Sunday, October 20, 2013

How Romantic...

My wife and I just returned from a whirlwind trip to Chicago, which was mostly enjoyable.  I did learn that day passes for the CTA can only be purchased at certain locations, which meant we did a lot more walking than I had planned to do.  During the day, this was not too much of a burden as the weather was pleasant and even warm for mid-October, but by nightfall the weather had turned colder with sporadic light rain.  I slept well.

The reason, or at least the primary destination, for our trip was yesterday afternoon's performance of Once at the Oriental Theatre. Although there were changes made, the musical is based on the 2006 shoestring-budget indie flick of the same name (and unlike The Lion King, I must say I still prefer the movie to the play).  I could say that I would echo the sentiments in this New York Times review, but I would also add that my bias toward the movie is likely in large part due to its two leads, as irreplaceable as Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca.  It's certainly not your average movie musical (I am glad to report that the audience is not asked to peer into Irgolva's nostrils as she finishes up Summer Nights), but more importantly, it is not your average "romance" movie.

Surely, I do not mean to sound puritanical; Once has plenty of strong language, as it was shot in Ireland, where I believe the government requires even priests to utter at least one f-bomb fortnightly. I do not dislike typical romantic movies because of language, or skin, or even sex; I dislike them because they are moronic, and as such, are not by any means romantic.  I'm glad that I didn't watch such movies as a teenager - not because they would have given me unrealistic expectations, but because they (like most teen-horror films) must portray the average high-school student as a complete idiot.  Of course, in all fairness, 1) adults in such movies are just as foolish, and 2) the average high-school student (or adult) is a complete idiot. 

Yes, characters making unwise decisions have populated human stories since the beginning of recorded literature, but where Macbeth presents a cautionary tale, the average "romantic" movie actively encourages at least temporary insanity.  Sex is to be reserved for the second date, and any ruse in pursuit of a lover is more than acceptable; in fact, the more outlandish the better.  If you find out your boyfriend/girlfriend is the one lying or cheating, don't be so harsh with them as to expect anything more; show how mature you are by accepting as much of their heart as they are wiling to give you.

But, especially as a man, nothing bothers me more than variations on a theme of infidelity in the pursuit of real love.  In Sleepless in Seattle, for example, Annie is so moved by a radio conversation that she leaves her well-mannered fiancé Walter in the dark as she travels across the country to hopefully meet this lonely widower.  In The Notebook, young Allie meets up with former flame Noah for a fling in an abandoned house, though she is engaged to be married to respectable lawyer Lon.  In Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie actually doubles the feat: she leaves her husband Jake in Alabama and starts a new life for herself in New York, but when her new man Andrew in New York proposes, she goes back to Alabama to convince her husband to sign the divorce papers he rejected seven years prior so she can continue without letting her fiancé know she was previously married (and still is).  But, she ends up falling for her husband again, and still continues with the wedding plans until calling it all off during the wedding itself.  Unfaithful to two men at the same time, and yet both are patient enough to wait for her to make up her mind.

Of course, if the man is not understanding, all the better, because this simply justifies the infidelity as rebellion against a controlling, rude man.  In Titanic, Rose takes a trip on an ill-fated luxury liner on the tab of fiancé Cal, and being a free spirit not to be tethered to him, she decides to go drinking and dancing with an artist named Jack.  She later poses nude for Jack wearing a large jewel given to her by Cal.  But unlike the men listed above, Cal gets upset about her secret rendezvous and confronts her, she snaps back:
Rose: I am not a foreman in one of your mills that you can command. I am your fiancée.
Cal: My fian... my fiancée! Yes, you are, and my wife. My wife in practice if not yet by law, so you will honor me. You will honor me the way a wife is required to honor a husband. Because I will not be made a fool, Rose. Is this in any way unclear?
I have noticed that this phenomenon does seem to be partial to the female half of an engagement; men who do the same are typically (and rightfully) portrayed as immature and/or selfish, while a female exploring her options in similar situations is often portrayed in a more positive light, as strong and independent. 

Now I am not suggesting that engagement is legally equivalent to marriage.  Certainly, even very serious couples may at some point decide to call it quits, and obviously this is more easily done before the wedding than after.  There is no legal or even moral judgment on my part toward persons of either gender who decide to end an engagement, but is it too much to ask that one officially end a relationship before starting another?  I'm not sure hedging one's bets really says "I love you" to either party, but this continues to be common in "romantic" movies:  one is the public and respectable man, the other the desired rebel. 

Of course, should the rebel win such a maiden's heart, is he to propose?  If so, I will assume he's not familiar with Macbeth.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Does Christianity Hate Equality?

"From the equality of rights springs identity of our highest interests; you cannot subvert your neighbor’s rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own." - Carl Schurz
"For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers,what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" - Matt. 5:46,47
Students of geography will tell you that there are actually two Americas: North America and South America, both continents.  One sits entirely north of the equator, and the other primarily (but not entirely) to the south of it.  Students of history will tell you that there are two (United States of) Americas.  One is a nation based on religious tolerance, equality, and "Christian principles"; the other is what they learn about by studying history. 

From the beginning, there has been a considerable disconnect between the ideals so eloquently stated by many of the "founding fathers" and the reality of the American experience, including the lives and actions of several of those same eloquent statesmen.  These men were still politicians, after all.  And yet, this phenomenon is not unique to the United States of America; every nation in the history of the world has been aided by inspirational, premeditated rhetoric, with varying levels of correlation to truth.  Fortunately, our nation is much more egalitarian today than at our conception.  Surely we're not perfect, but we have learned (albeit rather slowly) the error of our ways.  A quote (probably wrongly) attributed to Winston Churchill sums it up rather well, "The Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted."

