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Friday, August 31, 2007
(1:48 PM) | Stephen:
Senators Craig And Vitter

If you're wondering why the RNC is pushing Larry Craig to resign over a desire to have anonymous sex in an airport bathroom - which he didn't actually get to do - while not caring one bit about David Vitter's multiple instances of illegally paying women for sex in New Orleans and Washington, DC, there's a very simple reason for it.

See, Senator Craig is a homo-sexualist. That is a person who is attracted (ick!) to people (ewww!) of the same (gasp!) gender (yuck!). These homo-sexualists are terrible, horrible people who have thousands of sex partners a year, they all belong to NAMBLA and they all die of AIDS. They're gross and icky and the men act like women and the women all have facial hair and act like men and they'll cause you to get divorces and cheat on your spouse and hit your children just by existing.

Senator Vitter is another case entirely. Sure, he paid women to have sex with him. But a man's got needs, right? David Vitter is a powerful man, with powerful needs. And we all know that once a woman traps a man into a marriage, the sex and everything else fun just shuts off, right? Sure, the now-Mrs. Vitter probably let ol' Dave dress up in diapers all the time before they were married, but that wasn't going to happen after the ceremony! He had to go somewhere to get his Diaper Sex fix.

And before you think I'm just being judgmental against God's Own Party, remember that it was no real secret that Larry Craig had homo-sexualist tendencies. It's perfectly fine to be a homo-sexualist and a Republican no matter what Daddy Dobson or any of the rest of his lot says. You just have to keep it on the down-low, behind closed doors and in the closet. Homo-sexualists are great allies for Republicans, so long as they never do anything that any other Republican might find embarassing, offensive or gross.

Thursday, August 30, 2007
(10:30 AM) | Stephen:
Prayer Doesn't Matter

The Slacktivist has an interesting post on prayer, noting the story of Wiley S. Drake, a Southern Baptist pastor who, acting in his capacity as a pastor and leader of a religious congregation, endorsed Mike Huckabee for President. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State had a problem with this and filed a complaint with the IRS to review the tax-exempt status of Drake's congregation. It's not the first time that Drake has issued an endorsement like this.

If we were just dealing with a run-of-the-mill thing like an American Evangelical pastor deciding to ignore tax law, there wouldn't be much need to write about it. What makes this interesting is that Drake decided to respond to the complaint from Americans United by urging his congregation to pray that God would kill two men in that organization. He calls this "imprecatory prayer," and says that (King) David said that people who oppose the will of God would die and their "children be fatherless, and his wife a widow."

I suppose Drake hasn't read all the Psalms of lament in which David wonders why those who oppose God are so successful.

What's surprising to me is the tepid response from liberals about this, considering how dangerous many liberals feel American-style Christian Fundamentalism is becoming. Amanda at Pandagon, chosen because Bill Donohue has pointed out how "hateful" and "vicious*" she is, had this to say:
The underlying threat of violence aside, I must confess that I find Wiley’s overwrought language amusing. How small-minded and pathetic must you be to write like that, pretending you’re a cross between a video game wizard and some Old Testament patriarch?
That's fairly standard. "What a horrible thing to say, how amusing." This incident is now pretty much in the background. Drake will not be heard from again until he says something equally stupid/amusing, and he'll quickly fall into the background again. Because people just don't care when Christians talk about prayer.

No matter how religious this country may be, no matter how many people claim a belief in the Christian God, no matter how many people say that they pray regularly, the plain fact is that the vast majority of people don't believe it will "work," or that it has any "power." And I'm talking about Christians, let alone Atheists or adherents of other religions.

The whole issue of prayer in Christianity is peculiar. When Christians pray for a certain thing, such as a healing or that the Republicans win Congress and the White House, everyone steels themselves mentally and emotionally for when the prayer isn't answered. Or they accept the cop-out, bullshit approach that "no" is an answer, so God really does answer all prayers. For that to be true, a complete lack of response needs to be interpreted into answers, which are "no" for everything that we can't do ourselves and "yes" for when we pray for permission to do the things we've already decided we want to do.

But even though Christians are quite adept at accepting and explaining away unanswered prayer, they still react to a prayer or a request for prayer as the time to sit back and do nothing while waiting for God to miraculously intervene and get the thing done. If a parishioner's house burns down, the worst thing that a pastor can do is pray that God will provide the family with a place to live and replacements for the daily essentials that they lost. If that happens, the congregation will nod, say "amen," perhaps even weep softly due to the intense emotion that comes with really, really believing in prayer. And after the service they'll all go home while that family wonders where they will sleep that night, what clothes they will wear, what food they will eat as they wait for their insurance to get worked out.

But if the pastor gets up and tells everyone that the Smith family just got burned out of their house, and they need a place to stay, some clothes, food, all those essentials - or even better, if the pastor or someone gets on the phone and talks to people about it directly - then those needs will be met. And the prayers of the Smith family for shelter and food will be answered.

It's that dynamic which explains why no one took Drake very seriously with his ridiculous idea of "imprecatory" prayers. "Dear God, do this and that" is a signal for everyone to sit back and wait for it to happen or not, and then forget about it. If Drake had preached for the need of good Christians to hunt down staff members of Americans United and kill them, that would be a far different thing. He could be arrested for that. People would have been up in arms about it.

But all he did was direct his congregation to ask God to kill two men, and everyone knows that prayer doesn't matter.

*Bill Donohue is, of course, a repulsive boil upon the face of humanity.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007
(1:11 PM) | Stephen:
You Won't Believe This

I don't know whether to fear for and pity the people - especially the kids - in this video, or to envy them. As long as they keep up their streak of safe crossings, I think I'll just envy them. Utterly amazing.

(9:46 AM) | Stephen:

A few things for a cloudy Wednesday morning:

-The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. If you also spend your "days" wondering why "people" use such "weird" punctuation, you'll "love" this.

-Kansas City weather can often be terrible. The temperature range in any 12 month period is usually around 120 degrees F or more; once you add in wind chill and heat index it's way higher. I've been more comfortable with a month of 100F+ days in New Mexico than a week of 90F days in Kansas City because of the humidity. But there's usually a deal that's struck between the weather and us each August, which is that though it's blisteringly hot and swelteringly humid, there isn't too much rain, and so grass doesn't grow as much. Normally you only need to mow once during the entire month. But not this year. No, it's been raining. And I'm lucky enough to have grass that grows really well in extreme heat. So while most of my neighbors have delightfully mottled lawns with some greens and browns and in-betweens, both my front and back yards are luscious, thick, and luxuriant. But this last time, I fought back - hard. I set that mower way too low, and shocked the bejesus out of that stinking grass. Now my yard is as mottled as everyone else's, and I shouldn't have to mow for several weeks. Stupid grass.

-My brother-in-law just celebrated his 30th birthday, and we had his party at Jumpin' Catfish, one of Kansas City's treasures. It's an absolute meat orgy, the kind of place that I'd take litbrit to just to watch her squirm. My wife just hates the place, not because she won't eat meat, but because the walls are covered in the owner's hunting trophies - antler racks, heads, stuffed birds, fish, dead animals are everywhere in abundance. It's hilarious. My daughter always talks about the trophies, asking detailed questions, which I pretend to not hear so I can laugh at my wife's answers. The food isn't too bad, either. They've got catfish, of course, which I always get. And then there's shrimp, clams, pheasant, venison, walleye, quail, crabs, crawfish, and a bunch of other stuff. Seriously, it's awesome.

-Speaking of food, this is what my daughter had for supper the last two nights, by her own choice:

I have a cool kid.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007
(11:09 PM) | Stephen:
Shoot The Wounded

The utterly indispensable Glenn Greenwald has a great post up today about the way in which the GOP responded to the original outing of Senator Larry Craig last October and the way in which they're responding now.

To summarize, when an election was just a few weeks away, the storyline was that the outing of Larry Craig was a despicable Democratic dirty trick that would backfire so completely it would reverse the impending Republican electoral defeats, not only keeping Congress in GOP hands but increasing its majority. People were shocked - shocked! - that anyone would suggest that Republicans were so concerned about a man's sexuality that they would turn on him or fail to support him.

