Thursday, December 30, 2004


JERUSALEM (AP) -- Experts advised world museums to re-examine their Bible-era relics after Israel indicted four collectors and dealers on charges of forging some of the most important artifacts of recent decades.

The indictments issued Wednesday labeled as fakes perhaps the two biggest biblical discoveries in the Holy Land -- the purported burial box of Jesus' brother James and a stone tablet with written instructions by King Yoash on maintenance work at the Jewish Temple -- and many other "finds."

Perhaps the most troubling part of this article is its analysis of why such forgeries are happening: "Scholars said the forgers were exploiting the deep emotional need of Jews and Christians to find physical evidence to reinforce their faith." Is this the kind of faith that Jesus said can move mountains? If so, why the heck are we so desperate to find historical proof that we - in effect - encourage a market for falsified history?

I would hope that a true Christian faith doesn't require so much scholarship. Understanding Jesus' teaching as a message of sacrifice and selflessness is a liberating experience - only through a message that does not provide benefit to the individial can one's faith truly blossom. When you're doing things for yourself (whether it be you're own comfort, fellowship, conformity, etc), it is impossible to distinguish between whether you are acting out of faith or merely out of your own self-interest.

Faith is believing in the unseen. A faith that leads you to a life of sacrifice is the strongest faith, one that shows your willingness to believe. And no, it isn't burdened with a "deep emotional need" for physical evidence of its tenets.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Consecrating Jesus' Message

Currently on the reading list: Prof. Mirecea Eliade's influential book The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion.

I'm only one chapter in, but I was struck one passage in particular. Consider it in regards to the modern nature of Christianity being bible-based, and not Jesus-based (italics in original):
Every world is the work of the gods, for it was either created directly by the gods or was consevrated, hence cosmicized, by men ritually reactualizing the paradigmatic act of Creation. This is as much to say that religious man can live only in a sacred world, because it is only in such a world that he participates in being, that he has real existence. This religious need expresses an unquenchable ontological thirst. Religious man thirts for being. His terror of the chaos that surrounds his inhabited world corresponds to his terror of nothingness. The unknown space that extends beyond his world - an uncosmicized because unconsecrated space, a mere amorphous extent into which no orientation has yet been projected, and hence in which no structure has yet arisen - for religious man, this profane space represents absolute nonbeing. If, by some evil chance, he strays into it, he feels emptied of his ontic substance, as if he were dissolving in Chaos, and he finally dies.

Reading this, I feel like I have a better understanding of why "book" religions are so powerful (and prevalent). They give a concrete answer - a consecration of the Divine out of the Chaos of life by which we can commune with the gods. To me, that is what Jesus was clearly about. Due to historical inertia, however, Jesus' message has taken a backseat to the message of the bible in Christian worship. In order to reverse this, perhaps Eliade's wisdom can help: we must aim to give Jesus' message the sacredness and structure that the bible currently occupies in Christian circles. Only then will more and more Christians be willing to "jump ship" from the bible and truly realize Jesus' call to pick up your cloak and follow me.

Monday, December 27, 2004

22,000 and counting

(This post has been edited to better reflect its original intent)

At least 22,000 people in seven countries have died as a result of a tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean. I am at a loss for words. In Texas, there are still books written about the hurricane that destroyed the city of Galveston, killing over 5,000 people (I think) near the beginning of the 20th century. And this is about 5 times as worse. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those suffering today, and our plea is that all those able can help out in the relief efforts.

Some people out there probably think that God caused this tsunami as some kind of pennance for those countries. We here at the Social Gospel Today reject such a notion, and instead understand the tragedy as the result of the complex forces of nature at work. As Progressive Christians, we must firmly assert that our God is a God of Love, not a God of Vengeance and Destruction.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Merry Christmas!

