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Wednesday, February 28, 2007
(7:11 PM) | Stephen:
Laugh, and the World Votes With You

Mustang Bobby has a good post on the subject of the proper way to respond to the attacks of the Right Wing in this country. His prescription is to use humor.
As Jon Stewart deftly demonstrates, the way to puncture the pompous is to poke a sharp stick at their soft underbelly. . . . .[N]othing kills a fanatic faster than laughing at them and turning a bright light on their buffoonery. People like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Phyllis Schlafly, Frank Gaffney, and James Dobson are caricatures ripe for mockery, and mock them we shall. It must be done delicately; bullying humor doesn't work, as Ms. Coulter and Rush Limbaugh demonstrate on a daily basis. No, the approach must be the use of the rapier-like style of thrust and parry, not kick and gouge.
I'm sure it can be argued as to just what is deserving of such comedy, but Mustang Bobby's idea is notable not only for the good strategy that it is, but also for the way in which he argues against taking on the tactics of our opponents.

Good on him. It's something I hope to appropriate a little more for myself. Indeed, the lack of humor on this blog is surprising.

(4:42 PM) | Stephen:
Them Bones

Jesus' bones have been found. Huh. I suppose my education would make a transition to Judaism somewhat easier than other religions, assuming they'd have me.

Here's what we have so far. Several burial boxes were found with the following inscriptions:
So we've got Joshua, Joseph, two named Mary, Judah and Joses (Greek). Common names, but it is interesting that all of them are names associated with Jesus, none being name such as Rueben, Benjamin or other Hebrew names.

Apparently the bones they contained are gone, buried back in 1980 in unmarked graves elsewhere in Israel. However, there was some recoverable DNA and testing showed that Yeshua and Marianme were not maternally related, making them likely to have been married. I haven't seen anything about the relationships between any of the other individuals.

It's highly unlikely that Mary the mother of Jesus would have been buried in Jerusalem. Church tradition places her in Ephesus under the care of John the Beloved, where it is said she died. Polycarp, John's foremost student, lived well into the middle of the 2nd century CE, with his student Irenaeus living into the 3rd. Writings from both of them survive; indeed as we get into the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE many writings survive and traditions such as those regarding Mary and John certainly date from them. That we can go from John the Beloved to the beginning of the 3rd century CE with only one intermediate step gives some of our traditional beliefs a bit of weight, even though there has certainly been some embellishment, whether innocent or intentional.

But the idea that Jesus' bones were buried in Jerusalem is weird. The followers of Jesus did make a nuisance of themselves. If the Jewish religious leaders had proof that contradicted their claims, why would they have kept silent about it? If the Apostles and such had the embarassment of the bones of Jesus, why would they keep them? Before most of the Gospels were written, some of Paul's letters were being circulated, in which he claimed that "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith (1 Cor 15:14)."

There is mention that these bones say nothing about the Christian doctrine of the resurrection, rather calling into question the ascension into heaven. The idea is that Jesus could have been raised from the dead, only to have died again later. This shows a misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus' resurrection. He was raised to new, incorruptible life. Jesus is the firstborn of this new life, and all who believe are given the same promise of bodies that do not fail, do not die, do not decay. For Jesus to have died on this earth and been buried would mean the destruction of the Christian faith, just as Paul said.

I'll be watching the Discovery Channel special. It's a fascinating subject. But something tells me to not be too worried about needing to actually switch religions anytime soon.

(10:27 AM) | Stephen:
Public Transportation Means Freedom

Virgin Vacations has ranked the Seoul subway system as the 6th best in the world. Not having been on any of the others on the list, I'm not really able to agree or disagree.

For me, though, the Seoul subway system was emancipation and self-sufficiency in a foreign land. We didn't live in Seoul, but since that's my wife's hometown we spent as much time there as possible, seeing old friends, visiting museums, landmarks, historic buildings, even going to Seoul for the movies because there was a movie theater there that served nachos.

I was able to get an English map for the subway, but real freedom came when I learned to read Korean and started to carry the same map as everyone else. I also learned enough Korean words to understand not only which station was coming next - handy if you're with people and talking so much you lose track of stops - but also which side of the train we needed to use for the exit. That last is quite important when on the subway during rush hour so that you can start making your way to the door well before the train stops.

Rush hour on the subway was also the time I was most grateful for my height. When stuffed into the subway car so tightly that you literally cannot move, it's nice to have your head above everyone else. The air is so much fresher up there.

I needed a crown put on one of my teeth while in Korea, and decided to go to a hospital in the northeast part of Seoul to get the work done. I chose this place on the advice of other foreigners who said that every dentist there could speak English. The day of the procedure, I allowed quite a bit of time for it, too much really, and found myself with time to explore. There was one subway stop that had intrigued me, because it was simply so big - subway stops in Seoul often have underground shopping malls and tunnels that run along the block, but this was huge. I made my way to that stop and started walking down one of the tunnels. Every few minutes there was another small collection of shops and stairs that led to the surface streets. As I kept walking, I passed one subway stop, and then another. At times I was the only person I could see, which is very unusual in Seoul, to say the least. To be honest, after an hour I was tired and feeling a little spooked at being underground for so long and seeing so few people. There was no indication that the tunnel was close to the end, so I hopped on the subway to go to other, more crowded locales in the city.

It was learning the subway and actually being able to direct my wife through it (when she didn't just remember it from her childhood) that led to an ability to get my own train tickets and bus tickets. I learned when and where it was best to take a cab; once we even had to give the cabdriver directions and another time once we found out the cabbie was hopelessly lost we got out and hailed another.

Even in Chonan, the city where we lived, there was an extensive bus system and taxicabs whenever they were needed. We did have a minivan that we could use, but driving was usually so much of a pain that we took public transportation whenever we could.

Now we live in Kansas City. We have two cars, both of which are used every day. The closest grocery store is too far to walk. There is a rudimentary bus system, but I haven't got the slightest idea where the closest stop is. I never see taxis, and though the citizens of Kansas City itself just approved a light-rail ballot measure, it will take years for the extremely reluctant City Council to even address it seriously, let alone start it.

Even as an adult who has a car just for him, there is less freedom here. Paying for parking and/or worrying about having a place to park at all can put a damper on our enthusiasm for heading downtown. The teenagers here have no idea how much more freedom to travel they would have if there was a good public transportation system. I knew kids in Korea that were taking trips down the length of the country when they were eleven years old.

It's odd, really, that seeing something like "The 11 Top Underground Transit Systems" can cause such strong feelings of homesickness. Odder still that these feelings are for a place I called home for 18 months, that these feelings are stronger than those for my hometown in New Mexico where I spent 19 years.

Monday, February 26, 2007
(7:59 AM) | Stephen:
Movie Review

My wife and I went to see Amazing Grace last night. It was with a bit of trepidation that was certainly not lessened by the obvious presence of at least 2 youth groups and 3 distinct small groups that had also chosen that showing of the movie. In fact, had I visited the movie's website and seen all of the church resources before going to the theater, it's doubtful we would have seen it at all, writing it off as another "Christian" movie long on sincerity and short on interest.

Of course, this movie is no blood-soaked crucifixion movie, nor is it a triumphalistic celebration of the demise of non-Christians the way that current Christian apocalyptic tends to be. Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce's fight to end England's slave trade.

Wilberforce was a Christian, even to the point of being one of his day's "evangelicals," though that word had a different meaning than it does today. He is one of only two characters in the film that are portrayed as having any sort of conflict or even doubt; the Clapham Society, Prime Minister Pitt and those forces arrayed against them are all shown as dedicated and unwavering in their devotion to their cause - which in Pitt's case, seemed to be a bit more about becoming Prime Minister than anything else, though he did lend crucial support to Wilberforce.

The other character that shows deep conflict is that of John Newton, the former slaver who wrote many hymns, the most famous of which provided this movie's title. We first meet him when Wilberforce goes to his church to seek his advice whether a career in politics or the clergy is best for Wilberforce to pursue. Newton is mopping his church's floor. He is barefoot and clothed in rags. As by this time Newton was one of Britian's foremost preachers, his clothing and activity are entirely optional for him; he could have been bewigged and dressed in fine robes.

Newton, like all others, exhorts Wilberforce to do God's work within politics. He will not talk, nor will he allow Wilberforce to speak, about any details of his life as a slaver. They do discuss Newton's 20,000 ghosts, the men, women and children that he took from Africa for the slave trade. Newton had repented his sins and become a much-loved preacher and pastor. By this point he had written many hymns, Amazing Grace being only the most well-known. But he is still consumed with his guilt, the stain of his evil deeds not yet erased by his preaching, his hymn-writing, his devotion to God and the Church. Not even dressing in rags and mopping his own church's floor is enough to free him from the man he was and the things he did.

