Monday, February 28, 2005

Free Market - why won't the Republicans give it to us?

It's always noteworthy when the party NOT associated with the "free market" - who also happens to be the minority party - is demanding "free market" reforms. But that is exactly what is happening. Select Democrats are calling for market forces to be unleashed, allowing cheaper Canadian presciption drugs to be sold in the United States. This from CNN:
Montana's Democratic governor thinks it "makes no sense" that the United States can import "cattle, hogs and logs" from Canada -- but not cheaper prescription drugs.

Speaking in the weekly Democratic radio address Saturday from Helena, Montana, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said "local pharmacists should be allowed to reimport safe, affordable prescription drugs from Canada, where American-made, U.S. taxpayer-subsidized medicine is sold for as little as half the U.S. retail price."
I agree: it makes no sense. Unless, that it is, you are trying to protect the pharmaceutical industry's profits at the expense of all the American people that need presciption drugs. To borrow a line from one of my favorite movies, "Why Ike, whatever do you mean?"

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Biblical Authority and Constitutional Interpretation, Part 4

I learned a new word today. Hermeneutics: "the study of the methodological principles of interpretation (as of the Bible)." Webster's. The various comments to the previous three posts in this series (many of which included the word) have goaded me to add it to my vocabularly.

Now if I can just learn the word "ontological" and understand what the heck "existentialism" is. I've read articles on the latter and still don't understand it.

Note to self: don't start off posts with rambling tangents. In today's post I want to use constitutional interpretation to illustrate how I think we should understand the authority of the Old Testament. (See previous three installments: Introduction, Book of Acts, New Testament letters.)

First, I think I should reiterate exactly what my hermeneutical claim is, since there's been some confusion expressed in the comments. (Two more times and that word is mine!) I'm trying to articulate principles for interpreting Jesus' Message, not principles for interpreting the bible. As will be clear to long-time readers, we sharply distinguish between the two. (Background here and here.) How to understand what the book of Romans is saying by itself is surely a worthwhile endeavor, but that's not what I'm trying to do here. My concern is this: once we understand Romans, what do we do with it? My answer: we use it as a tool for interpreting the Historical Jesus' Message, which is what really counts.

Constitutional interpretation provides a model for how we should understand the authority of the Old Testament. Constitutional interpretation uses history to bridge the semantic and cultural chasms that stand between us in the present and the eighteenth century Constitution. One of many examples: the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants a right to trial "by jury." But what is a "jury" and what does it mean to be "tried" by one?

Does a jury have to be twelve people? Can it be six? Five? Two?

Has a defendant had a "trial by jury" if the votes for guilty were not unanimous?

Does a jury's "trying" a case include the power to "try" the law as well as the facts? (Does it mean, in other words, that the jury can engage in "nullification"?)

Distinguished jurists and commentators have come up with different answers to all of these questions. Yet (and this is the important point), all have looked to British history -- to the history of the jury as an institution in England to support their claims of what the Constitution means when it guarantees a trial by jury.

In United States v. Maybury, for example, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals concluded (controversially) that the jury has every right to acquit a guilty defendant. In support of this conclusion, the court cited to English history books which claimed that the jury was never supposed to be a strictly rational institution because it replaced the totally irrational trial "by ordeal."

Whether or not Maybury has its history right, its insight that we should look to history to understand what a trial by jury means is sound. We should also look to history in interpreting Jesus' message -- to help bridge even larger linguistic and cultural gaps. The books of the Old Testament should be understood, then, not as "revelations" in their own right, but as a tool to put Jesus' message in context by understanding His social, cultural, and religious tradition.

Thomas Cahill's book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, (which I am currently listening to on C.D.) provides an excellent example of using the Old Testament in this way. Cahill discusses the first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark:

"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near...." 1:14.

According to Cahill, these are extremely dense, loaded phrases. Kind of like, "trial by jury." We cannot hope to understand their full import unless we consider the Jewish prophetic tradition. Jesus' audience, according to Cahill, would have understood Jesus to be referencing not just "a time" but the time: the ultimate time of spectacular justice and righteousness promised long ago by prophets like Isaiah, who proclaimed that one day:

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. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 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.