Afrikaans: Gesëende Kersfees
Czech: Prejeme Vam Vesele Vanoce a stastny Novy Rok
Danish: Glædelig Jul
Esperanto: Gajan Kristnaskon
Finnish: Hyvää Joulua
French: Joyeux Noël
German: Froehliche Weihnachten
Greek: Kala Christouyenna
Hawaiian: Mele Kalikimaka
Irish: Nollaig Shona Dhuit
Italian: Buon Natale or Buone Feste Natalizie
Japanese Shinnen omedeto. Kurisumasu Omedeto
Korean: Sung Tan Chuk Ha
Latin: Natale hilare
Lithuanian: Linksmu Kaledu
Norwegian: God Jul
Polish: Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia
Portuguese: Feliz Natal
Russian: Srozhdestovm Kristovim
Spanish: Feliz Navidad
Swahili: Kuwa na Krismasi njema
Tagalog: Maligayang Pasko
Thai: Suksun Wan Christmas
Vietnamese: Chuc Mung Giang Sinh
Welsh: Nadolig Llawen

Friday, December 24, 2004

Peace on Earth

So I must admit: I've become a little jaded with modern mainstream Christianity. The massive churches that dot my hometown and the blatantly regressive views spouted by many of the people that devoutly come in and out of them is pretty discouraging.

On top of all that, the annual Christmas display of uncorked capitalism is at times stifling. The reason for the season does seem lost amongst shopping lists, stocking stuffers, and holiday decorations.

Given that, imagine my surprise last night upon seeing a beautiful Christmas display at a local greenhouse. There was your typical Santa and his sleigh, a tree, and even the now not-uncommon "Merry Christmas Ya'll" sign, but something else really grabbed me. Lit up brightly in the middle of the scene was this simple message: "Peace on Earth."

With war raging in numerous countries - not to mention actual genocide in Darfur - this brilliant sign was a spark of great hope for me. Buried within this modern Christmas scene was a nugget of what it truly is all about - listening to what Jesus actually had to say, and believing in it enough to actually do something about it. Amongst the hustle and bustle of the season, we should all reflect on that. Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men. Now that's a Christmas decoration I wouldn't mind seeing up all year round.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

And So It Begins

I know, I know. All of my posts this late in the game are supposed to be about Christmas. But I would be remiss if I didn't follow up on my recent warning that we would be feeling the true consequences of the Bush tax cuts soon. This story in the New York Times today indicates that I was wrong in my prediction that the Bush Administration wouldn't cut education. There is apparently no problem cutting education, so long as the axe only falls on "the least of these."

New York Times, 12/23/04
Because of the changes, which take effect next fall and are expected to save the government $300 million in the 2005-6 academic year, at least 1.3 million students will receive smaller Pell Grants, the nation's primary scholarship for those of low income, according to two analyses of the new rules.

In addition, 89,000 students or so who would otherwise be getting some Pell Grant money will get none, the analyses found.

"Season's greetings from Uncle Sam," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which conducted one of the analyses and represents about 1,800 colleges and universities. "Your student aid stocking is going to be a little thinner next year."

Beyond the implications for Pell Grants, the new rules are expected to have a domino effect across almost every type of financial aid, tightening access to billions of dollars in state and institutional grants and, in turn, increasing the reliance on loans to pay for college. Taken together, many education experts say, the consequences for the nation's core financial aid programs are among the most substantial in a decade.

Do I even need to point out how horribly unChristian it is to make college education even more the province of the wealthy than it already is? Advancing the Kingdom of God means ordering society to care more, not less, for the poor. This is another example of how superficial the Bush Administration's claim on the Christian high ground is.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Bush Tax Policy

Here is a helpful article discussing the Bush administrations plans for tax "reform."

Liberal Christians close to the Kerry campaign opined this year that the "federal budget is a moral document." This is no less true of the tax code. As the contours of Bush's policy become clearer (they couldn't be much fuzzier at the moment), you can expect significant commentary on the subject here. Both authors of this blog have just finished our courses in Federal Income Taxation, so I'm sure we'll have plenty to say.

Friday, December 17, 2004

When the Music Stops

We're about to see the ugly side of tax cuts.

