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For Your Consideration

20 June 2010

Morsel of the Day

9 June 2010

From “What Did Jesus Do?” by Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker 24 May, 2010:

…Jesus’ cry of desolation—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—though primly edited out or explained as an apropos quotation from the Psalms by later evangelists, pierces us even now from the pages of Mark, across all the centuries and Church comforts. The shock and pity of failure still resonates.

One thing, at least, the cry assures: the Jesus faith begins with a failure of faith. His father let him down, and the promise wasn’t kept. “Some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God,” Jesus announced; but none of them did. Jesus, and Paul following him, says unambiguously that whatever is coming is coming soon—that the end is very, very near. It wasn’t, and the whole of what follows is built on an apology for what went wrong. The seemingly modern waiver, “Well, I know he said that, but he didn’t really mean it quite the way it sounded,” is built right into the foundation of the cult. The sublime symbolic turn—or the retreat to metaphor, if you prefer—begins with the first words of the faith. If the Kingdom of God proved elusive, he must have meant that the Kingdom of God was inside, or outside, or above, or yet to come, anything other than what the words seem so plainly to have meant.

The argument is the reality, and the absence of certainty the certainty. Authority and fear can circumscribe the argument, or congeal it, but can’t end it. In the beginning was the word: in the beginning, and in the middle, and right there at the close, Word without end, Amen. The impulse of orthodoxy has always been to suppress the wrangling as a sign of weakness; the impulse of more modern theology is to embrace it as a sign of life. The deeper question is whether the uncertainty at the center mimics the plurality of possibilities essential to liberal debate, as the more open-minded theologians like to believe, or is an antique mystery in a story open only as the tomb is open, with a mystery left inside, never to be entirely explored or explained. With so many words over so long a time, perhaps passersby can still hear tones inaudible to the more passionate participants. Somebody seems to have hoped so, once.

The Docket

8 June 2010

Agenda items brought up at this morning’s staff meeting at my Junior High School:

  • A bookshelf was dented in the library. The library removed the offending shelf to show it to the rest of the staff, and asked teachers to remind their students about how inappropriate it is to run in the library. The shelf will be replaced forthwith.
  • Teachers are asked to remind students that the cheering committee will meet during afternoon recess. Attendance of all students who are not participating in the middle school sports festival is recommended.
  • Graffiti with offensive words (literally translated as “idiot”, “jerk”, etc) were found written in red pen in the first floor boy’s toilet. First period is therefore cancelled for the first graders, and will be replaced with an all-class emergency meeting. The first grade teachers are still considering what course of action to take, and how we will seek out those responsible, but at the very least, all students will be required to write an essay giving their perspective on why this behavior is unacceptable. Homeroom teachers should collect these essays by the end of the day.
  • The students manner of greeting teachers in the hallways is lacking in enthusiasm. Please be diligent in correcting them.

Principles

28 May 2010

Nicholas Kristof writes:

Sister Margaret was a senior administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. A 27-year-old mother of four arrived late last year, in her third month of pregnancy. …The mother suffered from a serious complication called pulmonary hypertension. That created a high probability that the strain of continuing pregnancy would kill her.

“In this tragic case, the treatment necessary to save the mother’s life required the termination of an 11-week pregnancy,” the hospital said in a statement. “This decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee.” Sister Margaret was a member of that committee. She declined to discuss the episode with me, but the bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted, ruled that Sister Margaret was “automatically excommunicated” because she assented to an abortion.

Let us just note that the Roman Catholic hierarchy suspended priests who abused children and in some cases defrocked them but did not normally excommunicate them, so they remained able to take the sacrament…”

Catholic doctrine holds that readiness to receive the Eucharist is a matter of personal deliberation and discretion–that is, unless you happen to be pro-choice politician. My guess is that Sister Margaret, a woman described by her colleagues as the resident conscience of the hospital, would likely find herself in sufficient standing to partake in Communion under these circumstances. A great many Catholics–whatever their stance on abortion policy may be–would probably say the same. However, a woman who has devoted literally her entire life to the ideals embodied in the Sacrament is now barred from partaking in it. It is but an accident of fate and vocation that many Catholics escaped having to make Sister Margaret’s moral calculation.  And those who feel that their conscience would have compelled them to act as Sister Margaret did are no more or less fit to receive the Sacrament than she. Recognizing that fact and acting accordingly is the very definition of principle.

The outsider in me wonders, then: What kind of message would it send if, on a pre-determined Sunday, all such Catholics walked to the communion rail and held their fingers over their lips? What would the reaction of the Diocese be if Catholics, by the hundreds or thousands, served notice that they will receive no more sacraments, respect, or dignity than Sister Margaret is to be afforded? That they will not donate their time and energy to institutions that would cast them out just as easily? That they will boycott  the Mass until the excommunication is lifted?

I know little about the ecclesiastical politics of the Phoenix Archdiocese, nor the prevailing attitudes among Catholics in that area.  And what with the important facts that 1) I’m quite contentedly Protestant and 2) I live in Japan, where the Catholic population can be basically counted on my fingers (well, not quite, but it’s small), it’s not a cause for which I’m able to be a credible advocate. But seriously, can you imagine a better show of true ownership of the church? Such a protest cannot be construed as disloyalty, nor as an attack, but a collective exercise of the most serious moral prerogative that the Church entrusts to its members. It is making the most Catholic of decisions with the highest standard of honesty.  The church authorities can then make of that what they will.

