Abu Daoud Writes the Pope

And let’s hope His Holiness gets around to reading it:

The first reform I suggest is regarding Holy Scripture. One of the most recurrent themes in conversion narratives of Muslims is the reading of the Bible. Yet how many hundreds of thousands of emigrants live throughout the West without access to the bible in their own language? What if parishes in areas with significant immigrant populations were told they had to have bibles available in those languages–perhaps Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Pashto, Turkish, or something else? What if each sleepy Catholic parish became a de facto source of distribution of Scripture? I am not talking about proselytism, or even evangelism.

This is an excellent piece.  Frankly, having been in the Evangelical world as long as I have, I am shocked at some of the pastoral duff-sitting I’m seeing described in this letter, although experiences teaches me I shouldn’t be.  Hopefully it will have an impact, even if it doesn’t get past the papal staff.

We Are Our Own Worst Enemy

From this fascinating analysis by Walter Russell Mead on China and the U.S.:

Over the long term, what American policy makers need to remember (and what I fear too many have forgotten in both parties over the last couple of decades) is that America’s international standing and security ultimately depend on health of our domestic economy — and that the economy in turn ultimately depends on the dynamic, self-reliant, entrepreneurial and, yes, virtuous character of the American people.  Unless our educational, cultural and political institutions reflect and support these characteristics, American power could rot away at the core.

Americans still don’t think in terms of losing to a foreign power.  They shouldn’t.  They should think in terms of losing to their own folly domestically.

The thing that is the most wrong about the Obama Administration isn’t that it couldn’t wave its hand and get us out of this economic ditch.  It’s its desire to centralise everything in Washington, thus draining the nation’s strength.  With the debt load we have, that process of decline may not be a long one either.

The Prosperity of the 1990’s May Well Have Been Borrowed

Let’s start with this statement about the “lost decade” of the 2000’s:

From 2000 through 2009, the Census Bureau found, the median income (measured in inflation-adjusted dollars) declined by 5 percent for white families, 8 percent for Hispanic families, and more than 11 percent for African-American families. That’s almost unimaginable over an entire decade. From 1991 through 2000 (again in inflation-adjusted dollars) it had risen by 13 percent for whites, 19 percent for Hispanics, and 28 percent for African-Americans.

Similarly, the total number of Americans in poverty increased by nearly 12 million in the last decade, more than obliterating the 4.1 million reduction during the 1990s. Especially troubling is that the number of poor children jumped by 3.9 million — again, more than erasing the 2.8 million decline during the 1990s.

Now let’s look at this chart of personal debt from 1948 to more or less now, from here:

Note the major run-up in the debt from around 1994 to 2002, just after 9/11.  Most of that was in “non-revolving debt,” and that’s mostly real estate related debt.  It’s not a hard conclusion that we basically achieved prosperity by borrowing.

“Mr. Consumer” has been the driving engine of this economy for a long time.  When he or she is maxed out in their borrowing capacity, the fun stops.  The consumer debt was flat this past decade, which was reflected in the economy’s performance.  The government has tried to take up the slack with its own borrowing, and that process has accelerated from Bush to Obama.  But the government is a less efficient driver of the economy than our debt-obsessed consumers.

Even with the relatively lax bankruptcy laws we have in the US, people can know when they’ve reached their limit.  Through dollar hegemony and other forms of alchemy, our government can more easily conceal its own long-term profligacy.  I do not think this process can proceed indefinitely.

I also think that the easily ability to borrow funds–both public and consumer–has injected a hopeless sense of unreality into our population and its expectations.  That even reaches in to the church; the perennial popularity of prosperity teaching may be driven by the availability of easy credit.  The current crash is correcting that, but it’s going to be a long time before sanity is restored.

Blessing the Animals, and Must the Rector Search Committee Have Its Own Chaplain?

I still don’t get this:

Two congregations will celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi with a blessing of the animals.