This is right, I think, because at this point Newton had not yet truly faced what he had done. He had repented, to be sure - that is, he ceased what he had been doing and changed his direction completely. He had devoted his life to the work of God. But he had not truly confessed. Too quickly he pushed his sins as a slaver aside, too quickly he tried to forget them. Newton knew that his story, coupled with his standing as a clergyman, would help to popularize the abolitionist movement and reduce the public's opinion of the slave trade and those who profitted from it, but to truly face his past was, for him, too difficult. As is usually the case, his self-inflicted punishments did nothing to absolve him of his guilt.

Newton's redemption comes at the end of this story, after he is blind and feeble, when he finally writes down his story and encourages Wilberforce to use it to sway the public and Parliament alike to see slavery as the evil it is. Newton had confessed that he had sinned; this book was his confession of his sins.

The misunderstanding of this distintion plagues Chrsistians to this day. If you ever find yourself at a kneeler's bench at the end of a church service and you profess a desire to be "saved," you will probably be prompted to pray The Sinner's Prayer, something that is not set in stone but is fairly uniform across most traditions. The basic form is "I have sinned, I'm sorry, please forgive me." At the end of that prayer, people will want to hug you, some will be crying, and you will be welcomed as a new brother or sister.

But like Newton, you will only have confessed that you have sinned. And you will be told to expect that all your sins will be gone, forgotten by God and, it is hoped, forgotten by you soon enough. Like Newton, this will prove difficult for you. And like Newton and so many people currently attempting to "be Christian" and those who have given up, the tension between the idea that our sins simply melt away and the reality that all too often they stick around will prove to be spiritually and psychologically damaging.

Redemption, whether it is through a belief in the Christian God or, like the young man I met at the Zen Buddhist temple on the northern outskirts of Seoul, through the teachings of Buddha, or through breaking free from an oppresive belief system, is a messy affair. It is costly. That's why true redemption is so rare, why we would rather be able to shove aside the evil that we do and forget it, why we refuse to let the implications of our redemption truly change our lives.

Amazing Grace was, because of this, difficult to watch. It pricked us in places we want to ignore. It reminded my wife and I that we have sought to suppress the ethical ramifications of our redemption, our faith. But we have seen it, and I think there will be some significant and painful changes that we are going to make. I don't want to, but I suddenly find myself without the defenses I need to continue putting it off. As Thomas Clarkson was made to say in the movie, "bollocks.

Saturday, February 24, 2007
(11:44 PM) | Stephen:
More on the Anglican Communion

This probably doesn't have the broadest appeal, but eh, who cares.

I've been doing some more reading and talking, and the results of the Primates' meeting in Tanzania are interesting, to say the least. Things are still tense, but there is a possible way forward through this crisis and beyond.

There is a possible compromise that has been set forth for The Episcopal Church and the rest of the Anglican Communion, specifically those provinces that have been the most agitated over ECUSA's acceptance of gays, authorization of same sex marriage rites and the consecration of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay and non-celibate bishop. This compromise calls for ECUSA to declare a moratorium on consecrating any more non-celibate gay bishops and same sex marriage rites. The rest of the Communion would be required to refrain from raiding American dioceses for congregations that are unhappy with ECUSA's acceptance of homosexuals.

Those congregations that decide of their own accord, including those that have already taken themselves out of The Episcopal Church and placed themselves under the authority of a bishop of another province could ask to be placed in a special group under the authority of a bishop appointed by a special primates' committee, of which Presiding Bishop Jefforts Schori would be a member. This committee would delineate this bishop's authority and role as well as choose the person. The compromise, to my knowledge, does not say anything about membership or even the ordination of non-celibate homosexual priests and deacons, thereby allowing ECUSA to continue its current practice in these areas.

ECUSA has until September 30th of this year to reply to this compromise. If ECUSA - meaning its House of Bishops - agrees, then full membership in the Anglican Communion is no longer in jeopardy and its bishops will be invited to and seated at the 2008 Lambeth Conference. If ECUSA does not agree, there is the possibility of a reduced status within the Communion or removal; it doesn't spell it out.

From what I have heard, some of those who advocate the acceptance of this compromise believe that by making this sacrifice and allowing ECUSA to remain in the Communion, it forces the rest of the provinces to remain in dialog with us, to listen to us and respect our positions. The United States is not the only country with GLBT Anglicans, and keeping us in the Communion, it is hoped, will speed the acceptance of GLBT Anglicans all over the world.

That last bit is the only reason that I consider this to be even a possibly good idea. Perhaps this issue isn't as simple as fighting for sacred justice or capitulating to theologically conservative extortion. It may be a choice between fighting for sacred justice of those within the USA or fighting for sacred justice for all provinces and peoples of the Anglican Communion.

As a new member of the Anglican Communion, I don't know enough about the players in this drama to know just where it is they want to head and what their priorities actually are. As a heterosexual, I don't know just how much The Episcopal Church should ask its GLBT members to sacrifice.

Walking With Integrity is a good source of opinion coming from the "liberal" side of things. There is suspicion and hostility to the compromise position, which is unsurprising. The speculation above is exactly that, speculation, and therefore is not likely to have broad support among ECUSA's GLBT community.

The House of Bishops meets in March. The next step, though not the final step, is theirs to take.

Thursday, February 22, 2007
(5:40 PM) | Stephen:
Anglican Schism

Updated below.

N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham and therefore Anglicanism's premier theologian, speaking in an interview before the Tanzania conference even took place, declared that ECUSA (Episcopal Church USA - just found that out) is trying to have it both ways: "doing the schismatic thing and then accusing those who object of being schismatic."

I guess that means me to a certain extent, although all I've contributed to the process is a bad attitude toward Bishop Akinola.

Bishop Wright, whatever his credentials and theological ability, is completely wrong on this issue. To say that the American church has acted "schismatically," so to speak, is to use the argument common to spousal abusers across the world: "Why did you make me hit you?"

ECUSA has not tried to leave the Anglican Communion. ECUSA has not demanded that all provinces consecrate gay priests, bishops or weddings. All that ECUSA has done is act as if it is an autonomous Church operating within the boundaries of the USA, and joined by shared history and general church practice with Anglican congregations around the world.

And let me repeat, it is the Nigerians who have violated the province structure of the Anglican Communion by accepting under their authority American parishes. Rather than allowing the Church to function as it has historically functioned, rather than encouraging the schismatics in the USA to stay within the Church and try to work together with understanding and compassion, they have accepted and encouraged congregations who wish to sever their ties with the Church over this one issue. It's obscene.

Bishop Wright goes on to say that "Only a Windsor-rooted response. . .can save the Communion from schism." The Windsor Report is a document that tells ECUSA to step back in line, behave, put a freeze on all this "full acceptance of homosexual nonsense" and then we'll think about keeping you around. Of course, it was written in much more flowery language and such so that it runs to 93 pages, but that's the basic gist of it.

The whole point of this, the whole point of Bishop Wright and Archbishop Williams is that they value the unity of the Communion above all else, even to the point of placating those who most threaten its unity. They will side with the schismatics - effectively allowing the Archbishop of Nigeria to dictate doctrine and canon law to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Most importantly, they are willing to throw gay Christians, their brothers and sisters in the faith, to the side in order to make this happen.

A good friend of mine said that his great worry in all this is that 30 years from now, it will be clear that all of this fuss over homosexuality will be seen as the same thing the Church went through regarding women and people of other races. Why do we need to wait 30 years - or 300, or even 3? Why can't we acknowledge God's children as who they are now?

Update: This has been nagging at the corner of my mind for some time now, and I'm quite embarassed that only now am I bringing it to light. The debate raging in the Church - all of it - over homosexuality is in many ways similar to the debate over the status of women in the Church.

Indeed, this is the root of why I place more blame for the impending Anglican schism upon those who oppose accepting homosexuals and who want to remove ECUSA from the Communion because of its stance. At the 1978 Lambeth Conference (the general gathering of all Anglicans) a resolution was passed that provided for the continued unity of the Anglican Communion in the face of the then quite controversial stance of ordaining women. Here are some highlights:

1. The Conference notes that since the last Lambeth Conference in 1968, the Diocese of Hong Kong, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Episopal Church in the United States of America, and the Church of the Province of New Zealand have admitted women to the presbyterate, and that eight other member Churches of the Anglican Communion have now either agreed or approved in principle or stated that there are either no fundamental or no theological objections to the ordination of women to the historic threefold ministry of the Church. . .

