"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, December 05, 2016

Po-Mo Christmas History

So a new book pops up in a review at Slate, all about the controversies of Christmas since at least the 5th century.  Or maybe not.

I can't blame the book, because I haven't read it, so I have to blame the reviewer.  The review opens with a seemingly inflammatory quote from a sermon from 400 C.E.:

“This festival teaches even the little children, artless and simple, to be greedy,” as one critic put it. “The tender minds of the young begin to be impressed with that which is commercial and sordid.”

But in context, the complaint is really just about disorder and license, and has nothing to do with a Christian feast that is not yet widely observed:

Of a public feast, this, then, should be the rule and law: first, that the festival have a distinct object; and then that the mirth be common to all; not that a part enjoy themselves and the rest be left in dejection and pain. For this latter condition is characteristic of war rather than of a feast, since it is inevitable that the victors parade in their victory, while the conquered bewail their misfortune. Now in these days, first, it is not clear for what object this festival is celebrated. For the many legends current concerning it are mutually subversive and disclose nothing certain. Then I see only a few making merry, while the mass of the people are melancholy, even though they try to conceal their dejection by a cheerful demeanor; while all is noise and tumult, the multitude heedlessly jostling one another.

It is a recollection of, and a rejoicing over, the new year. What kind of rejoicing, sir? First, then, I observe the manner of meeting, of what a sort it is, and how suspicious and unfriendly! With a voice feeble and faint the salutation drops  from the lips. Then follows the kiss, as a prelude to the New Year's present. The mouth indeed is kissed, but it is the coin that is loved,----the form of a sale and the deed of covetousness! But where there is pure and frank friendship, kindnesses are freely bestowed with no expectation of gain. So, while on this New Year's festival many things are carried about everywhere, and money is given, there is no pretext of legitimate barter, nor does any one claim it. It is not a wedding, so that one might call it the prodigality of a haughty bridegroom. Nor am I able to call the expenditure almsgiving, since no poor man is relieved of his misfortune. One cannot call what takes place exchange, for the multitude exchange nothing with one another. But to call it a free gift is still more inappropriate, since the giving is by necessity. What, then, are we to call the festival, or the money spent in it? I cannot make out. But tell me, you who have been wearing yourselves out in preparing for it. Give an account of it, as we do of the festivals which are genuine and according to the will of God. We celebrate the birth of Christ, since at this time God manifested himself in the flesh. We celebrate the Feast of Lights (Epiphany), since by the forgiveness of our sins we are led forth from the dark prison of our former life into a life of light and uprightness. Again, on the day of the resurrection we adorn ourselves and march through the streets with joy, because that day reveals to us immortality and the transformation into a higher existence. Thus we keep these feasts and the rest of them in orderly succession. For every human event there is a reason, but that which lacks reasonable explanation and purpose is stuff and nonsense.

Oh, the absurdity of it! All stalk about open-mouthed, hoping to receive something from one another. Those who have given are dejected; those who have received a gift do not retain it, for the present is handed on from one to another, and he who received it from an inferior gives it to a superior. The money of this festival is as unstable as the ball of boys at play, for it is passed quickly on from me to my neighbor. It is but a new form of bribery and servility, having inevitably linked with it the element of necessity. For the more eminent and respectable man shames one into giving. A person of lower rank asks outright, and it all moves by degrees toward the pockets of the most eminent men. And you may see just such a thing as happens in the confluence of waters. There a streamlet melts into and mingles its waters with one larger than itself, and it in turn loses itself in one still more copious, and many small streams joined together become part of the neighboring river; this again, of another greater still, and so on, one joining another, until the last one brings the waters to rest in the depth and breadth of the sea.

This is misnamed a feast, being full of annoyance; since going out-of-doors is burdensome, and staying within doors is not undisturbed. For the common vagrants and the jugglers of the stage, dividing themselves into squads and hordes, hang about every house. The gates of public officials they besiege with especial persistence, actually shouting and clapping their hands until he that is beleaguered within, exhausted, throws out to them whatever money he has and even what is not his own. And these mendicants going from door to door follow one after another, and, until late in the  evening, there is no relief from this nuisance. For crowd succeeds crowd, and shout, shout, and loss, loss.
Such is this delectable feast, the source of debt and usury, the occasion of poverty, the beginning of misfortunes. And if a man become prosperous by honest industry, incredible as that may seem, and not by the craft of the usurer, even he is dragged along as one who has failed to pay the royal taxes; he weeps like one whose goods are confiscated, and he laments like a man who falls among thieves. He is dogged, he is flogged, and if there be in the house any little thing for the support of his wife and wretched children, this he lets go, and sits him down hungry with his whole family on this glorious feast-day. A new law this, of evil custom, that annoyance be celebrated as a feast, and man's want be called a festival!

This festival teaches even the little children, artless and simple, to be greedy, and accustoms them to go from house to house and to offer novel gifts, fruits covered with silver tinsel. For these they receive in return gifts double their value, and thus the tender minds of the young begin to be impressed with that which is commercial and sordid.

