Tuesday, March 29, 2005

On Lazy Welfare Queens and Bankruptcy Cheaters

On my blog plate this week (I promise), is an answer to Marcus's objection to my Christology. But my topic this morning is political rhetoric. I am inspired, for once, by my readings for class. One of the assigned books for my legal writing course is C. Edward Good's Mightier Than the Sword. In a section that advocates "favoring concrete words over abstract words," Good writes:
Good writers won't decry hunger in America. They'll speak instead of those eating dog food from a can. Good speech writers won't extol opportunity in America. They'll speak instead of the successful chocolate-chip cookie tycoon starting an empire from scratch.

Effective writers and speakers, says Good (exemplifying his own rule), use "concrete words" to "staple [their] thoughts to [their] reader's minds."

I think that the Right has done a much better job of using concrete images to this end than has the Left. The inner-city African-American woman with four children dominated the Right's rhetoric surrounding welfare reform and was "stapled to the public's mind" despite statistics showing that welfare recipients were predominantly white and lived in rural areas. The "bankruptcy cheater" who buys a big house and then defaults to exploit "loopholes" in the bankruptcy laws dominates the debate over bankruptcy despite statistics showing that job loss and catastrophic medical expenses are by far the most common causes of bankruptcy.

The Left too often speaks in abstractions and statistics. This lack of concrete images may be seen as a symptom of the Left's failure to forcefully articulate VALUES. I say that it MAY be seen in this way because I think my posts here (Infission's as opposed to jj's more generally) suffer from the abstraction malady but not the lack of values. We (the Left) must not only articulate values but also create concrete images to staple our ideas to the public's mind.

Surely I am not the first to point this out. But perhaps it is unique to posit that such a move would be to follow Jesus' rhetorical pattern. Jesus did speak in abstractions - in broad principles. But he also (much more frequently) spoke in parables, in concrete stories and images that would stick in his hearers' minds. Think the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, etc. The Left, then, should follow Jesus both ethically and rhetorically.

Monday, March 28, 2005

"Gunner Palace"

Continuing my unitended tradition of seeing movies on major Christian holidays (happy late Easter), I saw "Gunner Palace" last night. I highly recommed it.

The story of an American unit living in the former palace of one of Saddam Hussein's sons, "Gunner Palace" is a trip behind the scenes of war, into the lives of the people that are living it. Through their music (there are some talent rappers) and recreation (the Palace has a massive swimming pool), we are forced to see these soliders not as distant and detached army men, but instead as brothers and sisters to a common upbringing, a common way of life. We learn to value their personal sacrifice, even if rejecting the decision to put them in harm's way.

The community that the troops share and their commitment to one another is truly inspiring and, perhaps, truly Christian. "I'm not fighting for the freedom of Iraq," one solider says. "I'm fighting for my buddies and to stay alive." Following the death of one of their own, we later see a GI carrying around a coin - his buddy's image on one side and John 15:13 on the other:
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
Still not convinced that soliders can be models of Christian behavior? Consider this: when asked if he regrets killing a man, one GI - deep in contemplation - responds that it bothered him at first. After realizing that it was either "him or me," however, the GI concludes: "I'm not the bad guy, I know that much. I'm just following orders. That's my job."

Friday, March 25, 2005

Reverend, explained

So with help from ats54 and Infission, I'm realizing now that my chosen callname might have come across the wrong way. In choosing "reverend," my intent was self-deprication --- I often come across preachy and as a "know-it-all" in theological and religious discussions. You in the blogosphere, however, have no way of knowing that, and I'm concerned that "reverend" doesn't send the right message.

While I won't commit to a permanent name change, this will be my first post under the monicker "42." For our long time readers, my love for the game and spirit of baseball should come as no surprise. I choose "42" as a shout out to one of the most remarkable players of all time, not specifically for what he did between the foul lines (he was great there, too), but because of the struggle (through non-violent protest in the face of pure hatred) that he endured to get and remain there. Here's to you, Jackie Robinson.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The "Meta Principle"

I promised some attempted answers to some intriguing objections raised in the comments to my "constitutional interpretation and biblical authority" series. I'm going to do my best in the next couple of posts. After that, though, I want to leave behind theological abstraction for a while and try to dive into the messier and more practical realms of Christian ethics and politics. I love abstract theology and high theory, but I've got to move on for a while. In the end, I believe that living what I do understand of Jesus' message is much more difficult and much more important than wringing my hands about the margins.

