “go and sin no more”. It’s inhuman. Especially since we’re the ones who are causing the pain! If Christians had treated gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people decently, even within the confines of doctrine, since day one, we wouldn’t be having this fight! You think the urge to be marriage is new? Or do you think it has to do with people who have just had it with being abused and suffering and now need governmental protection?

There’s no justification answer pain with doctrine, because the proper answer to pain is about the person in pain, and your answering with doctrine is about you. It’s making sure that everyone knows about your righteousness, your fidelity, your insistence and purity, and your affirmation of doctrine. No one cares about your need to say you disagree. Witnessing is not about you! It’s the good news about Christ, who so loved this world he died. It’s about serving Christ in the poor, the naked, the suffering. It’s about serving people, not changing them.

So don’t answer pain with doctrine. Just don’t. You can be right on your own time. Or when they ask. But not before. That’s real witness.

Update: The body at issue does not have the authority to suspend but can still cause trouble. I relied on news sources that did not have a good understanding of the intricities and I should have known better. I regret the error.

Christmas is for Weak-minded Losers, Thank God

Thanks to a combination of Facebook algorithms, I went micro-viral with a post concerning one of the most annoying features of American political life: a holiday display. The details of the post and the dispute are unimportant generally, and were quite unimportant to internet strangers who showed up to have a fight about, I dunno, Christianity is stupid: Yes/No. If you’ve been on the Internet for a while and have ever witnessed an argument about religion, you can imagine something like this will come up:

Religion is, has been, and always will be a farce for weak-minded people who constantly search for blame and forgiveness. By absolving yourself of responsibility for your actions and your life, you deceive yourself, your children, and those around you. Grow up and learn to think on your own. – An internet stranger, name withheld

There is a lot to be said about this diatribe, (Spufford said most it already in Unapologetic) but I want to pick on one theme in particular:

Religion is […] for weak-minded people[.] Grow up and learn to think on your own.

What the hell is wrong with being weak-minded? What’s wrong with being not-grown-up? What’s wrong with not being able to think on your own? It’s really easy for those of us blessed with the right genetic, socioeconomic status and educators to congratulate ourselves on our strong wills and advanced thought, but it isn’t just prideful, it’s snobbishness. It isn’t about freeing the masses from religion, it’s about declaring yourself better than those fools over there.

I’m pleased to say I’m with the fools. I’m with the losers, the malcontents, the ugly, the weird, the fuck-ups, the crazy, the classless, the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the fearful lost sheep. And hey, maybe you can be good without God, thanks to your superior intellect and, I dunno, whatever. But I’m fine sticking by the rest who haven’t managed it. If you’re really and truly fine, Christian religion isn’t about you, and you can go on your merry way, because we’re talking about a God-made-flesh so he could help people in need. That’s what Christmas is, in a nutshell. God from God, born to an unwed pregnant woman (probably slut-shamed all the way to Bethlehem) in a dingy manger to be sacrificed by a broken people under the rule of the mightiest empire the world had ever known, all to help broken people. And we talk about him doing that a lot so we can ourselves be helped, and then help others. And that, my friends, is way more important than sustaining any illusion of “thinking on my own” via conforming to this particular atheist exhortation. Christmas is for weak-minded losers. It’s the whole point. And if that isn’t you and people you love, well, there’s probably no God, and enjoy your life. But for the rest of us, well, I think I’ve got some good news. We’re covered. It gets better. Come inside, and let’s eat.

Merry Christmas

A History of Saying “No Thank You” to Immigrants

Our country is engaged in two of her three sacred Thanksgiving traditions: gorging ourselves during a big family meal and ironically displaying unjustified fear of migrants as we remember the first harvest of early European migrants.[1] About this time last year President Obama made a big speech[2] announcing a now-stalled reform of our immigration system and people lost their damn minds about the rule of law and them coming to take our jobs. Two weeks ago, European-born Islamists made a series of terrorist attacks that Daesh[3] has claimed responsibility for. In response, 29 Republican governors and 1 Democratic governor, starting with my own state’s Governor Synder[4], announced their intent block Federal government attempts to settle Syrian refugees because a terrorist will sneak in or something through the 2 year process. You know, the victims fleeing the war wrecked misery caused in large part by Daesh. This is a profound moral failing. A moral failing deeply institutionalized into our law and culture. And it persists because there is a political benefit to stoking the predictable knee jerk fear of outsiders.