But as to the sturdy and honest farmers! What things this feast-day brings to them! It renders the city a place to be shunned rather than visited, and they fly from it more timidly than hares from nets. Such as are found within it are flogged, treated with drunken violence, what they have in their hands is snatched from them; they are warred upon in time of peace, are jeered at, and mocked with words and deeds. Even our most excellent and guileless prophets, the unmistakable representatives of God, who when unhindered in their work are our faithful ministers, are treated with insolence. Thus it is, then, with those in office, thus with the poor, thus with the children, thus with the rustics. For some are distressed, some murmur, and some learn what it were better not to know.
Yeah, been there, done that.  The sermon is actually directed, not at Christmas celebrations (which were unknown in 400 C.E., certainly in northern Turkey), but rather at the Festival of the Kalends, "Kalends" being the Roman term for the first day of the month.  This is about a raucous New Year's celebration, in other words.  Maybe somebody is confusing Saturnalia with Christmas; but again, been there, done that.

And I just gotta say, I don't know where this comes from:

St. Augustine was pleading with people to give alms instead of holiday gifts in the early fifth century.

Except this:

CHAPTER XIX.  Almsgiving and Forgiveness

70. We must beware, however, lest anyone suppose that unspeakable crimes such as they commit who "will not possess the Kingdom of God" can be perpetrated daily and then daily redeemed by almsgiving. Of course, life must be changed for the better, and alms should be offered as propitiation to God for our past sins. But he is not somehow to be bought off, as if we always had a license to commit crimes with impunity. For, "he has given no man a license to sin" --although, in his mercy, he does blot out sins already committed, if due satisfaction for them is not neglected.

71. For the passing and trivial sins of every day, from which no life is free, the everyday prayer of the faithful makes satisfaction. For they can say, "Our Father who art in heaven," who have already been reborn to such a Father "by water and the Spirit." This prayer completely blots out our minor and everyday sins. It also blots out those sins which once made the life of the faithful wicked, but from which, now that they have changed for the better by repentance, they have departed. The condition of this is that just as they truly say, "Forgive us our debts" (since there is no lack of debts to be forgiven), so also they truly say, "As we forgive our debtors" ; that is, if what is said is also done. For to forgive a man who seeks forgiveness is indeed to give alms.

72. Accordingly, what our Lord says--"Give alms and, behold, all things are clean to you" --applies to all useful acts of mercy. Therefore, not only the man who gives food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, hospitality to the wayfarer, refuge to the fugitive; who visits the sick and the prisoner, redeems the captive, bears the burdens of the weak, leads the blind, comforts the sorrowful, heals the sick, shows the errant the right way, gives advice to the perplexed, and does whatever is needful for the needy --not only does this man give alms, but the man who forgives the trespasser also gives alms as well. He is also a giver of alms who, by blows or other discipline, corrects and restrains those under his command, if at the same time he forgives from the heart the sin by which he has been wronged or offended, or prays that it be forgiven the offender. Such a man gives alms, not only in that he forgives and prays, but also in that he rebukes and administers corrective punishment, since in this he shows mercy.

Now, many benefits are bestowed on the unwilling, when their interests and not their preferences are consulted. And men frequently are found to be their own enemies, while those they suppose to be their enemies are their true friends. And then, by mistake, they return evil for good, when a Christian ought not to return evil even for evil. Thus, there are many kinds of alms, by which, when we do them, we are helped in obtaining forgiveness of our own sins.

73. But none of these alms is greater than the forgiveness from the heart of a sin committed against us by someone else. It is a smaller thing to wish well or even to do well to one who has done you no evil. It is far greater--a sort of magnificent goodness--to love your enemy, and always to wish him well and, as you can, do well to him who wishes you ill and who does you harm when he can. Thus one heeds God's command: "Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that persecute you."

Such counsels are for the perfect sons of God. And although all the faithful should strive toward them and through prayer to God and earnest endeavor bring their souls up to this level, still so high a degree of goodness is not possible for so great a multitude as we believe are heard when, in prayer, they say, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Accordingly, it cannot be doubted that the terms of this pledge are fulfilled if a man, not yet so perfect that he already loves his enemies, still forgives from the heart one who has sinned against him and who now asks his forgiveness. For he surely seeks forgiveness when he asks for it when he prays, saying, "As we forgive our debtors." For this means, "Forgive us our debts when we ask for forgiveness, as we also forgive our debtors when they ask for forgiveness."

74. Again, if one seeks forgiveness from a man against whom he sinned--moved by his sin to seek it--he should no longer be regarded as an enemy, and it should not now be as difficult to love him as it was when he was actively hostile.

Now, a man who does not forgive from the heart one who asks forgiveness and is repentant of his sins can in no way suppose that his own sins are forgiven by the Lord, since the Truth cannot lie, and what hearer and reader of the gospel has not noted who it was who said, "I am the Truth"? It is, of course, the One who, when he was teaching the prayer, strongly emphasized this sentence which he put in it, saying: "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you your trespasses. But if you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offenses." He who is not awakened by such great thundering is not asleep, but dead. And yet such a word has power to awaken even the dead.