Dean Barnett, responding to the idea that the conservative Christians in the GOP would reject Senator Craig, said
if those on the left actually knew more practicing Christians, they would know that the stuff about condemning the sin but loving the sinner isn't mere lip service. If the members of the left actually knew the people that they so casually and easily defame, they would also understand that infinite forgiveness is a hallmark of America's Christian community.
Unfortunately for Larry Craig, that was then, and this is now:
It's the personal aspect of this that is bothersome -- the deception, the lies, the adultery, the criminal nature of what he was arrested for back in June (is that the tip of the iceberg on Craig's adulterous behavior?). He's married. He's broken his vows of marriage. He hasn't been practicing what he preaches. He's deceived his constituency. That's what's bothersome.
How long before Craig checks himself into rehab or finds Jesus? . . . . Hugh Hewitt calls for his resignation. At the least, he should confirm that he will not run again.
I have blogged repeatedly here at RedState that we must clean our own house lest the voters clean it for us. . . .And today we have Larry Craig (R-Idaho) soliciting sex in a men's bathroom in an airport. . . . I can only say he must resign.
That last is from Redstate, which had this to say last October:
Mike Rogers, the scumbag who runs blogActive, has published a claim that Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) is homosexual. I won't go into the sordid details Mr Rogers presents; if you are really interested, you can visit Mr Rogers' site. Senator Craig has flatly denied Mr Rogers' allegations, calling them laughable.

Patterico has the details and (at the moment) 123 commenters who are rightly disturbed at Mr Rogers' abusive tactics. Sister Toldjah is rightly indignant, and Brian at Iowa Voice is hopping mad. . . .

Mr Rogers is a scumbag, no doubt about that; were he set on fire, I wouldn't urinate on him to put it out.

This nation's conservative radio and television hosts, columnists, authors, and of course bloggers live by a very simple credo: they are right and you are wrong. They are pure and you are not. They are worth more than you, better than you, more important than you. Their concerns are the concerns of this nation, not you.

The actual content of any of their stated beliefs means little, which is why it seems like they change their beliefs so much. In truth, they believe in nothing except winning. Their philosophies are informed by being against what their political enemies are for, and in favor of whatever their political enemies are against. They will accept anyone, anyone at all who appears to give them a better chance of winning, but if that person at any point starts to look like a liability, they will turn on them with a viciousness that's scary to see.

The Redstate blogger is right: the conservative movement needs to clean house. But while they may need to rid themselves of Larry Craigs - soliciting sex in public bathrooms isn't usually considered acceptable behavior - the real problem for the movement is its supposed standard-bearers.

(11:23 AM) | Stephen:
Owen And Me

That Owen Wilson apparently attempted to commit suicide has made quite a splash. You'd think that Americans would be more jaded about this type of thing; certainly entertainers are in the news for self-destructive behavior all the time.

But I've heard radio DJ's and read blogs about how much of a surprise it is that Owen Wilson would do this. Some people trot out the standard stuff about how dumb it is for some rich, famous actor in the height of his success to feel bad enough to do this, castigating him for apparently forgetting all the people who aren't rich, aren't famous yet manage to not attempt suicide.

The real reason for the shock surrounding Owen, though, isn't so much that he's successful as it is that he's so likable, so appealing a person. He has managed to completely steal every scene he's been in, at least in the movies I've watched. He doesn't always appear in great movies, but he's always great in them. I hated Meet the Parents. It was the worst collection of miserable, unsympathetic characters I've ever seen. Except Owen Wilson. He was supposed to be this "so-perfect-you-hate-him" kind of guy, except that you just couldn't get around to the hating him part. Zoolander is another example. That movie had 2 good parts: the scene at the gas station and whenever Owen Wilson was in front of the camera. He makes other actors better, more comfortable, the scenes flow more naturally.

Many actors are revered, some reviled, but everyone likes Owen. You walk out of his movies with a friend, it seems. And that's why people have been shaken by his suicide attempt.

It's self-centered* of me, but I have my own type of experience with this. As far back as I can remember, I have been the leader of every single group I've been a part of. Sometimes there's a formal process, but most of the time people just turn to me for leadership. Whether it's as one of the Starbucks managers on the district, as a youth pastor in the church district or on the innumerable academic group projects and discussions. One of the things that's been disconcerting, but good for me, is how I'm not automatically the first among equals when I discuss things in blog forums or write a post. It's certainly helped me to understand that a lot of why I've always been made a leader and been so persuasive is due to personality more than brilliance. Which is why my grades don't always reflect the deference paid to me by my academic peers.

I'm good at parties and conferences. I can get up and speak in front of a couple of thousand people, or lead a group of 5 in almost any discussion you want. When I started to open up about my Depression, a lot of people had a hard time accepting it, because they saw me as this confident, funny guy, with lots of friends, a great family, etc.

But this persona - which is the real me, but only a part - is not to be understood as existing in spite of my Depression, but largely because of it. I've come to grips with the idea that I have some leadership qualities, that I have some good ideas - and yes, it's been hard to accept that, to really believe it, and I still feel very guilty for ever thinking it - but for a very long time it was a combination of an act intended to deceive people into thinking that I was OK and an act intended to deceive myself for the same purpose.

Lots of Depressives - and people who suffer from other psychological illnesses - end up in creative and/or leadership positions because of this dynamic. We set up outer lives of who we want to be, or think we should be, and we can be incredibly successful with them.

For a while, at least, until the inevitable crash happens. That crash often takes place at precisely the moment when it outwardly seems most unlikely, because it's when we appear the most successful, the happiest, the most put together that mental illness sufferers are expending the most energy to not only keep the streak going but to also ignore the doubts, fears, panics and damaging self-talk. The thing about the Voice - or Voices, depending upon what disorder might be present - is that it will always be heard. The Voice will always be louder than applause, louder than acclaim, louder and more insistent than your friends, your family, your agent, whoever.

Sometimes success is the worst thing that can happen to a Depressive, because it puts the disconnect between public and private into such sharp relief that the discrepancy becomes intolerable, too painful to bear, and it can cause not just a downward turn but a crash so steep that self-inflicted death becomes a thing lovely to behold, a sweet release from all the garbage strewn around one's life.

Another aspect of all this is how it doesn't help for people to be surprised that a particular person is depressed, or bipolar, or suicidal. On the surface it seems like a compliment, and surely that's how people always intend it to be. But to have everyone express shock and wonder that you've got a mental illness only serves to increase your sense of alienation. That it was my wife who first spoke of depression to me, who insisted that I seek help has been an immense comfort to me, because it showed that she knew me, the real me, and knew there was a problem, and she cared enough to want to fix it. When I told my mother about it, she wasn't expecting it, but neither was she in shock. "I've known there was something for years," she said, "But I never could put my finger on it. And I never knew what to do for you."

That comment did far more good than all the people who simply couldn't believe that I could be depressed. I knew that my mom really knew me and really cared for me. We of course don't know how Owen's friends and family are taking this and how they're talking to him. Hopefully someone will have the good sense and insight to tell him that while they didn't expect him to try to take his own life, they could tell something was off, and now that they know how bad it's been they'll make sure he gets the help he needs.

*I'm a depressive and a blogger. It's a wonder I can ever think or write about anything but me.

Monday, August 27, 2007
(10:53 AM) | Stephen:
All You Need To Know About Why Gonzo Resigned

In a comment to this post, Stuart Eugene Thiel writes:
This administration uses appointees as car owners use oil filters. They catch the sludge aimed at Bush and Cheney, and when they're full, they're replaced. That Rove and Fredo left so close together simply results from the sheer volume of accusations of White House wrongdoing.
Nothing, in all the reams and gigabytes that will be devoted to Gonzo's resignation, will describe things more succintly, clearly or completely.

The White House apparently got worried that the Dems in Congress might do something, as far-fetched as that may seem. A resignation is better than an impeachment. Right now, the Bush Administration is on the run. Let's see if our feckless and fearful Democratic "leadership" finds it in themselves to press the advantage, or if they think that Gonzo's departure will actually change anything.