I turn first to DLW.

DLW writes:

Key to correct interpretation of the scripture is to refer to the highest level of interpretation, the Meta-Narrative, or big picture. In that picture, many of our existing relations are fallen and should be in the process of redemption.

I agree that it is probably intellectually (hermeneutically?) inevitable that we reference some "big picture" or something "meta" in the process of interpretation. Not only that, but I think there is strong support in Jesus' thought and in the thought of the early apostles that there is a "big picture" that we must always keep in mind. I do not think, however, that this big picture is a "narrative." I find no support whatsoever in Jesus' thought for the idea that the "big picture" is a meta narrative of fall and redemption. Jesus tells us, very clearly, what the big picture is, and the "meta" is a "meta principle" rather than a meta narrative, much less the specific narrative of "fall and redemption."

What is this meta principle?

Matt. 22: 36-40:

"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" And he [Jesus] said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets."

Mark 12:28-33:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." And the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."

And Paul is in substantial agreement concerning the "meta" that we must always keep in mind.

Rom. 13:9:

The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet," and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

See also Gal. 5:13-14:

[Y]ou were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

James' letter, arguably the letter most difficult to reconcile with Paul, agrees at least on this point.

James 2:8:

If you really fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well.

The Didache, a non-canonical but very early Christian document (usually dated around 100 A.D.) provides still more support for the meta principle that we must referece. Didache 1:1-2:

There are two ways, one of life and one of death; and between the two ways there is a great difference. Now, this is the way of life: First, you must love God who made you, and second, your neighbor as yourself.

Much of what remains of the Didache is dedicated to trying to flesh out "[w]hat these maxims teach...." Didache 1:3.

Thus, there is indeed a big picture that we should keep in mind in interpretation. This big picture is a meta principle rather than a meta narrative. We are directed to this meta principle both by Jesus himself and by his most important, earliest apostles.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The hypocrisy just kills me

I'm sure we've all heard about the Terry Schiavo case by this point. I feel sorry for the woman. I really do. But there's much more to it than one woman's life support.

For one, why is Congress going out of their way (and the President is flying across the country to sign it into law) - taking time from very important issues that affect millions if not billions of people - to pass a law giving Schiavo's parents standing in federal court? The NY Times editorial page says it best:

Ms. Schiavo's case presents heart-wrenching human issues, and difficult legal ones. But the Florida courts, after careful deliberation, ruled that she would not want to be kept alive by artificial means in her current state, and ordered her feeding tube removed. Ms. Schiavo's parents, who wanted the tube to remain, hoped to get the Florida Legislature to intervene, but it did not do so.

That should have settled the matter. But supporters of Ms. Schiavo's parents, particularly members of the religious right, leaned heavily on Congress and the White House to step in. They did so yesterday with the new law, which gives "any parent of Theresa Marie Schiavo" standing to sue in federal court to keep her alive.

This narrow focus is offensive. The founders believed in a nation in which, as Justice Robert Jackson once wrote, we would "submit ourselves to rulers only if under rules." There is no place in such a system for a special law creating rights for only one family. The White House insists that the law will not be a precedent. But that means that the right to bring such claims in federal court is reserved for people with enough political pull to get a law passed that names them in the text.

The Bush administration and the current Congressional leadership like to wax eloquent about states' rights. But they dropped those principles in their rush to stampede over the Florida courts and Legislature. The new law doesn't miss a chance to trample on the state's autonomy and dignity. There are a variety of technical legal doctrines the federal courts use to show deference to state courts, like "abstention" and "exhaustion of remedies." The new law decrees that in Ms. Schiavo's case, these well-established doctrines simply will not apply.

Republicans have traditionally championed respect for the delicate balance the founders created. But in the Schiavo case, and in the battle to stop the Democratic filibusters of judicial nominations, President Bush and his Congressional allies have begun to enunciate a new principle: the rules of government are worth respecting only if they produce the result we want. It may be a formula for short-term political success, but it is no way to preserve and protect a great republic.

Using people on life support as political pawns is disgusting. It is, however, a clear indication of just how far into the gutter our national political scene has fallen.