During President Bush's first term, he was basically able to defer the dire consequences of his tax cuts for the wealthy. By running the most massive budget deficit in history, the White House has been able to maintain funding for domestic programs even in the face of decreasing revenues and a spectacularly costly (in many senses of that word) foreign policy. But eventually the music must stop, and critical social programs will be left without a seat.

It appears that that time is now.

Word has leaked out that the White House will ask Congress for a "spending freeze" next year. In practice, this means an effective overall spending cut -- because next year's dollar won't buy as much as this year's. So what programs will lose money?

It certainly can't be national defense or homeland security. Not for this President.

Nor is Social Security a political possibility.

And the interest payments we make on the national debt are mandatory.

So what's left?

By my count, basically transportation infrastructure, education, and welfare programs. My guess is that the last of these will get the axe. Infrastructure is too important to business interests, and cutting education would be political suicide. That means unemployment compensation, retirement and disability programs, food stamps, housing subsidies and Medicaid will likely be cut.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Kingdom of God is not an "Ownership Society"

President Bush attended an "economic forum" today to try to drum up support and public attention for his bold economic plan for America. Bush's vision, as he emphasized on the campaign trail, is that of an "ownership society":

PRESIDENT BUSH: I believe our country can and must become an ownership society. When you own something, you care about it. When you own something, you have a vital stake in the future of your country.
Both Bush's broad vision and his specific proposals are worthy of significant policy debate. Does more private ownership increase economic efficiency and, thus, economic growth? Will the negative distributional effects of reducing taxes be temporary or sustained? Can social security as we know it withstand privatization?

Indeed, these are important questions. But a far more fundamental question is whether Bush's "ownership society" is consistent with the Kingdom of God.

What is ownership? Having been a student of Property Law, I can tell you that there is consensus among judges and commentators that the nature of ownership boils down to one thing: the right to exclude others. See generally Calabresi & Melamed, Property Rules, Liability Rules and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral, 85 Harv. L. Rev. 1089 (1972). In other words, my watch is my watch because I can keep you from using or taking it. My house is my house because I can keep you from entering it. Remember that my argument about the nature of ownership is not about how things should be. I'm merely describing things as they are. When judges enforce "property rights" or "ownership," this is what they enforce: "keep out" or "keep off" rights. I can eat my sandwhich even if I don't need it and you do.

I submit that a society which organizes itself aroud this "Right to Exclude" (as lawyers call "ownership" rights) is inconsistent with the Kingdom of God. First, such a self-centered, other-negating focus seems inconsistent with Jesus' fundamental commandment with respect to our relationship with others: that we must love our neighbors as ourselves. How is granting people more opportunities to selfishly exclude and deny others consistent with this commandment?

This seems clear enough, but we need not rely on such generalities. There are clear applications of this fundamental commandment indicating Jesus' disapproval of the right to exclude. The most obvious is the story of the Rich Young Ruler. My favorite version of that story -- because it explicitly connects Jesus' radical injunction to the summary commandment -- is from the Gospel of the Nazoreans:

"Another rich man said to Jesus, "Master, what good thing shall I do to live?" He said to him, "O man, fulfil the law and the prophets." He replied, I have done that." Jesus said to him, "Go sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and come, follow me." But the rich man began to scratch his head and it did not please him. And the Lord said to him, "How can you say, 'I have fulfilled the law and the prophets,' since it is written in the law: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' and lo! many of your brethren, sons of Abraham, are clothed in filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many goods, and nothing at all goes out of it to them?" And returning to Simon, his disciple, who was sitting by him, he said, "Simon, son of Jonas, it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle that for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven."
See Bart Ehrman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, 137.

Jesus' issue with the rich man was precisely his exercising of his ownership rights, of his right to exclude others from his "many goods."

There are still more examples.

In Matthew 5:42 Jesus says: "Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." This can be seen as another application of the summary law and is the exact opposite of the right to exclude.

In Luke 16:19-24 Jesus describes the condemnation of a "rich man" who refused to help a poor man who lay at his gate and "longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table." Again, the rich man is condemned precisely because he exercises the right which the Bush vision seeks to expand.