3. The Conference also recognises (a) the autonomy of each of its member Churches, acknowledging the legal right of each Church to make its own decision about the appropriateness of admitting women to Holy Orders; (b) that such provincial action in this matter has consequences of the utmost significance for the Anglican Communion as a whole.

4. The Conference affirms its commitment to the preservation of unity within and between all member Churches of the Anglican Communion.

5. The Conference therefore (a) encourages all member Churches of the Anglican Communion to continue in communion with one another, notwithstanding the admission of women (whether at present or in the future) to the ordained ministry of some member Churches; (b) in circumstances in which the issue of the ordination of women has caused, or may cause, problems of conscience, urges that every action possible be taken to ensure that all baptized members of the Church continue to be in communion with their bishop and that every opportunity be given for all members to work together in the mission of the Church irrespective of their convictions regarding this issue; (c) requests the Anglican Consultative Council (i) to use its good offices to promote dialogue between those member Churches which ordain women and those which do not, with a view to exploring ways in which the fullest use can be made of women's gifts within the total ministry of the Church in our Communion; and (ii) to maintain, and wherever possible extend, the present dialogue with Churches outside the Anglican family.

6. Consistent with the foregoing, this Conference (a) declares its acceptance of those member Churches which now ordain women, and urges that they respect the convictions of those provinces and dioceses which do not; (b) declares its acceptance of those member Churches which do not ordain women, and urges that they respect the convictions of those provinces and dioceses which do. (Emphasis mine.)

The Biblical basis for denying women a role in ordained ministry is as strong and probably even stronger than that for denying homosexuals such a role. Because of this the decision to ordain women threatened to rip the fabric of the Anglican Communion.

There is still some resentment about the compromise within certain provinces. Media reports out of Tanzania have made it sound as if Bishop Akinola and his followers were reluctant to sit with Bishop Jefforts Schori because of The Episcopal Church's stance on homosexuality. But among Anglicans it's understood that their problem is with the fact that she is a woman.

This lingering resentment most likely provides added fuel to the fire that is ostensibly burning over homosexuality in the Church. However, as far as the Anglican Communion is concerned, the issue of the ordination of women is settled, and insofar as any Bishop is allowing that issue to affect his judgment on the current issue, he is wrong.

The precedent was set almost 30 years ago for just such a situation as now faces the Anglican Communion. But the Windsor Report, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Durham, Archbishop Akinola and all the other bishops, priests and congregations who either have left the Episcopal Church or who threaten to remove it from the Communion are choosing to ignore this precedent. The history of the Anglican Communion as expressed in this resolution gave The Episcopal Church no reason to believe that consecrating a homosexual bishop or blessing same-sex marriages would so offend and anger other provinces that they would actually seek to dissolve the relationship between them. The Anglican Communion's own documents provided for the exact way to deal with this situation, a way that would not include bishops invading other dioceses to exert their authority over breakaway congregations, a way that certainly would not include a threat of destroying the world's 3rd largest Christian denomination.

(5:29 PM) | Stephen:
God Wants Me to See Other Girls. . .

From Steven Harris, the Theology of Breaking Up:

Intelligent Design Theorist: Our relationship bears the marks of irreducible complexity making it too difficult to explain by way of natural causes. Therefore, there the most reasonable conclusion is that we were designed to break up since things have gotten so complicated.

Calvinist: We were predestined before the creation of the world to break up according to God's good pleasure. I am, on my own power, unable to break up with you apart from the irresistible draw of God's sovereign grace which leads me to end this relationship. Those that truly break up will not get back together in the end.

Arminian: While you love me and have a wonderful plan for my life, I have the power to resist your will. If I did not, love would not be possible. For our relationship to be loving it needs to include the possibility of breaking up--something I am doing right now.

New Perspective on Paul Scholar: Rather than earning God's blessing, it is established on the basis of our covenant courtship (I asked your dad to date you didn't I?) which requires the proper response of an intentional and deliberate pursuit of marriage. Yet there is no such pursuit, therefore God's blessing on or relationship is no longer maintained.

Open Theist: I am not really sure if we are supposed to be together, because neither is God.

And the very best one for last:

Episcopalian: Ummm... I'm gay.

(9:05 AM) | Stephen:
Freethinkers Before the Supreme Court

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is going to argue in front of the US Supreme Court next week on behalf of their case that the Office of Faith Based Initiatives in the White House is unconstitutional. What is at stake is "whether taxpayers can sue over federal funding that the foundation believes promotes religion." I would imagine that in terms of a precedent-setting decision, the Supreme Court will decide what rights taxpayers have in bringing lawsuits over any type of funding with which they disagree.

The FFRF has been successful in several other lawsuits that targeted specific programs where government monies were being used for explicitly religious purposes, including proselyzation. They really should stick to these types of things rather than trying to attack the whole idea of a religious organization receiving federal money. If a group is doing a good job sheltering the homeless and they aren't requiring attendance at religious services or a profession of faith, then public money could probably be better spent supporting them than duplicating their efforts.

The main problem of the Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives isn't its existence, of course. The problem, as with every aspect of the Bush Administration except for that dedicated to tax cuts for the wealthy, is neglect, incompetence and lack of oversight. Given a responsible administration in the White House, I could see this office as being a wonderful tool for smaller organizations that don't always get a fair shake when looking for assistance and an effective way to provide oversight and accountability for those who think that their obligation to proselytize trumps their stated commitment to refrain from it.

On another note, from the FFRF website:

The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion.

In modern times the first to speak out for prison reform, for humane treatment of the mentally ill, for abolition of capital punishment, for women's right to vote, for death with dignity for the terminally ill, and for the right to choose contraception, sterilization and abortion have been freethinkers, just as they were the first to call for an end to slavery.

Obviously the freethinkers at the FFRF are just as inclined as the most dogmatic fundamentalists at claiming all good things in humanity for themselves. If one's atheism is predicated upon the belief that all religion is evil and that society's improvements have all come from atheists or at least agnostics, perhaps one should consider that this is not "freethinking" at all, but is as bound to irrational faith as that of the most fundamentalist Baptist or Muslim.

I'm not talking about the idea that religion has more of a negative impact than a positive one. I've heard that many times and while I disagree I can understand the reasoning that would bring someone to that point. Instead I'm talking about those who actually believe religion to be nothing but a grand delusion used by evil men to oppress and enslave the human race by legitimizing its worst impulses. I would imagine that being a Freethinker means not just rejecting a particular strain or style of oppressive dogma, but repressive dogma itself.

Looks like all us Christians, Hindus, Muslims, pagans and Freethinkers aren't so different after all.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007
(10:41 PM) | Stephen:
Ash Wednesday

Palm Sunday is the week before Easter, when Christians reenact Jesus' final entry through the gates of Jerusalem, riding a donkey upon a road paved with cloaks through an undulating, sun-dappled tunnel of palm fronds.

Each year, these palm fronds are set aside and kept. Right before the following Ash Wednesday, these now-dried and brittle palm fronds are burned. There is no ceremony, no liturgy that is followed, for these are no longer blessed, no longer symbols of joy or hope.

Ash Wednesday services are endlessly varied, from the high church services of robes, chancel choirs and pipe organs such as the one my family attended tonight, to small gatherings of believers who say a few verses, speak a few words and spend a little time in silence.

But in every service the congregation steps forward and the priest or pastor dips her thumb into a plain bowl of ashes and makes the sign of the cross on each one's forehead.

This is no cross of triumph, no gold necklace. This cross is gritty and dirty. It's not shaped right, and many times you can't see the whole thing. From more than a few feet it just looks like a smudge. This is our cross of shame, our shame and sorrow.

My family stepped forward and knelt before the altar. The priest drew the ash cross upon us all in turn, speaking to us in turn. To me he said Brother, to my daughter he said Sister, to my son, my son! Oh God, he's only a baby! To my son who cannot escape the destiny of all humans he said Brother, to my wife he said Sister, and to us all he said

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

And that was it. We left the kneeling bench literally wearing our guilt and shame upon our heads. Tonight we were all told that we will die and our bodies will waste away to be eventually recycled into the earth itself. God offered us, all of us, immortality in the beginning, and we rejected it. We chose the path of death.

Does God offer a way of redemption? Yes, and that is the other message of the ash cross we now wear. There is in fact redemption, and hope, and resurrection to new life, a life restored to the way it was all intended to be.

But not because we deserved it, or because God is obligated. It's not because people like me make all that great of disciples anyway. It's God's free choice to do all this, a choice he continues to make in spite of the things we do to one another.