Friday, August 24, 2007
(1:35 PM) | Stephen:
Mother Teresa's Crisis Of Faith

Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.
These words were the foundation of my theology and pastoral ministry for many years. Despite all my education, training and experiences, I was convinced that God loved everyone in the world except for me.

It's shocking - at first - to see that these words were written by none other than Mother Teresa, in a letter to a priest in 1979. But after reading the article with its many quotes from Mother Teresa's letters, the shock wears off and is replaced by a dreary familiarity with her lifelong struggle to experience the presence and love of God, her insistence upon believing the worst about herself and punishing herself because of it.

Armchair diagnoses are to be avoided, but clearly Mother Teresa's problems had little to do with any real problems of faith and pretty much everything to do with Clinical Depression. It's hardly unusual for a depressive to seek a helping profession, to try and find redemption and feeling within the work of assisting the poor and sick. If not for my depression I doubt I would have ever entertained the idea of being a pastor, of going to seminary. Perhaps if Mother Teresa had been psychologically healthy she would have remained Agnes Bojaxhiu.

This teaches us many things, that even saints can suffer and be sick. That however strong something like depression can be, it is possible to be stronger. Human beings are remarkable creatures, capable of great things even in the face of tremendous handicaps. Mother Teresa was able to accomplish great things in spite of - and in some ways because of - her problems. As a person of faith I can recognize that this is evidence of redemption, of God's creative nature and his ability to work with us rather than requiring unrealistic levels of holiness before blessing our efforts. I suspect that Mother Teresa understood this as well, even if she never felt like she did.

(12:50 PM) | Stephen:
A Case Against Hillary Clinton

Matt Yglesias finds Hillary Clinton saying something silly:
"It's a horrible prospect to ask yourself, 'What if? What if?' But if certain things happen between now and the election, particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again, no matter how badly they have mishandled it, no matter how much more dangerous they have made the world," Clinton told supporters in Concord.

"So I think I'm the best of the Democrats to deal with that," she added.
His response to this is exactly right, worthy even of the title Quote of the Day:
I think the Democrat best positioned to deal with GOP political mobilization in a post-attack environment is going to be the one who isn't reflexively inclined to see failed Republican policies resulting in the deaths of hundreds of Americans as a political advantage for the Republicans.
This is a huge problem for Hillary Clinton. She's still too entrenched in the DLC milieu which says that the only way to get Americans to accept liberal ideas is to disguise them as conservative ideas. Hillary's claim is that she's the Democratic candidate who most seems like a Republican. And once again I am forced to wonder why people should vote for a Democrat who is like a Republican when they will have an actual Republican for whom to vote.

(9:58 AM) | Stephen:
Roots Of Iraqi Violence

I've been spending some time with McClatchy's Daily Iraq Violence Roundup, and it's fascinating and horrifying. Unlike what we might read in our local newspapers or hear on the US versions of cable news networks, this attempts to be as exhaustive a list as possible of the shootings, kidnappings, suicide bombs, IEDs, pitched battles, car bombs, mortar attacks - everything that goes on in a single day in Iraq. Even though McClatchy relies upon their own correspondents in Iraq who peruse police, military (US and Iraqi) and medical reports - as well as their own sources, to be sure - they admit that there is no way to give a complete record of all that happens.

Here's the report for yesterday, August 23rd:


- Around 8 a.m., mortars hit the Green Zone ( IZ) . No casualties reported.

- Around 9 a.m., a roadside bomb exploded at Na’iriya area of New Baghdad neighborhood ( east Baghdad) killing 1 person and injuring 5 others.

- Police found (12 ) dead bodies in the following of Baghdad’s neighborhoods ( 8 ) in west Baghdad( Karkh bank) ; 2 in Amil, 2 in Huriyah , 1 in Saidiyah , 1in Mansour , 1 in Jihad and 1 in I’laam. While ( 4 ) were found in east Baghdad ( Risafa bank); 2 in Sadr city , 1 in Ur and 1 in New Baghdad.

- Soldiers from Troop C, 3rd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, were targeted by insurgents while patrolling in Jisr Diyala, southeast of Baghdad, Aug. 21. U.S. Soldiers were unhurt, but two local children were caught in a roadside bomb explosion, killing one child and injuring another. Capt. Darrell Melton, Troop C commander, a native of San Antonio, described the incident. “The trail Bradley gunner was waving at two kids who were riding their bikes and were waving at my guys,” Melton said. “The next thing the Bradley commander knew, one of the kids was gone in a puff and he was thrown backward in the hatch. When he looked back, the other kid was crawling on the ground.” Melton said his Soldiers immediately dismounted their Bradley Fighting Vehicle and cautiously approached the wounded child. It is not uncommon for improvised explosive devices to be emplaced in groups and detonated on first responders coming to provide aid. “He (the wounded child) crawled a few feet, when the medic on site, despite the danger, ran out to him, picked him up and ran back to the Bradley to administer first aid,” Melton said. The medic was able to stabilize the wounded child, Melton said. Troop C then evacuated the child to a U.S. Army medical facility nearby. Such incidents are not unique to Troop C. Soldiers from Company A, 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, came upon a grieving family in the course of a routine combat patrol Aug. 13 in Salman Pak. Capt. Chris Pearson, of Birmingham, Ala., met with a local banking official in Salman Pak to discuss issues and prospective solutions concerning the banking industry in the local area. After the meeting, a town councilman approached him with a father who had lost his son earlier in the day to a roadside bomb. Pearson said he did not talk directly to the father, but the councilman explained the father just wanted to bury his son in accordance with Muslim tradition. “I expressed the Coalition’s condolences,” Pearson said. “Even though the IEDs target police or Coalition Forces, they can hit children and families. They are the ones that suffer.” The councilman informed Pearson that the family was having trouble getting through checkpoints and requested U.S. Soldier assistance in traveling to the cemetery. “Just to make it easier, we had them travel with us,” Pearson said. After dropping off the family, Pearson’s element began movement to Combat Outpost Cahill, north of Salman Pak. While traveling to COP Cahill, Pearson’s unit received word that the grieving family had run into another IED as they were returning from the burial. No one was seriously injured in the second incident. Pearson further explained that National Police, local Iraqi Police, governmental leaders and Coalition Forces all play a role in maintaining security in the area. When Pearson’s unit arrived in March, the local populace and Iraqi Security Forces had not yet developed a trusting relationship. “There are still a lot of improvements that need to be made,” Pearson said. “Everyday it gets better. There are highs and lows. They’ve begun attending meetings together and as long as they are communicating, it’s helpful.”


- On Tuesday ( August 21) , a suicide bomber targeted a police check point at Dam street in Falluja (62 km west of Baghdad) injuring two people and he was killed by police.


- Police found a dead body on Wednesday night for a civilian man ( 40 to 45 years old) at Ajaj village of Riadh district ( west of Kirkuk).

- Wednesday night, a car bomb targeted a convoy for a member of Hawija council board ( west of Kirkuk) injuring one guard who was transferred to hospital.

- Wednesday night, police arrested the media man of 1920th battalions in Kirkuk during a raid in Wahid Huzayran ( June 1st ) neighborhood in Kirkuk city.


- Wednesday night, Iraqi army killed four gunmen during clashes took place at Noor neighborhood ( downtown Mosul city). In addition to that ,the army defused two car bombs at Harmat ( west Mosul) , Iraqi army said.

That medic from Troop C is a hero. He shouldn't have to buy his own drinks for the rest of his life. Even as our political leaders play their stupid games with each other, making our soldiers' mission more and more impossible, American troops do this type of thing every day. How I wish the rest of us could provide leadership worthy of their sacrifices and heroics.

Aside from the report on American troops, what you may notice is how it is Iraqi government forces and interests that are attacked the most. This bears out when looking through the other daily violence roundups. The majority of the attacks are upon Iraqi police, military and political leaders, along with government buildings. After that it's usually American patrols that are targeted. There's always dead bodies that have been found in various parts of Baghdad and at times other cities. Usually there's some mortar attacks (which seem to be rather ineffective), and then there's some car bombs and suicide bomb attacks.