One objection to this analysis (weak in my opinion) might be that these are instances of individual decisions to exclude and that they, thus, shouldn't be applied at the social/governmental level. There are several problems with this, not the least of which is that it would deny almost any attempt to build the Kingdom of God -- to apply Christian principles at the social level. Almost every parable concerns individuals, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't structure society to advance the underlying principles. A second problem with this objection is that early Christian communities applied the principles at the social level:
Acts 2:44-45: "And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need."

A more powerful objection to my analysis is that it is tantamount to advocating pure socialism. But socialism does not necessarily follow from the analysis. The question is one of starting point: what is our beginning value, our first principle, from which all other rules will be seen as exceptions. There will certainly be taxation and welfare -- social sharing -- in Bush's "ownership society." But this sharing is conceptualized as an exception to the norm of ownership and exclusion; as necessary to serve what Bush sees as values subordinate to private property rights, such as economic equality.

Under my analysis, private ownership would be seen, not as normative, but as a necessary concession. People need private ownership over some portion of their production to give them incentives to produce for the social good, to ensure economic and social stability, etc. These concessions, though they may produce substantial private ownership, would be understood as exceptions.

The question, then, is over how we should conceptualize a just society:

(1) As a society where individuals have a fundamental right to consume and save what they produce, with necessary concessions to sharing to ensure people don't starve, etc. or

(2) As a society where your production is for "your neighbor" as well as yourself, with necessary concessions to incentivize production and ensure stability.

I think it is tough to argue that the first is more Christian than the second.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Uncertainty, Fear and Fundamentalism

A Gallup Poll released last month indicates that 34% of Americans believe that the Bible is "the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word." Far more interesting than that number, at least in my opinion, is the trend. In February 2001, only 27% indicated that they so believed. That represents a 26% increase (if I'm doing my math right) of Biblical absolutists in America in merely three years. Yes, these polls do have a margin of error. But these results, even assuming the maximum amount of error, are statistically significant.

The broader trend concerning the authority of the Bible is telling:
1980: 40% actual word of God, 10% fables
1998: 33% actual word of God, 17% fables
February 2001: 27% word of God, 20% fables
2002: 30% word of God, 15% fables
2004: 34% word of God, 15% fables

So, something happened between early 2001 and late 2002 to reverse the clear trend away from Biblical absolutism. I wonder that could have been?

It is become cliché to say that the events of September 11, 2001 changed everything. Nevertheless, I do think that the terrorists attacks and the consequent rise in public fears that massive violence and destruction could occur at any moment has been an important cause in the rising popularity of fundamentalism. In times of fear and crisis, people yearn for certainty, assurance and purpose.

Fundamentalism provides those psychological benefits. The Bible provides all historical, scientific, moral and theological answers. Fundamentalism tells us that God is in complete control; that the wicked will be punished in the end; that righteousness will eventually prevail.

Liberal Christianity is finding it tough to compete because it doesn't provide the same psychological assurances. We point to the historical Jesus for moral answers, but there is tremendous historical debate over even the most basic points of Jesus' life. Many of us reject the idea of a God who micromanages the affairs of the world. Many of us do not believe in Hell.

I don't know what the answer to this dilemma is. Any thoughts?

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Social Gospel and Libertarianism?

A Green Conservatism wittily wonders whether my articulation of a limited government principle in the post below amounts, ironically, to preaching a Social Gospel of Libertarianism.

Two things in defense.

First, in general, my last post was intended to convince my oft-times allies on the Left to change their rhetoric with respect to what they believe. In other words, it was a post more about rhetoric and strategy than about first principle. I assumed for the sake of the discussion the positions of the traditional Left in suggesting a less alienating strategy.

Second, I think I do substantively agree that "government coercion against immoral behavior should be limited to immoral behavior that has effects beyond the individual committing the action." However, I would define the category of "immoral behavior that has effects beyond the invididual" in a far different way than a Libertarian. For example, I believe that excessive consumption in the face of others' real need is immoral behavior effecting others. Thus, supporting a radically progressive income tax with generous social welfare programs is consistent with my understanding of a liberty principle. Surely no self-respecting Libertarian would conclude that Government coercion to reduce economic inequality and poverty is justified.

