Torture and Christians

I am one of those Christians who believe that torture is outside the realm of Christian behavior. It distinguishes the legitimate actions of the state and the church, and the church must have no part in it.

So I was initially surprised when reading about a poll that indicates that Christians, overall, supported torture in greater numbers than the unreligious. But on the other hand it makes sense.

For those of us who see secularity, as a logical outgrowth of the Christian tradition, this should be seen as a success. This view holds that Christianity has pervaded the culture so thoroughly that we expect the state to uphold the integrity of the body. Our expectations of the behavior of the state are now different than how a pagan state had viewed torture. I do worry that this hold is shaky – more of the elites in this country are now formed by The Fountainhead rather than the Sermon on the Mount. But that non-religious people do not support torture should be comforting. There is no intrinsic reason why they should have inculcated such views.

But over the last 40 years, as liberal protestantism has diminished, Christians by and large have become captivated by the Republican party. They are its foot soldiers. So it might be that what is really happening is a defense of the Bush-Cheney years, a way of reconfirming one’s previous position. It takes too much psychic energy to admit one is wrong and change one’s mind. In short, Christians who support torture do so because their political allegiances form how they are religious.  They are politically captive.

The benefit of knowing Christ means that we realize we can afford to be wrong, to be transformed, to change, while also remembering we are still worthy of love and respect even though, and perhaps because of, the mistakes we make. A faithful Christian must be able to take the risk of being willing to change one’s mind and conform with Christ, not with the needs of the imperial state.

The purpose of torture has always been, primarily, to silence dissent, invoke fear, and force conformity. After 9/11 the administration instructed the CIA to conduct these exercises, creating conflict within the organization. Those responsible for ordering these practices should be held for war crimes.

On Distributing Ashes at the Train Station

Today I offered “ashes to go” at the White Plains train station.  It’s apparently controversial, but I’m letting others do the heavy theological lifting. I wanted to experience it before I reflected.

It was cold. Below freezing. We still haven’t gotten out of the polar vortex, which I think has decided that it’s very comfortable in its new digs and has decided it will never leave.  Besides, spring has gone fishing. Ice fishing.

At first, I stood outside the train station in my cassock and surplice for a bit, but once I found myself unable to move my hands, I entered the lobby across from the newspaper kiosk.  It was also cold. The doors kept opening as commuters rushed in.  To keep my hands warm, I’d rub them against each other as I held my little glass bowl full of burned palms. I would have rubbed them between my surplice and cossack, but I worried it would look vaguely illegal. So I kept my hands visible.

I stood still, as I didn’t want to be pushy, merely present.  Available to the seeker, but conveniently ignored by the apathetic, distracted, and irreligious. I didn’t want to raise anyone’s anxieties or hurt anyone’s feelings by being so enthusiastically a priest.

People said, “I heard about this.” Apparently the radio and papers found this fascinating. Press might be good. Look at those quirky Episcopalians, standing in the cold, offering dirt and telling people they’re all going to die.

“I didn’t know this was happening,” said another. This?

“Can you do this?” Am I allowed? Well, I won’t tell anyone if you won’t, I didn’t say. I have a license. Continue reading

Consequences of the Decline of the Mainline Church?

I’m not sure if there is causal or correlative, but I wonder if there a link between the decline of the mainline church and:

1) Less political involvement

2) Higher levels of stress, anxiety and frustration

3) A decline in voluntarism

4) Higher rates of depression

5) Greater concentration of wealth

6) Balkanization of our social networks, by class, age and interest

I’m not sure of church is a “cure,” or what an antidote is.  On the other hand, our desires can now be more easily gratified.  We can avoid the difficulty of people in the flesh through the ease of people online.  But it seems that this merely has the impact of concentrating power in the hands of those who control the platforms to which we’ve become addicted.

Race, Miley, etc

Today is the fifty year anniversary of MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech.  When I was a child, my dentist had a big poster of that speech on his wall, the words floating as a silk-screen print.  As I would get my teeth cleaned, I’d reread the selection over and over if only to distract myself from the invasiveness of the procedure.

