25 June 2015


What happened in Charleston, South Carolina last week, on the 17th of June – with six women and three men, all black, being gunned down in a historical black Methodist church by a young white supremacist – is, I am finding, incredibly difficult to talk about. There are simply no words adequate for me to express either my outrage or my grief about this horrific crime that cries to Heaven for vengeance. I am not sure there can be words adequate to describe such wanton desecration of the living icons of God, within a place set aside for prayer, for reasons of ideological or racial purity. Yet this incident cannot pass by unremarked, and it must not pass by unnoticed and forgotten. The victims deserve far better, and we as a country owe them both remembrance and redress.

This is not simply to be treated as an isolated incident. Nor is it simply to be treated as a mental illness. The murderer cannot have acted alone: he had to have gotten the gun from somewhere, yes, but he also had to have gotten this heinous ideology from somewhere. And the ideology, more so than the gun, is the truly troubling thing.

But we aren’t mature enough yet to talk about ideology, and so we get into surface-level arguments over symbolism and markers of tribal affiliation. I am not in favour of the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia being flown from public buildings. I see no sense in the cause of the Confederacy which it is supposed to represent. The flag’s having been used over and over throughout American history as a symbol of race hatred – including most recently by the murderer in Charleston – is bad enough. But the fact that the original use was as a symbol of political anarchism and revolutionary violence in defence of (take your pick) slavery, violent territorial expansionism or nakedly-exploitative trade and taxation policies makes it (at least to my monarchist-inclined mind) an odious political symbol anyway. The odious uses of this flag should not, of course, be ignored; nor should the particular legacy of racism as tied up with slavery and Jim Crow in the American South. The geographical context of the shooting matters.

But this argument shouldn’t stop with the flag. A discussion over a church shooting like this shouldn’t even primarily be about the flag, but rather the ideology the shooter meant it to represent. The people who make this argument about the flag and other markers of Southern identity politics are indulging in a deliberate distraction. It makes racism and white supremacism a ‘Southern problem’, when in fact it is a problem which concerns all of us. Put as simply as possible, for starters, every portion of the country which has endorsed, signed onto or practised redlining policies is directly complicit in white supremacism. From 1934 to 1977, American taxpayer dollars went into explicitly discriminatory housing subsidies aimed at keeping widespread segregation of the black community from mainstream white America a de facto part of public life. And it’s a de facto part of public life which, in many Northern urban centres particularly, has not gone away.

The entire regional aspect of the American race debate, at least on the part of white liberals and white conservatives, seems counter-productive to me. Blaming the South for racism allows Northern liberals ‘off the hook’, leaving many of their own racial presumptions and practices unexamined. Likewise, blaming the South for racism perpetuates there a horrid kind of wagon-circling politics with its own racial blind spots not only left unexamined but actually flaunted. Blaming the South for racism is an oversimplification, and like all oversimplifications, it has a tendency to be wrong as often as it is right. And, as Rod Dreher so aptly puts it, ‘This is how cultural conflict turns into trench warfare, and [how] sin — yes, sin — does not get confronted, and repented of. It’s a dead end.’

The facts of racism in America are not, and should not be, comfortable. Particularly not to Northern white liberals (or even ex-liberals like me) who like to think of our hands clean of it. Charleston is our problem, too. Shame on us for thinking we can rinse our hands so easily of it by bickering over a flag. Prayers for the people of Charleston, and especially for the parishioners of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, for the souls of the victims (may God make their memories to be eternal), and for their families. And Lord have mercy upon us all.

11 June 2015

Poor Moses just can’t catch a break

The problem with being the political leader of the Hebrews is that you inevitably catch flak from every direction, and a lot of it particularly from America.

For one thing, you have the Republicans who would not hesitate to lambaste Moses as a worthless vagrant demagogue with a criminal past. Why are you going after the Egyptians? they ask. Why do you want to punish the Egyptians who have built such a prosperous society by their own know-how, initiative and hard work? Don’t you have any grasp of the sound principles of economics at all? Don’t you realise that the Hebrews are the envy of the world for being able to live here, in the most advanced culture and civilisation of the ancient world? And yet here you are, a no-good thug who murdered an Egyptian in cold blood, who pals around with Midianites and illegal immigrants, stirring up the envy of the Hebrews against the decent, upstanding, hardworking Egyptian job creators! What are you going to do, feed them with unearned handouts of manna from on high? Begone, in the name of Isis, Osiris, Ra and the Invisible Hand!