Libertarians say "hands off" on economic matters. The Social Gospel emphatically posits our economic decisions as public decisions that can have either wonderful or ruinous effects on others.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Against "Tolerance"

The Left's rhetoric of "tolerance" alienates Christians of all stripes and must be abandoned in favor of a more precise articulation of progressive values.

The Southern Baptist Convention resolved this summer:

"The cultural drift in our nation toward secularism obscures moral absolutes under the guise of tolerance."

Similarly, but more elaborately, Yale Law School Professor and moderate evangelical Stephen Carter writes in Christianity Today:

When I became a Christian, I learned a happy truth that I previously had not quite believed: Morality is a matter of fact, not opinion. Correct moral rules are established by God, not by man. They are not human constructs, but facts that God has revealed about himself and his order for the world.


America is more and more a nation that hates rules. The dominant American culture looks at life as a seamless web of choices, and the only form of wrongdoing the culture is willing to acknowledge is the wrong of interfering with somebody else's freedom to choose.


One thing for which America has traditionally that moral obligation flows from a source greater than the self. [We must resist] the already overwhelming cultural message that our moral obligations (other than tolerance, of course) are only those we choose for ourselves.

Christians are alienated by the rhetoric of tolerance because it implies that we must "tolerate" each individual's own resolution of moral choices. To the Liberal, this sounds reasonable enough at first blush, but it is spectacularly overinclusive because all choices are "moral choices." And it is this overinclusiveness that drives many religious people nuts.

Must we "tolerate" those who believe that taking illegal drugs leads them to a higher state of being and abuse them? Must we "tolerate" those who believe that polygamy is permissible and practice it? Must we "tolerate" those who ethically disagree with the income tax and thereby refuse to pay it? Must we "tolerate" those who cite examples in the Bible for the proposition that having sex with children is permissible and then do it? Must we "tolerate" those who believe in human sacrifice and practice it? Must we "tolerate" those who support Islamic terrorism and fund it?

The problem with the rhetoric of tolerance is that it implies, to the distress of all but the most extreme, that there are no moral absolutes. The slippery slope cited above may seem ridiculous, but the Left often fails to qualify the phrase "tolerance" and explain why tolerance is required as to one issue (e.g., gay marriage) but not another (e.g., support of terrorism).

And I think there's a reason for this: it is difficult to defend these differing results while remaining within the value of "tolerance." Indeed, I don't think it is really "tolerance" that most on the Left truly value. Tolerance is a messy, short-hand place-holder for a number of important values that can be more concretely defined and that can be defended in a way that is less alienating to Christians.

When the Left says tolerance it often means "equal justice." Bigotry against women and racial minorities is often deemed "intolerant." But what is problematic about such bigotry is not that it refuses "tolerance" but that it refuses to acknowledge our basic equality as human beings: it denies that we are all children of God in our own right regardless of race or sex. Such a proposition, far from being relativistic, reflects the judgment that a denial of equal justice is profoundly immoral.

When the Left says tolerance it often means "liberty." Liberty is a founding principle of this country. Liberty means that people, as a general rule, should be entitled to pursue their own good insofar as it doesn't materially harm others. Thus, I choose my own spouse; I pick the books I read; I choose what to watch on television. I'm entitled to determine my own destiny so long as it doesn't interfere with the well-being of others. Further, the liberty principle does not depend upon the proposition that all actions which don't harm others are morally permissible. Rather, it reflects the much more limited idea that government coercion against immoral behavior should be limited to immoral behavior that has effects beyond the individual committing the action.

When the Left says tolerance it often means "religious freedom." A founding principle of the United States, enshrined in the first amendment, is that the government may not "ordain or establish" a state religion and that people must have the freedom to exercise their own religion. Such values do not depend on the idea that all religions are correct. Rather, in addition to being a subset of the liberty principle, "religious freedom" reflects the idea that an individual's relationship to her Creator, to the Higher Power, is just that -- an individual relationship. In order to have a true relationship with God, we must develop that relationship on our own: without coercion.