The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea invites pets and their owners to the celebration Oct. 3. The procession into the church will begin at 8:45 a.m., with the service starting at 9 a.m. Coffee hour in the garth will follow.

The next day, the Rev. Frank Lechiara will hold the blessing in the St. Edward Catholic Church courtyard at a time to be announced.

I remember the Shiny Sheet’s video a year or two ago of this event at Bethesda.  Readers of this blog know that I have fond memories of our Siamese cat Buff, but the whole concept of taking him to Bethesda to have water thrown on him sends chills up my spine.

But this is worthy of note, for the church that has everything (emphasis mine):

The Rev. Perry T. Fuller has appointed Laura Warner to become the coordinator of Children and Youth Ministry at The Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea. Warner has a master’s degree in education and has been involved in all phases of children and youth ministry at the church.

She is chaplain of the rector search committee, a vestry member and serves on the Altar Guild and as a Eucharistic minister.

I’m a big supporter of chaplaincy, was my church’s Chaplains Commission webmaster for many years.  This takes chaplaincy to a new level, but where that level is I’m not quite sure in this case.

Charity vs. Justice Work: The Difference Is Important

The Lead, quoting William Sloane Coffin, puts the question clearly:

Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to eliminate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation.

This, people, is the core difference between liberal and conservative churches.  Conservative churches do (they’re supposed to, at least, and many do a great deal) charity work, directly helping people.   Liberal churches do justice work, getting the government to do the work for them.  The implied concept behind the latter is that the government is able to make the “necessary” changes in society that will stick long after the charity is done.

Needless to say, The Lead approvingly quotes a Baptist leader who notes that “When he (Jesus) spoke with authorities who contributed to the injustice of his society, he rebuked them.”

This, of course, is where liberals get lost in the New Testament narrative, a narrative whose veracity they’ve challenged as long as they’ve trumpeted social justice.  (That’s a major dissonance issue, but I digress…)  There’s not a shred of evidence that Jesus or his followers pursued a “social justice” agenda as we understand it today.  It’s one thing to tell people that they should follow the law the way God handed it to them.  It’s quite another to tell people they should change the law (or “the system”) for “equity” purposes, to disempower one group and empower another.

The simple fact in the time of the New Testament and for the remainder of the Roman Empire’s existence is that the open, democratic institutions that make non-violent social action even possible didn’t exist.  The Roman Republic had some of this, but things could get wild, as the Gracchi brothers found out the hard way.  To read back a “social justice” agenda as we understand it into the New Testament both does theological violence to the NT and is anachronistic.

Bringing up the Gracchi brothers points out something else: the alternative to “social action” is revolution.  And revolution, with the right kind of leadership and the right conditions, will result in change.  Personally I’ve always found that liberal Christian social activists are too chicken to be revolutionaries.  It’s just as well; the last century had far too much of the change that revolution brought.

Bill Ayers is Denied Emeritus Status: There Are a Few Who Do Remember

This is amazing, in many ways:

In a very unusual move, University of Illinois trustees Thursday denied giving emeritus status to controversial retired professor William Ayers.

The vote, at a U. of I. board meeting in Urbana, was unanimous and came after a passionate speech by board chair Christopher Kennedy, who invoked the 1968 assassination of his father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, in saying that he was voting his conscience.

The other trustees, without comment, also voted against the appointment.

Christopher Kennedy’s rationale needs to be heard:

But in an emotional statement, Kennedy discussed his reasons for voting against Ayers’ request.

“I am guided by my conscience and one which has been formed by a series of experiences, many of which have been shared with the people of our country and mark each of us in a profound way,” Kennedy said.

He said he could not confer the title “to a man whose body of work includes a book dedicated in part to the man who murdered my father.”

Kennedy was referring to a 1974 book co-authored by Ayers, “Prairie Fire,” which was dedicated to a long list of people including Robert Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan and “all political prisoners in the U.S.”