Isaiah 11:6-9.

Thus, just as English History helps us flesh out and better understand phrases in the Constitution, the Old Testament may help us flesh out and better understand Jesus' Message.

In the next and final post, I will make some broad qualifications to what I have said in the past four posts on the authority of the bible.

Bush's Bait and Switch: Christians "are getting played"

This from Farhad Majoo of Salon.com

Bush's second-term focus on money issues like Social Security, the tax code, and tort law, rather than on gay marriage and abortion, proves a point that several liberal analysts put forward during the campaign: Republican politicians constantly use the culture wars to hoodwink religious people into voting for big-business ideas that, ultimately, run against the financial interests of the voters. "This is a party with a mission, a historical mission it's adhered to since the 1930s -- and that has been the mission of the business community, the repeal of the New Deal and war with the labor movement," says Thomas Frank, whose book "What's the Matter With Kansas?" offers the most detailed explication yet of the theory that Republicans fan the flames of social issues only to get their way on business issues. Social Security privatization, Frank says, is further proof that religious people "are getting played."


Of course, we believe that they are hoodwinked not only into voting against their economic interest but also hoodwinked into voting against critical Christian values like social justice.

(hat tip, Jesus Politics)

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Biblical Authority and Constitutional Interpretation, Part 3

This week I have been arguing that we can look to Constitutional interpretation for a model of understanding the authority of the bible, (Part 1, Part 2). The goal is to put Jesus' message back at the center of Christianity without throwing the rest of the bible completely out the window.

Today, I'd like to suggest that Constitutional law's understanding of the authority of the Federalist Papers should be our model for understanding the New Testament letters of Paul, Peter, James, John, etc.

The Federalist papers were an exercise in apologetics. Hamilton, Madison and Jay wrote this series of articles after the drafting of the Constitution (and its adoption by the Constitutional Convention) in order to build popular support for the Constitution.

Although they were clearly not "objective observers," the views of the Federalists authors about the correct understanding of the Constituiton are accorded weight by most constitutional interpreters as a consequence of their proximity to the Constitution. They knew it inside and out. They were present at the drafting. They were writing in depth about the Constitution only months after it was drafted.

Consequently, the Federalist papers may be used to help resolve ambiguity and correct misunderstandings about the Constitution's meaning. For example, it is not entirely clear from the text of the Constitution that judges are given the power of "judicial review," that is, the power to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional. There are good textual arguments that can be made in support of this idea, but they are far from determinative.

Alexander Hamilton's views, expressed in Federalist 78, help us resolve this ambiguity. According to Hamilton, the limits the Constitution placed on the Congress could

be preserved in practice no other way than through the medium of courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void.


Is Hamilton's view on the matter the final word? Is the authority given to this sentence the same as if it had been included in the text of the Constitution? Certainly not. But if we are looking to objectively interpret the Constitution, surely it must be accorded some weight.

The New Testament letters should be accorded similar authority. They are not Jesus' Message. They are not themselves "the Constitution" of Christianity. But because they were written by people with real proximity to Jesus and His Message, we should accord them some weight as we seek to understand that Message two centuries later.

Take the classic faith/works debate. In Matthew 7:21, Jesus says "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." Yet in Mark 16: 16, Jesus says "The one who believes and is baptized will be saved...." Which is it? How do we resolve this ambiguity?

The letter of James is helpful, just like Alexander Hamilton's piece was helpful in interpreting the Constituiton. James opines in Chapter 2 of his letter:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.


James's opinion then, is that you can't really believe without also doing. Is this the final word on the matter? No, no more than was Hamilton's statement about judicial review. The authority of James's opinion is rendered even more doubtful by the letters of Paul which seem to contradict it. But my whole point is that we should be having debates about what light these letters and opinions shed back on Jesus' message rather than simply either (1) asserting that the bible as a whole is a divine revelation or (2) ignoring everything in it that isn't "in red" as it were.