Yet, on the other side, you have a certain segment of the Democrats hectoring Moses for reasons which might look entirely different, but which amount to very similar things. Shame on you, you bigoted homophobic patriarchal sleazeball! they cry. How dare you force your antiquated, backwards and superstitious laws on the Hebrew people when they have nowhere else to turn! You just want to enslave all women with your self-serving strictures! How dare you limit the Hebrews’ personal freedom like that? They were better off in Egypt! If you were going to ‘liberate’ them, why didn’t you just take them all into this land of milk and honey by yourself?

But both the Democrats and the Republicans definitely agree on one thing. And that, along with certain Romanists who fancy themselves independent from both sides, and therefore really ought to know better. They all hate, utterly detest, the fact that Moses never disowned his brother Aaron. They all demand that the high priest Aaron never so much as speak to or for the lawgiver Moses, let alone as a brother. And they all love to blame Moses for the faithlessness and grumbling of the Hebrews. If only Moses and Aaron had simply let the Hebrews who wanted to worship the golden calf be free to do so, then all would be well, and the Hebrew nation would magically become spiritually healthy! The sensible position of Exodus is that it was Moses’s job, the job of the state and the political apparatus, to guide the people out from their slavery both physical and spiritual, but not to deliver them to the Promised Land. Or, as Solovyov put it, the state issues ‘a compulsory demand for the realization of a definite minimum of good, or for a social order which excludes certain manifestations of evil’, but it does not in itself constitute the final, highest good.

In the economic, social and spiritual realms all three, the state has a positive duty to assure a basic minimum of ethical comportment among the people. Moses was far from a perfect man, as we are made too well aware by his present-day detractors. And his own example of rule was not perfect, either. But at the very least, as God guided him, he did set forward this idea that the state has a positive role to play in the public life.

08 June 2015

The social conservatism of black America

Recently Gallup ran this poll, looking at attitudes toward sexual issues across political, religious and racial lines. Though levels of support for same-sex marriage and homosexual relations across the board are markedly, drastically increased from what they were even seven years ago, it is still very much the case that black Democrats are far more likely to oppose same-sex marriage than non-black Democrats, and among the African-American population at large, support for same-sex marriage is four percentage points below the national average. A Pew Research poll, marking changes in support of same-sex marriage over time by demographic, points to a similar trend.

The explanation offered by Gallup, and shared by Pew Research, for this social conservatism in black communities is simply (maybe too simply?) that black folks tend to be more religious than white folks. For the record, I don’t doubt at all that there is an important correlation there. Black people have been and remain the single most devout element of America’s demographic landscape, and this has some fairly obvious consequences regarding their stances on sexual ethics. But I do indeed have to wonder (as any good statistician ought!) if there is actually more going on here.

For one thing, the fact that African-American communities have been and in many ways still are actual physical communities of people, ones whose members’ means of physical mobility are limited by deliberate lack of investment, housing discrimination (particularly redlining), underfunded schools, over-aggressive policing and many other factors, probably makes a very significant difference. Being denied this access to the mainstream meant African-American communities had to develop, often ad hoc, their own alternative institutions and social capital. These are not necessarily communities of choice, but black people do tend to be invested more heavily in the places they live (because they live there and because they have to live there) than are white people, for whom the option to simply pack up and move out is not as prohibitively costly. That can give a powerful localist motivation to activists in the black community, such that they are more likely to be concerned with bread-and-butter issues that affect everyone in the community rather than protections for certain sexual behaviours that are necessarily private and exclusive.

Discrimination may factor in other, less obvious ways. The ‘white’ American mainstream, and particularly the broadcast news media, still tend to portray black American men as aggressive, brutish, susceptible to vice, sexually predatory and voracious, a stereotype that was born out of the ideological needs of the slave system and which unfortunately has never quite gone out of style since. Black American women are likewise, for the same reasons, still often stereotyped as sexually-incontinent (the Jezebel canard) and lazy (the ‘welfare queen’ canard). Sexual conservatism among black people may also be seen as a technique of actively rebelling against these destructive stereotypes, as well as a means of potentially asserting independence from the social structures and expectations imposed on them from outside.

