Cracks in the Evangelical Bell

Wayward Christian Soldiers – New York Times

This op-ed is surely one of the most perplexing in recent months. Charles Marsh, a professor of religion at UVa, with an anti-war record and a Christian pacifist history that is (unfortunately; see below) invisible via several Google searches, wrings his hands at the “Faustian bargain” by which his fellow evangelicals’ tub-thumping support for George Bush and his war bought them “greater political power than at any time in [their] history”, at a cost of ” the credibility of [their] moral and evangelistic witness in the world.”

Wow. What are we supposed to think about this? On the one hand, the insights are valuable, but it is a pity they took so long to claim a wide forum. One doesn’t want to be like the minister who berates his congregation for being so small, or tenant advocates who rail against the landlords who are, after all, the only people providing any housing at all…

Marsh, most ironically, is the author of an autobiographical history of his father, a Baptist minister in Laurel, Mississippi, who grappled “honestly but inadequately” with the racial conflicts of the sixties.

The inside story appears to be the attention he gives to John Stott, who (Marsh agrees with David Brooks) would be elected pope if evangelicals had one, and who ran afoul of Andrew Sullivan last year :

Unlike the Pope John Paul II, who said that invading Iraq would violate Catholic moral teaching and threaten “the fate of humanity,” or even Pope Benedict XVI, who has said there were “not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq,” Mr. Stott did not speak publicly on the war. But in a recent interview, he shared with me his abiding concerns.

“Privately, in the days preceding the invasion, I had hoped that no action would be taken without United Nations authorization,” he told me. “I believed then and now that the American and British governments erred in proceeding without United Nations approval.”

I guess Stott would take Pius XII as a papal template. Pius XII had a very hard time figuring out how specifically and directly the church might oppose the Nazis (accommodation with the Fascists had been arranged by his predecessor in 1929). (Privately, no doubt, he deeply hoped that evil would abate.) The issue was so complex, and Pius’ understanding so subtle and intricate, that six million Jews, gays, Roma, and others, plus ten times as many soldiers and civilians, were dead by the time the church had it worked out enough to put its body on the line. (Perhaps a future too horrible to contemplate will reveal to us what degree of official evil would suffice for a country to be put under the interdict.)

Eugenio Pacelli is being touted for sainthood, and his policies regarding the Nazis and Fascists before and during the war are vigorously debated; still, this is a long way from, say, “he risked the lives of the righteous, and the wealth and privilege of the church, by standing against evil at every moment.” He certainly navigated the church to political power in the cold war era.

Maybe the evangelical war fans will find a way to turn their spectacular political ascendancy to achieve some wonderful Christian end, and we will learn to view the thousands of American and tens of thousand of Iraqi dead as the sad but unavoidable cost of navigating the divine through a tricky secular world. When it happens, I hope the wonderful end is more thrilling than the looting of the poor by the rich, the trashing of God’s creation, and the humiliation of the science God equipped us to practice, that we see unfolding so far.

Or maybe the moral authority of religious leaders is already so crippled that throwing holy water on the troops from the sidewalk as they march to war is all they can really do.

Update: Prof. Marsh has pointed out to me, and very graciously:

My church is one of the few in Charlottesville that opposed the war in the spring of 2003. I have been making arguments against the war for three years–in my UVA lectures, in public events around the nation, and in occasional writings. My book “The Beloved Community” is an argument for Christian pacifism. I have lost friends over this war.

Before writing the original version of this post, I googled Prof. Marsh along with Iraq, war, and several other keywords and found nothing to indicate that the cited op-ed wasn’t his first public statement on the war and the evangelical cheering it on. I’m pleased to note the history he provides above.

Moral reform movements led by ministers: RIP.

The Reverend Martin Luther King led a society-wide moral movement for equality. That wouldn’t be possible today.

Happy Martin Luther King Day, a few hours early.

It’s common today to talk about race relations generally, but my own work gives me more insight into a narrower question: King’s politics, and the social context that made them work. He was a huge, complex figure, etc., etc., but, put simply: King used his moral authority as a minister to shame many mainstream Americans into changing their fundamental beliefs and practices. Put even more simply, nobody could do that now: ministers no longer have moral authority, and lack a mainstream political role.

Now that you’ve spewed out your coffee: I don’t mean that religion had more power in politics in the 50s and 60s than now (though the argument could be made: the reason there was no religious Right was that all its positions now were laws then), nor of course that major politicians talked more about Jesus then. I mean that there used to be something respectable about being a religious leader. Back when we had an Establishment, priests, ministers and rabbis were its designated spokesmen [sic, let’s face it] on moral matters. Few dared to say openly that a respected man [sic] of the cloth, speaking seriously on a moral issue, was simply blowing smoke.

