Friday, December 28, 2007

Thought for the Day

My friends, we have to meet the challenge of these obnoxious TV commercials HEAD ON, HEAD ON, HEAD ON . . . . .

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Weep for Sister Benazir

Weep, O World, O tragic world, for Sister Benazir. Weep, all you who long for a little more justice, a little democracy, a little better prospect for the masses who yearn for a more decent life.

In a nation where most options range from bad to worse, she was a glimmer of light, a beacon of hope -- limited though it may have been. Maybe she was corrupt, as they say, but still she was the best that Pakistan had for the near future. Now she is gone.

Why, O why, dear Sister Benazir, did you have to stand up in that car to wave once more, when the bullet-proof car might have saved you? Maybe they would have killed you anyway somehow, someplace, some way, but at least you could have lived one more day to wage the fight.

Dear Sister Benazir, today you join all the other martyrs who tried to shine a light in the darkness and hate symbolized by Chairman Mao's dictum that "power comes out of the barrel of a gun." You are with Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Anwar Sadat, who joined Yitzhak Rabin in saying, "Enough, enough of blood and tears!" All together in a great cloud of witnesses with all whose efforts over the centuries to improve the lot of humankind cost them their lives, they will welcome you, Sister Benazir, to watch what we will do with their sacrifice.

Today, then, let us weep for Sister Benazir and for the better days she might have brought to that troubled complex land. But tomorrow, somebody else has to light a candle in the darkness that might light other lights that might light others until . . . . . .

And in despair I bowed my heart;
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to all."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to all."
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

O Sister Benazir, O Sister Benazir . . . . For her and all who like her long for a better day, we must keep the hope alive, but today we weep for Sister Benazir.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Open Letter to Our Children

Dear Offspring,

My Spouse and I had been considering whether we wanted to get gifts individually or choose something as a family for both. After some days of pondering, the more bold, daring, and audacious member of the duet exclaimed giddily, "Why don't we throw caution to the wind and go ahead and get an HD TV and not wait for the Zenith to go POOF, so we can enjoy it before senility and affliction get any worse?" The more cautious, frugal, slow-moving one after thinking it over seriously for about a second and half shouted out with glee, "Capital notion! I'm free to go shopping now, right after I go pee." (Identities of the aforementioned characters will be disclosed upon written request.)

Armed with our shopping bible -- Consumer Reports -- we set out. Bottom line: We will soon (January 8 installation of new HD hardware) be in possession of a Panasonic TH-42PZ77U plasma set with new programming from Direct TV including HD channels.

Tickets for viewing will be available for family members at a discount. Popcorn will be on sale at typical movie prices. Butter is extra. Discounts will not be available for Super Bowl Sunday. Other restrictions may apply.

The original idea had been that when the Zenith went BOING, we would consider HD. But despite the fact that the more impatient member of the zany pair has been beating the Zenith in the face repeatedly over the last few months with a baseball bat, the thing keeps right on playing, so it looked like no HD in our lifetime until -- begin over at the first sentence --

Your Wild and Crazy Parental Units

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Are there any Christians?

A prophet of our age, Will Campbell, once said, "Baptists are the hope of the world, if we could only find some." My claim is that Christians are the hope of the world, if we could only find some.

For purposes of discussion, let me begin this way. If we were really Christians in the New Testament sense, most of us would give 50% or more of our income to help those who are worse off than we are. This is a simple implication and a modest, even weak, interpretation of the commandment to love your neighbor equally with yourself, not even to mention Matthew 5: 38 ff. To put it another way to get things going, Christians need to justify why they spend more on themselves than the median family income in this country, which by world standards makes us quite affluent. Radical Christianity would insist that we cannot have two coats as long as anybody in the world has none.

Peter Singer in a provocative essay pointed out that if we had the chance to save a child's life right before us, we would do so even at considerable sacrifice to ourselves. But he rightly noted the fact every time we spend a few dollars for something we don't absolutely need, a child dies who might have been saved had that money been given to, say, Oxfam. There is no way to escape the logic of that.