That, however, wasn't the hypocrisy that motivated me to post. The hypocrisy that I want to draw attention to is one of the entire Religious Right. In a statement yesterday, President Bush said,
"In instances like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life."
I completely agree with that statement, and I think most of the Religious Right would also (they are, after all, the group that that statement was specifically written for and targeted to). So my question is this: how can the Religious Right venerate life on one hand (here and in the abortion context) while championing the death penalty with the other?

Answer: a predetermined reading of the Bible and a complete disregard for Jesus' teachings.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

On the Road Again

Well my whirlwind tour of the Southeastern United States is almost complete, and I have seen the light... spring training baseball. Everything that is great about the game - the outdoors, the tradition, the hope that spring naturally brings - is on full display, easily accessible AND affordable to the average fan. With the baseball steroids scandal dominating the headlines these days, it's refreshing to see the game as it was meant to be.

Some observations from the road:

(1): Florida really is a big retirement home, but it's easy to see why.

(2): South Carolina is, um, South Carolina. On full flag poles out front, one barbecue restaurant proudly displayed the flags of all the confederate states and, of course, had the rebel battle flag flying high over all of them. We also saw a cadet from, presumably, The Citadel. The surprising thing about this however, wasn't that he was eating barbecue with his father. What was surprising was the color of his uniform - gray - just like the pictures of Confederate soldiers on the walls.

Why was I struck by this? Cadets in my home state of Texas - also a former Confederate state - where uniforms also. Their fatigues, however, are khakies, and their dress is dark green.

(3): Charleston, South Carolina, however, is a treat. The historic city center is filled with stunning Southern homes, beautifully restored and preserved. It's like a cleaner New Orleans-light, dripping with history.

(4): We saw numerous rebel flag bumper stickers on cars from Virginia to Florida (less so in VA and FL). Our favorite: "Heritage, not Hate." As my friend tellingly observed in a rather disgusted manner: "You would never see that $@*# in Houston."

(5): I can't absolve Virginia too much, though. It was, after all, the home of the "Stonewall Jackson Shrine." Seriously. It's right there off of I-95, with a big, brown (and official) highway sign telling you that it is there. Now don't get me wrong: I am making no judgments here about Stonewall Jackson or whether or not he merits historical recognition publically. But a shrine? Calling it that is a little scary, even it is was the place where the famous General died.

(5): I knew I was back in the Bible Belt when at a Dunkin Donuts in Orlando one morning I struck up a conversation with the man behind me in line. After talking about fishing in the Gulf and his 40 year career as an egg farmer in Michigan, the man asked me - completely randomly I might add - "Son, are you a Christian?" More on this later.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Surprising Significance of Galatians 2:10

I read Galatians a few nights ago. I find it a fascinating letter for many reasons, but in this post I want to focus on a seemingly obscure verse, Galatians 2:10. Paul writes:

"They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do."

In context, this is a throwaway line in the sense that it is unimportant to the broader argument Paul is making in Galatians. Yet, for reasons I will explain below, it is actually one of the most significant sentences in Galatians for those who want use the bible in the way I have recently described.

In the first chapter-and-a-half of his letter to the Galatians, Paul contends that he did not merely receive the gospel secondhand from any apostle who knew Jesus during his natural life. Paul asserts his authority by describing how he was specifically "called" and directly instructed by a vision of the risen Christ. Gal. 1:15-16.

By Paul's own account, the early years of his missionary work were done without any authorization or support from "the pillars" of the Jerusalem Church (i.e., the leaders of the nascent Christian movement) or any of the other churches in Judea. Gal. 1:17 - 2:1. After fourteen years, however, "a revelation" instructed Paul to go to Jerusalem and to meet with the Church leaders there. Gal. 2:2. Apparently, Paul's purpose was to get approval and support from the Jerusalem Church -- to formally unite their efforts. Gal. 2:9.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of those running the Jerusalem Church. Surely, you would indeed be pleased that "[t]he one who formerly was persecuting [you] is now proclaiming the faith." Gal. 1:23.

Paul was highly intelligent. Paul was earnest. See, e.g., Gal. 2:7-8. And giving any description of his utter dedication to the cause would risk understatement. He would, in short, be a spectacular asset to have on your side.

But you would also be wary.