CHAPTER XX.  Spiritual Almsgiving

75. Now, surely, those who live in gross wickedness and take no care to correct their lives and habits, who yet, amid their crimes and misdeeds, continue to multiply their alms, flatter themselves in vain with the Lord's words, "Give alms; and, behold, all things are clean to you." They do not understand how far this saying reaches. In order for them to understand, let them notice to whom it was that he said it. For this is the context of it in the Gospel: "As he was speaking, a certain Pharisee asked him to dine with him. And he went in and reclined at the table. And the Pharisee began to wonder and ask himself why He had not washed himself before dinner. But the Lord said to him: 'Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but within you are still full of extortion and wickedness. Foolish ones! Did not He who made the outside make the inside too? Nevertheless, give for alms what remains within; and, behold, all things are clean to you.'"162 Should we interpret this to mean that to the Pharisees, who had not the faith of Christ, all things are clean if only they give alms, as they deem it right to give them, even if they have not believed in him, nor been reborn of water and the Spirit? But all are unclean who are not made clean by the faith of Christ, of whom it is written, "Cleansing their hearts by faith." And as the apostle said, "But to them that are unclean and unbelieving nothing is clean; both their minds and consciences are unclean." How, then, should all things be clean to the Pharisees, even if they gave alms, but were not believers? Or, how could they be believers, if they were unwilling to believe in Christ and to be born again in his grace? And yet, what they heard is true: "Give alms; and behold, all things are clean to you."

76. He who would give alms as a set plan of his life should begin with himself and give them to himself. For almsgiving is a work of mercy, and the saying is most true: "Have mercy upon your own soul, pleasing God."  The purpose of the new birth is that we should become pleasing to God, who is justly displeased with the sin we contracted in birth. This is the first almsgiving, which we give to ourselves--when through the mercy of a merciful God we come to inquire about our wretchedness and come to acknowledge the just verdict by which we were put in need of that mercy, of which the apostle says, "Judgment came by that one trespass to condemnation." And the same herald of grace then adds (in a word of thanksgiving for God's great love), "But God commendeth his love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Thus, when we come to a valid estimate of our wretchedness and begin to love God with the love he himself giveth us, we then begin to live piously and righteously.

But the Pharisees, while they gave as alms a tithing of even the least of their fruits, disregarded this "judgment and love of God." Therefore, they did not begin their almsgiving with themselves, nor did they, first of all, show mercy toward themselves. In reference to this right order of self-love, it was said, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Therefore, when the Lord had reproved the Pharisees for washing themselves on the outside while inwardly they were still full of extortion and wickedness, he then admonished them also to give those alms which a man owes first to himself--to make clean the inner man: "However," he said, "give what remains as alms, and, behold, all things are clean to you." Then, to make plain the import of his admonition, which they had ignored, and to show them that he was not ignorant of their kind of almsgiving, he adds, "But woe to you, Pharisees" --as if to say, "I am advising you to give the kind of alms which shall make all things clean to you." "But woe to you, for you tithe mint and rue and every herb"--"I know these alms of yours and you need not think I am admonishing you to give them up"--"and then neglect justice and the love of God." "This kind of almsgiving would make you clean from all inward defilement, just as the bodies which you wash are made clean by you." For the word "all" here means both "inward" and "outward"--as elsewhere we read, "Make clean the inside, and the outside will become clean."

But, lest it appear that he was rejecting the kind of alms we give of the earth's bounty, he adds, "These things you should do"--that is, pay heed to the judgment and love of God--and "not omit the others"--that is, alms done with the earth's bounty.

77. Therefore, let them not deceive themselves who suppose that by giving alms--however profusely, and whether of their fruits or money or anything else--they purchase impunity to continue in the enormity of their crimes and the grossness of their wickedness. For not only do they do such things, but they also love them so much that they would always choose to continue in them--if they could do so with impunity. "But he who loves iniquity hates his own soul." And he who hates his own soul is not merciful but cruel to it. For by loving it after the world's way he hates it according to God's way of judging. Therefore, if one really wished to give alms to himself, that all things might become clean to him, he would hate his soul after the world's way and love it according to God's way. No one, however, gives any alms at all unless he gives from the store of Him who needs not anything. "Accordingly," it is said, "His mercy shall go before me."

Yes, Augustine can be tedious, but I quote it in full in the certain knowledge nobody's gonna follow the link alone (and to be sure you get to the right passages).  Not much in there about "holiday gift giving," which, as I've said before, really wasn't much of a concept until Clement Clark Moore popularized it AFTER the Industrial Revolution (when there were spare objects to give, and everything made wasn't the work of hands.  One reason we prize handmade gifts today, of course.)  I have to assume the book is making these connections but, in that case, they are pretty dubious ones.

Besides, pleading with people to give alms to the poor was hardly unique to Augustine, the 5th century, or any connection to a religious feast that didn't exist outside of Rome itself, and then only barely.

Coincidentally, I was teaching memoir this morning, and telling my students that the past is changed by the present because the past is a construct we manufacture in our own time.  The world of Pepys, for example, would be completely unknown to us without his diaries, and whether we cast history as the results of "great men" or as the culmination of the efforts of those now under the sod in Grey's country churchyard, we change history by how we define and describe it.  So I can say these descriptions of Christmas are false and inaccurate, but I don't have the platform a Slate reviewer does, nor that a book's author does.  We prefer to imagine the past is just a continuation, backwards, of the present, only with different costumes and less technology.  I can tell you that isn't so at all, but in doing so, I require you to change the past in order to understand me.  It is a foolish thing to read the past as if it were only a few days ago, but ultimately it's just a matter of who gets to describe the past, and which description is taken as the "right" one.

So let's just say some descriptions are more worthy than others.  😇

Sunday, December 04, 2016

"O machine! O machine!"

The election of Trump is a sea change because certain people (hem-hem) couldn't foresee it happening.

Unfortunately, those people included the Clinton campaign.