King played on that like a virtuoso. He rarely claimed that God gave him authority to make public policy on racial matters. He preached to his congregations, but mostly he used his social authority as a minister to make secular arguments on racial matters. If it’s hard to imagine what this could have looked like, consider how we treat former generals talking about Iraq. A general’s claim can certainly be wrong, and of course generals disagree, but a general has both presumptive authority on military matters and presumptive moral status as someone who has a certain character. Well, ministers used to be looked at the same way: Americans took both their moral opinions and their character seriously, though both were subject to rebuttal. King’s preacherly mien increased rather than decreased his general authority on moral matters.

We don’t respect clergy like that anymore. As “mainline” denominations have weakened, and polarized politically, and free-lance evangelicals gained strength, a public statement by a preacher has come to convince those of the same religion and politics — but not the rest of society. (Polls on whether people want clergy to “speak up on political and social questions” often obscure this: if every voter wants her own religious authority to speak up on her own side, and would consider changing religious affiliations for political reasons, this means that clergy lack social power.)

The Civil Rights Act would probably have happened with or without religion, but real changes in the acceptability of personal racial prejudice required — as King stressed constantly — a change in conscience, not just in law. While muttered, submerged racism and structural racial inequality are still with us, those who think nothing fundamental has changed simply don’t know much about the Jim Crow era and the racial attitudes — let alone the structures — that respectable white people and their leaders, North and South, defended openly back then.

The role of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its guilt-induced allies in changing those attitudes cannot be overstated. Does anyone think that white racism would have become taboo so quickly if the leaders of the Civil Rights movement had been Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (the Thurgood Marshalls wringing their hands from the side, with little personal or charismatic following)?

It’s a common vice of liberals to think that all good things go together. But in most of life, and in this case, big improvements come with some costs. On the whole, the clergy’s loss of influence has been a stupendous gain. Without this decline, the story of sexual freedom, gay rights, and legal abortion (for now, anyway) would have been very different. But so would the story of Civil Rights. Those who want a new Civil Rights movement will have to grapple with the lack of leaders immediately respected by both Blacks and Whites. Once, the role of minister provided an unexpected bridge. No longer.

The problem is more general. A society with no uncontroversial moral authorities will find it easier to justify personal liberty than to tell anyone why he should (slightly) limit his liberty to promote the moral value of equality.

Chanukah: the Big, Noble Lie

Tonight, Jews commence an 8-day commemoration of the successful revolt of the Hasmoneans against the Seleucid Empire–in conventional parlance, of the Maccabees against the Syrian-Greeks. This successful rebellion, which occurred in 166-165 BCE, represented the last time the Jews had their own state until 1948.

Mark and Mike have suggested that this holiday is actually quite minor, and has been recently upgraded so Jews (and especially Jewish children) don’t feel left out at Christmas. I think that that’s right. But Chanukah actually has some enormously powerful lessons for the modern political context.

The central story of Chanukah–the oil lasting eight days, yadda yadda yadda–is not only a lie, but an obvious one: it is nowhere mentioned in either of the two Books of Maccabees, which provide the central textual source for the Chanukah story. It’s just made up. And by the way–where are those Books of Maccabees, anyway? Roman Catholics have included them in their Bible, and some Protestants usually append the Apocrypha (where they are found) to the back of their Bible, but Jews leave it out. It’s almost as if we’re embarrassed by it.

There’s a reason for that. After Pompey destroyed the Hasmonean kingdom in 63 BCE, the Jews lost their state, but overall, Roman rule wasn’t so bad. Jews got freedom of religion, and for those of you who saw The Life of Brian, you know that the Romans brought lots of other good things, too. But extremist Jewish nationalists, known accurately as The Zealots, nevertheless started a revolt in 67 CE, refused to compromise, killed more moderate Jewish factions–and thereabout brought about the destruction of the Temple.

Seventy years later, in 132 CE, the Bar Kochba revolt tried the same thing, again refused to compromise, and brought about an even worse result–a complete ban of Jews to live in large areas of Palestine, and in fact a renaming of the region from Judaea to Palestine.

And what was the great inspiration for these extremist, suicidal revolts? The Maccabees. Extremist groups used them to justify their extremism: they argued that the Jews should want no less than what Judah Maccabee demanded.

Although I cannot say for sure (and welcome readers’ corrections and light-shedding), I suspect that this dismal history is what led the Rabbis to concoct this crazy, almost purposefully silly story about a holiday originating in a miracle of the oil. The whole point is was to de-nationalize Jewish existence; and thereby prevent the recurrence of suicidal, hypernationalist extremism. it wasn’t about the Maccabees, really: it was about the oil. Yeah, that’s it; that’s the ticket!

Chanukah is thus a deconstructionist’s dream: its very history contradicts itself and makes the holiday contain opposite meanings. On the one hand, it is a story of successful Jewish nationalism and rebellion; on the other, it is a story of de-nationalizing the people.