What has really struck me about all this is how it doesn't completely fit the narrative of ethnic/religious violence about which we are constantly told. Don't misunderstand: I know that Iraq has serious problems with ethnic and religious violence. However, most of the reports that come straight from the source, as opposed to being run through a White House/Pentagon/media filter, paint a picture of most of the violence being Iraqi and American forces under direct attack. And much of the rest of the violence simply has an unknown motivation. Was X attack that occurred in Y neighborhood religiously motivated? We don't know.

In a nation as awash in military-level ordnance as Iraq, it stands to reason that the violent crime wave which always accompanies the chaos of war would feature explosives and automatic weapons. How much of the violence that occurs in Iraq each day is a result of rival crime factions fighting one another? Or takes place during the a crime committed for monetary gain rather than ethnic strife? Again, we don't know.

What I do know, however, is that attributing the chaos and violence in Iraq almost completely to ethnic and religious motivations fits into a longstanding attitude that Americans have regarding themselves and other peoples. One of the legacies of Enlightenment thought is that technological development is accompanied by spiritual and moral development, and this is as true of "secular" people as it is Christians. In fact, the reason Fundamentalist Christians are trying to push things like Intelligent Design has more to do with the need to see their belief system as fundamentally rational than it does proselytization. (See more I wrote about this here.)

Violence committed in the name of religion or ethnicity is irrational; everyone knows that. That's why we only commit violence in the name of democracy, freedom and defense. The fact that we have a higher level of technological development in this country than say, Iraq, means that we're more rational than they. If Iraqis are less rational, it stands to reason that their motivations for committing violence will be ethnic and religious in nature. Even if the target of that violence happens to be American soldiers, we can safely assume that it was Sunni or Shiite or Kurdish hatred that motivated it. Even if the target is an Iraqi police patrol made up of both Sunnis and Shiites, we can be sure that the motivation for the attack was hatred of either Sunnis or Shiites.

Again, I'm not trying to suggest that ethnic and religious violence doesn't happen. But making the assumption that all or even most of the violence in Iraq comes from those motives simply ignores the facts on the ground.

More troubling, though, is how such a belief plays into the Bush Administration's hands regarding the continued presence of American soldiers in Iraq. If much of the violence in Iraq is motivated by the presence of American soldiers and the perception that the Iraqi government is a bunch of puppets doing their American masters' bidding, then the longer American soldiers stay in Iraq, the worse the violence will be. If the Iraqi government is hated because people think that it's supporting American interests in opposition to Iraqi interests, then the longer American dictates its actions, the worse the violence will get.

However, if the violence in Iraq can be traced to the irrationality of ethnic and religious violence, then the presence of inherently rational actors like Americans will only improve the situation. Obviously, then, things will only get worse if Americans leave, because we would then just be leaving the irrational Iraqis to fend for themselves, and they will not be able to stop themselves from exploding into a vicious orgy of violence.

That outcome is by no means assured. Perhaps American troops are having a net benefit upon the levels of violence in Iraq. However, the discussion that needs to happen is an honest assessment of the truth of this, rather than assumptions based more in a belief of American exceptionalism than the facts coming out of Iraq.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007
(9:07 AM) | Stephen:
Standing On Rock-Solid Principles

Josh Marshall has an interesting post this morning:
When you're stuck down at 30% approval and down to your last 18 months in office, an administration really has to pick and choose its battles. Only real matters of principle are worth a fight. And the Bush administration has found one -- resisting state efforts to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program to more middle income families.
I'd say that the only "principle" involved is the Bush Administration's strategy of opposing every piece of legislation that hasn't been written in the Oval Office, but Josh does make a good rhetorical point.

It never fails to amaze me just how callous GOP politicians can be toward children. I understand all the rhetoric about choices and personal responsibility and blah blah blah. What I don't get is the idea that children should pay for the mistakes of their parents.

This isn't about giving every child a Nintendo Wii and a pony. I fully understand that some families have more than others. What I'd like to see, though, is every child with enough to eat and the ability to see a doctor when it's needed.

Now, I know a lot of conservatives feel that, so long as one has a job of any kind, whatever financial problems one may have can be solved by lifestyle changes. Get a smaller house/apartment. Don't have a car. Eat nothing but ramen noodles, don't ever turn on any lights and get your water from a creek. With that in mind I can see how the Bush Administration would want to resist expansion of the program or institute stricter means testing for new enrollees. And doing so would reduce the cost of the program, which is in line with the Republican principle of fiscal "responsibility" for every program that might in some way benefit someone who is not rich.

But the changes that the Bush Administration is making are simply ridiculous:
Under the new policy, a state seeking to enroll a child whose family earns more than 250 percent of the poverty level -- or $51,625 for a family of four -- must first ensure that the child is uninsured for at least one year. The state must also demonstrate that at least 95 percent of children from families making less than 200 percent of the poverty level have been enrolled in the children's health insurance program or Medicaid -- a sign-up rate that no state has yet managed.
If you have a child and don't have health insurance, every day is stressful. Should your child play sports? What about school recess? A friend of ours had to take their daughter to the hospital recently because she and some friends had decided to go to their basement, tie a rope to the rafter and swing from the basement stairs toward the metal support pole in order to be able to slide down it like a firehouse pole. Somehow this brilliant plan went awry and the girl in question broke her arm.

Kids do these things. It's not even wrong. Let's face it: human beings are all enrolled in the school of hard knocks because we are rarely able to learn any other way. Given that two kids plucked at random are going to be pretty much the same in the way that they sometimes use good judgment and sometimes rather poor judgment, why should one kid be punished simply because her parents don't make as much money as the other kid's folks?


Monday, August 20, 2007
(10:35 AM) | Stephen:
To Whom We Belong

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, US Soldiers were sent in to New Orleans and surrounding towns. Since we know that people were not, in fact, evacuated with anything approaching haste, and we know that there were no attempts by the Federal Government to put up defenses against flooding, one might wonder just what those federal troops were doing.

Along with the New Orleans police, US soldiers were seizing guns.

As disturbing as that is - why yes, like most liberals, I understand what the 2nd Amendment says, even better than the gun fetishists at the NRA, thank you very much - we now have some new and even more troubling information. Apparently the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was the debut of the Department of Homeland Security's "Clergy Response Teams," clergy members* that have been trained by the Federal Government to quell unrest and to convince people that whatever the political authorities decided to do in an emergency is to be accepted without complaint. These pastors have been instructed to preach and teach from Romans 13 which says, as the American Federal Government happily points out, that governments are from God and should be obeyed. The US Government seems to be somewhat concerned about a restive population. It's certainly worrying to see that Homeland Security has set up such thorough plans and mechanisms for placating American citizens.

As far as the theology thats involved, Romans 13 is pretty clear:
Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. 2 So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. 3 For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. 4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. 5 So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience. (NLT)
In the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was President, I attend Point Loma Nazarene University and Nazarene Theological Seminary. I attended Nazarene churches and had a couple of staff positions, positions on the Church Board, etc. I can tell you - not merely "anecdotally" - that this chapter in Romans gave Evangelical Christians fits throughout that entire decade. Even George Bush Sr. was cause for concern, because of his "new world order" talk and his lack of Christianist code words throughout his speeches.

Aside from the blatant, casual hypocrisy that infuses Evangelical attitudes toward American government - "God-ordained when dominated by Republicans, "Ant-christ breeding ground" when it's Democrats in the majority - this blasé attitude toward Romans 13 and the claim that it commands not only submission but cooperation with earthly authorities is troubling, to say the least. The ancient Church certainly didn't have this attitude. For the first couple of centuries, converts to Christianity were to have no professional ties to the Roman government at all. If a soldier or other government functionary wanted to join the Church, he was to renounce his oath to Caesar, since it represented to the Church idolatry. If a member of the Church became functionary of the government - in any capacity but especially as a soldier - they were removed from the Church body until and unless they renounced such decision and went through a type of probation.