But is it a sea change, really?  Charlie Pierce argues it's the result of 40 years of Republican efforts to declare government worthless and "the problem" (Ronald Reagan) and that they alone provide the cure (even though whenever they are in office the economy slides off a cliff, as it did under W., and Democrats manage to keep things running smoothly).

There are arguments now that this victory is the victory of the Koch Brothers, not Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway.  It is certainly the triumph of John Bolton and Tom Cotton, who, in the China/Taiwan phone call fiasco, see an opening to run the diplomacy of the U.S. their way.  Bolton was the U.N. Ambassador under W., but Cheney & Co. kept him in check.  Now, if he's allowed to run amok, is that a sea change in American politics?  Or just a certain inevitablilty arising from American exceptionalism?

Donald Trump won Michigan by 0.22% of the vote.  That may be one reason he is contesting the recount there so vociferously.  He did not sweep the electorate in a landslide, and with a slight alteration in the distribution of the vote, he would be back in Manhattan tweeting rather harmlessly about the insults he's endured from "Saturday Night Live" (if Alec Baldwin were still impersonating Trump under such a scenario).  He won because of a peculiarity in the Constitution, because of the enduring influence of the "peculiar institution" of American slavery, not because the pollsters miscounted the desire for Brexit.  And he won because the GOP paved the way for him; and now they have him, but so do we.

But he won because the people who put him into office (barring a miraculous decision by the electoral college electors that Trump really does have too many conflicts of interest to take office and not offend the Constitution) have always been with us, and always will be.

These people are not concerned by Trump insulting China, because the only foreign relations they understand is American superiority in all things.  They have no clue how diplomacy works, or that it works at all.  They don't care because they are, at heart, nihilists.  Hillary Clinton was right:  they are "deplorable."  They are the ones at Trump rallies chanting "Lock her up!", with no clue what they are asking for or whether the law even provides for it.  They just know "law=justice" and "justice=jail," and that's all they really understand about government.  Which is not to say they shouldn't have the vote (I saw comments to that effect on the internet.  Truly the internet is wondrous:  all manner of stupidity can be found there), but it is to say they are always part of the voting bloc.  They think only in terms of power, and power is only used for vengeance.  Which is pretty much the American heritage of the "peculiar institution" which prompted the creation of the electoral college in the first place.

These are the people who have been persuaded that there is a "war on Christmas" (though not this year.  Victory, comrades!) because people say "Happy Holidays," a phrase that goes back at least to Bing Crosby crooning it in the 1940's, a phrase I was explicitly told in my childhood included people who didn't celebrate Christmas, like Jews (Muslims weren't on the cultural radar screen in the '60's, and atheists?  Who were they?).  But the concerns of Trump voters are all about economics, not about race, because it's never about race.

And it continues to go down smooth*:

“To be honest with you, the waters here seem like a little bit of a tempest in a teapot,” [Vice-President elect Mike] Pence said, arguing the media had stirred up any controversy.

“I think most Americans and frankly most leaders around the world know this for what it was,” he said. “And it’s all part and parcel. I think you’re going to see in a President Donald Trump a willingness to engage the world but engage the world on America’s terms.”
Blame the media (blame somebody, not "us"); and act defiant.  Except this isn't a matter for purely public consumption anymore.  Now Trump speaks to the world, and speaks for the country; not just for the people who chant his name at his rallies.

They won this time because of distribution, and because of voter turnout, and not because of belligerence..  They didn't win because they are newly inspired to take over the reins of government.  They won because Trump motivated them, and Clinton didn't motivate her voters.  And some of them are already disappointed with their champion, and more of them will be.  Trump won because Andrew Jackson's voters have never left American political culture, and because every once in a while they get to choose.

And because Hamilton's mechanism for preventing a demagogue from taking office has never worked, and it never will.  Turns out we are better off when we trust the people, than when we trust systems and institutions.  Donald Trump lost the popular vote, and he already has the lowest approval rating of any President in history.

What hasn't changed is that the "system" didn't save us.  What also hasn't changed is that we won't ever acknowledge that.  That's the lesson of "The Big Short," except the film tells the story of how a few individuals got rich off the very system that screwed so many, and ruined so many lives.  Even when we tell the story of recent history, it's the system that is our salvation.  Well, it's the salvation of the people whose names we know.  Brad Pitt and Steve Carrell and Christian Bale, all of whom we feel sympathy for, especially the first two, who at least feel bad about getting so rich of the misery of others.  But the lesson is still:  the system screwed you over, so be mad at the system, not at the people who profited from it (they all lost money, according to the movie; except at the end, where it acknowledges they didn't, but the institutions that did remain faceless and anonymous and inchoate, so at whom do we direct our wrath?)

As long as we are convinced that systems will save us, we will fall back into this pit, and never climb out of it.  But that's a feature, not a bug; it's baked into the very Constitution our "Founding Fathers, in their "infinite wisdom," bequeathed to us.  And like the children of an ancient and hefty bequest that has served us for generations, we dare not inquire too closely into our situation, lest it fall apart and leave us looking for a new system to solve all our problems.


“It doesn’t matter to me. He won the election,” [Speaker of the House Paul Ryan] said. “The way I see the tweets you’re talking about, he’s basically giving voice to a lot of people who have felt that they were voiceless. He’s communicating with people in this country who’ve felt like they have not been listened to. He’s going to be an unconventional president.”