Hopefully Catholics in Phoenix and elsewhere will organize in defense of someone who made a difficult, agonizing moral decision. I’ll chip in a few bucks if I’m asked. But I’m tired of hearing about how slowly the church changes. Don’t get me wrong, it does change at a glacial pace. But to say that the church changes slowly, as though it’s a foregone conclusion that it will get there eventually if only given time, is crap.  It only enables injustices like this one, and reassures the hierarchy that their decisions will go unchallenged.  Institutions don’t respond to words, they respond to having something very important to lose.  The Boston Diocese didn’t act when it realized how many complaints of sexual abuse there were, it acted when the media found out.  The church in Germany didn’t set up a reporting hotline and hire an outside investigator when the recent complaints surfaced, it took these steps when Mass attendance–as well as charitable giving–went down the toilet in the span of a couple weeks.

The church will have no choice but to respond if the faithful act like owners instead of tenants. Here’s hoping they will.

Update: Catholics for Choice is soliciting letters of support to be forwarded on to Sr. McBride. Missives are welcome from all communities and traditions.

Rand Paul is a Rock, Rand Paul is an Island

24 May 2010

Newly-minted GOP Senate Nominee Rand Paul has managed to find himself in a spot of trouble over the past couple of days:

I’d also direct you to the full interview, which can be found embedded here, along with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s typically cogent analysis.

Though it doesn’t take a particularly keen political acumen to see why it’s seldom a talking point in the Libertarian community, Paul’s argument isn’t a novel one. Shockingly enough, my first thought upon listening to Paul’s comments was not about Strom Thurmond, but Jonathan Rauch, a left-Liberterian journalist, philosopher, and introvert. Rauch, in his exquisite book Kindly Inquisitors, attacks speech codes–and those in effect on college campuses in particular–on substantively similar grounds. His book is a thing of beauty, and I’d urge anyone and everyone to read it, but in essence Rauch suggests that we are ill-served by attempts to curb ‘harmful’ speech, since the only way for a society to pursue truth is to allow the interrogation, critique, and either the subscription to or rejection of every viewpoint.  To do otherwise is not only to infringe on the most private of realms, but also to risk suppressing a true statement, either because it contradicts the reigning orthodoxy, or to protect an individual from the harm that such speech might cause–a risk that is unnecessary anyway, as human beings are far more effective at marginalizing fringe viewpoints than any regulatory body could hope to be.

Listening to his interview with Rachel Maddow, I imagined that were Dr. Paul to read Kindly Inquisitors, he would likely fancy himself as being ideologically in sync with Rauch. So far as I can determine, his opposition to restrictions on private business discrimination under the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 is rooted in two central axioms: First, that the government cannot, for any reason, interfere in the private affairs or business decisions of an entrepreneur (this he argues explicitly on any number of occasions); and Second, that such interference–even if technically permissible under relevant law–is unnecessary, since a business that chose to discriminate on such a basis would exponentially amplify its risk of failure by simultaneously limiting its clientele and drawing the ire of the marketplace in the form of organized and individual boycotts. In other words, economic factors would force a discriminatory business out of the market so quickly that government intervention would be, at best, redundant, and introduce great potential for collateral damage.  We must tolerate private discrimination, Paul says, because it is what freedom requires; moreover, we should tolerate it because it’s more efficient than the alternative.

Being a devotee of Rauch, I’m not unsympathetic to this argument on its face. However, unlike speech or truly private discrimination (i.e., not associating socially with persons against whom one is prejudiced), when applied to Titles II and VII of the CRA, or the Fair Housing Act of 1968*, neither the privacy nor the efficiency legs of Paul’s stance hold up very well in practice.

Read more…

The Scent of a Gaijin

18 May 2010

Yesterday, as I was standing in the hallway at one of my many elementary schools reading a poster about tooth-brushing habits, a second grader rounded the corner.  He stared at me for a second, then nodded and said: “Ah, so that’s why the hallway smelled like Hal-sensei”. He kept on walking.

Either I am wearing far too much deodorant, or far too little.

Moment: 規律

10 May 2010

Iori stands outside the door to the teachers room, visibly working up the nerve to enter.  She is the Nichoku, the student assigned for the day to bring the class to order, keep attendance, and lead the greeting and bowing that bookend every class period.  She is tasked, in short, with maintaining ‘kiritsu’–order, discipline, respect. Today, her responsibilities include fetching me from the office. This does not happen every day. Lunch and English class are one thing, but walking the eighty feet from the office to the classroom, alone with the strange but congenial white guy who pretends not to understand Japanese, is something else entirely.

She slides open the crooked wooden door, and presents herself with a volume that belies her desired aura of confidence.  “I am Iori Kudou”, she shouts, as though any one of the teachers at this school of 77 students in a minuscule town is unaware of her name, not to mention her birthday, family information, and any pertinent medical conditions. “I am from the 4th Grade Classroom, and I am here to ask Hal-sensei to come teach our class”.  She steps back, waiting for an answer.

I jump up from my desk, with an “Ok, let’s go!” Be assured that having returned from Hong Kong yesterday, I’m faking the enthusiasm.  As we leave the office, I beckon her towards the copy room, where I will grab some pieces of scrap paper for the lesson I’ve planned.  I stroll in without a second thought, but Iori stops at the door.  She genuflects, and says “Shitsureishimasu”.  “I am about to intrude”, or “I will be rude”, depending on how one translates it. I am the only one in the room.

I gather the papers I need, and she practically jumps aside to let me go through the door first.  As I cross the threshold, Iori lingers behind me for a moment.  “Shitsureishimashita” she says.  “I have committed rudeness”.  She bows to the now-empty room, then jogs to catch me as we walk to her classroom.