Our immigration system is badly flawed; not just in a technocratic sense, but as the result of malicious policy choices. It caters to racists, nativists, and cowards. It does so by throttling immigration by country of origin, “securing the border” and expelling “subversives. It doesn’t make you a racist, nativist, or coward if you support that system, but it does mean that if you support that system you end up helping racists, nativists and cowards. As an inevitable consequence we have massive permanent underclass of illegal immigrants.

Let me now state that I am the child of two immigrant parents. My wife’s parents were refugees who were in danger because of a failed American war. I’m not coming from a place of objectivity and I won’t pretend otherwise. So what follows (and preceded) is certainly editorialized, but it Is also as precise and accurate as I can manage. For convenience, I will also be referring to refugees, long term nonimmigrant visitors, and immigrants all as “immigrants” despite the legal and sociological differences between the groups. If they’re coming here for a better life than where they were, they’re immigrants enough for our discussion.

My parents and my wife’s parents were able to enter the United States legally through the front door, but they had very little to do with it. My parents are Chinese by way of Taiwan and the Philippines they had good grades and worked hard and applied to college, sure, but they were also politically approved by the Americans, because we liked Taiwan and the Philippines and we didn’t care much for Communist China. My wife’s family fought (via a CIA operation) on the American side of the Vietnam War in exchange for a land of their own when the Americans kicked the commies out of ‘Nam. It didn’t work out so great when America pulled out in defeat. It still took dedicated lobbying and the sponsorship of Christian missionaries to get America’s direct allies over, never mind their families. American politics had a whole lot more to do with our families making it over here than our families did, despite all of the things they did to earn the right to come over. The front door is illusory, crushed by the tight fist of nativist politics. Immigrants manage to slip in through the cracks by luck and pluck. And that’s all that’s left for them now, despite modern America being built on a massive spike in immigration.

The old system lasted between 1921 and 1965, starting with the appropriately named Immigration Act of 1921. The system worked like this: to preserve the American character of our society and secure our border from “homosexuals”, “idiots”, “feeble-minded persons”, “criminals”, “epileptics”, “insane persons”, alcoholics, “professional beggars”, all persons “mentally or physically defective”, polygamists, and anarchists, no more than 3% of the immigrant population could come from any single country of origin, which biased immigration significantly towards West and Northern Europe.[5] This formula was revised in 1924 to lower the rate to 2% and to eliminate citizenship by naturalization from certain places of origin. This had the not at all coincidental effect of keeping out the following Un-American troublemakers:

  • East Asians
  • Arabs
  • Indians
  • South East Asians
  • Africans
  • Southern Europeans
  • Eastern Europeans
  • Jews

Latin America got an unlimited pass because they provided cheap farm labor.

Under the 1924 Act, Asian immigrants were specially barred by classifying them as non-white. This referenced the Naturalization act of 1790, which restricted naturalization to so called free whites of good character.[6] That specific part of the 1924 Act was called Asian Exclusion Act. That passed less than a hundred years ago.

In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act finally abolished the racial restrictions of the 1790 Act, but kept the racial/ethnic preferences designed into the national origin caps while ratcheting up the paranoid barriers against suspected “subversives” with the wrong politics. Harry Truman vetoed the act over the political tests and quotas citing many “examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law. In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.”

In a remarkable show of bipartisan can-do, the 82nd Congress, led by two Democrats, overrode Truman’s veto. Senator McCarran, one of the co-sponsors left us this gem of wisdom:

I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors. […] However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain.[7]

As a result our system went from explicit racism in preferring whites of “good character” to a slightly more-subtle xenophobia expressed by hand-wringing about all those who refuse to adapt to the American way of life.