Monday, February 21, 2005

George Washington and a blind eye to history

We here at the Social Gospel Today have accused modern Christians (and people in general) of lacking an understanding of historical cause and effect. Now, another example:
When Americans rate their greatest president, they do not agree on who tops the list, but seem to rank a half-dozen chief executives ahead of the nation's first. George Washington tied for sixth place in one recent poll and rated seventh in another.
What??? See for yourself. George Washington was a phenomenal President, if only because he stepped down from power, choosing not to be a dictator and setting an example that served the young country well. Oh yeah, and he was a great General, too. He helped win this thing called the Revolutionary War. Putting Presidents like Reagan, Clinton, and W ahead of George Washington is ludicrous if for no other reason than their accomplishments are too young to be evaluated historically! Come on people, THINK A LITTLE BIT!

George, you've earned my respect - thank you.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Biblical Authority and Constitutional Interpretation, Part 2

In Constitutional Law, there is widespread agreement that the Constitution itself - that short document drafted in 1787 and its subsequent amendments - is the ultimate source of authority. As influential Constituitonal scholars like Akhil Amar might put it, the Constitution is the "revelation" of the People.

Remembering that it is the text and structure of the Constitution itself which is ultimately binding - which is the "revelation" - in Constitutional Law is important. However, the Constitution is sometimes opaque. It is not always easy for us, over two centuries later, to interpret. Consequently, Constitutional Law accords some degree of authority to many other documents and actions which help illuminate the meaning of the Constitution. It does so without confusing these secondary documents with the ultimate source of Constitutional Law.

In the next few posts, I will suggest that Constitutional interpretation shows us how Christians should understand the portions of the Bible that do not directly record Jesus' Message. As in Constitutional Law, Christians should be clear about what the Revelation is: it is Jesus' Message. However, also as in Constitutional Law, this should not mean that we should ignore other critical documents which might help us understand that Revelation.

In this post, I hope to explain how Constitutional Law and interpretation shows us the way to understanding the authority of the book of Acts and possibly other parts of the New Testament.

As I indicated above, there are portions of the Constitution that are not 100% clear from the text itself. Congress's power to make laws is limited by "due process" and "freedom of speech," but what do those concepts mean? The President has "executive power," but what could that vague phrase possibly mean?

There are important things that happened after the Constitution was written that help us understand them. They are used as authority, in the sense that they carry some weight when cited to by lawyers and judges, in Constitutional Law.

The laws passed by early congresses - particularly the first Congress - help us understand what Congress's powers are under the Constitution. The members of early congresses were enacting laws just after the powers of Congress had been defined. Moreover, many early congressmen were also members of the Constitutional Convention, helping to draft the Constitution and signing it. Presumably congressmen so close to the Constitution - to the source of Constitutional Law - would not act in opposition to it. Consequently, the laws enacted by early congresses are considered to illuminate what the powers of Congress and its limitations are. Similarly (as Professor Amar has argued), the actions of the first President, George Washington, help us understand what the powers of the President are.

This may be analogized to how we should understand the Book of Acts' authority. Acts traces the story of the Christian movement from Jesus' resurrection. It records, among other things, important information about the first Christian community, the early Jersusalem Church, and the missions of Paul. In other words, it records the "Acts" of people who were very close to Jesus' message. Many, Peter for example, knew Jesus personally. The "Acts" of people who were close to the Ultimate Source of Christian Truth, like the actions of those close to the ultimate source of Constitutional Law, should be accorded some authority. We should presume, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that they are acting in accord with - rather than against - Jesus' message.

Consequently, when, for example, Acts 2:44-45 tells us that early Christians "had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need" we should pay attention. We should accord this some authority in our understanding of Christian Truth. But we should do so because the actions of Jesus' early followers may help shed some light back on what His Message meant and not because the Book of Acts itself is an infallible, Divine revelation.

More tomorrow....

Re: the Ownership Society

A potent alternative perspective from Donzelion regarding our rejection of Bush's "ownership society" goal and understanding of Christianity's relationship to private property rights.