And here we are.  I’m not sure how I would assess our culture’s current level of racism.  Certainly we have a lot to do in our institutional life:  we’ve decided that jail is how we will house people of color, especially black men.   The drug war has become the way live “institutional racism.”

It is true that people are less likely to have conscious views about racial inferiority, and the instinctive discomfort of difference has changed.   But plainly, we see our racism in our economic choices as a nation:  instead of investing in schools or jobs we buy prisons and soldiers.   Mass incarceration creates and ensures a class of people, mainly black men, will always struggle to have wider choices in their lives.  The drug war is the vehicle. I’m not interested in changing hearts.  That’s for the Lord.  But we can, as citizens, change our institutional priorities.  To be an anti-racist means opposing the war on drugs and struggling with the institutions that economically benefit from the prison industrial complex.

And Miley.  I admit, I am old enough I have no experience with her previous incarnations.  The song?  Meh.  But it wasn’t the spectacle of transgressive sexuality that was bothersome (how I miss subtlety and innuendo), but the strange way she harnessed race in her act.

I was startled – I find large cute stuffed animals disconcerting, the way others experience clowns or mimes.  I had questions:  is this a commentary on fetishes?  What does the protruding tongue mean?  Hunger?  Sensuality?  Or is it simply a weird face?  Is Miley wearing a costume or a bikini?  It looks hot.  Not sexy hot, just uncomfortable.  Yes, she should take it off.  Why was she wearing it in the first place?

Can someone sit her down and feed her a big plate of Fettucini Alfredo?

Is this a minstrel show I’m watching now?

She is singing some words and she says she can’t stop.

Am I supposed to be aroused?  Who is Robert Thicke?  Is that a lap dance?  Why is he wearing a suit?   God, that song is so overrated.

Miley Cyrus can’t stop.  But I could.  So I did.

The Repeal of DOMA

Yesterday I broke open a bottle of champagne with a couple friends, a demi-sec Lanson, in celebration of the Supreme Court decision.

While pleased, I still find it startling when people think of it as a religious issue.  For me it’s a simple matter of fairness about benefits.  Someone else’s choice of partner does not change how I practice or what I believe.  I am not offended if someone calls a partnership a “marriage,” and I find it perplexing when we think that God is worried about these sorts of definitions.   And ff God does have a specific idea about marriage, I’ll make my case before the judgment seat and explain why I have erred on the side of charity and magnanimity for gay people.   I’m not worried – the scriptures say that God is merciful.

There remain ways gay people live outside of marriage that can inform the culture about what a joyful sexuality might look like.  And so I wonder if the conversation on marriage distracts us from some opportunities to understand how we might negotiate our rapidly changing culture.  Although I think marriage is a crucial, imperfect sacramental institution, perhaps we can learn from gay people rather than insist they fit into a less threatening box.

And while all of this is happening, we’re seeing politicians actively attack reproductive health; the economy remains owned by a small class of powerful people; and our decision-making bodies have stalled on climate change.  I find it disturbing that some who are most transforming (damaging?) our economy are the same people who fund marriage equality.  So while I take joy that this symbol – and the benefits – are extended fairly, I hope that this enthusiasm can extend to other important movements upon which the fate of our country, and perhaps the world, depends.

Is this the Church’s Moment?

Christopher Hedges recently gave a speech challenging churches, in particular Trinity Church, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street.  When Christopher Hedges boldly proclaims this is the church’s moment, my ears perk up.    Christopher Hedges knows religion, he knows church, and he’s philosophically sophisticated.  And I’m sympathetic, but as someone in the religion business, here are some instructions about how to reach out to church leaders and congregations.

Most pastors are an open-minded, well-read, sympathetic bunch.  And like everyone else they have their anxieties.

But of you want to engage or make demands upon churches, learn who they are.