“Who cares what he tweeted, you know, on some Thursday night, if we fix this country’s big problems?” he added. “That’s just the way I look at this.”

Maybe it's time to re-think that whole  "voice to the voiceless" thing.  Because sometimes what you give voice to, should really remain silent.  The people who have "not been listened to," can be the very people who shouldn't be listened to (Starting with a Speaker of the House who thinks this country's biggest problem is that Medicare is not privatized yet.)

Democracy is SO messy!

*A reference, quite ungrammatically, to a Robert Silverberg story about a psychiatrist computer that begins to take on the psychoses of its patients.

Second Sunday of Advent 2016: Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen

Isaiah 11:1-10
11:1 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

11:2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

11:3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;

11:4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

11:5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

11:6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

11:7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

11:8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.

11:9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

11:10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
72:1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son.

72:2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.

72:3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.

72:4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

72:5 May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.

72:6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.

72:7 In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

72:18 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things.

72:19 Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen.

Romans 15:4-13
15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

15:5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus,

15:6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15:7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

15:8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,

15:9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name";

15:10 and again he says, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people";

15:11 and again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him";

15:12 and again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope."

15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 3:1-12
3:1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,

3:2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

3:3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"

3:4 Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.

3:5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan,

3:6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

3:7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

3:9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

3:11 "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Matthew is burning through his scriptures for examples that connect Jesus to the God of Abraham.  He's looking as hard as he can for reasons to connect Jesus to Israel's God.  The massacre of the innocents is connected to Rachel weeping for her children.  The magi both represent the world coming to the mountain (although it's just a baby), and the flight into Egypt that saved Israel, and the return trip that made Israel a nation.  So John the Baptist becomes a figure pre-figured by Isaiah, and we decide "prophets" means "one who predicts the future" instead of "one who tells God's truth."

John the Baptist is a prophet; and he's talking about what will happen, and what has happened; and it is all bound up with what continues to happen.  And none of this is penetrating the veil of time, or divining future events; it is simply understanding how human societies work, and that the God of Abraham is a God active in history.  And is it about who you are, or what you believe?  Or is it about what you do?

Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 
Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
You don't have to think God is going to punish you to think there will be a fire next time, that payment will come due, that there will be a reckoning.  For some the current political situation in America is a reckoning; for others it is a nightmare.  Who is to say which reckoning is right?  Who, in other words, is to sit in judgment?  Who gets the final say?

Which is not moral relativism, but humility.  Do we squash our enemies, grind them into the dust, and  take delight in the lamentations of their women?  Or do we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?  And if there is a fire and a winnowing fork, are we sure we are wheat and not chaff?

Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Paul is doing what Matthew is doing but, being a Pharisee, a man trained in the law of Moses, in the scriptures, he has an even better claim to it:

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

There's a lesson in exegesis, in reading and interpreting the scriptures, in that one sentence.  The goal is not punishment, or even the infliction of guilt; the goal is hope.  Even John, the seemingly judgmental and frightening Old Testament-figure Baptist whose eyes seem to spout flame, offers hope, not damnation.  If we had no hope, why would he come to teach us?  And if you want encouragement for the days to come, for the days in America or Europe or anywhere else in the world, here you are:

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
You may take that as an exclusive statement, but Paul means to spread his arms wide:

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.  For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name"; and again he says, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people"; and again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him"; and again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope."

And there we are back to Isaiah again, back to his holy mountain where all are welcome.   The message of the Baptizer is not damnation, it is challenge; it is a call to prepare yourself.  If you go to the wilderness to listen, to be inspired, expect to be challenged instead.  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."

Do we need to change the world?  Is it too Buddhist to say "no"?  My young heart would say "Fuck this shit."  My old heart knows that's just another way of blaming others, of taking the burden off of me.  But without the young heart, how is the old heart renewed?  "The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope."

Paul goes to Isaiah, too; and to the Psalms; and tells us that in the root of Jesse we shall hope.  Not in our own accomplishments, not in our efforts to be better or make the world better; but in the one who has come, who is coming, who is here.  But it's not an empty hope, one we sit back and wait for.  We have to bear fruit worthy of repentance.  We have to do something.  We have to bind up the wounded, for God is not seen in the world if we don't see God in the world ourselves.

Binding up the wounded; that's something we can do.  We can't change the world.  We don't need to change the world.  We need to be responsible for who we are.  God will change the world, using us as God's example.

That's what we are responsible for.  That is our hope.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Just what we need

But the Taipei Times reported the call was arranged by Trump’s “Taiwan-friendly campaign staff after his aides briefed him on issues regarding Taiwan and the situation in the Taiwan Strait.”

China has reached out to the White House about the call, according to CNN.

The White House said in a statement later Friday that it remained “firmly committed to our ‘one China’ policy,” which holds that Taiwan is part of China.

“Our fundamental interest is in peaceful and stable cross-Strait relations,” White House national security spokesman Ned Price said.

China’s foreign minister said in response to the call that China does “not want any interference or destruction” of the “one China” policy.

“I do not think it will change the one-China policy that the US government has insisted over the years. The one-China principle is the cornerstone of the healthy development of Sino-US relations,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a statement.

When I noted we had survived Nixon, Reagan with dementia, and W., I failed to take account of just what a gang of schoolchildren we have now moving toward the highest office in the land, and in the world.

And his magic powers are already waning:

You'll notice he doesn't say he's going to do anything about it.