Donzelion argues that seeing private property rights as a sometimes-necessary evil towards achieving other common goals rather than as good in and of themselves doesn't go far enough:

"I’d say that he’s actually got to finish the road that he started: there is no strong defense of ‘property rights’ per se in Christianity."

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Biblical Authority and Constitutional Interpretation, Part 1

We have often tried to persuade our Christian readers that Christianity must move away from biblical absolutism. We must see Christ and Christ's message - and not the various documents compiled by the Roman Bishop Athanasius (with "input" from the Roman Emperor) more than three centuries after Christ's death - as God's revelation to mankind. At our most radical, we have argued that excessive attention and deference to the bible as authority may actually lead Christians astray - further from God and further from Christ.

But does this mean that the bible has no authority? Should the portions of the bible that do not record the teachings of Christ - essentially everything but the gospels - be abandoned altogether in the struggle to put Christ back at the center of Christianity?

Upon reflection, I think that abandoning the bible altogether and denying that it has any authority would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In the coming days, I hope to articulate a more nuanced understanding of the bible that neither denigrates it nor permits it to overtake Christ's rightful place as the center of Christianity. My understanding of the bible's authority has been influenced by my study of Constitutional Law and interpretation and will be illuminated by comparison to it.

More tomorrow....

Today

Our apologies for being such slackers this week. I've got no good excuse other than the normal "really busy" one that I hate to use. So I won't.

In the news today: glorifying warfare.
"We wanted to show how vicious the fight was beforehand," said Hunt, curator at the National Museum of the Pacific War in nearby Fredericksburg. "It wasn't troops going forward gloriously to victory. There were a lot of casualties."
Is it just me, or can't we come up with a better way to honor the sacrifice of those who have fought and died than by reenacting how violent their deaths were? How about reenacting their loving families back home? The jovial camaraderie they shared behind the front lines? Am I being too much of a dreamer here?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Hunger and Homelessness on the Rise

Despite a war on poverty that began more than four decades ago, the ranks of the hungry and homeless in the United States are increasing even as government funding declines, a study released on Tuesday found.
...
[G]overnment cuts to social programs caused nearly one-fourth of the emergency food agencies to turn people away. More than three-quarters of shelters had no place for people to stay.


Reuters reports.

The Christian community must stand against these social sins. The time to revitalize the Social Gospel is now.

Born into Brothels

Last night, I saw the documentary "Born into Brothels." I think everyone should see this film.

Following the lives of children in Calcutta, India's "red light" distict (i.e. children whose parents are mired in the sex industry), "Born into Brothels" chronicles one determined woman's efforts to save a group of children through education and photography. Teaching the children how to use cameras and how to take photos, Zana Briski takes the viewer on a journey through places few westerners ever see - or ever want to see. Guided by the eyes and lenses of the children, one cannot help but imagine what awaits them if Briski is not successful at getting them placed in quality schools.

Everyone needs to see this film. Not only is "Born into Brothels" a reminder of how wonderful and hopeful children are, but it is also serves as a painful reminder of all that needs to be done - especially by us comfortable westerners - to make this world a more just place.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Needs

I have long argued - though rarely articulated intelligently - that people are not capable of helping themselves unless they have certain needs met first. This has long been my attack at conservatives who proclaim that success is as easy as helping one's self. From a personal perspective, I know that I would not have been able to succeed in school or life growing up if I had to worry about food, shelter, or things like family support. I know that I owe who I am in large part to other people.

Thanks to my friend at CepSpeak, however, I can now point to some scholarship supporting me on the matter: Abraham Maslow's "Heirarchy of Needs." For those of you wondering how this relates to us here at the Social Gospel Today, this should sum it up:
According to Maslow, there are general types of needs (physiological, safety, love, and esteem) that must be satisfied before a person can act unselfishly.
In other words, if your needs aren't being met, it isn't possible for you to meet the needs of others. To those whom much is given, must is indeed expected.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

"The Gates" open in NYC

When I first heard about "The Gates," the first major public art display of the 21st century, I wasn't pleased. After all, $21 million seems like a lot of money to be throwing around given all the needs of people in the world. In reflection, however, and with a little help from others, I realized that this $21 million was hardly wasted.