St. Augustine, so important to the development of Western thought, first rose to prominence because of the Donatist crisis, when a significant number of Christians believed that anyone who had renounced their faith during the most recent persecution of Christians should not be allowed back into the Church, and especially that sacraments performed by priests and bishops who had done so were not efficacious. It was Augustine who came up with the doctrine of ex opere operato, "by the work performed," which states that the value of the sacraments comes from God alone and is not dependent upon the righteousness of the priest or bishop in question. While it did allow for the reconciliation of those Christians who had cooperated and/or simply knuckled under to the Roman government's pressure, Augustine's solution to the problem said nothing about the inherent righteousness of always obeying earthly political authorities, and in fact recognized that what they had done was wrong and required repentance and reconciliation.

The first decades of the Church were marked by an extreme eschatological expectation, that Jesus would come back in a matter of months or years. As time passed, of course, this expectation started to wane among the larger Church, though there have always been groups within the Church that expect an imminent return and behave accordingly. There was an indifference to earthly political authorities because of the early Christians belief that Jesus would return and sweep them away quickly. Later, of course, we can see the development of doctrines and ideas of how exactly Christians were to live with the idea that perhaps Jesus wasn't going to come back right away. And so the later Epistles of the New Testament - ones like Romans and Ephesians - talk about ordering congregations and society in ways that would ensure the long-term existence of the Church, while it's the earlier letters - such as Galatians - that have the more radical statements such as God doing away with all earthly distinctions of gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

But we have to understand passages like Romans 13 within the context of the continuing eschatological expectation - the admonition to always be prepared for Christ's return - and the idea of the Kingdom of God. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God more than just about anything else - much more than he did "hell," whatever you may have heard - and told his followers that their loyalties, their treasure, their present and future all lay in that Kingdom and not really here on earth. Christians are citizens of various nations, but their true citizenship is to be in heaven, their true master is God and God alone. This is accepted Christian doctrine, though obviously the interpretation differs.

Romans 13, as seen in the light of the attitudes and actions of the early Church, is more about the Church's indifference to earthly powers and allegiance to a heavenly Kingdom than it is about alliances with the government of Herod, Nero or even George Bush. We are to obey earthly authority because all authority really belongs to God and so can be said to ontologically be derived from him. But it's not because God puts his stamp of approval upon all earthly governments or all that they do. And most of all Christians are to submit to rulers and laws because anything that happens to us here on earth is of far less value and import than what awaits us in heaven.**

The Church simply has no business cooperating with any government, because their aims are entirely different. The Church exists to spread "good news" about God's love and forgiveness, to feed, clothe, heal, house, and otherwise care for any and all who need it. Pastors and other Church leaders are to facilitate these activities and to provide spiritual care and direction. That's it. If a government has a program which coincides with these duties, great. But the Church is really not supposed to rely upon any government*** to do its work for it.

Neither does the Church need to care about the 2nd Amendment - or the 1st, for that matter - or about a docile population, or any of those things over which an earthly government obsesses. Individual Christians can care about these things and even get involved, but not as the Church, not with the authority of the Church itself, saying that God wants everyone to support this government idea or that government action. In fact, even though I'm far more sympathetic to things such as Liberation Theology, I still believe that the Church as a whole should not take part and I'm wary of individual Christians - especially priests - doing so. Of course, I believe that if the Church is doing its job it makes things much harder for a repressive government to function well, but what matters is intention.

No matter what Romans 13 says, any pastor that preaches to his or her congregation that they are to cooperate fully with the government and all its decisions is betraying their call and the Church they supposedly serve. They are allying themselves with an earthly power and effectively renouncing their belief and citizenship in the Kingdom of God.

*Alternet also has an article about it, and of course there's a couple of people at Shakes' place that have commented on this. But I linked to WorldNet Daily to show how this is considered egregious - to say the least - even to those predisposed to defend Bush and his policies.

**This isn't about Christians needing some big sky fairy to reward them in order for them to be moral, so please don't even bring it up.

***I'm a liberal who supports government intervention in these areas because I have seen the Church abdicate its responsibility for those in need, while the poor - just as Jesus said - have unfortunately continued to exist despite certain portions of Christianity desperately trying to ignore them. When the Church takes up its responsibilities again, I might change my philosophy of government.

(9:53 AM) | Stephen:
Monday, August 20th, 2007

Today dawned with clouds the color of old iron, the remains of last night's rain still scattered on the grass and trees. It's one of those Kansas City days when you can sweat more at 75 degrees than the desert dwellers do at 110.

We all woke up early this morning, earlier even than we had to, nervous anticipation of this day blocking our attempts to snuggle back down into the covers and sleep a little longer. Today is the first day of Kindergarten.

My daughter can of course now completely choose her own clothes - sometimes matching them! - brush her own teeth, wash her own face and brush her hair, though for this day she did want her mom's help putting in some clips. When breakfast was done and we were all scrubbed and dressed, she marched out the front door, backpack on, pink shirt and skirt, and sat herself in her booster seat. Somehow this little one managed to look so grown up even with all these accoutrements of childhood.

We walked in the doors of the school for the third time, the tang of the paper sharper than ever, the high notes of disinfectant a little louder with the bass of the school lunches already being prepared as the foundation for the white-noise melody of children's voices, over which float the spoken-word descants of the teachers and parents.

It is into this babble, this chaos, this world of study and play that I now place my daughter. And I know that this is the point at which all my talk about parenthood being merely the process by which we teach our children to be free of us becomes terribly real. I tell myself that she hasn't had enough time, that 5 is just too young for her to start this process, but the truth is that I haven't had enough time, that I'm afraid of the challenges, I'm worried about being good enough in the years ahead.

For my daughter, this is just about today, and the next little while. She knows that after Kindergarten comes 1st Grade, but she doesn't really give that thought any real existence. It's in the far-off, like Christmas or even next weekend. She'll just play and make friends and learn because that's what she does without thought or effort.

And I, I will do all that is possible to keep her on that path. And I will try to not dwell upon the day, too fast in coming, when my son walks in the same classroom for his first day.

Sunday, August 19, 2007
(2:40 PM) | Stephen:
Here We Go Again

DMH Ingredients, based in Libertyville, IL, has filed a lawsuit against Changzhou Kelong Chemical Co. Ltd. because they found metal shavings in 11,000 kilograms of the artificial sweetener aspartame.

In New Zealand, they've found that kids' pajamas made in China have incredibly high levels of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is used on clothes to make them "permanent press." New Zealand doesn't have any safety regulations for clothes, but the World Health Organization apparently considers anything over 20 parts per million to be unsafe. The European Union has set 30 parts per million as the upper limit allowed within those countries. The pajamas - for children, mind you, had formaldehyde levels of up to 18,000 ppm.

The article further says that buying clothes "made" in New Zealand isn't necessarily safe either, since the underlying fabric and materials might come from China and, in addition to the insane levels of formaldehyde, may have unsafe ph levels from the dyes used. Formaldehyde will wash off, but these other items will not.

Well, you get what you pay for. And the West has long pursued a policy of valuing cheap over quality and safety. But this is not to be laid solely or even mostly at consumers' feet, because we are not always told just where companies are getting the materials for the things we buy, and because most of the time the savings realized by exploiting nations without reasonable safety regulations and enforcement are turned into shareholder dividends and CEO bonuses, not into reduced prices for the products.

I still wonder if anything is ever going to come of the daily revelations of the deadly products that fill our stores, almost all of them made in China.

Friday, August 17, 2007
(9:52 AM) | Stephen:
What We've Accomplished

Behold what we have wrought:
The women are too afraid and ashamed to show their faces or have their real names used. They have been driven to sell their bodies to put food on the table for their children -- for as little as $8 a day.

"People shouldn't criticize women, or talk badly about them," says 37-year-old Suha as she adjusts the light colored scarf she wears these days to avoid extremists who insist women cover themselves. "They all say we have lost our way, but they never ask why we had to take this path."
Suha has three children. She's married; her husband thinks that she cleans houses.

"I don't have money to take my kid to the doctor. I have to do anything that I can to preserve my child, because I am a mother," she says, explaining why she prostitutes herself.

Anger and frustration rise in her voice as she speaks.