In another place I argued that the radical ethic of the New Testament was incompatible with civilization, i. e., the assignment of responsibilities with rules and expectations in a continuing society. Total self-giving love that demands nothing from the other is irreconcilable with assigned roles, duties, division of labor, accountability, and so on. The unqualified demands of sacrificial love require their implementation in the moment without regard for future consequences for self or others. Orderly life could not go on if no one ever insisted that others play their part, share the load, live by the rules of civilized society, and carry out their obligations. I concluded that the compromises necessary to have a continuing, organized society were not wrong but that we make the compromises long before and far more extensively than we need to for the sake of civilization.(1)

What, then is the value of an ethic of absolute ideals demanding perfection in this ambiguous, complex civilized world?. Reinhold Niebuhr and Alfred North Whitehead are my guides. Whitehead said that the impractical ideals of the first century are a standard by which to measure the shortcomings of society. "So long as the Galilean images are but the dreams of an unrealized world, so long they must spread the infection of an uneasy spirit" (Adventures of Ideas). A morally serious person of faith cannot read take equal love of neighbor seriously and be at ease with any social status quo.

Reinhold Niebuhr made the same point. Agape, Christian love, is an "impossible possibility" that is relevant in all situations as both judge of every present achievement and guide to further moral advance

OK, the objections: You want to make us feel guilty all the time. No, I am suggesting that our unrealized ideals are a spur and guide to action not a guilt-inducing mechanism.

You don't appear to know about salvation by grace through faith, not by works. O yes I do; it is our only hope. But I also know about "cheap grace" (Bonhoeffer), and that that "right strawy epistle" (Luther), James, says that faith without works is dead. Nobody has ever worked out the relation between grace and law, faith and works in a satisfactory way that is descriptive of everybody, not Protestants, not Catholics, not Luther, not Calvin, not Wesley, not Reinhold Niebuhr.(2) They, however, along with the New Testament all teach that genuine faith expresses itself in good works.

I prefer a pragmatic, experiential approach. Those who are burdened by guilt at their lack of moral perfection need to hear the liberating word of grace. Those who are at ease in Zion need to hear the demand to do better and to reread Matthew 25 where Jesus teaches a doctrine of salvation by works that warns our failure to meet the neighbor's need will get us cast into the eternal flame. My observation is that the population of those at ease in Zion far, far outnumbers the guilt-ridden.

So why am I getting into all this? Here is why: The typical operational assumption among us is that being a Christian means living a respectable life by middle-class standards, being an active, faithful church member, giving generously to church and charities, and doing a usually modest (sometimes zero) amount of good works on a volunteer basis. That is the definition of a cultural Christian. Is it a definition of a New Testament Christian? I don't think so. For my reasoning, see the first two paragraphs.
(1) Complicating all this is the fact that we don't expect the end of the world very shortly (or live as if we do, even if we say we expect it) as Jesus and early New Testament Christians generally did. Even fundamentalists have life insurance policies and have savings plans for retirement.

(2) For one things the usual assumption is that you are either saved or lost; you either have faith or you don't (although this note is muted in modern liberals), whereas actual experience is too multifarious and variegated to fit a strict either-or logic. Both faith and works come in all sizes, varieties, strengths, and patterns.

Presentism and Selfishness

I will begin with a big audacious claim and weasel out of it as refutations require. Most of the major problems in this world can be traced to two sources: presentism and selfishness. Presentism is the preference for immediate satisfactions over future ones. Selfishness is the preference for our own satisfactions over those of others.

Where to begin? We cannot deal effectively with global warming because the benefits of not doing so are enjoyed now, while planetary catastrophe will be experienced later. The same holds for other environmental problems. We cannot move quickly enough toward energy independence because it would be costly now, and the good results would come later. We should have been taking steps like adding a substantial tax to gasoline at least as far back as the Carter era. President Carter advocated a strong future-oriented energy policy but was thwarted.

Congress will not take steps now to deal with Medicare financing that will sooner or later confront us because politicians are focused on getting reelected in the nearer future. Bush pushed through massive tax cuts assisting mainly the rich, especially the obscenely rich, resulting in huge national deficits whose consequences will have to be faced later. A tragic, unnecessary war has been financed by deficit spending because lowering taxes has become a religion for the Republicans, and responsible fiscal policy in the here and now is bad for electoral politics. The enemy is us, not just our politicians, because they know we want our goodies now with as little cost to us as possible and that we are not easily persuaded by futuristic logic.