In 1965, the national origin quota system was finally replaced with the precursor to our modern preference based system. The new system discarded national preferences in favor of selecting highly skilled migrants and those with family already present.[8] Except it applied the national origin quota system to our visas, which is the first step in coming over as a tourist, worker, or immigrant. There was a hard cap for 170,000 per year created for those originating in the Eastern Hemisphere. There was a hard cap of 120,000 for the Western Hemisphere, with unlimited access for a few favored nations. With some adjustments, we are still using this system today. The bill’s sponsors promised that very little would change as far as the demographic mix of the United States. They were wrong.

The 1965 act heralded a massive rush of immigration to the United States. It created the America we are living in now. My mother was one of the lucky 170,000 year to be allowed a student visa so she could attend school here, work hard, raise a family, and create jobs. My father was allowed to come here and work as a doctor, running the lab and helping surgeons hunt and destroy cancer.

Opponents of immigration defend their position as taking care of the people who are here already as their primary obligation. Well, it turns out immigrants lower prices, create jobs, and help keep you alive. My parents are just one example of many at the highly skilled end.[9] The deliberately cultivated importation of farm laborers from Latin America is another. Our immigration system doesn’t protect the people already here. It hurts them. It tries to deport them. It is in a real sense, the most unsuccessful wasteful and racially discriminatory affirmative action program yet conceived, rewarding legacy European immigrants and punishing poor Latinos who have the hustle necessary to work hard in the illegal immigrant underclass.

Even when the fear of nebulous and omnipresent undesirables, subversives, and now terrorists isn’t hopelessly tainted by politics and racism, it turns out throttling immigration and securing the border doesn’t help much anyway. If you shut out refugees, they come through as skilled workers. You shut out skilled workers, they pose as family members. You ban all new people from coming in, they sneak in. You button up the border, and they laugh and have someone on the inside kill you anyway. You have lost much and gained nothing but fear. Daesh is a malicious idea, not a diffuse people group. That idea can spread over the internet with deadly consequence without the bother of sending over a bomber across the border. We’ve created a cruel, complex, and punitive system and have gotten nothing of worth out of it.

Don’t believe me? Look up the details yourself. Try to follow the immigration process from start to finish and see if you can even comprehend it. Try to comprehend the difference between immigrant and nonimmigrant visas. Try to imagine marrying the person you met in college, and then being interrogated by overworked case officers under inhuman directives about whether your marriage is genuine. Imagine that marriage breaking up under economic strain and infidelity later and you being held up as an example of someone who married as fraud. and then have the failure of that marriage be used as proof of your fraud. Try to imagine coming over to visit family, only to find out you’ve broken the law when you stayed an extra day to help out with the new baby. Try to imagine laboring in America and trying to apply for legal presence, only to find out you have to find the money to fly back to your country of origin and apply there – a home you may never want to see again. And why? Because rules are rules my dear. It says so right on the notice the immigration officials – the ones who are supposed to deport you – send to your apartment.

Yeah, immigration enforcement is a bizarre bit of kabuki. I mean, so often they know where you are. And if you don’t show up to your deportation hearing it’s not like they’re going to send the border patrol after you. They’re busy. Unless you’re a violent offender, anyway. Oh, the consequences are pretty bad for your long term plans so it’s better to show up, but we care a whole lot less than we say we do. Then again, maybe you should be in the country. Maybe you’re not an illegal at all, but an undocumented refugee. So you show up at your immigration hearing, and in your accented English you try to explain to the immigration judge your situation. But the judge is a lawyer and has a legal checklist to follow and there is another government lawyer in the room talking to him. Her job is to make the case against you. If you’re lucky, a non-profit activist or lawyer noticed you on your way in. If not, you’re on your own. You don’t know how to make your case and you go to back to the hell you nearly bankrupted your family to escape from. Your children will never see you again.

Let me make this clear. In our immigration courts, where the consequences for failing to attend are not prioritized, there is a government lawyer whose job it is to try to kick out people who may be bona fide refugees and send them back to hell.

Right now Syria is hell, and Americans have no small part in it becoming that way. We have a bunch of Governors trying to block Federal policy because they’re concerned about the potential of someone sneaking in through a two-year process. It’s not just that it’s worth the risk. It’s that the risk reduction in eliminating or strengthening the system is so negligible as to be nonexistent. But it’s good politics. You get to sound tough. It’s easy to sound tough when all you’re hurting are voiceless and voteless immigrants.