One of the advantages of having physical descendants around of those who made history is that they remember stuff the rest of us don’t.  People have forgotten just how destructive the 60’s radicals were and in some ways still are, as Ayers’ influence over Barack Obama is a testament to.  (Don’t forget this, either.)  Neither John nor Robert Kennedy were assassinated by “right wingnuts,” no matter what you think of their ideas at the time.

For an institution which just went through a controversy with an adjunct professor getting the boot for saying that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that homosexuality is against natural law (they did reinstate him, though), this is good news.

Besides, one of the perks of emeritus status is library privileges.  What self-respecting 60’s radical would do anything in a library other than burn it down?

Killing the American Dream was the Whole Point

Velma Hart and others needn’t have asked:

“Quite frankly, I’m exhausted,” Velma Hart said, looking the leader of the free world in the eye. “I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now.”

There was more. “I have been told that I voted for a man who said he was going to change things in a meaningful way for the middle class. I’m one of those people. And I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting.”

She inspired others in the audience to follow suit. A recent graduate from law school complained that he couldn’t afford to pay even the interest on his student loans.

“What I’m really hoping to hear from you is several concrete steps that you’re going to take moving forward that will be able to reignite my generation, reignite the youth who are beset by student loans. And what I really want to know, is – is the American dream dead for me?” he wailed.

To construct a proper European style social contract with the benefits that go with it, you have to kill the American Dream.  That was Barack Obama’s objective, whether he stated it or not or whether he knew it or not.  The two are incompatible.  You can’t have a nice social contract and a bunch of enthusiastically ambitious people under it at the same time.  Something has to give.  And it isn’t just about Obama either; it’s the whole idea of the American left.

I am sure that Barack Obama, sensing the desire of Americans to receive the benefits of government, is surprised at the resistance he’s getting, even from people who are nominally sympathetic to his cause.   To some extent, so am I.  Part of that is generational; if we wait twenty years or so, what he’s wanting to do will go down much better.  But he didn’t and now he’s paying the price.

Every King is Proclaimed by Soldiers

This is the seventh in a sporadic series on the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem.  The previous post was The Difference Between Image and Likeness in Genesis.

In the midst of his exposition on the passion, crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, Cyril makes the following statement:

But the soldiers who crowd around mock Him, and their Lord becomes a sport to them, and upon their Master they make jests. When they looked on Me, they shaked their heads. (Psalms 109, 25.) Yet the figure of kingly state appears; for though in mockery, yet they bend the knee. And the soldiers before they crucify Him, put on Him a purple robe, and set a crown on His head; for what though it be of thorns? Every king is proclaimed by soldiers; and Jesus also must in a figure be crowned by soldiers; so that for this cause the Scripture says in the Canticles, Go forth, O you daughters of Jerusalem, and look upon King Solomon in the crown wherewith His mother crowned Him. (Song of Solomon, 3:11.) And the crown itself was a mystery; for it was a remission of sins, a release from the curse. (XIII, 17)

Readers of this blog have probably been waiting for the “other shoe to drop” and for me to turn Cyril’s lectures into a political statement. Well, here it is. In passing he makes a pungent observation about Roman politics that puts a new perspective (new to most of us) on this part of the passion.

The part of the gospel narrative he is referring to is this:

After that, the Governor’s soldiers took Jesus with them into the Government House, and gathered the whole garrison round him. They stripped him, and put on him a red military cloak, And having twisted some thorns into a crown, put it on his head, and a rod in his right hand, and then, going down on their knees before him, they mocked him. “Long life to you, King of the Jews!” they said. They spat at him and, taking the rod, kept striking him on the head; And, when they had left off mocking him, they took off the military cloak, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to be crucified. (Matthew 27:27-31)

Good Friday isn’t normally thought of as a “political” holy day, but looking at it from the standpoint of how and why Jesus was arrested and tried, it is the political holy day par excellence. The Jewish leadership placed against him the charge of blasphemy, but in reality their actions were politically driven, as I discussed in my piece We Are Donkeys. Yes, We Are. Once they got the result they were after, it was time for the soldiers to make their political move, and they did with a vengeance.