"Tolerance" is an ineffective and misleading short-hand for more concrete and less alienating values. The Left must abandon the overinclusive rhetoric of tolerance and defend equality, liberty, and religious freedom.

And the hits just keep on coming...

Supreme Court to Hear Case of Mexican on Death Row
December 11, 2004


WASHINGTON, Dec. 10 - The Supreme Court accepted an appeal on Friday from still another Texas death-row inmate in a case with significant international implications. The question is whether the federal government can permit Texas to execute a Mexican whose rights under a binding international treaty were violated when he was tried and sentenced to death without Mexican officials being notified.

Obviously things have reached crisis proportions in Texas. We have clear violations of federal law by state officials, repudiation of Supreme Court precedent by Texas courts, and the flouting of international law.

I think it is time for a moratorium.

But there's a real question of how this could be achieved. The federal government, in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent federalism decisions, may not have the constituitonal authority to order one. Moreover, the Supreme Court -- empowered to hear individual cases and controversies -- is unlikely to order such a sweeping across-the-board remedy. That leaves the state of Texas with the power to act. But surely we can't expect the recalcitrant state to flog itself!

The best solution for the time being may be sunlight.... Continue with the individual reversals and ratchet up the public pressure.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

New York to Raise Minimum Wage

Kudos to New York.

This week that state became one of a growing number of states to raise the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage has been stagnant at $5.15/hour since I was in high school. In overwhelmingly approving the measure, New York's legislature overrode the veto of Republican governor George Pataki.

Pataki claimed that "the federal government should handle the minimum wage." An interesting statement given that it was congressional Republicans who blocked the last federal minimum wage bill.

Indeed, if Pataki wanted the federal government to "handle the minimum wage" perhaps he should have endorsed Kerry instead of Bush -- Kerry supported a raise.

This is an issue that has not garnered much national attention in recent years, but I think one in which all Christians -- be they Southern Baptist or Unitarian-Universalist -- can find consensus on. Unfortunately, we will never get any movement on the federal minimum wage with Republicans in office.

Re: Miller-El

Another Texas Death Penalty update (see our previous discussion of the Miller-El case here and discussion of another case here). The New York Times sets the scene for arguments heard yesterday:

the Supreme Court has made clear its growing unease with the administration of the death penalty in Texas and its exasperation with the state and federal courts that hear appeals from the state's death row. The Supreme Court was now taking the unusual step of hearing Mr. Miller-El's appeal from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for a second time, and several justices indicated that the concerns they expressed the first time had not been allayed. Although Mr. Miller-El's life was at stake, in a sense it was the appeals court that was on trial in Miller-El v. Dretke, No. 03-9659.

"This case was here before and we all read the majority opinion," Justice Stephen G. Breyer told Ms. Bunn, an assistant state attorney general. "It might be in my interest if people followed dissents more often," he added wryly, while noting that it was the majority opinion and not the dissent that was binding on the appeals court.

I'm sure many of our theologically-minded readers are sick of hearing about this Supreme Court case, but I think the runaway unjust and irrational administration of state-sponsored killing is a fundamentally Christian concern. That being said, I also have a deep personal concern over whether the rule of law will ultimately prevail over the cynical politics of conservatively-activist judges in my home state.

Monday, December 06, 2004

John the Baptist: found!

Well, not quite, but a major archaelogical site has been discovered just outside Jerusalem.

According to the Indiana Jones-like archaelogist Shimon Gibson, "The first concrete evidence of the existence of John the Baptist has been found on site."

Gibson, the author of several books on biblical archaelogy, believes the finding to be "the first archaeological proof of the historical veracity of the Gospels".

Check it out.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Re: Judicial Activism

Here's a link to the Times article that doesn't require an account.

More Texas "Judicial Activism"

Another day, another intransigent Texas court.