Immigrants work for you and I and the tomorrow of our children. Immigrant soldiers bleed on our battlefields, immigrant laborers sweat in our farms and immigrant children dream the American dream when so many Americans are too cowardly to hope for a better tomorrow. Did your forefathers live and die to give you a better life in this country or do you think they lived and died so you can give other people a worse one? What kind of thankfulness is it to count your blessings to be American and free while shutting out new Americans?

Footnotes

Easter is Not the End of the Story

Easter is about hope. Easter is hope. It is the tomorrow that promises many other tomorrows. But it is also a day like any other. Many people will die today. Many people will suffer. Many people will give up hope forever and let the darkness swallow them into death and into evil. That is because Easter is not the end of the story. Easter is not a magical panacea. Easter is hope.

Christianity – at least the sort I am part of – is a story that leads to a relationship. A relationship with God, with Christ, with Love itself. These, for the Christian, are the same thing. (Also different things, our relationship status on Facebook is “it’s complicated”). That story cannot end in death on Saturday and still have the same meaning. Perhaps any meaning, because without a better tomorrow, all we have are the Powers. Christianity is actually pretty fatalistic about the world, because we realize that humans will never, ever be perfect on their own. We will continue to break things because we are broken. Without the Powers, without religion, without tribe, without politics, without the interference of malign forces, we would still be warring, and fighting, and breaking, breaking, breaking things and each other. Easter, the Resurrection, the point where Jesus of Nazareth, preacher becomes Christ, Son of God resurrected hope that the broken things will be made whole and that we will be made whole so we can stop breaking things. But the world is still broken this Easter and the world is still broken after every Easter and I am still broken after every Easter.

Christianity isn’t magic. The Creed isn’t a spell that you can mouth to bend physics to your will. Baptism may break the chains of your imprisonment but it won’t remove your scars, destroy the nightmares or give you your lost time back. Easter is a celebration because of and in spite of all of the brokenness. Easter is understanding that we ought not act like the older brother when the prodigal returns (though we do) and that we are have been and will be the ashamed and shameful younger brother. At Easter we give thanks for the intervention we have received instead of lamenting the intervention we have not. We, on Easter, are Lazarus instead of all of the other people that died that day.

Evil continues on unbothered by Easter, the Powers still rule and we are still broken. But Easter is hope. Easter is the punctuation mark at the end of the last sentence of the second act. Turn the page! God pleads in whispers. Turn the page! God shouts in demand. Turn the page! God urges us lovingly. Be not afraid, for God is with you. And with fear and trembling for what will befall all those we love we must. Only fools dare turn the page, believe in the foreshadowing written before them. Only fools believe that love can defeat death. But it will. It has. It is doing it right now.

Easter is hope because Easter is not the end.

Happy Easter.

A Wanderer’s Rest and Reflection in the Moment Between Grief and Joy

Holy Saturday is a pause. It is the narrator of a tragic tale silently waiting on stage refusing to leave. And the Christian watchers have already had the ending spoiled for them. At the Episcopalian service that I attended last night, the liturgical service ends in silence. We were to leave the sanctuary dark like a tomb, but stilled and at peace. The effect was diminished somewhat by parishioners chatting gaily upon entering the vestibule. It was the first time in a long time I felt I belonged, if only for now.

Allow me to recap the end of my conversion story. It has been a long time since I’ve been to church. I mean sure, there have been the stop-offs at an Easter Vigil here and there. (Say what you will about the Catholics, and I have, they know their ritual). And there are the funerals and the weddings, including my own religiousish ceremony. But I’ve resisted going back to church for a long time. The last church I got close to “belonging” to disintegrated and in a way I felt relieved. I took a long hard look at myself and I didn’t like what had happened to me there. So I wandered out. My Christianity became, is, always was that of a wanderer through the scrub. I followed the work, or the flock or the mirages. I may enjoy the temporary hospitality of churches and fellow believers, and I must share what I can in return. I named it, I now call it, had always sensed it was, Christian Nomadism.