"No matter what else I may be, no matter how off the path I may be, I am a mother!"
Karima, another woman forced into prostitution to feed her family, has five children. Her oldest son is old enough to work, but she doesn't allow it because of how dangerous Iraq is. Another woman lives with her three children in just one room. She hosts her "clients" in that room, with each child in a different corner, facing the wall.

The cost of living in Iraq has risen. The nation's infrastructure is of course horribly damaged. Women who once could drive cars, travel freely outside their homes and hold legitimate jobs now are denied drivers' licenses, must cover themselves with scarves or burkas, cannot travel anywhere without a man's permission, and are denied many of the jobs that were once open to them. Women in today's Iraq don't go to school even if there happens to be a school nearby that hasn't had its fresh coat of paint bombed and burned off.

As is always the case, the same fanatics who deny women a place in society because of "religion" are the ones who ensure that they can earn money as prostitutes, indeed are much happier with prostitution being the main way that a woman can make money independently of a man, because it allows them to indulge their own dark desires while maintaining their own auras of purity and piety in their public facade.

This is the American legacy in Iraq. There is no functioning democracy. The few freedoms enjoyed by Iraq's citizens under Saddam are functionally gone even as pieces of paper proclaim their existence, even as American rhetoric claims the presence of far more. The Iraqi people simply are not better off now than they were under Saddam Hussein.

Nor are we, with North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons due in large part to the Bush administration's indifference, Osama still free due completely to the Bush Administration's indifference, the strong possibility that Iran is developing nuclear weapons to counter the threat they see in the USA due to the Bush Administration's provocation, and Iraq as the most effective propaganda tool and training ground for terroristic organizations the world has ever seen.

People of course argue that if the USA were to withdraw its forces - and, one would hope, its thumb from on top of the Iraqi government - things there would become far worse. That may be, but the point is that we simply don't know for sure. What we can know definitely is that continuing to do what we have been doing, only more of it, will ensure the exact same results we have been getting, only more of them.

The Iraqi women and children - always the most vulnerable in war - are living in Hell. The more bombs we drop, the more people we kill, the more instability we instigate and allow to fester throughout that country, the worse it will get for them. It's time to get out. It's time to stop this insanity, this monument to foolishness, this disaster of American arrogance and ignorance.

cross-posted at Ezra's place

Thursday, August 16, 2007
(3:13 PM) | Stephen:
Nanny State

The loony, moonbat, ultra-liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals predictably handed out rough treatment of the Justice Department yesterday.

At issue is whether lawsuits against the Federal Government and AT&T over warrantless wiretapping can indeed go forward. The Justice Department says that to let the suits proceed would put the nation in danger. They have also argued, essentially, that everyone should just take the government's word for it that nothing illegal has happened, nothing illegal is happening and nothing illegal will happen.

How quaint. For the record, this flaming liberal has never given complete trust to any level of any government and never will. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a liberal anywhere that would claim the level of trust in government for which the Justice Department is asking. Liberals simply believe that government can be effective at taking care of certain things. We're certainly not the ones who think the government should be able to listen in on everyone's conversations no matter what, or what behaviors are acceptable in people's bedrooms.

Of the two broadly defined political perspectives in this country, one is radically changing its rhetoric and actions. If I belonged to that perspective, I'd be pretty ticked off.

(1:57 PM) | Stephen:
Medical Credit Cards

In other Ezra news, he points out a TAP article about the increasing popularity of medical credit cards. Not only will providers accept plastic, but some actually advocate the use of specialty credit cards and will help patients apply for them. Americans have a real problem with understanding how credit works - that you actually have to pay the money back and that the interest rates are so high it's often impossible to pay off the debt by making minimum payments. In fact, if the amount charged is high enough, a person could double the minimum or more and still end up being charged more in interest each month than they are paying.

For the financial sector this type of thing is great. It's a whole new market for them. From the article,
banks and other issuers of credit can make money from medical services in numerous ways: collecting a fee from the medical provider for handling a transaction, charging interest on patient bills, and charging employers for acting as administrators of their HSAs and other medical spending accounts.
Helaine Olen, the author, sees the financial sector's involvement as troublesom for those who want to enact universal healthcare. With so much profit being generated in so many ways, creditors are going to resist any changes which might threaten the status quo. Private insurers - making money hand over fist while turning away any applicant they want - are of course the other powerful, entrenched interest that will oppose universal healthcare, or at least any form of it that doesn't ensure their continued profitability. What we're doing is making the opposition more powerful.

There is another problem with using credit cards to pay medical bills, one that isn't discussed in the article. Several states have protections in place for patients that are unable to pay their hospital bills. You can see some of the protections that have been recently enacted here. Connecticut has done some great work in this area. Some highlights:
Public Act 03-266 ensures that:
  • Patients are notified of free and discounted care policies. All hospital billing and collection agents, whether internal or external to the particular hospital, have to include notice of the available charity programs in every collection notice sent to patients.
  • Patients indebted to a hospital are assessed by the hospital to determine whether they are eligible for charity care assistance. These assessments must be conducted before the hospital can sue the patient for the debt. If a collector learns that a debtor may qualify for charity care, the collector must cease collection activities, even if a lawsuit is in progress or the collector has won a lawsuit.
  • Medical debt is recognized as involuntary debt and not subject to the same kind of punitive debt collection tactics that Connecticut law normally allows.
  • The interest rates that hospitals are allowed to charge to patients are capped. The maximum monetary judgment interest on hospital debt is now set at 5 percent. For other debts, the maximum judgment can be 10 percent. Until this law was passed, hospitals had been able to collect 10 percent interest.
  • Special hearings are held before wage garnishment or bank execution (when the hospital or collection agency takes money out the patient’s bank account) is permitted .
These protections are for debts owed to hospitals. Debt owed to credit card companies is under no such protection. Whatever protection any particular state has for people that incur medical debt completely flies out the window when Visa, MasterCard and American Express are the ones sending the bills.

(10:20 AM) | Stephen:
How To Be A Journalist

Ezra interviewed Bill Richardson recently, and he's got the transcript and a short article about it up now.

I'd like to think that I could add some insightful commentary, but Ezra - as usual - covers all the bases. This, however, is worth highlighting (from the transcript):

You said something there that I've heard you say before, that I've always wanted to ask you about -- you said you're a pro-growth Democrat. Can you name some anti-growth Democrats for me?

No, I'm not going to do that. But I know some.

But you use that term frequently, and I'm always curious what you're actually contrasting yourself to. What part of the party, or what strain of economic thinking, do you count as anti-growth?

I'm not going to specify. I just believe that it's important that we not preclude options to incentive the economy in the right way -- to give tax cuts to the middle class, to give incentives to renewable energy companies to make them grow. I'm not for the Bush tax cuts, I'm not for the 2 percent.

These are the questions that hardly anyone asks. In fact, besides Ezra himself, I'm not aware of a journalist asking any politician to simply explain what they mean by what they say. Most of the time we're just given their words: "Richardson, a self-described "pro-growth Democrat," said in an interview with Writey McWriterson today that Democrats should be pro-growth." And that's the end of it, with no question about just what he means.

Imagine the difference in our national discourse if journalists actually took it upon themselves to ask questions of these people instead of merely repeating what they say. Here's hoping and praying that Ezra is but the vanguard of a new, and much better, class of journalist.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007
(2:23 PM) | Stephen:
Japanese Food Is AWESOME

I really don't have anything against Japan, the Japanese people or individual Japanese. Seriously, I don't. And I try very hard to respect other cultures and the different ways we all do things - in fact, I tend to celebrate these differences because they make life interesting.

But Japan has a problem with food. Oh, not actual Japanese cuisine which, with the exception of natto and a few other items, is incredibly refined and impressive. No, Japan has a problem with Western food. It's not enough, apparently, to just import some foods from the West, to have McDonalds and to start eating cheese.

No, the Japanese people apparently think that they need to do stuff like this:

That, my friends, is a Salty Dog. It's a simple cocktail of vodka (or gin) and grapefruit juice and a salted rim. But that's not salt, is it? No, on the above "cocktail" the rim is covered in mayonnaise. It's one of the, er, delightful and whimsical menu items at the "Mayonnaise Kitchen" in Tokyo.