We have a housing mortgage crisis because people wanted a larger house that small beginning interest payments a few years ago would allow, and banks promoted bad loans out of greed for bigger immediate profits. When the larger payments became due, homeowners defaulted, and the banks had to foreclose, hurting everybody. Now we are in a credit crunch because in the past present interests took precedence over ignored future outcomes.

We are funding our national spending spree with loans from nations like China and Dubai. No one knows what the future results will be. Individuals are getting more and more behind on credit card payments because of past and present purchases. Devotion to presentism shuns frugality and responsible spending. In 2005 we had a negative savings rate. From the Associated Press:

"Consumers depleted their savings to finance the purchases of cars and other big-ticket items. ... The Commerce Department reported Monday that the savings rate fell into negative territory at minus 0.5 percent, meaning that Americans not only spent all of their after-tax income last year but had to dip into previous savings or increase borrowing.The savings rate has been negative for an entire year only twice before — in 1932 and 1933."

Christopher Jencks beautifully points out how difficult immigration reform is because of what I am calling presentism:

"Many employers would accept more stringent penalties for hiring illegal immigrants in the future if that were the only way to legalize their current workers, and many immigrant groups would do the same. On the other side, many conservative activists might accept legalization of today's illegal immigrants if that were the only way to ensure a crackdown on hiring illegal immigrants in the future. In principle, therefore, a deal should be possible. But this deal turns out to have a fatal flaw. Legalization can be implemented within a few years, while penalties for hiring illegal immigrants have to be enforced indefinitely. That means employers get what they want right away, while opponents of illegal immigration have to wait.
"The Immigration Charade," The New York Review of Books (September 27, 2007)

We could go on. Much that is not accounted for by presentism can be attributed to selfishness. They overlap but cannot be reduced to each other. Presentism is selfishness in the moment for ourselves and others disregarding the future. Selfishness is preference for ourselves disregarding the neighbor in the present and the future. Selfishness in theological terms is sin; presentism adds disregard of wisdom to sin.

Selfishness is such a staple of moral theology that it needs no illustration. Just observe any issue that arises and see how the parties (individuals or groups) line up, taking positions that benefit them, interpreting or ignoring the facts to suit their interests.

Protestant ethic with your emphasis on frugality, self-restraint, discipline, and responsibility -- where are you when we need you?

So what is the cure? If you are a preacher, you might start with Romans 1:27ff. and take it from there. Secularists can point out the consequences of selfishness and the folly of presentism, quoting the old biblical and cultural adage that we reap what we sow. Obviously the gospel in both its religious and secular forms calls for repentance (change of mind) and reformation of character with the appropriate deeds (fruits meet for repentance Matthew 3:8 KJV) that follow. Rates of expected success for prophets or secular reformers: small. The pleasures of presentism and selfishness are too seductive to be resisted.

Here endeth the lesson. Remember: hell is truth seen too late (Thomas Hobbes).

Christmas Memories

Christmas is about anticipation and realization. For people my age, however, Christmas becomes more and more about memories. For me one image in particular stands out.

Christmas was big with my former wife, who passed away twenty years ago last October. Eloise would trudge all over Rochester in the treacherous snow and ice to find what the children wanted and would always try to have at least one surprise for them. We added at least one new ornament every year to the collection, which therefore grew larger each season making the tree brighter and more colorful.

The rule in our house was that the children could not come downstairs until 7 AM on Christmas morning. So Paul, Nancy, and Melissa would huddle at the top of the stairs clock in hand waiting as the minutes ticked away like hours. At the appointed time on the dot, they would hurry down the stairs and into the living room to look at the pile of gaily-wrapped presents. under the bright and glorious tree in all its splendor . The parents were still sleepy and tired from having been up until 2 or 3 AM getting everything ready. "Some assembly required" will suggest why. My limited mechanical abilities and obscurely-written instructions frequently tested my usual restraint against the use of profanity. But somehow it all got done, and here we were all together at the magic moment when wondrous anticipation turned into joyful realization.

The children are all grown up now and into middle-age with their own families far away from 2961 Elmwood Avenue. They are wonderful human beings and a joy to Gloria and me along with her own adult offspring and our grandchildren.

But deep in a treasured corner of my heart at this season of the year they are all little again standing in the door to the living room in the glow of the bright colorful shining tree reflecting in their beautiful eyes the joy and wonder of Christmas.