Last night, I went to church for the first time in a long time with the hope, the intent of resting for a while. Christian Nomadism isn’t meant to be a denomination. It is both a temporal state of being actively unchurched and a disposition in relation to Christ, whether in church or out of it. And it is meant to keep me searching not just staying away. I’ve long reached the point where the trauma from the last church has faded and I’ve been selfishly keeping myself away from the Body of Christ, my brother and sisters in the ecclesia for too long.

Folks, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Body is in some trouble and the ecclesia is not getting along well with itself. For a bunch of people convinced that on a tomorrow long ago a dead man broke death with love and in a very literal sense lives on, not in but as us (but also outside in the nonplace where there is no outside or inside) you would think that… well I’m not sure. But you’d expect it to be better right?

Well. No. Maybe not. Maybe we’re just that much more aware of sin. To riff on Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s riff on Francis Spufford’s reimagining of original sin, Christians are supposed to be specially aware of that Human Propensity to Fuck Things up Because We Like It. Because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Because we think we deserve it, whether riches or punishment. We are the reason that we can’t have nice things. You can be “good without God”, says the atheist placard. Well, we think we have God, and we’re still not very good at being good for any length of time. Maybe they should have a sign “It has been 57 days since our last fuck up.” Our signs read 0.

Imagine that group, that team of losers, that International League of the Guilty, that endless meeting of Fuck-ups Unanonymous, if the story ended on Saturday. There was a preacher, he preached, he was crucified as an example to all others who might challenge the Powers, he died, and now we’re really quite sad, but live on following the teaching of our great moral teacher.

Jesus wasn’t a great moral teacher. He was a lunatic. Jessica Kantrowitz at Ten Thousand Places has a useful reminder:

What if their neighbors saw! What if seeing them carrying the Roman’s equipment caused other Jews to think the Roman oppression was okay? What if there was other work that needed to be done — good work, charity work even, but they spent all that time carrying equipment for the evil oppressor? But Jesus is not worried about any of that:

“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also,” he said. “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
[…]
If someone forces you to bake a cake for a gay wedding, bake for them two.

Christians, our Jesus said to not only follow the law, but to rise to a higher standard of love. Christians should be the FIRST people baking cakes — for everyone who asks us. We should be known for our cake baking. People should be saying, “There go those crazy Christians again, baking cakes for everyone. They just won’t quit!” Then, when we share the reason for our wild, all-inclusive love, people will want to hear it. “Let your light shine before others,” said Jesus, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

But, but, don’t we hate the sin and love the sinner? No. You can’t hate “the sin” in Christianity and be right with God. You can, at the very most, have a stringent disagreement with sin. You can lament sin. You can identify something as sinful. You can get into vociferous debate about the degree to which sin is corrupting our government and laws. But fingering “the sin” or “a sin” doesn’t work, and hating it definitely doesn’t work, even if you promise to love “the sinner”. Hating the sin and loving the sinners is the sort of thing great moral teachers tell you to do, probably after mellowing out with some great weed, man. It’s the careful virtue of righteous comity. Francis Spufford reminded us about this in Unapologetic. “God doesn’t want your careful virtue, He wants your reckless generosity.”

I’ve been out of church because I wanted to preserve my virtue from the evils of groupthink, of reactionary bigotry, and of the mind-numbing jargon of Christian religion. Well that’s not right. That’s sin too. That’s fucking up by being afraid of fucking up.

Holy Saturday is a pause. A moment I take now for reflection and commitment. Easter is coming.

Good Friday and Passover

Good Friday happens to fall on the day preceding the first night of Passover this year. That makes it a good time to remind everyone that Christian Church is, in Francis Spufford’s words, “The International League of the Guilty”.