That's why we have Ash Wednesday.

(11:25 AM) | Stephen:
What Are We Doing Here?

13 killed in Najaf suicide car bombing; 10 killed in Baghdad attacks

BAGHDAD (CNN) -- Attackers in Iraq's southern Shiite city of Najaf and the capital of Baghdad on Wednesday killed at least 23 people and wounded dozens, authorities in Iraq said.

A suicide car bomb in Najaf exploded at a police checkpoint a half mile from the Imam Ali Shrine, killing at least 13 people and wounding 34, police said. Six police were killed and five were wounded.

In other incidents Wednesday, officials said: Four mortars that hit a neighborhood in western Baghdad killed at least three civilians and wounded at least 10; two soldiers were killed and three were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded near Jadriya bridge in southern Baghdad; two civilians were killed and seven were wounded when a car bomb laced with poisonous gas exploded near a hospital in southwestern Baghdad's Bayaa neighborhood Wednesday; a car bomb exploded outside a popular restaurant in Baghdad's Sadr City, killing at least three people and wounding 30.

In addition, a parked car bomb targeting a U.S. patrol detonated in western Baghdad's Amiriya neighborhood. The area was sealed off by the U.S. military. It was not immediately known if there were coalition casualties. There were no Iraqi casualties. --CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq and Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin (CNN) -- All Nathan Moore says he wanted to do was smoke pot and get drunk with his friends.

Killing Rex Baum was never part of the plan that day in 2004.

"It all started off as a game," Moore said.

The 15-year-old and his friends were taunting the homeless man -- throwing sticks and leaves -- after having a couple of beers with him.

No big deal, Moore says, but he's sorry for what came next.

It was a mistake, he said, a sudden primal surge that made him and his friends Luis Oyola, 16, and 17-year-old Andrew Ihrcke begin punching and kicking Baum.

"Luis says 'I'm gonna go hit him,' We're all laughing, thought he was joking around,'" but he wasn't, Moore concedes. "We just all started hitting him."

They hurled anything they could find -- rocks, bricks, even Baum's barbecue grill -- and pounded the 49-year-old with a pipe and with the baseball bat he kept at his campsite for protection.

Ihrcke smeared his own feces on Baum's face before cutting him with a knife "to see if he was alive," Moore said.

After destroying Baum's camp, the boys left the homeless man -- head wedged in his own grill -- under a piece of plastic where they hoped the "animals would eat" him.

Then, Moore says, they took off to grab a bite at McDonald's.

Today is Wednesday, February 21, 2007.

Today is Ash Wednesday.

Today we are in the wilderness, the desert of our own making.

Today we mourn for what we have done to ourselves and to each other.

(12:44 AM) | Stephen:
Time For Christians to Act Like Grownups

I don't usually participate in the comment threads at Eschaton, because once I type a few words, several more comments have been added. Getting a whole post done puts me 10 comments behind at least, and I just don't have the ability to really follow it all.

But Atrios posted about religion again tonight, and I was curious about what the comment thread would look like. The reason for the post was that Jesse Lava of FaithfulDemocrats.com was unhappy with Atrios saying that religious language is "gibberish" to him.

In the comment thread there was the usual "fuck the fucking religious people those fucking fucks and their fucking hallucinations and fucking hate blah blah blah" and "oh come on people you need to respect me if you want my vote and why are you all so mean anyway blah blah blah." Plus some really funny stuff about The Life of Brian and hiney farina.

I don't feel that I can really speak to Atheists since I'm not one. But as a Christian - as a progressive Christian, I guess - I really feel the need to speak out to other progressive Christians.

Here's the deal: the world does not owe you respect, it does not owe you courtesy, it is not required to give your beliefs a hearing at all, let alone a fair one. There are 4 billion people - at least - who are not Christians in this world, which makes them the majority. Most of the happen to believe that whatever it is they believe is the correct way, the most logical way, the most beneficial way for human beings to believe. I know that Jesus had a plan to see his teachings and belief in him as Christ spread across the whole world to every person, but his followers - you and me - have managed to muck it up pretty badly.

The campaign to identify America as a "Christian" nation has succeeded as well as it did for the European nations. These nations have quite a long history of spreading Christianity at the point of a sword or a gun. They have a long history of subjugating people of other colors and basing that upon verses in the Bible. And America's current misadventure in the Middle East is not helping at all.

That people from other religions commit atrocities is beside the point. That we can point to the Ottoman Turks or present-day radical Muslims just doesn't matter. Their bad behavior doesn't justify ours. Jesus was pretty clear that Christians are to respond with love and compassion, especially in the face of persecution and abuse. We can either show love and compassion to our fellow human beings, or we can complain that some bloggers don't show us enough respect for our beliefs, but we can't do both, at least not at the same time. So grow up and start becoming more concerned about what you are doing for the sake of Jesus than what others are doing.

A note about persecution: Believers are persecuted in China. They are persecuted in North Korea and Sudan. Believers, especially Christians, are not persecuted in the United States. The existence of someone who doesn't believe in Christianity is not "persecution." That an Atheist or Buddhist is able to express his or her views in a public setting is not "persecution." When laws are enacted to more closely align our legal code to a particular interpretation of the Bible, that is most definitely not "persecution."

Get. Over. It.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007
(1:54 PM) | Stephen:
Dinosaurs and the Bible

I've been poking around the Answers in Genesis website for a little while, and now I'm profoundly depressed by the state of Christianity in this world.

This page deals with the issue of dinosaurs in the Bible. As I mentioned in my last post, it is clear that the author's intent is not so much to instill a positive belief in their interpretation of Creationism, but to malign scientists who do not share their views. Most importantly, the purpose of that document is to convince those who read it that modern science is wholly incompatible with a belief in God. At the end of the article they have a short section designed to present what often passes for a "Gospel" message in these circles. It has very little to do with the idea that the word "gospel" means good news. Rather, it is a litany of verses that describe humanity's sinfulness and the terrible judgments that await those who do not accept (their version) of Jesus Christ. This paragraph is instructive:
For those who do not accept by faith what Christ has done for them and do not recognize their sinful nature and need for redemption, the Bible warns that such people will live forever, but will be separated from God in a place of torment that the Bible calls Hell. But for those who commit their lives to the Lord—what a wonderful message! What a wonderful Savior! What a wonderful salvation in Christ the Creator!
This of course appears to refute my charge. However, this does not reflect an invitational presentation of the Gospel. In this view, rejection or acceptance of Jesus is a fait accompli. They're just celebrating the fact that they are on the right side and get the good stuff for eternity.

But who is it that "do not accept by faith what Christ has done?" Evolutionists, of course, who have dedicated their lives to constructing a massively intricate theory solely for the purpose of discrediting the first chapter of Genesis. This conspiritorial aspect of the Creationist argument is a way for them to solidify these beliefs in their followers; as a (often persecuted) minority opinion in the world, those that share it feel stronger bonds of fellowship between them. This is the same type of tactic used by the gnostic heresies that proved so troublesome for the Church during its development in the first few centuries C.E. I've long believed that Gnosticism - the idea that there is secret knowledge available to an elect few which is the real truth - was never stamped out within Christianity and merely went underground to spread its poisons.

What they're doing is apalling. I'll let others talk about how bad their science is. Their use of the Bible, though, is even worse. Let's take their favorite example, the book of Job. Creationists like to use the book of Job because it mentions the "behemoth" or "leviathan." Look there - that's a dinosaur! God mentions this animal (dinosaur) to Job because he knows that Job is familiar with it. Therefore, dinosaurs did not live millions of years ago but coexisted with human beings!

I could talk about the Canaanite mythology that saw the gods in a continuing, cyclical struggle with the forces of Chaos, personified by the ocean various beasts within it and other horrible creatures that lived on land, and how these myths not only predate the Hebrew Scriptures but also manage to use the same wording. But I won't, because there is a very simple problem with them considering the book of Job to be literal history:

There once was a man named Job who lived in the land of Uz. He was blameless—a man of complete integrity. He feared God and stayed away from evil. He had seven sons and three daughters. He owned 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 teams of oxen, and 500 female donkeys. He also had many servants. He was, in fact, the richest person in that entire area. . .

One day the members of the heavenly court came to present themselves before the Lord, and the Accuser, Satan, came with them. (Job 1, NLT)
Did you see it? Satan strolled right into the heavenly court. Once he's there, the book goes on, God starts bragging on Job and ends up backing himself into a corner where he has to allow Satan to attack Job to see if Job will continue to serve God or curse him. But here's the problem: God's holiness, we are told in the Bible, does not allow evil in its presence. That's the whole freaking point of Jesus coming down to earth and dying on a cross for our sins so we can be clean and therefore able to be in the presence of God.