This is bad; this is very, very bad:

In the short run, Mr. Trump has rattled the entire region. Representatives of several Asian countries contacted the White House on Saturday to express concern, according to a senior administration official.

No, seriously:

“This is going to make real waves in Beijing,” said Bill Bishop, a veteran China watcher who runs the Sinocism newsletter from Washington DC. “I think we will see quite the reaction from Beijing … this will put relations from day one into a very difficult place.”

Evan Medeiros, the Asia director at the White House national security council, told the Financial Times: “The Chinese leadership will see this as a highly provocative action, of historic proportions.

“Regardless if it was deliberate or accidental, this phone call will fundamentally change China’s perceptions of Trump’s strategic intentions for the negative. With this kind of move, Trump is setting a foundation of enduring mistrust and strategic competition for US-China relations.”
And it's going to get worse:

Whether it says it or not, China will regard this as a deeply destabilizing event not because the call materially changes U.S. support for Taiwan—it does not—but because it reveals the incoming Presidency to be volatile and unpredictable. In that sense, the Taiwan call is the latest indicator that Trump the President will be largely indistinguishable from Trump the candidate.

Trump has also shown himself to be highly exploitable on subjects that he does not grasp. He is surrounding himself with ideologically committed advisers who will seek to use those opportunities when they can. We should expect similar moments of exploitation to come on issues that Trump will regard as esoteric, such as the Middle East, health care, immigration, and entitlements.YOU But he sent out a tweet!  What more do these people want?

In the longer term, officials in the Obama administration worry that the episode could not just ignite tensions across the Taiwan Strait but also inflame trade relations and embolden China in the South China Sea, where it has clashed with the Philippines, Vietnam and other neighbors over competing claims to reefs and shoals.

Shit, this is bad.  And the people in Trump Tower don't even understand that:

Whether Mr. Trump views the call as the beginning of a change in approach toward Taiwan is not clear. A person close to him insisted that he was just being polite in taking Ms. Tsai’s call.
God help us all.  Seriously.

Friday, December 02, 2016

December 2 (from the archives)

Thirty years ago today Sr.s Dorothy Kazal, Ita Ford, Maura Clark and Jeanne Donovan were tortured, raped and murdered in El Salvador by American trained terrorists because they were working for the most basic civil rights of poor people.--Anthony McCarthy

I had almost forgotten it was today.

I repeat this every year. This post is largely as I wrote in in 2008. I preached from this story when I had a pulpit and used it, probably unwisely, in a sermon when I was invited to a pulpit in Advent. It is volatile stuff, and repetition had dulled me to that. It shouldn't be repeated enough to dull one; just enough to make one sensitive to the world, and to the message of Advent.

In the world, Advent means precious little; frantic for Christmas to come and go, the world is in a hurry. To the liturgical church, though, Christmas doesn't begin until December 24th, and it doesn't end until January 6th, on Epiphany. And before it ends, it will include two days of death: the Massacre of the Innocents, and the first Christian Martyr, St. Stephen. I mention that because Advent is actually akin to Lent, not to "December" on the American calendar. It is a time of preparation for shattering change, not for celebration of consumer excess.

This highlights a distinction I think needs to be made, between Christianity, and Christendom. It's an old distinction, but, like the Massacre of the Innocents and the death of Stephen right after Christmas, little acknowledged or its importance understood.

As I type this, I'm listening to a Christmas mix of my own devising, and Joni Mitchell is singing "River." That's the tone I'm going for, if it helps.

This is from Memory of Fire: Volume III, Century of the Wind, by Eduardo Galeano, tr. Cedric Balfrage, Pantheon, 1988.

"ARCHBISHOP Romero offers her a chair. Marianela prefers to talk standing up. She always comes for others, but this time Marianela comes for herself. Marianela Garda Vilas, attorney for the tortured and disappeared of EI Salvador, does not come this time to ask the archbishop's solidarity with one of the victims of D' Aubuisson, Captain Torch, who burns your body with a blowtorch, or of some other military horror specialist. Marianela doesn't come to ask help for anyone else's investigation or denunciation. This time she has something personal to say to him. As mildly as she can, she tells him that the police have kid-napped her, bound, beat, humiliated, stripped her-and that they raped her. She tells it without tears or agitation, with her usual calm, but Archbishop Romero has never before heard in Marianela's voice these vibrations of hatred, echoes of disgust, calls for vengeance. When Marianela finishes, the archbishop, astounded, falls silent too.

"After a long silence, he begins to tell her that the church does not hate or have enemies, that every infamy and every action against God forms part of a divine order, that criminals are also our brothers and must be prayed for, that one must forgive one's persecutors, one must accept pain, one must. . . Suddenly, Archbishop Romero stops.

"He lowers his glance, buries his head in his hands. He shakes his head, denying it all, and says: 'No, I don't want to know.'

" 'I don't want to know,' he says, and his voice cracks.

"Archbishop Romero, who always gives advice and comfort, is weeping like a child without mother or home. Archbishop Romero, who always gives assurances, the tranquilizing assurance of a neutral God who knows all and embraces all-Archbishop Romero doubts.

"Romero weeps and doubts and Marianela strokes his head."

This is the First week of Advent. In Christianity, we are told to watch. We are watching for the apocalypse. We are waiting in faith, faith not so much in certainty as "acting-as-if in great hope." Hope is supposed to be what we desire; Advent reminds us hope is also for what we need, whether we really want it, or not.