For all of its greatness, the Roman Empire never quite hit upon a succession routine that it found satisfactory over a long period of time. Until the last century before Our Lord, the Republic had its cursus honorum for aspiring leaders up to the annual election of the two consuls. That regularity of office inspired our own Founding Fathers in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

The success of the Republic’s expansion put strains on the system that led to adventurers like Marius and Sulla to upset the routine. From then on the Republic’s life was dominated by careerists with armies behind them: Pompey (who actually strolled into the Holy of Holies,) Crassus (who perished at the hands of the Persians,) and ultimately Julius Caesar. Caesar’s assassination set off a new round of war with the likes of Mark Antony and Octavian, who ultimately cleaned up the mess by dispatching Mark Antony at Actium and establishing what we call the Empire but is more properly referred to as the Principiate.

The years between Augustus’ accession and Nero’s death were relatively peaceful, but the soldiers were always out there. Tiberius, under whose reign the Passion took place, had for a time a “regent” in Sejanus, head of the Praetorian Guard. In 41 A.D. Claudius was put forth by the Praetorians, the Senate eventually going along. And, of course, the “long and one year” 69 A.D., was a battle of one set of soldiers after another proclaiming successive emperors until Vespasian triumphed over all, leaving his son Titus, the “darling of the human race” (to use Josephus’ sycophantic phrase) to level Jerusalem.

That, in any case, is the situation around the time of the New Testament. Cyril was doubtless aware of all of this, but more recent history dominated his thinking.

The years between the assassination of Commodus in 192 and the proclamation of Diocletian in 284 were a long, bloody mess. The soldiers not only proclaimed just about every emperor; they proclaimed several at once, leading to one civil war after another. A state and civilisation weaker than Rome would have collapsed under the strain; as it was, the third century was grim enough for most of the Empire. Like Julius Caesar’s rule, Diocletian’s attempt to stabilise things with the Tetrarchy was a temporary fix. It was left to Constantine to restore one emperor rule, and that after having to defeat his rivals (except for Licinius, whom he had executed.) After Constantine’s death his sons, when not meddling in the Arian controversy, fought each other and usurpers, each proclaimed by soldiers.

Cyril’s comment, thus must be seen in the light of Roman history and practice. This leads us to three lessons:

  1. The soldiers who crowned and mocked Jesus were not only aiming their sport at him; they were “play acting” the central act of Roman politics and Imperial history. Today, it was a prisoner; tomorrow, for them, it might be the next Roman Emperor. Most of the proclamations of that day were done closer to home, i.e., Rome, so they may have figured they needed to at least act it out when they got the chance.
  2. Cyril’s point is that, not realising it, the soldiers were making the most important proclamation of kingship they would ever do. Unlike Roman Emperors, God didn’t need a group of soldiers to proclaim the king of the universe, but, just as he accommodated us in the Incarnation, so also they proclaimed him anyway. The significance of that proclamation, and the events surrounding it, sunk in to some of the soldiers who were present: “The Roman Officer, who was standing facing Jesus, on seeing the way in which he expired, exclaimed: “This man must indeed have been ‘God’s Son’!”” (Mark 15:39.)
  3. Roman history is a lesson that a stable, consistent routine of government change can deteriorate more quickly than we’d like to think. The deep disaffection in our own society should be a warning to us. We could be seeing rulers proclaimed by soldiers much sooner than we’d like to think.

The Relationship Between Public Works and the Birthrate

In the middle of his lengthy article about America’s “One-Child Policy,” Jonathan Last makes an interesting observation:

Finally, we could address the dirt gap—the underlying cost of land, which drives the cost of living and gives rise to the dramatic differences in fertility we see across the country. People often make decisions on where to live based on employment. High concentrations of jobs are found in intensely urban areas—Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Chicago—which have correspondingly high land costs. This is why we have the accurate stereotype of the working couple who move from the city to the exurbs once they decide to have kids.