Of all the nonsense spouted on that website, of all the ways in which they torture the Bible in order to prove their points, that they would take seriously the idea that Satan, Lucifer who rebelled against God, made war in heaven and was cast out to spend eternity in the lake of fire, that this devil could casually stroll into the heavenly court itself in order to make bets with the God of the universe - the sheer numbskullery of it all gives me brain shivers.

But that's the problem with taking everything in the Bible literally. There's just so much in there that sooner or later you'll start to contradict yourself on some pretty important issues.

Update: if you didn't look at the "Dinosaurs in the Bible webpage, make sure you do. What they say about dragons is especially fun.

(9:33 AM) | Stephen:
Evolution and Creationism

Alexandra Pelosi's documentary, Friends of God, is quite compelling. Certainly I'm not the first to say that, nor am I close to the first to blog about it. There are a few things, though, that I might highlight about it and try to apply my slightly-less-usual take on them.

There is an excerpt on YouTube right now about the group Answers in Genesis and their traveling ministry that speaks in churches about evolution and creationism. They tend to focus upon children and young adults. I don't want to discuss the merits of their criticism of evolution (hint: it's meritless) or even get into an analysis of the ways in which they abuse the Bible for their own ends.

As a theologian, I am of course concerned with people's souls. When I watch that part of Pelosi's documentary, I get very concerned about the souls of those who present this material. At one point, the presenter puts up a slide that has a photoshopped picture of some ape with vaguely human features meshed into its face and asks "does your grandfather look like this?" Children are told that they have a choice: they can believe in scientists or they can believe in God. They are told that evolution was thought up in order to have a way to look at the world without having to believe in God.

The photoshop of Grandpa Monkey is a deliberate misrepresentation of what the theory of evolution teaches. Well, either the people who put together the presentation know what evolution actually teaches and have chosen to lie about it, or they are so ignorant of evolution that they are lying about their qualifications to speak authoritatively about evolution. Either way they have trapped themselves into a situation in which they deceive people - mostly children - on a regular basis. It's one thing to believe that evolution is not true, it's quite another to misrepresent what evolution says on its most basic level.

This excerpt also highlights how most creationism is a repudiation of "godless" evolution rather than a positive presentation of creationist science. Their interest is not so much in proving creationism as it is in disproving, case by case, the claims of modern science. Of course, without the idea of evolution being godless and anti-Bible there is no need to develop Creation Science. The dichotomy they are creating between scientists and God, while effective at getting children and even young adults to accept their rather fantastical interpretation of Scriptures, is also the seed of rejection, waiting to sprout once they leave the protective custody of their churches and parents and start to engage, on their own, the world of ideas that exists for the rest of us.

By teaching them to base their faith more on a rejection of modern science than an acceptance of a relationship with God, they fail in their responsibility as teachers and leaders within the church. Matthew 18:6 says, "But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea." I'm not going to say that they definitely cause "little ones" to "fall into sin." But the danger is there, both for the people who teach this dreck and for those who listen and believe.

Monday, February 19, 2007
(2:44 PM) | Stephen:
Our Eucharist Today is Pretzels and Budweiser

The Christian Church has a man problem. No, it isn't about Ted Haggard or Catholic priests or anything like that. The problem is that apparently the typical congregation on a Sunday morning is 61% female and 39% male. People have noticed this, and have worked on ways in which they can reach out to men.

That's a great idea, but the way they're going about it reads like a Saturday Night Live sketch than a real movement. Pastors are being called "coach" and guys are preaching while wearing orange hunting vests. Crosses and stained glass are out; axes and swords are in.

There's a picture of one macho pastor who put an axe and a sword on the wall of his sanctuary to represent the year's theme, "rise up and stand firm." It's a reference to Psalm 20:8. Perhaps they should have paid attention to verse 7: "Some nations boast of their chariots and horses, but we boast in the name of the Lord our God" (NLT). I guess it doesn't mention swords specifically, so they're in the clear.

Then there is, of course, the old battle of macho vs. feminine. This quote from one of the movement's leaders while discussing the book Why Men Hate Going to Church is illuminating:
That book talked about the feminization of the church, the feminization of Jesus. Jesus was a warrior, not a wimpy, pathetic individual that you wouldn’t want to take care of your cat. Men need to follow a hero.
See, if Jesus is "feminized," then he becomes a "wimpy, pathetic individual that you wouldn't want to take care of your cat." Now, I'm sure his "wimpy, pathetic" wife is a wonderful person who is relieved that she doesn't have cat duties at their house. But that's obviously a horrible view of what constitutes femininity.

David Murrow, the author of the aforementioned book, uses quite a bit of sexual imagery, as one might expect: emasculation, homoerotic, impotence, macho-deficit. He says "the Christ I found in Scripture was a wild stallion, but the church seemed intent on turning me into a gelding"

This isn't making sure that all aspects of Jesus' character are given their due. This isn't celebrating every facet of human existence. This is grown men acting like they are 9-year-olds in their He-Man Woman Hater's Club. They're taking this culture's historic gender roles and views and then applying them back onto the Bible.

Jesus was certainly a human male. As a carpenter I'm sure he had rough hands and pretty good muscles, and probably had his share of back hair and propensity toward flatulence of any other human male. But that doesn't make him Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor, Larry the Cable Guy or any other juvenile caricature of the male gender, standing on stage and telling "jokes" about how women like to shop and talk on the phone.

Whats truly sad is that they're trying to start this movement in order to close the church attendance gap between women and men, yet they completely miss the point of the relevant statistics. The attendance gap is even greater when it comes to married couples. Considering that many people in this country go back to church when they have children and children are still largely considered to be the mother's responsibility, these numbers don't surprise me at all. That the leaders of this movement are only strengthening traditional gender roles like this one means they will never be able to make any real progress in solving the problem.

(11:27 AM) | Stephen:
Every Soldier Dies in Battle; Some Just Keep Walking Around

I made this comment over at Ezra's place in a comment thread about the DoD trying to downplay incidences of PTSD:

My Uncle Wayne - my Grandmother's brother - received a full scholarship to play football for Oklahoma State, but before he even got to the school he was drafted and sent to Europe.

The fighting was of course brutal. Uncle Wayne was infantry. Hand-to-hand combat, a prief period as a POW. Once Uncle Wayne fought a German soldier close in and had been disarmed. He managed to take the German's rifle and stick the bayonet straight in the German soldier's chest. He kept the bayonet and my Grandmother still has it. It wasn't a war trophy. It was a reminder to him that he had watched a man die by his own hand.

Uncle Wayne was also part of the liberating force for at least one concentration camp, arriving a few hours after the Germans fled, leaving everything in process. He said the survivors were just wandering around the camp, confused. Uncle Wayne never told anybody except my Grandmother what he actually saw.

My Mom says that when he came back, she didn't really know him anymore. All his youthful ambitions and the spark that had always animated him were gone. He did get a job, but he never went to college, never played football again. He lived with his parents until they died, and then lived in that same house until he did. Uncle Wayne was perhaps the most gentle man I have ever known. He taught me to fish and had a great way of playing with children without ever being childish himself. But all us kids - my Grandmother's passel of grandkids - knew that he was wounded, somehow. We knew that he wasn't really whole.

I think that Uncle Wayne's experience at the concentration camp convinced him that WWII was necessary, that the things he did were essential to stopping the monstrosity of the Nazis. Even my Grandmother, who has grieved for the brother that went away over 60 years ago, says that our involvement was just, insofar as any war can be called such. But our soldiers and their families pay a terrible price, one that sometimes can even be worse than the death of the soldier.

Those that minimize the deaths in Iraq, that declare America's sacrifice to be small because we are not losing the masses we lost in WWII, those people are inhuman monsters. Every one of those soldiers is someone's son, another's mommy. Those that come back, mutilated in body and spirit, will be forever changed - in fact, the person they were before will be dead. Some will be able to reenter society well. Others will divorce their spouses, leave their children, perhaps murder fellow soldiers in the woods by stabbing them 32 times, dousing them with lighter fluid and setting them afire.

Now Bush, Lieberman and others want to send more troops into the meatgrinder. They lied to get us there in the first place, they still refuse to equip them properly, and when the soldiers return they spend their money thinking up ways to deny these soldiers the treatment they so desperately need.

God damn them to Hell.