Mayonnaise by itself is of course an unqualified evil no matter the culinary setting. But the people fueling its popularity and resultant "creativity" with the foul condiment in Japan are dancing on the knife edge of the Apocalypse, and the rest of us are in danger of falling with them. They must be stopped.

(11:08 AM) | Stephen:
Purity Over People

On Monday, August 6, Cecil Sinclair died. He was only 46. He was a veteran of the Navy, who rescued downed pilots during the first Gulf War. Mr. Sinclair's brother is employed by High Point Church in Arlington, Texas. He's also a member there, and 6 years ago, when Cecil Sinclair became sick from a heart condition, the church prayed for him. When Sinclair died from complications to a surgery, a minister from the church went to the family to help them.

Cecil Sinclair was not a member of any church, so High Point Church volunteered the use of their facility, a meal for around 100 people and even to have their people put together a PowerPoint show with photos from Sinclair's life. The church asked if they could have an altar call at the end of the funeral service, and even though Lee Sinclair is the only member of the family associated with the church, the family agreed.

The funeral was to be held on Thursday, August 9th. On Wednesday, a member of High Point Church was in the building, working on the PowerPoint presentation for the funeral. As he went through the photographs, Cecil Sinclair's real problem became disturbingly apparent:

Cecil Sinclair was a homosexual.

We can probably assume that none of the photos depicted Sinclair having sex with other men. But we can certainly assume that the photos selected by the family showed him alive, living, with family members and friends, perhaps trips he took. Sinclair was a member of a choir; certainly there were photos of performances and such.

Wednesday night, the evening before the funeral, High Point Church contacted the family and told them that they would not be allowed to have the funeral at the church. That Cecil Sinclair's life was such that no activity which honored his life could be held within the walls of the church.

This isn't just about homosexuality, of course. Oh, no, for

The pastor said that he could imagine a similar situation involving a different sin. Perhaps a mother who is a member of the church loses a son who is a thief or murderer, Mr. Simons said. The church would surely volunteer to hold a service, he said.

"But I don't think the mother would submit photos of her son murdering someone," he said. "That's a red light going off."

Emphasis is, of course, mine. Simons' - the church's senior pastor - honesty is refreshing. Unfortunately, that's about the only positive thing that could be said of his idea that being a homosexual is the same as being a murderer.

This is a good example of what I wrote about a couple of posts ago. While I disagree with their understanding of the Bible, I can understand why they feel that their condemnation of homosexuality is not only acceptable but required.

Quite aside from competing interpretations of scripture as to whether homosexuality is a sin like any other, equal in God's eyes to murder, High Point Church was presented with a choice. It is the same choice faced by the priest and the Temple assistant on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. It's the same choice that all of us, no matter our beliefs, face on almost a daily basis.

Last Wednesday, the leadership of High Point Church had to choose between safeguarding their own righteousness or extending love to people in pain. Which is more important? That High Point's doctrinal statements are honored, or that human beings are comforted in a time of grief? What good are beliefs, doctrinal statements, morality - righteousness - if we are forced to sacrifice our fellow human beings for them?

This is why I'm so convinced of the utter depravity of present-day Christianity. The Christ who ate with tax collectors, thieves, prostitutes and other sinners has been lost to us, in favor of a transcendent, ethereal Judge. The Jesus whom the Gospels tell us to worship has been replaced in our hearts by the same commandments, the same laws and rules so carefully guarded and practiced by the Pharisees of the 1st century CE. It's no coincidence that in recent years people have been writing journal articles and books that rehabilitate the Pharisees, that reinterpret the relationship Jesus had with them from antagonistic to friendly rivalry, to the type of conflict between people with similar aims and goals.

Righteousness or love. That's the choice we face. And the righteousness we protect is always my righteousness, my purity. In contrast, to choose love is to necessarily involve and honor the needs of others.

The case can be made for protecting and preserving righteousness. But that case is never made by Jesus, who always chose the other over his own status, who always chose love over all else and commanded us to do the same.

Friday, August 10, 2007
(2:09 PM) | Stephen:

Please meet my brand-new hero, Scott Dawson:

Mr. Dawson lives in Houston, whose weather takes words like "muggy, humid, hot, horrible and hellish" and kicks the everliving tar out of them. And that's in January. It's worse in the summer.

Mr. Dawson was living in Houston, in the summer, with a car that has no air conditioning. He didn't have the $1,200 he needed to set his car up the conventional way. But no matter, because Scott Dawson is a freaking genius. He took a window unit home air conditioner, some duct tape, straps, vents and some elbow grease and solved his problem quite well.

Here's another view:

I have been in Houston in the summer, and have tried to cool my vehicle down with conventional automobile air conditioning. It takes a looooong time for the sweat to stop pouring down my face. A long time. I bet that Scott Dawson now has the most comfortable car in all of south Texas. The article says he's a civil engineering graduate. Looks to me like he'll do fine.

(11:18 AM) | Stephen:
Righteousness vs. Love

Let's talk about sin, shall we? It's a big part of Christianity, and a huge part of why people criticize Christianity. The Westminster Shorter Catechism has the classic definition of sin, which is, "Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God." That is to say, anything at all which either fails to live up to the perfect law of God and/or which breaks that law - sins of "omission" and sins of "commission."

I can accept that definition; indeed I need to if I want to be true to my faith. However, such a definition is not the final word on the matter. John Wesley said that sin is "a willful transgression of the known law of God." In Wesley's formulation, for sin to be "sin, properly so-called" the person needs to know that it's wrong and needs to make a free, conscious decision to commit the sin.

Wesley didn't want to do away with the classic definition, though. His distinction among sin is that while each "type" of sin - those sins which are knowingly committed and those about which we are completely ignorant - absolutely require forgiveness and grace, the latter sins are provided for by "prevenient" or "preventing" grace.

Grace - that's the thing which must always be a part of any discussion of sin. Paul said that no matter how much sin there may be, grace will always be more abundant. No matter how grievous the sin, how despicable the sinner, there is enough grace, and more, and even more. In the next chapter (Romans 6) he addresses the question of whether, then, we should intentionally sin in ever-increasing amounts so that the abundance of grace could be increased in ever-greater amounts.

Well, no. That's cynical, and if you read the Bible you'll find that God has a surprisingly low tolerance for things like that.

Prevenient grace - the grace that "goes before" - is a key element of Wesley's theology. It means that God's grace infuses all of creation, that before there is any understanding of God, or sin, or forgiveness, there is God's grace doing its work of drawing people to him and providing for forgiveness. The doctrine of prevenient grace is why it's ok to baptize infants and allow children to participate in Communion.

The biggest difference between Wesleyan/Arminian theology and Reformed theology is that the former emphasizes and relies upon God's grace and love, while the latter emphasizes and relies upon God's sovereignty and righteousness. If your starting point is "God loves us and extends grace to us," then you will tread a far different path than if you start with "God is sovereign and righteous."

Because, ultimately, righteousness and love are going to come into conflict with one another. Righteousness, sovereignty and justice are strongly objective categories. They can be defined, spelled out, and applied universally, to every situation. Righteousness, then, allows us to set forth right behavior and wrong behavior in any and every situation - and it does not allow us to deviate at all, for any reason.

Starting with God's sovereignty and righteousness leads us to elaborate forensic formulations about the purpose and work of Jesus. It's very reductive, making Jesus into nothing more than a particularly powerful and efficacious sacrifice as prescribed by the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Mosaic Covenant. Certainly there is that element in the New Testament, but that doesn't explain the whole of Jesus' life, actions and teachings.

But these extremely rigid formulations about how the death of Jesus ultimately satisfies God's requirement of blood sacrifices to atone for our sins are necessary to reconcile the way in which the love that is present in God's forgiveness conflicts with the idea that his sovereignty expressed through his righteousness is his primary characteristic.