Think of it this way: public art is for everyone. Quite literally, no one can be stopped for marveling at this creation --- Central Park is open to all comers. Most spectactual artwork is locked away inside dusty museums, never available to the masses of people that could potentially use a source of beauty and hope in their world. Christo's "The Gates" does just that. Quoting the NY Times review by Michael Kimmelman:

Central Park is in fine shape today, but the project still has a social value, in gathering people together for their shared pleasure. Some purists will complain that the art spoils a sanctuary, that the park is perfect as it is, which it is. But the work, I think, pays gracious homage to Olmsted's and Vaux's abiding pastoral vision: like immense Magic Marker lines, the gates highlight the ingenious and whimsical curves, dips and loops that Olmsted and Vaux devised as antidotes to the rigid grid plan of the surrounding city streets and, by extension, to the general hardships of urban life.

The gates, themselves a cure for psychic hardship, remind us how much those paths vary, in width, and height, like the crowds of people who walk along them. More than that, being so sensitive to nature, they make us more sensitive to its effects.

We didn't need the gates to make us sensitive, obviously. Art is never necessary. It is merely indispensable.

At its best, it leads us toward places we might not have thought to visit. Victor Hugo once said, "There is nothing more interesting than a wall behind which something is happening." This also applies to gates, which beckon people to discover what is beyond them (emphasis added).

I can't wait to go see it.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Social Security: the more polls, the less support for Bush's plans

It's no surprise really that the Bush administration's plan to "fix" Social Security is not being very well recieved by the American people. Why? The American people LOVE social security! They love that security!

According to two surveys by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, and Harvard University:
Seven in 10 Americans agree with President Bush (news - web sites) that Social Security eventually will go bankrupt if Congress fails to act, though most predict that the system will not do so for at least two decades. Yet while Bush has warned of a crisis in Social Security, barely one in four Americans believes that a crisis exists.
Check it out.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Social Security Reform: It's just not that hard to understand

It's not just us here at the Social Gospel Today preaching from the pulpit - the American people understand, too. A new CNN/USA Today poll demonstrates that the public supports not only means testing for Social Security (the idea, which we've advocated, that the wealthy should get less benefits or no benefits) but also that we should raise payroll taxes on the wealthy to shore it up further:
More than two-thirds of 1,010 adults contacted from Friday to Sunday said it would be a good idea to limit benefits for wealthier retirees and for higher income workers to pay Social Security taxes on all their wages.

I thought the idea of means testing was radical, but apparently it isn't. The "double whammy" suggested by the poll - means testing for benefits and higher payroll taxes on the wealthy - would surely be more than enough to "secure" Social Security for generations to come. Check out the CNN piece.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Bush Budget Leaves Children Behind

I predicted several months ago that there was no way that Bush could cut education to pay for his tax cuts. I was wrong. Bush's new budget - despite the pleas of states still reeling from his unfunded education mandates - does just that. It contemplates a 1% decrease in discretionary spending for the Department of Education and the elimination of several education-related programs, including "grants to states to keep drugs out of schools, and other programs to further vocational education. "

Monday, February 07, 2005

Thoughts on thoughts.

Random thought of the day...

I think there's two ways of coming to understand the world: internally and externally. Let me explain.

Some people look inside to understand the essence of human existence, spirit, and being. I think I am one of these people. By positing one's self as "typical" of all humanity, you seek to understand what drives you and what affects you, and in doing so, come to understand more about human nature. The power of observation is critical to this approach, as we are all certainly limited by our own psyche's and life experiences.

The other author of this blog, I think, tends towards the second method of understanding: looking to the external world. I tease him about being too professorial sometimes, but I think it's an equal valid - and perhaps more solidly grounded - way of understanding. It surely makes citing a whole lot easier! It's an approach based on other people's conclusions and studies, combining the knowledge of thinkers past all while coming to your own worldview.

Observation and scholarship. Makes for a good team, I think.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Bush's Budget Leaves Seniors Cold

In December we pointed out the Bush administration's immoral decision to cut college financial aid to the poor. But Bush rightly points out that we face a budget crisis. Since December, we've offered alternatives to fix this budget crisis in a Christian way: rolling back the tax cuts for the wealthy and means testing social security are just a few options.