Jack Murtha wants to attach an amendment to a bill requesting more money for the war that would require the Army to follow its own readiness standards before committing any more troops to Iraq or keeping troops we already have in country. That's it. There's no new regulation, really, that the amendment would create. Rather, it would force the civilian, never-been-in-combat masters of our armed forces to listen to the goddamned military for once, and quit sending underequipped soldiers to Iraq, only to keep them there tour after tour after tour.

Of course, the yip! yip! yip! of the Bush admin lapdogs in the press can be heard loud and clear. Oh noes! Murtha would damage Bush's ability to do a "surge" of troops! Murtha would undermine Bush's ability to prosecute the war as Commander in Chief!

Firstly, that's exactly the point. Secondly, let us notice how the bleating in the press is focused upon George Bush, upon George Bush's ability to meet George Bush's goals. It's all about little Georgie Bush and his feelings. It's all about him, not about our soldiers. That's all we really need to know about our elite opinion-makers in Washington, DC. They just don't care about the rest of us.

Finally, here's a real gem from Brit Hume:
That sound bite from John Murtha suggests that it’s time a few things be said about him...Look, this man has tremendous cache among House Democrats, but he is not — this guy is long past the day when he had anything but the foggiest awareness of what the heck is going on in the world.
What utter bullshit. Jack Murtha has long had a better reputation in the halls of the Pentagon than he has within his own caucus. It's only been his willingness to speak out about the Iraq War that has made him popular among Democrats - but non necessarily House Democrats, since they didn't vote him in as Majority Leader, something Brit Hume knows all too well. An unconscious Jack Murtha in the midst of a heart attack and a stroke would still have a better "awareness of what the heck is going on in the world" than that idiot Brit Hume.

(9:59 AM) | Stephen:
Hey Canada

Fuck you.

Sunday, February 18, 2007
(11:50 PM) | Stephen:

I have felt crummy all weekend. There were several posts I wanted to do, but it's hard to string coherent thoughts together when you don't feel good. The problem is that I'm not really sick enough to merit anyone's sympathy.

Then there's the fact that I, like a moth courting the flame that will eventually destroy it, found myself in the thick of another Blogger-Brou-Ha-Ha comment thread. I like to argue, er, debate, and will often get into it just for kicks. And that was really how this started, but of course it always goes too far - at least on this topic. There are times where it doesn't.

So I was partly serious about my comments and partly not, and for those of you who read the comment thread - you know who you are - I'm not telling which is which. It's just a shame that it all contributed to such a light posting weekend.

Well, the sun'll come out tomorrow. You can bet your bottom dollar on that.

Saturday, February 17, 2007
(6:11 PM) | Stephen:
Llamas & Heifers & Goats - Oh, My

Several years back I heard about a program that provides cows and goats to needy people in Tanzania. On Feb. 16th PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly did a segment on The Heifer Project, which is what I had heard about before.

The idea is simple. Instead of just handing out milk rations, raise money to provide cows and goats. Recipients take a course in caring for the animals, which are different breeds than what they are used to and provide much more milk. They also are required to give away the first female calf to another needy family. According to the story on PBS, they've helped over 30,000 families over the last three decades.

That's 30,000 families that gained milk to drink and to sell, as well as calves that, after the first female, can be sold, kept for milk or butchered.

Another great benefit is that in areas that have a mixed Muslim/Christian population, the fact that a Muslim family might provide a free calf to a Christian family, or vice versa, has created an environment of peace and mutual respect and appreciation between the two religions.

Imagine that. Christians and Muslims living side by side in peace, all thanks to some cows and goats.

The Heifer Project can be found here. They actually do far more than provide cows, though what they do is livestock-centered. Llamas, ducks, geese, lambs, honeybees (which not only produce honey and beeswax for sale but also can double the production of nearby fruit and vegetables), even waterbuffalo. You can give a whole animal or group, or buy a share of an animal for as little as $10.

I don't mind telling you that I'm finishing this post with tears in my eyes. Sometimes you catch people doing something exactly right, and it's beautiful, just tremendously beautiful.

Cross-posted at Ezra's place.

Friday, February 16, 2007
(1:24 PM) | Stephen:
I Am Spartacus

Attempting, in my own small way, to support Shakespeare's Sister. Redqueen has t-shirts for sale at CafePress, if you need a new t-shirt. Proceeds go to Melissa, of course.

When people who are presumably upset over anti-Catholic bigotry threaten to injure and rape both Amanda and Melissa, we can be sure that something is deeply wrong in this country. One of the reasons that I'm not so hung up on bipartisanship is that Republican politicians not only know that they rely upon these sick freaks for votes, they tailor their message and policies to appeal to these sick freaks.

These are the people who are the core of Rush Limbaugh's audience, the ones that guarantee Ann Coulter will have a best-seller. They are the ground troops of the GOP, the church-going members of the Religious Right. Take a swim in the fetid swamps of the Free Republic and see how many people talk about their pastor's sermon in the same sentence where they call for the death of American citizens who disagree with their views.

In a rather large portion of this nation's church congregations, no political message will resonate unless it embodies the fear and bigotry of the people in the pews.

I could say much, much more about this, about the abuse that Amanda and Melissa have and will continue to receive from scum like Bill Donohue and his crazed followers. But as profane as the blogosphere can be, the intertubes connecting my computer to this blog would melt.

(10:12 AM) | Stephen:
Another City Takes a Stand For Equality

I just recently discovered "In This Moment," one of whose contributors - Diane Silver - lives in Lawrence, KS and blogs on political goings on here in Kansas.

Ms. Silver wrote a post yesterday about House Bill 2299, which would bar any city from establishing a registry or other way of recognizing domestic partnerships that are not allowed under Kansas state law. This bill is in response to Lawrence, KS, starting to compile just such a registry. Pretty straightforward stuff, really, in conservative Kansas.

Except that the chair of the Legislative Committee is suddenly concerned about what this bill means in regards to "home rule," that is, the right for cities to govern themselves. Imagine that. A conservative - from Olathe! - that is actually concerned, even when it comes to the politics of homosexuality, about whether the government is overstepping its bounds.

Rep. Siegfried is right to be concerned. A few years ago voters in Wyandotte County, KS approved a measure that allowed Sunday liquor sales in defiance of Kansas state law (brief history found here). Even before the Kansas Supreme Court had ruled on the legality of Wyandotte's actions, several other cities made the same move. The State Legislature decided to change the law in order to make sure that cities wouldn't be able to opt out of any other liquor regulations, especially those dealing with taxes.

It must be the specter of a similar revolt that has Siegried worried. Passing this legislation may actually weaken the state's hand in regulating marriage and domestic partnerships. Whatever happens at this point, it was a well-played move on the part of Lawrence. Good on them.

(9:17 AM) | Stephen:
North Korean Diplomacy

Chun Yung-Woo, South Korea's "chief nuclear envoy" has an interesting take on the recent talks and agreement with North Korea:
I think they may have exhausted all the cards they had with the nuclear test. . .Considering how difficult the North's economy and its energy situation are, they would have to think long and hard before giving up on this scale of benefits
When North Korea conducted its nuclear test last year, I took it as their peculiar brand of invitation to the international community to meet for talks. It certainly fit their pattern of using military belligerence to extract concessions from the usual suspects: China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and the US. Far from being crazy and unpredictable, North Korea's leadership has become very skilled at brinksmanship, using nuclear tests, missile firings and even small battles with South Korea to round the gang up, again, and get the food, fuel, medical and economic aid they want and need in order to stay in power.

They know that no one is going to seek a military end to their rule. South Korea will not endanger their own citizens, nor will they seek to harm their literal brothers and sisters in the north. Japan isn't a military power, Russia simply doesn't care enough, and China and the US will not do anything to provoke one another in North Korea.

Mr. Chun seems to get this, recognizing the nuclear test as a "card" they played in order to resume talks and get the aid they wanted. I would imagine that the various diplomats and governments involved in this recognize the situation for what it is, that we're all being held hostage to North Korea's whims and desires. It must be frustrating.

The difference that I saw in the late 1990's and Kim Dae-Jung's "Sunshine Policy" was that North Korea started to allow people to visit as tourists and increased the number of family reunion visits between North and South Korean citizens. That last in particular was highly significant, far more so than most Westerners would understand. Letting their citizens get in contact with family members in the South would reinforce the racial ties that bind the two nations together far more than a political boundary can separate them. It would also expose North Korean citizens to the standard of living in the South, a very dangerous idea.