Those in charge in Jerusalem were people like James ("the Lord's brother," Gal. 1:19) and John (one of the original twelve apostles, Matt. 10:2) who were extremely intimate with Jesus during his life. Now here comes someone who never knew Jesus during his natural life; someone who never heard Jesus preach; someone who did not live through the heart-rending experience of Jesus' grissly execution.

Sure, Paul was a capable go-getter. He would get the message out. But if he never even met the earthly Jesus, could he be trusted to get the message right?

In other words, before stamping the missions of this "newbie" with your approval, you would at least want to assure yourself that he learned and would attend to the basics.

This is how I read Galations 2:10. Before agreeing to join forces with him, James and John made Paul promise to "remember the poor" in his missionary work. Indeed, when read in context, it seems likely that this one-liner records a much longer conversation between Paul and "the pillars" about the gospel and the poor.

The fact that "remember[ing] the poor" was the "one thing" that those intimately familiar with Jesus asked of Paul, suggests the poor's absolute centrality to the Historical Jesus' message. This is, in other words, further evidence that when we are serving "the least of these," we are indeed at the heart of the gospel.

Your Wish is Our Command

As long-time readers know, this is a collaborative blog written by two Christian lawyers. (No, that is not a contradiction in terms!) Although we're two separate people, we've always posted under the same moniker, "jj". We've done this for two reasons. First, we wanted to present a united front and thought that the ideas were more important than our identities. Second, we just didn't have the technical savvy to create multiple members!

But some readers have found the obscuring of our different identities confusing or frustrating. Thus, we've now decided to differetiate ourselves. Enjoy.

We'll still use the "jj" label to designate collaborative posts.

P.S. No, I haven't forgotten about the Galatians post I promised. It's coming. I just keep getting distracted. It is Spring Break after all.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Biblical Authority and Constitutional Interpretation, Part 5

This is the final installment of my series on how Constitutional interpretation can help us understand the proper authority of the bible. I've made the following claims:

(1) Jesus' teachings, as distinguished from the bible as a whole, are like the Constitution in that they are the "binding" Revelation.

(2) The book of Acts and other books in the New Testament which record the actions of early Christians hold authority insofar (and only insofar) as they indirectly illuminate Jesus' message. The actions of early Christians indirectly show Jesus' message because we can presume that Christians so close to Jesus and his message would act consistently with that message. The book of Acts, thus, is like the legislation of the First Congress and the actions of George Washington - which we use to interpret the Constitution.

(3) The New Testament letters should be understood similarly. Their authors are entitled to deference because of their proximity to Jesus. The New Testament letters can be compared to the Federalist Papers, which we use to interpret the Constitution.

(4) The books of the Old Testament provide critical context for Jesus' message and illuminate "terms" in that message that might otherwise be obscure. This can be compared to our use of British history in defining constitutional terms like "trial by jury."

In this final post, I would like to pose some problems and add some major qualifications to this analysis. The problems will continue to draw analogies from Constitutional Law. In the end, the first of my claims will be pumped up at the expense of the last three.

I turn first to problems with the book of Acts' and the New Testament letters' authority.

When we say that these things are entitled to some authority because of their proximity to Jesus, we must remember that complete deference is not warranted. Unthinking deference is no more due to Peter or Paul than it is to the early congresses in Constitutional Law. Donzelion, a frequent commentor here, brought up what I had intended to point out all along. The First Congress, which we often defer to due to its proximity to the Constitution, passed the Sedition Act of 1789 -- which made writing "false, scandalous and malicious" things about the United States punishable by two years in prison. Are we to take this as a reflection of the proper interpretation of the First Amendment? Of course not. We can give the First Congress deference, but when it is clearly wrong, we must be unafraid to say so.

Similarly, when Paul tells us that "Slaves" have a Christian moral duty to "be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ" (Ephesians 6:5), we must simply say -- without qualms -- that Paul got it wrong. The First Congress got the First Amendment wrong, and Paul got slavery (among other things) wrong. We need not engage in careful exegesis to try harmonize Christ and Paul. This is not necessary because Paul's letters are not the Divine Revelation. They are authority only insofar as they illuminate that Revelation. His position on slavery doesn't do so because it is so blatantly at odds with Christ's teachings.