Geography is unpleasantly resistant to social planning. There are only so many acres of land in Manhattan, and there’s nothing anyone can to do to make it less expensive (though correcting the absurdity of New York City’s rent-control/rent-stabilization system would help). But we could make the suburbs more accessible to cities by improving our highway system. Since 1970, the “vehicle lane miles” (that’s the metric traffic engineers use) consumed by Americans have risen by 150 percent. During that period we added 5 percent to our highway capacity. Now you know why we have so much traffic.

The answer is not building more public transportation. Parents trying to balance work and children need the flexibility automobiles provide. The solution is building more roads. As Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam noted wryly in Grand New Party (2008), Dallas has twice as much pavement-per-person as Los Angeles and half the traffic. And, not coincidentally, a higher fertility rate. An improved highway system would make it easier for couples to have access to both the concentration of jobs cities provide and the affordable housing that the suburbs offer.

It makes sense that it takes physical space to raise children–space that his afforded by the much maligned American single family dwelling suburb.  Lower density developments encourage a higher birthrate, which is crucial for a society that wants opportunity and provision for as broad of a base of people as possible.  That may be one reason why the Soviet Union, with its emphasis on the fifty square metre apartment, had such a struggle with its own birthrate, even though it had the land to do otherwise.  (I would strongly urge you to read that piece, with its description of how different sized flats were doled out, to make the connection for yourself.)

It’s not an accident that the era of the great pushback against public works and development–the late 1960’s and early 1970’s–was also a time when the birthrate precipitously dropped.   Investment in roads, airports and other infrastructure, the inconvenience during their construction, and paying for them during use, doesn’t make sense to people whose own children won’t be there to use them.  That aversion extends to maintaining and upgrading the existing infrastructure as well, which is why ours is in such poor shape.

Something else Last notes is worthy of mention:

Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable. When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they’re making a cultural and theological statement.

The next time the American Society of Civil Engineers puts out its dreary report card on the state of American infrastructure, its members would do well to hope that the pews are as packed with people as the congresspeoples’ offices are with lobbyists for more roads and sewers.  We need to resist the siren call of rabid secularism that certain portions of the scientific community are so enamoured with; we may find ourselves with a totally unscientific result, i.e., unemployed.

The Saudis Have Many Things to Discuss With Our Intelligence Chiefs

There’s no reason to be shocked by this:

Saudi King Abdullah and security czar Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz have held talks with top intelligence and counter-terror officials from the United States and Canada, the SPA news agency reported.

John Brennan, assistant to US President Barack Obama for homeland security and counter-terrorism, discussed in Jeddah on Sunday “issues that concern the two countries” with King Abdullah, Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz, the state news agency said without elaborating.

Afterwards, Brennan held talks with Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the country’s senior domestic security official for 35 years.

Let me mention at least two good reasons:

We’ve spent a lot of time on this site discussing shame/honour. It’s especially important in the Middle East and to Muslims in general. The whole Israeli-Palestinian problem is driven by it.  Most Arabs are shamed that the Jews took the land, so they’ve spent the last sixty years trying to restore their honour by getting the land back. The same problem inspired al-Qaeda with American troops being stationed in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War. They were shamed in the #1 Muslim country being “occupied” by American troops, so they had to restore their honour.

  • They’re worried about Iran.  At this point the only nuclear force in the Middle East that Saudi Arabia can count on to be an effective counterweight to Iran’s is Israel’s. From a Saudi standpoint that’s not a happy situation, but it beats the Iranian flag flying over Mecca and the oil fields.  Don’t think that the Iranians would set up shop there?  Just ask the Lebanese.

Middle Eastern politics are such a mess.