In the 1990's, China was really gearing up its economy and allowing its citizens greater freedom. Western companies were investing in Chinese markets like never before and Chinese citizens were becoming exposed to the outside world greater amounts. Yet the Chinese government was still firmly in control, and this example could not have been lost on Kim Jong-Il. Add to this the most desperate situation the routinely desperate country had ever seen and we get a serious effort to engage the outside world.

The situation in North Korea was so bad that some estimates counted the dead by starvation at higher than 10% of the population. There was a growing consensus that the North Korean citizens were on the brink of a mass exodus that the military would not be able to stop. South Korea and even China started to build infrastructure so that when the refugees started to arrive they would not become too much of a strain on the two countries.

Then Bush takes office, petulantly does the opposite of whatever Clinton did, and here we are, 6 years later with a nuclear North Korea once again extracting what it needs to keep its population alive yet subservient.

Thursday, February 15, 2007
(11:04 PM) | Stephen:
The Post in Which I Complain About the Weather

Right Now for
Shawnee Mission, KS

Partly Cloudy
Feels Like
Updated Feb 15 09:45 p.m. CT

My understanding is that Homo Sapiens developed as a race in Africa, and then moved from there to the rest of the world.

When I get to heaven, I'm going to find the genius who convinced his tribe to move north, and then I'll smack him upside his head. And God won't stop me, because he'll understand the righteousness of my position.

I'm so tired of being cold.

(10:04 AM) | Stephen:
More Consultants

Via Atrios, here's some more nonsense about Democrats and religion: "[T]he Democrats have allowed themselves to be associated with a contemptuous view toward "revealed" religion." Once again someone is taking a GOP smear as truth. The Democrats haven't fought back against that smear as strongly as they should have, but that's not the same thing. The Democrats have an unfortunately long history of not responding to GOP smears and attacks - Kerry's attempt to ignore the Swiftboat Veterans being a prime example.

More from Kleiman:

As someone who is not himself in any sense a conventional believer, and who is pleased by the rising proportion of Americans who tell pollsters that they have no religion, I tend to think that contempt is misplaced; "faith is believing what you know ain't so" is a clever one-liner, but it's not an especially penetrating piece of cultural criticism. Instead of making fun of ideas we don't share, we might instead learn something by inquiring what those ideas mean to the people who hold them.
And the Democratic leader, politician, influential person of any type who has done this is . . .? Kleiman's motto for his blog is "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." Where are the facts? Where is his evidence?

Here's some more:

But when Vanderslice says that she supports policies that make it easier for women to "choose life" — by which she means increasing wages at the bottom of the wage scale and strengthening social services such as child care and the social safety net — I think we ought to accept that as a (possibly successful) way of appealing to people whose votes we'd very much like to have. We don't need a majority of the evangelical vote. But it would be nice to get a little bit bigger share of it, as Vanderslice's candidates seem to have done.
Mara Vanderslice is not the person who came up with this. This is and has been a standard Democratic commitment for a very long time. Hillary Clinton proposed legislation that would do everything that Vanderslice and Kleiman want, and she even presented it as a way to reduce the number of abortions. It was of course never passed by the GOP-controlled Senate, and she has received exactly zero amounts of support from anti-abortion people or groups for this. I tried looking for moderate anti-abortion groups or people, but have yet to find anything. But Mara Vanderslice and Mark Kleiman tell me they're out there, so I'll keep looking.

For Kleiman and Vanderslice, this is all about an "appeal" to be made, a "frame" for Democrats to adopt. I understand the power of frames and support Democratic attempts to redefine the terms of the debate away from GOP-friendly frames. But as a progressive Christian, being in the Democratic Party isn't, for me, about them being friendly to me or not. It isn't about Democratic politicians using buzzwords or catchphrases. It's about choosing my political party based upon my faith - just as it is for the Religious Right.

That's why any "appeal" needs to be made from the currently growing and devloping grassroots of religious progressives, not from consultant-coached politicians. All major Democratic candidates profess faith; they should already know how to speak about their faith with conviction. If they don't, then they should shut up about it, because no amount of consultant-coaching is going to give their statements and speeches that peculiar ring of truth they need.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007
(10:48 PM) | Stephen:
Religious Consultants Don't Help Us

I understand that campaigns require consultants and the expertise they bring. But it's getting out of hand. For Democrats to hire "religious political consultants" is utter stupidity.

Religion is not advertising. It is not blogs or PR or grassroots organizing. It's none of those things. Hiring a "religious consultant" means that you have a problem with religion. There's something wrong, some wall between your campaign and religious people, so you bring in an "expert" to solve the problem.

Is there a candidate for the Democratic nomination that hasn't made a statement or written a book or something detailing just how important their faith in Jesus Christ is? Is there anyone currently running who hasn't expressed how their political affiliation and priorities is directed by the Bible and their personal, deep, vibrant relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ who is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Bright and Morning Star, the Alpha and Omega?

No, there isn't. But these idiots are hiring "religious consultants" because they've bought into the lie that Democrats have a "God gap," a problem with religion. When are Democrats going to realize that Republicans do not want to help them? The GOP says we have a "God gap," so we hire religious consultants. They say we appear weak, so we hire people to make us more manly. They say we're boring, so we hire people to change our freakin' wardrobe. This is not a winning strategy.

And these consultants - whatever they're getting paid, it's two times too much. Look at this nonsense from Mara Vanderslice:
The Republican Party and the right wing in this country have had a strategy of reaching out to Catholics, white Protestants, evangelicals going back for 20 years. . . I had heard that [the Republicans] had at least 10 staff people in many of the key battleground states, paid staff people working on reaching out to the religious community.
Wrong. Look, the GOP is the conservative party, and religious groups always have a high number of naturally conservative people in them. It's a simple fact of the human psyche. Those "staff people in many of the key battleground states" were not "reaching out to the religious community." They were coordinating efforts among Republican party members who had already set themselves up among congregational lines.

Does this mean that Democrats are at a disadvantage when it comes to religious voters? Of course it does. But so what? The people who form the core of the Republican Party are the antithesis of everything that we Democrats believe. They are not going to support our candidates. They are not going to support our bills. They are not going to support our initiatives. Nothing is ever going to get them to switch sides.

The "God gap" that has existed for the Democratic party is not the fault of atheists, not the fault of Democratic politicians, is certainly not the fault of the potty-mouthed bloggers. Religious progressives, specificaly Christian progressives, have for too long abdicated their responsibility to speak up for their political beliefs. For too long they have tried to hold themselves above the political fray, to cling to some form of artificial righteousness by not getting involved in this country's political process. That's the "God gap."

And even now the problem is being solved. Religious progressives have started to organize. We've started to let our voices be heard on the internet, in the newspapers, to our representatives in state capitols and DC. Don't insult us by hiring people to teach you how to speak in religious catchphrases. Don't pander to the Religious Right and expect us to applaud. Quit spouting nonsense like:
we really need to engage in a more thoughtful debate on the abortion issue in this country. I can't tell you how many times I had conversations with people of deep faith [who] said, "I support you [and] everything you are doing on every other issue except for this one.
We religous progressives have our theological reasons for supporting a woman's right to reproductive choice - yes, that's right, very few of us are "pro-abortion." But we're all in favor of people being free under the law to make the hard choices of life, in consultation with family and clergy or no one at all.

It will take time for the religious progressives of this country to fully exercise their potential. But hiring religious consultants so that Methodist, Southern Baptist and Catholic candidates can "reach out to us" is only making it harder for all of us.

(2:00 PM) | Stephen:
Take Your Martyball and Go Home

I've been remiss! Marty Schottenheimer was fired by the Chargers. This was after he had inexplicably been offered a 1-year contract extension (which would take him throught the 08-09 season). He refused the extension, and even cited that the reason is that he didn't have any working relationship with A.J. Smith, the GM.

San Diego has the best football team in the country. No one has more talent or a deeper bench, period. They should be able to attract a far higher caliber of coach than they were when they hired Schottenheimer. Let's hope they do it this time.

Yeah, I know, silly stuff.

(1:24 PM) | Stephen:
Mitt Romney

Atrios gets this almost right, especially the part about the media not ever going too deeply into what a particular candidate's faith actually is. But that is only part of the dynamic of Romney's religious affiliation, and it's not the most important part.

Evangelical Christians are now known for tolerating political alliances with people who don't really share their beliefs. Having a largely irreligious Reagan and then Bush I as president wasn't much of a problem because the Religious Right was still in the process of coalescing into a coherent movement and because Reagan and then Bush managed to say the right things.