The status of the Old Testament is also plagued with difficulties. Insofar as it records the Jewish tradition/history out of which Jesus sprung, it does illuminate the terms of Jesus' message. But the Old Testament provides a selective, incomplete, and fallible history. The fact that we recognize the Old Testament as an authority, thus, does not relieve us of the burden of further historical investigation. Other books may supplement it and provide equal authority. I believe, for example, that it is difficult to fully grasp Jesus' message without knowing much more Roman history than the Old Testament provides.

Constitutional law, by comparison, does not depend solely upon some ancient rendering of British History. It uses old sources, but it also uses contemporary historical scholarship on early modern England to help define constitutional terms.

In sum, the bible is a valuable tool that helps us interpret Jesus' message. It should be recognized as "authority" in that sense. But we must not mistake the interpretive tool for the message itself. We must recognize that the bible is both fallible and incomplete. We should indeed read our bibles, but we should read them with care.

Re: Minimum Wage

Senate Republicans: we'll take our big business bankruptcy bill without any "compassion" at all for the "least of these" thank you very much.

The Senate defeated dueling proposals Monday to raise the $5.15-an-hour minimum wage - one backed by organized labor, the other salted with pro-business provisions - in a day of skirmishing that reflected Republican gains in last fall's elections.

Both plans fell well short of the 60 votes needed to advance, and signaled that prospects for raising the federal wage floor, unchanged since 1996, are remote during the current two-year Congress.

We have no one to blame but ourselves for being duped into electing these folks.

But are evangelical news outlets like the AgapePress reporting this so that Christians can make fully informed political decisions? So that we can "vote all our values?" Of course not. But they sure are carrying yet another story about, and I quote, "all the blatant sex available on television."

Saturday, March 05, 2005

An Increase in the Federal Minimum Wage? Read the Fine Print!

The Senate is preparing to vote on Monday on whether to raise the federal minimum wage.

Due to federal inaction on this issue for almost a decade, states such as New York and New Jersey have recently gotten into the act and raised the minimum wage within their borders. We have applauded these efforts to pick up the federal slack: the minimum wage is a critical Christian issue, being, by definition, intimately concerned with "the least of these."

Now the Congress is finally considering taking a step in the interest of social justice.

Or is it?

The Democrats have offered a plan which would raise the minimum wage by $2.10 per hour to $7.25.

The Republican plan offers minimum-wage workers a much smaller raise - $1.10 per hour. Moreover, it forces workers (and progressives) to take a lot of bitter with what little sweet it offers. First, it provides $4 billion in tax breaks for businesses to go along with the minimum wage increases. Second, it provides "regulatory breaks" which (1) erode the 40 hour work week and (2) exempt more businesses (all businesses with receipts of less than $1 million per year) from the fair Labor Standards Act altogether (which, among other things, sets the minimum wage and overtime standards).

More broadly and most importantly, the only reason we are even talking about the minimum wage at the federal level right now is because the Republicans need their bankruptcy bill passed. The minimum wage provisions are being attached as amendments to a bankruptcy bill in order to persuade moderates to vote for a what is otherwise a grotesque gift to the credit card industry at the expense of consumers.

More troubling: the uber conservatives in the House won't even consider the Republicans' flawed minimum wage plan. They want the bitter bankruptcy bill with no sweet whatsoever. Tom DeLay has declared the House "ready to quickly pass the Senate's bankruptcy bill under the condition that the Senate reject any further substantive amendments," [read: the minimum wage amendment].

The bottom line: don't be fooled by minimum wage talk at the federal level. It looks like even if a modest increase is passed (which is unlikely), the overall net result will be a setback for "the least of these."

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Constitution forbids executing juveniles!

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held today that the Constitution forbids the execution of those who committed their crimes while a juvenile. The Court found that such executions violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

HOORAY! Maybe we do have some evolving notions of human decency after all. We still wait for the day in which every death sentence is seen as cruel and unusual punishment.

A special congrats to Professors Bryan Stevenson and Anthony Amsterdam for all that they do:
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Butterfly Effect

I have long claimed that even seemingly unimportant events can in fact be life changers. Who knows what massive amount of good could come from being nice to someone on the street, or from giving a $10 bill to a homeless man?

EVERYTHING we do has effects on other people and, in turn, all the things that those people do effects still others. For example, check out Jayson Stark's recent recent ESPN column on what has transpired in Major League Baseball over the past 18 months.

Remember this the next time someone tells you that an individual can't change the world. I believe all individuals do is change the world.