And this gives it important meaning in the modern world. Chanukah should hardly be read as an anti-Zionist morality tale. Instead, we should see it as an opportunity to embrace the holiday in all of its contradictory meanings: as a celebration of Jewish nationalism, and as a caution against going too far in nationalistic orgy (which of course includes denying the Palestinians their own right to a state). Chanukah makes us proud of our history, and (in the case of the Zealots), somewhat ashamed of it simultaneously. We search for the truth of our experience, yet recognize the value in creating lies about that experience.

Thus, in its depth, its complexity, its ever-changing meanings, and its stern challenge to us to hold several competing ideas simultaneously, Chanukah is truly a holiday worth celebrating.

Happy Chanukah to all.

—Jonathan Zasloff

UPDATE: A reader argues that the story of the oil does in fact have a textual source. The Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 21b, cites the miracle of the oil as the reason for the holiday. To my mind, this just proves my point. The Talmud was put together somewhere around 600 CE, nearly 800 years after the fact. The story of the oil is a Rabbinic creation–which to my mind is a good thing, because it demonstrates ongoing Jewish theological creativity and innovation.

More interesting material from an excellent Wikipedia article, here.

Merry Christmas

Boy, do I feel Target’s pain. They exile specific reference to Christmas in their ads and store decorations in order not to offend people who “don’t celebrate it” (except perhaps as a secular exercise in demonstrating love through stuff), and then they get slammed for offending Christians, at least the Christians whose principal exercise of faith would appear to be lying in wait to make people feel guilty for something. In all of this, the guiding principle seems to be to “not offend”, but the principle has evolved quite far from its origins in Golden Rule manners to mean something like “don’t say or do anything that the most sensitive person with the largest chip on his shoulder could interpret, on his most truculent day, into something offensive”.

The Christmas wars alone could keep an army of Jonathan Swifts busy for years; I don’t know where to begin counting ironies, though Reuters has a nice roundup of current idiocy here that mentions this pointed jape. Christmas displaced Easter as the principal Christian holiday quite some time ago, with annual tut-tutting from here and there about the commercialization of the secondary Christian mystery, but no important revolt in Christian circles; some big churches are to close on Christmas Sunday this year expecting too few worshipers to bother with. No-one has figured out how to make real money from Peeps and hard-boiled eggs, I guess, so Easter is toast.

A minor Jewish holiday having no theological relationship to Christmas was inflated to completely inappropriate parallel status, first by school administrators trying to be fair, then by many Jews. (If Christians had maintained the historic importance of Easter in community activity, Passover would have been embraced in the same ridiculous way; in fact the Italian for Passover, Pasqua Ebraica, means Jewish Easter, truly an oxymoron for the ages.) A new holiday was invented by and for blacks uncomfortable with the asserted inclusive aims of Christianity (or with the spotty record of white Christians in walking their talk with regard to race); it seems not to have held up in recent years. The Moslems, whose lunar calendar is not solar-adjusted, are unable to play this game as their holidays cycle around the solar year. If they would stand still, I’m sure something would be inflated, not necessarily by them, into a sort of “Islamic Christmas”.

The attempt by the Christian right to put a lien on anything red and green is as outrageous as the political right’s appropriation of the flag, and I hope they wake up and start being extra-Christian around the holidays, instead of extra-self-righteous and extra-nail-everyone-they-can-catch for offending them or not displaying enough pietism. (Of course my idea of being extra-Christian is heavy on turning the other cheek, hating the sin and loving the sinner, hoping for a lot of redemption, seeing God’s goodness in everyone wherever possible, helping the meek to inherit what they’re too shy to ask for, and like that.)

The facts of the situation are that we have at least three distinct community rituals called Christmas. One is the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, and I hope all my friends certain of Christ’s divinity have a merry one, and when I meet them this time of year I try to remember to say so. The second is a US legal holiday, and a period around it, in which we ambiguously (and rightly so) note that lots of Americans have thought this birth is a very big deal, and that lots more think it’s in any case a really nice idea to gather in families, exchange gifts, have a decorated tree, and so on.

This holiday has accreted, with and without specific religious reference, an enormous amount of delightful social capital including Nutcracker, Messiah, and Christmas Carol performances, carols, parties, fundraising for good causes, temporary home decorating projects, yummy irresponsible eating and cooking with special dishes from different places, being out and about shopping and looking and meeting people and working at the homeless shelter, and on and on. I hope all my friends, and everyone else, have a really merry one of these too, and when I go around saying Merry Christmas this is what I mean. (I am a New Year’s grinch, believing that (American) Labor Day marks our de facto new year, and finding Dec. 31 celebrations usually forced and overfueled with ethanol).