Here's another Times article detailing the past and present tension between the U.S. Supreme Court, which wants to assure a modicum of procedural fairness in death penalty cases, and the Fifth Circuit and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (those fountains of justice), which want to assure as many executions as possible, legal or not.

In the past year, the Supreme Court has heard three appeals from inmates on death row in Texas, and in each case the prosecutors and the lower courts suffered stinging reversals. In a case to be argued on Monday, the court appears poised to deliver another rebuke.

Below is more on the case to be argued Monday. Consider how the Fifth Circuit treats the precedent of a Supreme Court which has no Justice opposed to the death penalty.

In the Miller-El case, appellate lawyers and legal scholars are buzzing over what they say is the insolence of the Fifth Circuit.

In an 8-to-1 decision last year, the Supreme Court instructed the appeals court to rethink its "dismissive and strained interpretation" of the proof in the case, and to consider more seriously the substantial evidence suggesting that prosecutors had systematically excluded blacks from Mr. Miller-El's jury. Prosecutors used peremptory strikes to eliminate 10 out of 11 eligible black jurors, and they twice used a local procedure called a jury shuffle to move blacks lower on the list of potential jurors, the decision said. The jury ultimately selected, which had one black member, convicted Mr. Miller-El, a black man who is now 53, of killing a clerk at a Holiday Inn in Dallas in 1985.

Instead of considering much of the evidence recited by the Supreme Court majority, the appeals court engaged in something akin to plagiarism. In February, it again rejected Mr. Miller-El's claims, in a decision that reproduced, virtually verbatim and without attribution, several paragraphs from the sole dissenting opinion in last year's Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas.

"The Fifth Circuit just went out of its way to defy the Supreme Court on this," said John J. Gibbons, a former chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia, who joined a brief supporting Mr. Miller-El. "The idea that the system can tolerate open defiance by an inferior court just cannot stand."

Friday, December 03, 2004

More on Biblical Absolutism

The two authors of this blog been having a long email debate with our fundamentalists friends concerning the source and scope of the Bible's authority. In a recent email, I developed my thoughts enough that I thought them worthy of sharing here, in a slightly altered form.

There are two issues that I hear consistently from fundamentalists -- two things they regard as serious problems for anyone who denies the Bible's absolute authority. One actually comes across as something like Pascal's wager, albeit with respect to "belief in" the Bible rather than belief in God: how could believing that the Bible is absolutely true put you at odds with Jesus' message? If believing in the Bible absolutely does anything it should bring you closer to Christ's message....

Well, no actually. Biblical absolutism takes you further from Jesus, I believe, in three related ways.

First, Biblical absolutism represents a fundamental confusion over the source of Christian Truth. It is helpful to contrast Christianity with Islam in this respect. Islam claims a God-given text: the Koran. The religion is centered, not on Muhammad, but on this text. The Koran is the source of truth, the manifestation of God. Christianity, by contrast, claims a God-given person. The religion is centered on Jesus, who is the manifestation of God and the source of Truth. The fact that Jesus is central is easily proven, not only by Jesus' own words (e.g., I am the way, the truth and the light) but also by the fact that Christianity, through faith in Christ, existed for centuries before the Bible was compiled in the fourth century. Jesus' centrality is revealed in the very name of the religion. By positing the Bible as the God-given source of truth, Biblical absolutists deny Jesus His rightful place as the fountainhead of Christian Truth. Even assuming that there is no message difference between Jesus and the Bible as a whole (an assumption we will question later), simply being clear, metaphysically, about the Ultimate Source of our revelation is critical.