Good Friday should be the day should be the day of all days in the Christian year when we are ashamed of even our tiniest and most necessary cruelties — seeing before us the image of their consequences. But instead, grotesquely, it was often the day for pogroms; a day of heightened emotions which could be resolved, for Christian mobs pouring out o of churches, into a search for Jews to kill. Then Easter was celebrated with smoke and screams and Christ re-crucified. The final catastrophe of European Jewry, in the twentieth century, wasn’t just powered by religious anti-Semitism, but it played its part. The is the greatest shame of Christian history; the most disgusting misapplication possible of the story of compassion unto death. My own church and most of the other mainstream branches of the universal ecclesia too, now insists that on Good Friday we all of us in the building shout out “Crucify him! Crucify him!,” to remind us whodunit, and that it wasn’t Them. – Francis Spufford, Unapologetic

Christianity is more than mere tribal affiliation, even of Christians themselves are often tribal. It is in fact, an idea that reaches beyond tribe and into universality. And we need to be reminded that in a particular time, in a particular place, each and every one of us finds ourselves consistently on the side of the angry crowd and of the high priests, with or without the Powers of the world pushing us along.

for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. – Matthew 25:42-45, NRSV translation

We can barely manage charity for the people we know and like. And we never recognize the face of the divine when it is right there in front of us. We are not with the apostles, and even if we were, the apostles weren’t with Jesus in the end either. As Jews celebrate Passover, in remembrance of their tribe’s liberation from slavery and bondage, we need to remember they needed to be liberated from people just like us. And we are doing it, to someone, somewhere, right now. We are doing it to Jesus.

Good Friday is the darkest part of the story. The hero is dead, and we killed him. Thank God Easter is coming in spite of us, and for us.

A Brief History of American Religious Liberty Law – Part I: From Europe to the Bill of Rights

I started this post many moons ago as a way to explain what was going on in the Hobby Lobby. Like every other project that is meant to be a “brief history” it quickly spiraled out of control.1 So I left it alone, gathering dust in my drafts folder.

Then Indiana happened. And it turns out we’ve not advanced the ball at all as far as civic knowledge or civic purpose since Hobby Lobby. Once again, we’re talking about religious liberty and its place, or lack thereof, in our society. Once again, American journalists and politicians are proving themselves religiously illiterate.2 Now, fixing American journalism is a quest too quixotic even for myself. So I’m going to do my best to make you all a little less wrong. This post will cover up to the Bill of Rights. I’m going a bit deeper than typical treatments of the topic, but I am still covering a very long time period quickly. History is hard and causation is complex so on some level, you’re just going to have to accept my account will be imperfect. Caveat lector.

Bloody Europe

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As we have all been taught, in the beginning the Pilgrims and other religious emigrants left Europe in order to freely practice their religion. So they set for new lands far from their Kings and Queens where they could be left alone – sort of. The truth was, of course, more complex than that. Petty material concerns were interwoven with less than saintly religious motivations. There are many, many accessible sources on the web purporting to debunk the myths of the early American religious freedom, and if that is what you’re interested in, Google will lead you to those places quickly. The classic account is true enough for our purposes. It is lacking in important details. For starters, Europe was not a vague threat to the liberties of man. It was a bloody battleground of religious warfare.

The emigrants that undertook the arduous journey to the New World were fleeing a divided Europe. Europe has always been a relatively tiny place with too many ethno-linguistic groups in the business of slaughtering each other.3 They killed each other over land and over gold and for honor and because of factional conflict and because of soccer.4 That they also killed each other over religion should not surprise us. What is surprising is that they ever managed to stop killing each other.

The 16th century added a massive splinter faction (Protestantism) within Western Christianity to bloody thrust of European history. True to form, Protestantism soon developed offshoots, of which a third major player, Calivinism – or the Reformed tradition, was the most significant. These factions were made up of converts, not aliens. Where there was once one religion, there were now two or three major faiths vying for influence and control. The European religious wars involved territorial rulers fighting for the right to follow their religious conscience, and then impose it on their subjects. There were spurts of religious tolerance, but they were failed experiments or the result of inattention, not permanent peaces. Even formal agreements, like the Peace of Augsburg, named a small number of tolerated religions, excluding the rest. Christian religious pluralism grew in Europe despite the best attempts of princes and kings suppress it. In 1618, the failure of the Powers to contain Christian pluralism was punctuated by the Thirty Years War. The German lands turned to mud as the Catholics and Protestants of Europe fought out their religious and regional rivalries to the point of exhaustion.