Finally, Christmas denotes an orgy of buying chattels beyond any possible benefit, insane advertising and price-cutting, insecurity about whether one has chosen exactly the right gifts for enough people, some distasteful piggishness among the young (well satirized in Calvin and Hobbes), and an outbreak of completely shameless extortion (my newspaper deliverer left me an envelope addressed to him with a card inside; God help you if you live in a New York apartment building). If this third version of “Christmas” goes away, or returns to a focus on signalling love rather than a potlatchesque one-upping and showing-off, it will be fine by me, as there is no way this third Christmas can ever be merry. All those trees that die for Sunday newspaper inserts would be better as Christmas trees or 2x4s.

I am not a Christian, so if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas in this environment, I have alternative ways to take it. One is to enjoy the experience of being wished well by another, impute good will to the source, and enjoy the second Christmas incrementally more.

Another is to take offense, and here the options are rich and varied:

“How dare you address me in this matter without being fully informed of my confession! You are thoughtless and careless to bet the odds on (i) the Christian preponderance in the US population (about 3 in 4) and/or (ii) my name, rather than making inquiry of me or my friends before you say something nice to me. You should be ashamed.”

“Ah, ‘Merry Christmas’, you say. I bet you mean that in the imperative mood, ordering me under cover of a greeting to convert to your religion. You’re a child of the cossacks and the inquisition, and so are the stores with their holly and ribbons, just carrying on centuries of oppression and abuse. You should be ashamed.”

“Merry Christmas? You said that out loud, here in a government institution [I teach in a state university]? Do you realize you’re creating an establishment of religion? You should be ashamed.”

Once I get in this track, my friend can’t win. “‘Happy Holidays’? You sound like a Wal-Mart sign. I only celebrate one of them, and I’m offended that you blur your greeting over the one[s] I don’t.”

I could easily produce a similar paragraph on alternative ways to take a merchant’s, or a friend’s, attempt to be nice while not giving offense by saying “Have a nice holiday.”

The point is that we have as strong a duty to take things as though people mean well, even if we could nail them for making a mistake, as we do to be gracious and thoughtful on the sending side. Anyway, I cannot for the life of me understand how a reasonable person of any faith can take offense at someone’s well-meaning attempt to spread cheer, or turn it into a trap. (I don’t even mind being proselytized, within reason; it’s a compliment that someone wants to save my soul and often leads to an interesting theological argument.)

Jews are about one American in fifty, Moslems another one (depending on how you count). The idea that the popular culture of December in the US should ignore or hide its religious sources, or that it should not be overwhelmingly Christian-flavored, seems to me to get it completely wrong. Nobody’s rights are violated by demographic facts. Italian schools have a crucifix in each classroom; that’s a bad idea for us, and a cross would be as well. But singing Christmas carols in school in season is no more establishing religion than letting the chorus sing Bach is preaching Lutheranism. Life isn’t better when we don’t get to look at other cultures, its better when we do; religion matters, so we ought to be about learning more, not less, in school and out, about what other people believe and don’t.

Merry Christmas, readers. I hope you overdose shamelessly on stollen and panettone and latkes. And a Happy New Year, retroactive three or four months or both, as you prefer.


The War on Chanukah

In the midst of the war in Iraq, the Katrina catastrophe, the staggering deficit, the climate change talks, the torture scandal, the Plamegate scandal, the Abramoff scandal, the Delaygate scandal, and the (fill in blank) scandal, the House of Representatives has decided that its first priority is to pass a resolution defending the symbols of Christmas.

It’s about time to call the Republican Party’s staged hissy-fit over Christmas for what it is: thinly-disguised anti-Semitism. Such a thesis is at least far more plausible than the original assertion that there is a War on Christmas.

Is that going overboard? Well, several Representatives asked the House leadership to amend the resolution to protect the symbols of Chanukah as well, and it refused. That means that the leadership explicitly decided to protect Christmas and not Chanukah. What else could that be but anti-semitism?

So let’s ask Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Hastert: why do you hate Chanukah so much? Do you want to rename December “judenrein” (jew-cleansed)?

Maybe someone should ask the President, too: do you support the House’s call for a jew-free December?

That is, if he ever takes questions again…..

—Jonathan Zasloff

Terminological inexactitude

The Rev. Robert Johansen’s well-written brief for the feed-Terri forces has been rocketing around the Right Blogosphere and right-wing talk radio.

Alas, a Blog demonstrates that Johansen appears to … ummmm … depart from the facts … at several points.

Would it be rude of me, on this Easter Sunday, to remind Fr. Johansen and his allies of Lev. 19:11 and John 8:32?

Perhaps it would. Never mind, then.

Update: Broken link fixed, thanks to no fewer than seven (!) alert readers. One of them says “We have to get you a proofreader.” Ummm … I think we just did.

But I’ll try harder in the future. Honest.