There may also be another explanation for why black people tend to poll as conservative on social issues, and that is a distrust of the ‘white’ cultural mainstream (a distrust which, considering the current circumstances of that mainstream and particularly its history with black people, is actually fairly healthy). This includes the news media, the judiciary, the police, the education system and the producers of mass culture. When the Zeitgeist of the American mainstream is dogmatically non-judgemental, deracinated, hyper-globalist, therapeutically-deist, sexually-permissive and obsessed with straining after a fictitious fact-value distinction, chances are the black people who have been left out of this mainstream for so long will be actively looking for something more solid to build upon.

As for us – that is, those of us non-blacks who are interested in building a philosophically-cogent political project on the nexus of economic populism and social conservatism – we need to recognise that black activists, black religious leaders and black communities are our natural allies. By and large, African-Americans share concerns which are both pro-poor and pro-life (meaning equally anti-torture, anti-war and anti-police brutality in addition to anti-abortion). But we can’t afford to be deaf to their genuinely-held concerns, the way ‘white’ American social conservatives have been since the 1700’s. We need to be at the forefront in combatting the racist legacies of redlining, predatory housing speculation and double standards in public education.

Also, I remembered this chart looking at various political attitudes toward morality and the proper role of government amongst various religious groups in America. I’m a little bit iffy on the methodology used to produce it, but it is an interesting graphic all the same. Note that the historically-black Protestant churches are nearly all concentrated in the upper-left corner along with Islam and Hinduism, whereas the white mainline (as well as the non-religious) tends to be far more libertarian in outlook.

01 June 2015

How Russians read the Prodigal Son

This is an interesting commentary from Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition, a ‘broadly Reformed’ network of Protestant churches who do evangelism, social outreach and advocacy. It takes a close and careful comparative look at how Russians and Americans read and interpret the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of S. Luke:
And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
The Peterburgians interviewed by Mark Allan Powell in this analysis are far better about remembering the ‘mighty famine’ in the Lucan passage than the American seminary students are; the Americans are far more likely to remember the ‘wasted his substance with riotous living’ part. This shapes indelibly the way in which this passage is interpreted, and where the wrongs of the younger son are seen to lie. The Americans emphasise that the younger son was wasteful and spendthrift; the Russians emphasise that he had broken off contact with his father and saw himself as self-sufficient, thus leaving himself defenceless against misfortune. But it is particularly interesting in another way. It seems to be making an implicit, but still quite strong, argument against the Lutheran / Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura:
First, we ought to consult a variety of sources and scholars as we study the Scriptures. I know pastors who vary their commentaries based on theological diversity. Very well. But perhaps we should also consult commentaries from people in societies different from our own, to see what our cultural blinders may have screened out.

Second, we should consider how our sermons fall on the ears of others. We must be aware of the social context of our listeners and consider not only what we mean to say but how it might be heard. In order to get our intended meaning across, we must know the people we are preaching to and be able to understand how they hear us.

Powell mentions how Bible readers often remain “oblivious to what they themselves are bringing to the process, unaware that the sorting and organizing of data is influenced by particular factors of their own social location. People who hear our sermons do the same thing – they sort the auditory data, prioritizing, organizing, remembering, forgetting: they create a meaning that seems appropriate to them with little awareness of the extent to which their social location has influenced that process” (19).

Better Bible interpretation and better preaching happens when we keep social location and cultural background in mind: the social location of the Scriptures, of ourselves as interpreters, and of those who hear us preach.
An interesting insight indeed: to understand the Gospel we have to understand the people it is being preached to, and the position of the person preaching it! That is precisely the reason that the Scriptures cannot be the sole source of authority; we are always going to condition them through our own experiences, and there is a danger that our blindness to certain aspects of the text, and our heretical emphases on certain others, will influence our thinking about the text in ways which run contrary to the meaning of the text as it has been held by the community of believers. In order to ascribe any authority to the Scriptures, in other words, one has to be able to point to a living, communal body of interpretation and practice through which the Scriptures can speak. Without the Church, the living body and bride of Christ, without the Liturgy and the Sacred Tradition, Scripture itself loses its inward coherence and meaning and becomes subject to individual whim, cultural prejudices and passing fashion.