Bush's state of the union address suggested general benefits cuts for social security to go along with his new private accounts. His new budget proposal continues his move in the wrong direction. Among other things, Bush's budget contemplates "slashing grants to local law enforcement agencies and cutting spending for environmental protection, American Indian schools and home-heating aid for the poor...." (AP)

The cuts to the home heating program are of special concern. This program, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), provides grants to state and local governments which help them provide emergecy assistance to the poor, usually seniors, for heating needs. As anyone who has lived in the Northeast knows for certain, home heating may be a matter, not just of comfort, but of life and death.

State and local governments have neither the literal nor political capital to deal with assistance to the poor on their own. The federal government must be deeply involved in providing the social safety net. The fact that we are already contemplating cuts to programs that provide critical, emergecy aid to the poor shows just how far from the Christian ideal our government has fallen.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Hip Hop and Liberation

Maybe it's the pounding beats and verbal flurries that blare from apartment windows on the side streets off of Fredrick Douglas Boulevard. Maybe it's the flamboyant billboards on 125th proclaiming the new Mase or Nas album. Maybe its the pirated CDs hawked 2 for $5 in commercial areas. Maybe it's the concert posters that are ubiquitous here.

I've been living in Harlem for six months now. And whatever the reason, I've become intensely more interested in Hip Hop music than ever before.

Many Christians would see this as a bad thing. Much of Hip Hop music, especially that made by popular artists like Nelly, is obscene. There is a glorification in violence and sexual exploitation which is indefensible. Given this, I understand why most Christians are averse to Hip Hop music.

But dismissing Hip Hop entirely for what it is at its worst, while understandable, is wrong. I see much of Hip Hop as an articulation of and response to oppression.

Consider these lyrics from Hip Hop's first real hit, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" (1982):

Broken glass everywhere,
People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care.
I can’t take the smell, I can’t take the noise,
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice.
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back,
Junkie’s in the alley with a baseball bat.
I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far
Cause the man with the tow-truck repossessed my car

Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge.
I’m trying not to loose my head.
It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under.


If we think of Hip Hop in this way, it may actually take us places spiritually. According to Liberation Theologians Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, the starting point for following Jesus' message of liberation is a "suffering with." Ideally, perhaps we should live among the poor. Perhaps we should have no more material possessions than the poor have. Jesus did these things.

According to Boff and Boff, the "suffering with" starting point for following Jesus' message requires at "a minimum" a "perception of [the] scandals [of poverty and oppression]."

I believe that Hip Hop can help white, middle-class suburban Christians (among others) begin to "perceive" (though admittedly not fully understand) the suffering of inner-city African Americans. This is what is good about Hip Hop.

But Hip Hop has not been content to complain, to simply proclaim oppression. Instead, Hip Hop has offered responses to oppression too. At its best, Hip Hop - through artists like Common or Talib Kweli - calls for social and individual renewal. At its worst, Hip Hop suggests a sort of nihilistic giving up. Since no one has cared for me (or us), I will care for no one but myself. This, for me, explains the violence and hedonism found in a lot of Hip Hop.

Often just the nihilism is expressed and not the reasons for it. But sometimes it does show itself as a response (if a terrible and unproductive response) to oppression. Consider this frustration from rapper Kastro on Tupac's Album "Loyal to the Game" (2004):

In the belly of the best, I'm bubbling up
Runnin' outa luck, about to self-destruct
...
Your power movement was cool
But it ain't fixed nothin',
So I just go on with what I know
I don't trust nothing

I believe that Boff and Boff are right. I don't think we can serve "the least of these" without a minimum of "suffering with." I think that Hip Hop helps us perceive oppression. I also believe that we can listen to Hip Hop music for this purpose without necessarily approving any unproductive responses to the oppression which it explains.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

"Where poverty exists, there is not true freedom."

Yesterday in London, former South African President - and prisoner - Nelson Mandela gave an impassioned plea to the world: end poverty and massive inequality.

"Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times ... that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.

"In this new century, millions of people in the world's poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains," he said. "They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free."

This from a man who spent a good chunk of his life in jail fighting to end apartheid. We might want to listen to him. Yet, somehow, this battle didn't make it's way into the President's State of the Union address last night. Huh. I guess he just overlooked it.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Role of Grace

What is the role of "grace" in a theological vision like ours which so clearly emphasizes what mainline Christianity would call "works"? I would say, by the way, that we emphasize "acts of love."

In short, the role of grace is huge and actually traditional in many ways.

We as individuals are, I believe, "saved" by God's grace in the most orthodox sense. What God demands is demanding indeed. In fact, one of the main purposes of this blog is to demonstrate just how demanding God's commands are. We also, of course, try to show that they are demanding in life situations that mainline Christians might not even think raise a moral issue.

No one can live up to "the standard," especially as we've articulated it. I can try and try and try but I will never truly love my neighbor to the same extent that I love myself. That is, I will never be able to treat my winning the lottery or losing a loved one as identical to a stranger winning the lottery or losing a loved one. But I must try. And I must try even though I will inevitably fail to ever fully reach the ideal.

My failure to live up to God's demands is where grace comes in. God has made demands, and I have failed. But God "practices what She preaches." God's love is unconditional. There is no retribution for my failure. God's law, due to God's love, is unenforceable.

There are two questions that must be answered with respect to this statement of "doctrine."

(1) Is this any different from what every Protestant Christian in the world believes?

(2) Doesn't this undercut completely the ringing moral commands you've discussed for months on this blog?

Ansers: (1) Yes, (2) No.

Regarding question one, what I've said so far doesn't differ. But what I am about to say will be different and controversial (though not original).

I believe that God's love is both truly unconditional and active. To speak more concretely, God's love is God's love whether we choose to "accept" that love or not. God's love is not something that we have the power to turn on or off like a light switch or a television set. It endures and applies no matter what we do or believe. There is no retribution. Period. And yes, this is a universalist vision.

Second, I don't believe that this undercuts our moral imperatives. First of all, it certainly does not undercut the moral imperatives more than mainline Christianity. In traditional Christian doctrine, God's commands are equally unenforceable so long as we've "turned on" God's love by believing (or accepting) the right theological tenets. The universalist vision doesn't make God's moral commands any more unenforced. It simply removes a theological barrier to the unenforceability.

In fact, I think our vision of grace has less of an undercutting or qualifying effect on God's moral commands than grace does in mainline Christianity. In mainline Christianity, the "theological imperative" (i.e., turning on God's love by believing the right things) is so important that all moral imperatives - all of God's commands with respect to the world - are deemphasized. This has to be so. There is only so much time in the day and so many Church sermons that can be given. The theological imperative engenders anxiety and elicits a response in terms of time and spiritual resources. By contrast, when God's love is seen is truly unconditional - that is, when we are freed from the theological imperative - we have more time and energy to focus on the moral imperatives.

And why should we follow God's moral commands? Simply because we love God and because God has asked us to do so. My loving my neighbor as myself thereby becomes a completely pure expression of my love for God because the motives are pure. I don't do acts of love out of fear of future retribution. I do them simply as an expression and indication of my love for God.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Three Cheers for President Bush

They say that even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.

In any event, we'd like to come out firmly in support of President Bush's recent proposal to increase military death pay. Soldiers and their families are, for me, already the "least of these" in many ways. Enlistees are often drawn from impoverished young people who lack other opportunities. They are disproportionately racial minorities. Their families suffer long intervals without them. And most importantly, in these days, the soldiers themselves - whether or not they survive - suffer the horrors of war.

When a soldier dies as a result of a war that our country has decided (rightly or wrongly) that it must fight, we should do what little we can to help the family cope with their loss. Under the President's plan: "A tax-free 'death gratuity,' now $12,420, would grow to $100,000." Nothing can make up for the death of a family member. But we should do what we can.

Now if we can just raise normal military pay such that enlisted people's families can enjoy material security while their loved ones are still alive.