Second, Biblical absolutism and the erosion of Jesus' importance (i.e., his role as the Source) leads us to a stilted understanding of Jesus' message as revealed in the Gospels. Jesus tells us that we must emphatically and actively love our neighbors. Jesus tells us to sell all we own and give alms. Jesus tells us that those who do the will of the Father are blessed and will be saved. Jesus tells us that the purpose of His coming was to bring good news to the poor, to liberate the oppressed and to bring sight to the blind. But as Pauline theology (which I suggest is one apostle's interpretation of Jesus' divine message) is pumped up, the importance of these injunctions is reduced. Through a Pauline lens, for example, Jesus' "liberating the oppressed" becomes equivalent to "saving the spiritually lost." And his "bringing good news to the poor" becomes coming into the hearts of the poor spiritually and giving them hope for the next life. Would we have made this reading without Paul? Is it the best reading of the text? I submit that by reading Jesus through Paul's lens that we are refusing to confront Jesus on His own terms and refusing to give Him the central place that He is due.

Third, this misunderstaning of the foundation of Christian Truth prevents us from advancing in our understanding of Jesus. We can learn more about Jesus both through historical investigation (through archaeology and newly discovered primary texts) and through personal spiritual experience. Yet being bound to the Bible limits our ability to accept this extra-Biblical evidence. If any of these things contradict the Bible, say the Biblical absolutists, then they must be wrong. This is clear and practical example of the effects of eroding the importance of Jesus by positing the Bible as the source of truth.

The second issue is related to the first. My fundamentalist friends contend that if I don't believe in the Bible's infallibility, then I necessary pick and choose among Bible verses in which case I am essentially just believing whatever I want to believe rather than accepting Divine Revelation.

The response to this claim is that it based on a false dichotomy: either the Bible is the source of Truth or Truth is relative. I reject this dichotomy. Jesus is the source of Truth. Insofar as Biblical attestation, extra- Biblical historical investigation, and personal searching demonstrates that Jesus said and taught something, it impossible for me to "pick and choose" or believe what I want to believe. I put my faith in Jesus. I don't pick and choose among Jesus' teachings. Furthermore, I don't even pick and choose among Bible verses. The Bible is true insofar as it accurately conveys the teachings of Jesus, and it is false insofar as it fails to do so. I can't pick and choose when this is the case. It is a matter of discoverable historical fact.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

To Whet the Appetite

I just received my new Crossan and Reed book (see post below), and I'm making my way through it. Here's an excerpt from the Preface that I thought was interesting:

In 1906 a small cave was discovered cut into the rock on the northern slope of Bulbul Dag, high adove the ruins of ancient Ephesus, just off the mid-Aegean coast of Turkey. To the right of the entrance and beneath layers of plaster, Karl Herold, of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, uncovered two sixth-century images of St. Thecla and St. Paul.

They are both the same height and are therefore iconographically of equal importance. They both have their right hands raised in teaching gesture and are therefore iconographically of equal authority. But although the eyes and upraised hand of Paul are untouched, some later person scratched out the eyes and erased the upraised hand of Thecla. If the eyes of both images had been disfigured, it would be simply another example of iconoclastic antagonism, since that was believed to negate the spiritual power of an icon.... But here only Thecla's eyes and her authoritative hand are destroyed. Original imagery and defaced imagery represent a fundamental clash of theology. An earlier image in which Thecla and Paul were equally authoritative apostolic figures has been replaced by one in which the male is apostolic and authoritative and the female is blinded and silenced....

We take that original assertion of equality and counterassertion of inequality as encapsulating visually the central claim of this book for Christianity itself.

The Christian Dichotomy

A quick thought this evening....

I wonder whether traditional Christianity's focus on sexual morality and lack of concern over wealth and poverty can be entirely explained with ancient Christian theology's selection of the wrong dichotomy. The leaders of the early Christian Church, most prominently Saint Augustine, were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. As such, these teachers emphasized a body/soul dichotomy -- with intellectual and spiritual pursuits identified as "the good" and corporeal pursuits identified as "the bad."

Many Christians, with their obsessive concern with sex, still find this dichotomy compelling.

But we should ask ourselves whether this dichotomy is a Christian dichotomy. Indeed, isn't a self/other dichotomy more scriptural -- more in line with Jesus' teachings? That is, perhaps it is other-directed pursuits which are "the good" and self-directed pursuits which are "the bad."

Liberal Christians should encourage their more corporeal compatriots to think in these terms.