Don't think that love and righteousness can conflict? Let's take a look, then, at a particularly famous parable told by Jesus: that of the "Good Samaritan." It's a simple story. A Jewish man is robbed by literal highway bandits, beaten and left for dead. The next several travelers on that road consist of a Jewish priest, a Jewish Temple assistant and then a Samaritan businessman. Samaritans are believed to have been the descendants of those people who were left in Palestine after the defeat of Israel and Judah. They considered themselves to be the true heirs of the faith of Israel's patriarchs, while the larger Jewish community considered them to be collaborators with Israel's enemies, half-breeds and heretics.

But the point of the parable is deeper and larger than the idea that someone hated by Jesus' audience could be the "hero" of the story. It's important, vitally important, to understand that the priest and the Temple assistant didn't do anything wrong. You can follow this link for a BibleGateway search for the term "dead body" within the context of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Put simply, the Jews had a lot of rules for when to touch a dead body and what needed to happen afterward. Anyone who did touch a dead body, even if absolutely necessary and unavoidable, was ceremonially unclean and could not participate in worship of any kind. The rules for priests, for anyone associated with the holiness of the Temple were even more stringent.

The priest and Temple assistant that passed the dying man on the road did the right thing. We're so programmed to think otherwise that it's hard to see their actions as anything but inappropriate, but the truth is that these men preserved their righteousness before God. They were, according to Jewish law and tradition, blameless in the matter.

That Jesus then brings a Samaritan down the road is significant for more than just how much Samaritans were despised by the Jews. Romans were similarly hated, if not more. If Jesus' point had been to merely bring up a hated ethnic group, a Roman - especially a soldier - would have done quite nicely. But the Samaritans had something that the Romans didn't - namely, an obligation to maintain the exact same standards of purity as the Jews.

In other words, in order for the Samaritan to help the man on the side of the road, even to merely find out whether he was truly dead or still alive, the Samaritan had to sin. Even though the Samaritan didn't have any duties at the Temple in Jerusalem over his head, he still broke Torah in order to care for the man at the side of the road. The Samaritan broke Torah, he made himself unclean, all for the sake of a man who, given the common attitudes of the day, would probably not return the favor and who, had he known what was going on, would have refused the help in the first place.

On the road between Jerusalem and Jericho a man was robbed, beaten and left for dead. Three men passed by the spot where he lay, and all three of them had a choice: Love or Righteousness. It was a clear choice, no ambiguity, nothing in Torah that gave any of them an out, an excuse to contravene the clear commands of God.

Love versus Righteousness. We are all faced with this choice. We all must decide which it will be, for the two are often in conflict with one another. Even God has faced this choice, has been forced to decide whether he will be defined by his own righteousness or by his love. When God set up his covenant with ancient Hebrews, he made it clear that they were under his protection and owed him their entire allegiance. If they strayed from him, then he would wipe them from the earth. He would allow them to be completely destroyed, scattered, lost as a people. These were the terms of the covenant, of the sacred agreement between God and his people.

And we see that it started to happen. The ancient Israelites turned away from God, worshiped other deities, oppressed the poor, enslaved the foreigner, allowed widows and orphans to starve. Not only was it God's right to destroy them, but his obligation that he set forth for himself. Yet in Hosea 11 - merely one example - God speaks through the prophet of what he has done for Israel. This chapter is, in its form, similar to other litanies of this type that recount God's accomplishments for his people.

But this is a lament, not a list of God's victories or justification for demanding Israel's allegiance. This is one of those moments in the Bible where it's not explicit, but where it's easier to understand what God's going through if we understand him as Mother. The pain of our Heavenly Mother is clear in this passage, this litany of how much God and her children have been through.

Hosea 11
1 "When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

2 But the more I called Israel,
the further they went from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.

3 It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.

4 I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love;
I lifted the yoke from their neck
and bent down to feed them.

5 "Will they not return to Egypt
and will not Assyria rule over them
because they refuse to repent?

6 Swords will flash in their cities,
will destroy the bars of their gates
and put an end to their plans.

7 My people are determined to turn from me.
Even if they call to the Most High,
he will by no means exalt them.

8 "How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.

9 I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.
For I am God, and not man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come in wrath.

Faced with the choice between God's own righteousness and his love, God chooses love. Over and over again, God chooses love over righteousness. How could we possibly do any different?

Next we'll discuss a real-word example of this.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007
(1:47 PM) | Stephen:
Why I Am A Democrat

This is where my political beliefs and principles come from:

What did this man do wrong? In what way did he fail, that he would deserve such a thing? Show me this man's immorality, his sin, that justifies what has happened to him and his family.

I'm beginning to think that the root problem with the conservative movement is that, despite the rhetoric, it never has been about "small government" or even about "personal responsibility." Individuals can and surely do believe that. But the movement in aggregate certainly does not.

The movement fights every pay increase. It passes bankruptcy legislation which simultaneously makes it harder for individuals to declare bankruptcy and easier for corporations and protects corporations from lawsuits by individuals seeking to recover some of their losses. The conservative movement touts "free trade" as some great way to not only make everyone richer but also to expand democracy when it does neither. "Free trade," in the real world, simply means making it easier to move jobs from the USA to countries that don't have the same protections for their workers or the same standards for products.

And the conservative movement paints those who are poor as lazy, immoral, lacking in character. Even when you work for a company for 34 years, retire because of a disability and then lose your pension and health insurance through no fault of your own.

And when Democrats say that perhaps it's time for American citizens to band together so these things don't happen, the conservative movement shrieks "socialism" or some such nonsense. When people stop fearing one thing long enough to start calling for change, then it's time to trot out homosexuals, or immigrants, or to come up with another unfounded terrorism "alert," or to pretend that they care about abortion.

All of that in order to protect the wealth and privileges of an extremely small minority.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007
(3:30 PM) | Stephen:

Oklahoma's Legislature has passed a bill that declares the Watermelon the state's official vegetable. See, the strawberry is already their state fruit, so obviously they needed to. . . .find a way to honor the watermelon.

It's obvious, really. Sure, the watermelon is a fruit*, but the only other option would have been to not honor the watermelon! Unthinkable.

Why is it that we have state fruits, vegetables, insects and all that?


If you are the type of person who can't be honest with your loved ones, then have I got a product for you. It's called "My Last Letter." It gives you a chance to write down all your true feelings about everything and everyone, secure in the knowledge that you will finally let everyone know how you truly feel without any consequences. You can admit the love you carried in your heart, confess your betrayals, let the police know where the bodies are hidden, tell off bosses and family members, and they'll never be able to do anything about it!


Do you have an insensitive jerk of a friend or family member who died and then took the coward's way out, having an email sent to you after the funeral tell you all their secrets and true feelings? Is the pain of your husband's death made worse by a postmortem confession of a bunch of other wives? Did your recently deceased mom just tell you that your father isn't your father?

Don't live with burning anger and crushing hurt for the rest of your life! Let the jerk know exactly how you feel with Afterlife Telegrams! For only $5 per word (min. 5 words), you can have your message memorized by a terminally ill person who will personally deliver your message immediately upon death!


Baby Einstein videos apparently don't make your kids smarter. Also, wishing on stars is a surprisingly ineffective way to accomplish anything and Abraham Lincoln and JFK don't have nearly as many connections as you have heard. People could do with a bit of expectations management.

*Don't quote watermelon.org at me and try to say that it's both. Just because something is vegetation doesn't mean it's a vegetable. If you're eating a plant's ovary, it's a fruit. And watermelons are nothing if not very big, tasty ovaries.

(10:27 AM) | Stephen:
Sausage Roll Pizza!

A few days ago I posted about a bold new taste experience from Pizza Hut in Japan. It's a mouthwatering combination of pigs in blankets, hamburger patties, corn, sausage, mushrooms, sliced tomatoes - man, I'm getting hungry again over this thing.

I'm sure you feel the same way. I'm also quite certain that you're as disappointed as I am to not be in Japan right now eating one of these things. I may not have tickets to Japan for us, but I've got the next best thing. Here, in all its grease-sizzling, ketchup (I think)-dousing glory, is the commercial for the Sausage Roll Pizza!

I may not put up content for several days in a row, but when I come back, I really come back, folks.

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