It’s not hard.  Call the church and make an appointment.  Don’t make demands or ask for a favor.  Just to learn about the priest and the challenges of running a modern church.

In a busy church you may instead talk to a curate or a priest for community formation.  Get to know them also, though they might not be in charge.

Meet the sexton, the person who cares for the building.  Also meet the lay leader who has some authority in the church.

Why? Those people get work done.  Church people are hard workers.  They gather in order to solve problems.  They want to help.   They’re doing a lot of the unsexy serving that happens on a regular basis.   Over the last 40 years, they’ve done lots of work that has been ignored by the media.

In bigger churches, it will be easier if you are an “institutional representative.”  If you’re not intending on joining the parish, it’s easier to get some time if you have connections with other people.  That’s what “institutional representation” is:  a way of verifying you’re not just some random person who wants time, but someone who has relationships and represents what others believe.   Clergy sometimes are very available, but in busy parishes, like corporations, they allocate their time and have gatekeepers.

Our culture has become so radically balkanized between church people (who feel besieged) and the non-religious (who are perplexed).   Churches have been burned by social justice groups.  And social justice groups seem to find most churches ideologically suspect.

I can affirm that when I visited Occupy Wall Street, I was met with unexpecedly friendly and supportive faces.  I’mused to people fleeing when I’m in my collar, as the world puts me in an unsavory category.   Here, instead, they sought my blessing.     And I, instead, felt myself blessed.

However, our institutions have resisted, by and large, commodification.  Although we are imperfect, we’ve been negotiating the public-private debate for decades.   We’re private organizations who exist for the public.   This makes us responsible in a way that our government is not.

And we may get things wrong.  But I’m sure, in the case of Trinity Wall Street, that Dr. Cooper has a lot on his plate.   He has many voices he needs to consider, and his sympathies are most likely pulled in multiple directions.  I would argue that it is not his role to take sides, but to maintain connections.    And for this reason, it is crucial that an institutional representative of Occupy Wall Street sit down with any clergy for the sole reason to help every priest discern what is actually going on.

Because occupying property owned by Trinity Church isn’t actually occupying Wall Street.  That would mean trying to enter the buildings that house the institutions of power.  Trinity might actually be able to help the occupiers, but offering space might be the least effective way it can help.  But we don’t know.

Any movement, whether Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party, that does not lay a foundation by getting to know the players in other institutions such as the church, may find itself disappointed in the church’s reaction.  This is not because we aren’t sympathetic:  but we seek to fulfill our obligations also to all sorts of conditions, including those who are not part of whatever movement is around us.  Our reticence is not disapproval.  And our hesitation should not be interpreted as cowardice.

When I was asked in my class about how I felt about Occupy Wall Street, I hemmed and hawed.  I said I was sympathetic:  the social contract had been undermined over the last forty years; those who’d been most responsible had not been brought to justice; and our system seemed devoid of character and virtue.

But over the last few weeks, it has simply been: I don’t always know what is going on.   I’m sometimes skeptical of authority, while appreciative of its effectiveness.  I think it is an emerging movement rather than a focused one.  I’m baffled by those taking it to the university (why there?) or the ports.  But I’m attracted to its energy.  It’s intriguing how social media has transformed the national dialogue about wealth.   I hope it will invite a better discussion of how our nation builds wealth, and the complexities of class.  But as a priest, I still exist in the world of face-to-face relationships and am instinctively wary of ideological posturing or movement politics.

Chris Hedges is surely right to ask churches where they stand.  We must be more open about talking about our economic condition, the roots of our current malaise, and clear about the system’s shortcomings.

But churches do not properly engage movements.  They engage individuals.  When there is danger, of course the church must offer shelter.  But sustained engagement, one that offers the hospitality of the church, requires first that people in the movement and in the church do the necessary work of listening and learning about one another.  It is through these relationships we can build the bonds that can sustain us as we critique our disastrous system.  Occupy Wall Street will only strengthen if it builds relationships with other institutions, or else the movement will fizzle.