Pilgrims and the Colonies

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The Virginia colony was formed after most of the religious wars, after considerable religious upheaval in England and just a few years before the Thirty Years War began. When the puritans came, they took the lessons of Europe with them. Freedom, yes – but the freedom to impose their religion on their community and any Amerindians that fell under their baleful eye. This strikes us Moderns as barbaric, but it has its own cold internal logic. The puritans were playing for infinite stakes. What value is tolerance before the fires of hell?

Maryland was founded in 1634 by Cecilius Calvert as a Catholic refuge for the Catholic English fleeing England. Now, Maryland may have been a Catholic refuge, but it was still under Anglican rule, and so Protestants soon flooded the colony. The governor encouraged the colonists to leave their religious rivalries back in Europe. For a while, they did. But despite the colonists’ hopes, Europe’s troubles would reach across the Atlantic. The outbreak of the English Civil War disrupted the peace in Maryland and threatened Calvert’s grasp on power and civic order. So Maryland’s law enshrining religious tolerance came to pass in 1649, but only for Trinitarians. It was a deal between the Catholic minority leadership and the Protestant majority populace. It would last only five years before Protestants rescinded the act and drove the Catholics underground.

There were other, more successful religious tolerance experiments in the Colonies. Roger Williams repeatedly dissented against the powers of his day and was eventually sentenced to death. He fled to what is now Rhode Island and established a sanctuary for dissent and seperationism. There were other small experiments in religious toleration enshrined in law: Connecticut, New Jersey and especially Pennsylvania. These attempts were more successful than Maryland, but largely because they were driven by dissidents. The colonies had adopted European styled religious persecution, and so they fled to form other states. Religious tolerance was not a natural result of a plural people. It was the desperate gambit of dissidents.

Founding and the Religion Clauses

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Fast forward to 1760s. Led by notables from the landed, educated classes, a bunch of colonial yeomen, small business owners and craftsmen revolted against the British powers (and their local allies).5 Revolt becomes a revolution and to everyone’s surprise the Americans win.

At the founding, there was a very weak central government and several powerful states. The majority of those states had official state religions using their sovereign authority to force it upon their populations, not days from fighting a bloody war to throw off tyrannical power. There was little doubt they could do so, even if some people thought it was a terrible idea. People like James Madison.

Now the early Americans were very much cognizant that religion can be both a rival and an ally for state power, so it was a bit of a tug of war between those imperatives. So while a part of the Virginia legislature Madison laid out his case against state interference in religion. The Memorial and Remonstrance is a great document and you should read it. But most of you won’t , so here is the summary:

  1. Religion is of the utmost importance and civil society has no place in messing with it.
  2. Favoring one religion is both unfair and liable to bite you in the ass.
  3. Civil Judges are a terrible choice for arbiter of Religious Truth.
  4. And really, Christianity is doing just fine without government. In fact, it does pretty poorly as a part of government and does much better when there is competition among religions.
  5. Look, religious feeling is remarkably resilient to government declarations to the contrary. Everyone you’re not favoring tends to get surly and starts avoiding your state. A lot of them just refuse to comply.
  6. And you know, we’re just now getting along with each other, let’s not rock the boat and tempt inter-religious conflict. Just look at how that worked out in Europe! Blood and wailing orphans everywhere.
  7. Is this really necessary and popularly supported?
  8. I meant what I said earlier. Religion matters and conscience matters and we ought not mess with it

In case any of you thought otherwise, we have not in fact come up with any better arguments since. Madison’s side won decisively.

Four years later, Madison heads to the Constitutional Convention, worried, like many of his fellows, about the state of the republic. See, the government was weak, had a lot of war debt, and was having a hard time raising the taxes to pay it all off. So, a stronger central government it was and the Bill of Rights was created, in part, to allay the fears of those afraid of the central government.6 Among those early important rights was this little line:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Yeah, that was Madison at the helm.7

So, all that state religion stuff is gotten rid of, right? Wrong! The United States Congress could make no law establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The States could do whatever they pleased.

We’ll pick back up next time with some beleaguered religious minorities: Mormons, Catholics, Jehova’s Witnesses and the Amish.

Footnotes