George W. Bush, though, has managed to enjoy such a powerful cult of personality because he didn't just say the right political things, but the right religious things. Many Evangelicals believe that Bush is an Evangelical Christian just like them. He believes the same things, has the same worldview. I can at least say anecdotally that some Evangelicals who are unhappy with Bush's job performance have still not wavered in their views of his status as an Evangelical believer, and therefore are able to still consider the GOP as "their" party.

The point of this is to say that it's possible that George W. Bush has spoiled them. They elected one of their own, and then they were able to reelect him. He has pursued their agenda, they believe, blaming any lack of progress on the Democrats first and insufficiently Christian Republicans second. When the next election comes around, they want another person who believes just like them.

That's the root of McCain taking his religious pandering to such extremes this time around. He understands that if he wasn't sufficiently pious in 2000, there's no way that he can be so in 2008 without major changes in his message.

Mitt Romney is the odd duck, because he is a strong believer in a conservative religious group that is very similar to Evangelical Christianity. However, Evangelical Christians are the people in this country most likely to not only see the differences that exist but to consider them dealbreakers when it comes to nominating a candidate for the presidency. Further, quite aside from the actual differences, there are stories told about Mormons in every Evangelical Christian congregation - every one. Mormons are mocked, attacked and feared. If a pastor decides upon a "cult series" for Sunday nights, Mormons are listed right along the Moonies, Heaven's Gate and Jim Jones.

That Romney's past statements about abortion and homosexual marriage are coming to light will only strengthen the case against them voting for a Mormon; obviously besides all their kooky religious ideas, they simply can't be trusted as true conservatives.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007
(10:29 AM) | Stephen:
This Is Progress - 13 Years Ago

On October 21, 1994, the United States and North Korea signed an agreement-the Agreed Framework-calling upon Pyongyang to freeze operation and construction of nuclear reactors suspected of being part of a covert nuclear weapons program in exchange for two proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors. The agreement also called upon the United States to supply North Korea with fuel oil pending construction of the reactors.

North Korea agreed today to close its main nuclear reactor in exchange for a package of food, fuel and other aid from the United States, China, South Korea and Russia. The breakthrough, announced by the Chinese government after intense negotiations, came four months after North Korea tested a nuclear bomb.

The partner nations agreed to provide roughly $400 million in various kinds of aid in return for the North starting a permanent disabling of its nuclear facilities and allowing inspectors into the country.

Perhaps equally important, the United States and Japan agreed to discuss normalizing relations with Pyongyang. The United States will begin the process of removing North Korea from its designation as a terror-sponsoring state and also on ending U.S. trade and financial sanctions.

Just assume the standard commentary about George Bush being an idiot, not having any basis for suspending the 1994 agreement, causing the Kim Dae Jung government to fail, ensuring the North Korean nuclear tests, etc. Oh, and could you assume that my commentary was really witty? To be honest, there's just so many words in the English language, and with the Bush Administration breaking new ground in stupidity every day I'm finding it hard to keep everything fresh.


Update: To be clear, I see this development as a good thing, albeit one that shows how pitifully the Bush Admin has pursued its foreign policy goals.

The most important thing to understand about these talks and the agreement, however, is the role of the Chinese government. China - and to a lesser extent, Japan - brought everyone to the table, China led the talks and China produced the document to which the US has agreed - along with everyone else except for North Korea so far. I'm agnostic as to whether China's increased influence in Asia is a good or bad thing, but it's clear that it's rising power is at the expense of the USA's reputation and influence among Asian and Pacific governments.

While the Iraq War is necessarily dominating our national discourse and will be The Problem for the first few years of our next presidency, China's developing role in Asia especially and the rest of the world will have more lasting consequences for the USA and its place in the family of nations.

(9:25 AM) | Stephen:
We Mourn the Passing of the Anglican Church

This week the primates of the Anglican Communion are meeting in Tanzania. This meeting was instigated by various conservative archbishops in order to, frankly, tell The Episcopal Church -Anglicanism's US church - to toe the line regarding homosexuality or be excommunicated.

Once again we find conservatives willing to tear apart the Church in order to satisfy their own desires. This impulse goes all the way back to the Donatist controversy, when conservatives wanted to deny the Church's forgiveness to people who had renounced Christianity under the Diocletian persecution back in the 4th century. St. Augustine was the driving force in refuting this heresy, establishing not only the doctrine of ex opere operato but also a standard of forgiveness and acceptance for the Church.

And Donatism was a heresy, which had a meaning far different than the one we use today. Far from simply being a heterodox belief, heresy was understood to be a willingness to divide the church for the sake of a particular belief or scriptural interpretation. On a personal note, this understanding of heresy has caused me no small amount of trouble as my family has switched from a Church of the Nazarene to an Episcopal congregation in the last year. But we have not repudiated the beliefs of our former congregation and have not, in our minds, excluded from the faith those that still attend it. And the old parish system, as it pertains to individuals, has not existed for quite some time and therefore should not be considered binding for individuals when seeking a congregation.

However, the parish system as it pertains to congregations and dioceses does, or at least should, matter quite a bit. The fact that several formerly Episcopalian congregations have left The Episcopal Church and placed themselves under the leadership of Nigerian Archbishop Akinola shows not only a disregard for the ancient parish system but also the sacramental nature of the bishopry. The bishop, consecrated by the Church, is the incarnation of Christ for the parish. She is the pastor of the whole parish, the one responsible for sacramental ministry in the whole parish. The priests who serve under her are extensions of her and her sacramental ministry. This has been a geographic ministry since the earliest developments of the Church and has survived not only the East-West schism and the Reformation, but also the subsequent division of Protestants into the myriad of denominations that we have today.

But these conservatives, in their hatred and fear of homosexuality, have taken it upon themselves to dispense with 2,000 years of canon law, deciding for themselves, on a congregation-by-congregation basis, who they will follow as Bishop and who they will not. This, it should not be said, is the textbook definition of heresy. Further, Archbishop Akinola and other conservative Bishops have refused to sit at meals with Presiding Bishop Jefforts Schori - apparently possessing a righteousness and purity greater than the original 12 Disciples and even Jesus himself, who not only was willing to eat with women present but also chose a woman as the first person to see him after his resurrection from the dead.

They're heretics. They can accept someone only insofar as that person rejects the same people they do. They are willing to rend the Church for the sake of their sensibilities, willing to destroy the fabric of American dioceses in order to reassure themselves of their supposed orthodoxy. And by their behavior they wound the Church and deny the Gospel.

And even with all of that, I am still willing to remain in communion with them. Despite their accusations that The Episcopal Church has given in to a secular culture, that it has wandered from the Scripture, despite their heretical behavior and disregard for their brothers and sisters, I am willing to maintain the relationship with them. Why are they so unwilling to remain in relationship with me?

Monday, February 12, 2007
(2:35 PM) | Stephen:
Obama Notes

Some encouraging signs from Barack Obama recently:

First, is Barack Obama black enough? Or is he too black? Or perhaps the wrong kind of black, the wrong shade. If his mother was black and his father white, would that be ok?

Senator Obama responded to these idiotic questions exactly the right way on 60 Minutes. He said that his barber and his cab drivers don't question whether he's black. Pam brings up some more good points on this, saying that if Obama were to be pulled over for DWB (driving while black), producing a picture of his white mom won't help him much.

The second item is Obama's response to John Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia, who suggested that an Obama win in 2008 is exactly what Al-Qaeda wants. Obama responded by saying,
I think it's flattering that one of George Bush's allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced....I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops in Iraq, and my understanding is Mr. Howard has deployed 1400, so if he is...to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq....Otherwise it's just a bunch of empty rhetoric.
Very direct and to the point. I share Ezra's concerns about Obama; however, these are uncharacteristically blunt statements from a Democratic candidate for anything, let alone president. Let's hope he keeps it up.

(9:59 AM) | Stephen:
Bill Richardson in Sudan

Ok, so I've been reading a bit more, and must unfortunately point out that I misunderstood some of what has been going on with Governor Richardson over there.

He was last in Darfur in January, and was able to secure cease-fire agreements from Pres. al Bashir and the 3 rebel groups. However, one of the rebel groups immediately reneged on the agreement, which of course screwed the whole thing up.

The main point is that Richardson is actually there, actually working with people and making things happen. He could be the most skilled diplomat in the USA today - which is why there's been some blog talk about him being a good choice for Secretary of State. Certainly he has the best resume for a presidential candidate since, well, I'm not sure who could boast a better or even comparable resume. Plus he has a very easygoing, personable way about him. He's almost folksy, but not like faux-cowboy, slightly retarded George W. image.

In a few months he's really going to make Edwards, Obama and Clinton miserable.

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