Same as it ever was

Just a reminder that it's shortly Christmas, and there's always light in the darkness.
Which, of course, means there's always darkness.....

This is the world we are now dealing with.  A world in which someone can go on an NPR talk show and say "there are no such things as facts."

Well, no; this isn't a brave new world that has such creatures in it.  This is the same old world it always was, but now those voices are on NPR rather than Rush Limbaugh, are heard on FoxNews rather than Joe Pyne.*

And the problem is theirs, not ours; because we survived a President who said that when the President does it, it's not illegal.  We survived a President who was already suffering from dementia in his last term, and a President who was a benign doofus who really did think he could invade Iran and make the world safe for kleptocracy with pallets of cash.  We'll survive this, too.

But the crazy will always be with you.**  The fact that they can grab the microphone doesn't mean they just erupted sui generis from the brow of Trump.  They've been reaching for that microphone for many years now.  Like the election of Andrew Jackson, their time has just come around again.

I suspect if we studied history carefully enough we'd find out populists have never been much better than this.  I can certainly point to the history of Texas, and especially the Texas Constitution, as prime examples of what populism produced, and how uninspiring and unenlightened it really was.  Then again, not everyone in Athens was Socrates or Plato, either.

*I remember some syndicated show on late night/early morning (like 1 a.m.) TeeVee in my childhood with a host who made even recent Limbaugh sound like Adlai Stevenson.  I don't know that I have the name right (I'm sure the last name had a 'y' in it), but close enough is good enough.

**I've gotten into fights with people on internet comments about what was a fact, and what was not a fact (i.e., what the facts of a situation were).  I've had arguments where the plain words of a source (or a comment) were simply ignored in favor of making a point.  And most of these arguments were not with fans of Trump (why bother with them?).  This problem is not "them," and there is indeed nothing new under the sun.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

"...what it is ain't exactly clear...."

Something happening here:

The shopper at one point brings up politics again, seemingly without prompting.

“You are not going to tell me who I can vote for and who I can’t vote for,” she yells, sparking laughter around her.

I linked to the original story in comments below.  The video is available on YouTube.  It opens with the woman yelling:  "And I voted for Trump, and you want to throw me out for that?  And look who won!  And look who won!"  It goes downhill from there, as she claims the store staff want to "napalm" her and discriminate against her.  It's quite a tirade, apparently prompted because the store was out of large bags, or something.  I'm not even sure how Trump entered the conversation, except that she offers that information (it doesn't seem likely anyone in the store mentioned it first).

But then, there's this guy:

Earlier this month, a white man in Miami was also filmed causing a scene at a business while citing Trump and race. The customer was caught on video screaming at a black Starbucks employee after he accused her of denying him service for supporting the president-elect and claimed he was “racially discriminated against.”

“Because I voted for Trump. Trump. You lost,” that man told the employee before calling her “garbage” and “complete trash.”
It's not coincidental that the people screaming are white, and the people being screamed at are African-Americans.

As Charlie Pierce says, sardonically: "Economic anxiety takes many forms."  Me, I think it's Trump's childish displays of anger (literally childish), that seems to be giving others license to throw temper tantrums in public.  Well, that and racism.

I guess the problem is identity politics, huh?  Or maybe it's that the tirades common to the internet are finally spilling over into the "real world."  Because this is the statement posted at that YouTube video:

Comments were disabled on this video. Hate and violence are not acceptable in any situation. This woman needs to apologize and take responsibility for her actions, but hatred is not welcome here. If you are outraged by this video, PLEASE use this rage to stand up against hatred and racism. This one woman is not the problem. This is a MUCH BIGGER problem.
I'm sure the comments were mostly directed at the screaming woman, but the statement is right:  this is a much bigger problem, and we don't have to act like the woman in the video.  But we do have to bear witness against hatred and racism.  And against making this kind of behavior socially normative.

Nobody should act like this in public.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"Binding up the wounded"

I'm not on Facebook, but I can link you to this man's Facebook page.  At least I hope that link is a permanent one.  If not, the story is also at HuffPost.  Like that story did, I want to highlight this part from that post:

It wasn’t about demonstrating my outrage to right-wing drivers driving down Esters Road in front of the mosque. I can never, and will never, change any of the haters. It’s not about them. Not this time, and not here. This was about binding up the wounded. About showing compassion and empathy for the hurting and fearful among us. Or, in some Christian traditions, this was about washing my brother’s feet. This was about my religion, not theirs. And, it was about what I think I must do as an American when our way of life is threatened. Targeting people for their religion not only threatens our way of life, it is the polar opposite of our way of life.
It's a fine message for Advent.

Putting the Dog in the Manger

My scholarship on this is anything but perfect (or scholarly, for that matter).  If I confine myself to internet sources and my own blog entries, it's for convenience sake and a nod to the forum where these ideas are presented; it's not a very strong defense of said ideas.

Still, there is a lot of annual nonsense about Christmas "traditions" being stolen from "pagans."  And the silliest part about such claims is how ahistorical they are, all the while asserting a knowledge of history superior to those of us fooled by the "pagan" practices we perpetuate in the name of something holy.