This is hard work.   We are in a culture that values immediacy and quick answers.  To ask OWS and churches to sit down first and learn about each other seems like a waste of time.  I suggest that this view of “time” suggests that capital itself controls the game, commodifying the work it takes to strengthen the bonds of trust that can build alternative organizations.  It is when we first sit down, without demands, to listen to each other that we can understand what is actually going on; and from there, what work needs to be done.

And that work is the challenge.

A Response to Amanda Marcotte on religion’s death throes

Amanda Marcotte got the memo.  Religion in America is dying, and the religion of bigotry is finding it hard to maintain its followership.

We liberal protestants have known institutional decline for about forty years.  Since Sgt. Pepper’s and Vietnam, our communities have slowly been devastated by all sorts of economic and social forces.

But it’s not the old order.  The old order she refers to is young.  It arose in reaction to liberal Protestantism’s social victories, especially around race.  Once, fundamentalism was considered by the elites a backwater worldview held by hicks and southerners.  Its theology was historically condemned by the church Catholic.  But after race was confronted institutionally in private schools by the federal goverment, Ralph Reed and his associates organized conservative churches into their current political force as a cohesive wing in the Republican Party.  Like Amanda, I look forward to its self-destruction.

Overall, however, I’m not as sanguine about what a godless country means.    For the American religion has also been diverse, sometimes thinly held, and pragmatic.  In particular, I’m thankful for liberal Protestantism, once a powerful part of American politics.

For at the Ohio Wesleyan Conference in March, 1942,  the Federal Council of Churches created the moral framework for the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, decolonization, and civil rights.   It’s leaders included industrialists, policy makers and heads of churches.  In England, the Malvern Conference gave the spiritual support for the modern British welfare state.  It is no coincidence that the most important successes of liberalism came with the support of powerful religious institutions.

Yes, I know.  Religion’s horrible.  Remind me, again, about the children’s crusade; the religious wars and the inquisition, Galileo’s excommunication, and the Scopes trial.    But I’ve yet to read a serious scholar who argued they weren’t also about resources, personality and urbanization.

Yet while the power of religious institutions has declined, citizenship has not improved.   The country pays lip service to Martin Luther King, but the plutocrats read Ayn Rand.  The elites themselves have been delivered from even paying lip service to Christian virtue, jettisoning the justice of any kind of restraint.    While the patriarchy has diminished, evolutionary psychology is now the faith of young men.   While liberal religion is mocked, it has been replaced with a much more powerful faith in tax-cuts.   And believing in tax-cuts is just that:  a faith, a faith that is more powerful than the burdens of Christian conviction.

I’m skeptical that this is improvement.

The collapse of religious institutions will not necessarily mean enlightenment or justice.  Instead we may be rewarded with competitive cynical technocrats, shielded by a cool irreverence, disinterested in any sort of ideals save the power of the market or the military.  I’m skeptical that we should be cheery about the Brave New World that may replace it.

We remain creatures who need hope, meaning and a just imagination to limit the power of those who consider the restraint of religion arduous.   Religion provided that language, however insufficiently its institutions followed its own rules.  The dismantlement of the sacred and reverence may merely mean more people who worship consumer culture.

Surely, the end of ignorance means the capitulation of some traditional religious teaching.  Let those particular traditions whither on the vine.   But it will not mean that superstition and illogic has been defeated.  Nor will what comes next be an explosion of peace, charity, or wisdom.   Those will remain rare, the narrow road, the eye of the needle.  Fortunately, we need only a mustard seed’s worth for the world to keep moving, for redemption to remain on the horizon.

I trust that the churches may still, in perhaps a much more modest form, cultivate apostles who can speak truthfully, be charitable to their opponents, be open to conflict, and willing to change their mind when proven wrong.    Perhaps we can dispense with ideology, and return to seeking what wisdom remains in our precarious, broken, and imperfect world.