So let's lay it out in careful fashion.  First:  Christmas was not observed by the Church (the "Roman" church, but at the time, the only church) until the 4th century C.E.  There was an observance of the birth day of the Christ in Egypt in the 3rd century, not surprising as the Egyptians observed the birthdays of their Pharoahs, whom they considered gods at birth (and so their birthdays were significant).* But Rome didn't pick up the practice until sometime in the mid 4th century.  To put that in historical context as far as "pagan" practices go:

In the late 4th century, persecution of pagans by newly Christian Romans had reached new levels of intensity. Temples and statues were destroyed throughout the Roman empire: pagan rituals became forbidden under punishment of death, and libraries were closed. In 391, Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, and the Patriarch Theophilus complied with his request. One theory has it that the great Library of Alexandria and the Serapeum were destroyed about this time.
Not, in other words, a lot of interest in taking up "pagan" (I used the word advisedly) practices at the time.  Certainly there were no Christmas trees in 4th century Rome, no holly and ivy, no boar's heads or even Santa Claus.

Then comes the medieval period, and Christmas feasts, which if "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is any evidence, were the common feature of Christmas celebrations (again, no holly and ivy, no Christmas tree, no jolly old St. Nick; just the boar's head and lots of hunting).  But I jump to medieval Europe because that's when the passion plays began, and in Germany (influenced by the "East," which is to say the Orthodox church, which observes the festal day of Adam and Eve), a feature of some of these plays became the Paradeisbaum, the tree of Paradise, because of the feast of Adam and Eve.

CHRISTMAS Eve is the feast day of our first parents, Adam and Eve. They are commemorated as saints in the calendars of the Eastern churches (Greeks, Syrians, Copts). Under the influence of this Oriental practice,  their veneration spread also to the West and became very popular toward the end of the first millennium of the Christian era. The Latin church has never officially introduced their feast, though it did not prohibit their popular veneration. In many old churches of Europe their statues may still be seen among the images of the saints. Boys and girls  who bore the names of Adam and Eve (quite popular in past centuries) celebrated their "Name Day" with great rejoicing. In Germany the custom began in the sixteenth century of putting up a "paradise tree" in the homes to honor the first parents. This was a fir tree laden with apples,  and from it developed the modern Christmas tree.
So the "Christmas Tree" began, not with tree-worshiping Druids in England (why would you cut down and kill what you worship?  That's a very modern idea, not a very ancient one.), but with Christian Germans in the 16th century.  It finally became a feature of Christmas observances in the home in the 19th century.  You don't see them in most churches (especially the older mainline churches), at least not in the worship space, and they have nothing to do with Christianity (in fact some try to blunt their secular connections with a nativity scene; I know my family did when I was a child.).  And what about gift giving?  For that, you can blame Clement Clark Moore.

The popular assertion is that gift giving at Christmas is connected to the Roman Saturnalia.   The problem is, that practice died out in Rome before the 4th century; and gift giving didn't become a part of Christmas until the 19th century.  The closest you get to that in Europe is the sharing of food with the peasants by the landowners, but that practice is more related to the Feast of Fools that allowed the repressed a brief respite from their oppression (probably enough to keep them happy in their servitude) and the quite reasonable function of not letting the serfs starve in the winter (again, just enough to keep them in their place).  The exchange of gifts between Gawain and the Green Knight is more typical.  They aren't gifts in our modern sense at all, and they are exchanged between peers, are in fact part of a game.**  Even today our gift giving is between peers (our friends and co-workers) or within family (especially to children, where we recapitulate the relationship of lord and serf), and only occasionally to the "poor" (whom we never go to Black Friday sales for).

If you follow all the links in this post, several will send you to my archives where you will find collected posts in categories that overlap several of them; so there's a lot of repetition and some tedious data-mining if you want to get down to the bedrock; which is, in places, still rather spongy.  Suffice it to say that Christmas is pretty much a modern invention, especially as we observe it in America.  I rather like the conclusion one of my posts drew, based on the work of real scholars and historians, that Christmas was one of the first holidays America had (thanks to the Puritans and the lack of a single Church, as well as a mixture of European cultures, we had no holidays of our own that all could observe from the beginning); it was open both to the religious and the secular.  You could observe the birth of Christ, or just observe a modern version of the Feast of Fools.  But it was all about celebrating and enjoying your family and friends, and that's still what it should be.

*Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the "birthdays" of the gods.  New Advent.

** Games were associated with Christmas celebrations down through Dicken's A Christmas Carol where Scrooge's nephew and friends play them on Christmas Day.  Sadly that is no longer an expected feature of our Christmas revels.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"So I cheered up."

This is not the problem:

This is:

Despite this precedent, Trump spokesperson Jason Miller remained unconvinced by CNN’s Chris Cuomo’s insistence that flag burning is a “protected constitutional right” during a Tuesday appearance on “New Day.”

“Can we agree on that?” Cuomo asked.

“No, we completely disagree,” Miller replied.

Miller repeatedly said that such a “despicable” act “should be illegal” and tried to pivot to a discussion of Trump’s cabinet appointees.

“You have to defend what is legal in this country under the Constitution. Just because I don't like it doesn't mean that it's not legal, it's not right for somebody. What do you want this country to be, only what you like? Only what President-elect Trump likes?” Cuomo asked.

“Flag burning should be illegal,” Miller said again, insisting there was a “big difference” between protecting the First Amendment and burning the American flag.

It makes me fondly remember the days when Ron Ziegler declared his previous statements "no longer operative," and we thought that was the nadir of Presidential Press Secretaries.

Sure enough...