Certainly a lot of men and women suffered and died for the cause of equality, and some of those men and women did identify as Christians.  Unfortunately, they are exceptions; far more often than not, Christians have sided with the oppressor over the oppressed.  Sometimes this was out of apathy, or a desire to take the path of least resistance, but sadly there were also many times the collective Church actively fought for the oppressor because they were the oppressor.  According to historian Brian R. Farmer (Lubbock Christian University),  "two-thirds of the national Klan lecturers were Protestant ministers" at their height in the 1920's. 

This unfortunate and predatory pattern began quite early, long before any thought of what we now know as the western hemisphere.  The nascent faith of Christianity quickly contracted a nasty strain of anti-Semitism.  In 325 the Council of Nicea voted to separate Easter from Passover:
"For it is unbecoming beyond measure that on this holiest of festivals we should follow the customs of the Jews. Henceforth let us have nothing in common with this odious people...we desire dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews..."
In 339, conversion to Judaism became a criminal offense; in 415 St. Augustine wrote:
"The true image of the Hebrew is Judas Iscariot, who sells the Lord for silver. The Jew can never understand the Scriptures and forever will bear the guilt for the death of Jesus.
Religious tolerance was certainly not a concern as Pope Leo forced the baptism of Jews, nor for the Crusaders in Jerusalem in 1099.  Below is an excerpt from an article written by Michael D. Hull and originally published in the June 1999 issue of Military History magazine:
The Crusaders spent at least that night and the next day killing Muslims, including all of those in the al-Aqsa Mosque, where Tancred's banner should have protected them. Not even women and children were spared. The city's Jews sought refuge in their synagogue, only to be burned alive within it by the Crusaders. Raymond of Aquilers reported that he saw piles of heads, hands and feet on a walk through the holy city. Men trotted across the bodies and body fragments as if they were a carpet for their convenience. The Europeans also destroyed the monuments to Orthodox Christian saints and the tomb of Abraham.
In 1543, the original Protestant Martin Luther penned an essay entitled On the Jews and Their Lies that advocated oppression of Jews, including limits on speech, worship, and property ownership. It would later greatly influence Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, although Hitler would identify as Catholic and not Lutheran.  There were some notable Christians who would sacrifice everything to defend and save Jews from the Holocaust, but the very reason we know a few names like Schindler or Bonhoeffer is because they were exceptions; most Germans identified themselves as both Christians and members of the Nazi party.  Indeed, the Holocaust would have been impossible if the majority of Christians had refused to cooperate.

Time after time, power granted to a Christian group often resulted in the oppression of others, including other Christians (such as the bloodshed between Catholic and Protestant groups in Europe).  This literally flowed over to America. Puritan and Separatist sects in England, who had long sought to reform the Anglican Church toward Calvinism, made their way to a New World in the first half of the 17th century, in part out of a desire for greater religious freedom.  The degree to which they were actually persecuted in England is one that is debated by scholars, but it is important to note that at any rate, they considered themselves persecuted - oppressed by religious authorities closely tied to the government.  After a couple of decades to establish authority of their own in this new land, talk of religious tolerance all but disappeared.  Instead, citizens who did not meet (subjective) criteria were tried and killed as "witches". 

The African slave trade was one issue on which many Christians took a stand.  Men like John Wesley and William Wilberforce worked to end the practice in England, while George Whitefield (who is credited for sparking the Great Awakening of American evangelicalism) argued for the legalization of slavery even where it was illegal.  While slavery had been already been outlawed in the American Province of Georgia, it was legalized in 1751 due in large part to Whitefield's efforts - and would remain legal for over a century more.  Through these years, numerous pastors would preach racism to their congregations, such as Presbyterian theologian R. L. Dabney: "Every hope of the existence of church and state, and of civilization itself, hangs upon our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of Negro suffrage."  As would become the pattern in America, the rhetoric from churches in support of oppression would fade after government action defined them as the losing side, and eventually the consensus among Christians would fall in line with the "progressive" stance they once opposed.  Today, one is highly unlikely to encounter such racism spoken from the pulpit.

Likewise, Christian attitudes on women have changed dramatically.  The typical church position in the mid 19th century was opposed to women having the right to vote, as they were considered subordinate to men.  President Grover Cleveland (also Presbyterian) remarked in 1905 that "sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.  The relative positions to be assumed by a man and a woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours", published oddly enough in Ladies Home Journal (1905).  While he was not speaking on behalf of his denomination, the sentiment was still very commonplace among churchgoers.  After the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, such commentary also faded away.  I know of no current pastors that believe that it is wrong for women to have the right to vote. 

A southern minister by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. said that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  He challenged Christians of all colors to consider the injustice of racial prejudice in public policy, and to act in the interest of justice, but where such a call to action was (as one might expect) answered enthusiastically by many black congregations, white congregations did little to help.  Certainly, there were white persons who joined in the many marches for racial equality, but consider for a moment that among all persons identified as Christians in the 1960's, blacks were about twelve percent, whites over 80 percent.  Contrast that with pictures from the time period, where black faces outnumber white ones at an inverse ratio (at least).

The message, intentional or not, is clear: the oppressed are responsible to fight for themselves, you can't expect churches that aren't personally affected to help you.  Even today, Christian-affiliated groups often lobby the government against what they may perceive as oppression (including the Affordable Care Act), but will not lift a finger to help any other group experiencing injustice.  A very recent example comes from the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), founded by Pat Robertson.

According to the group's website, the ACLJ is "committed to ensuring the ongoing viability of freedom and liberty in the United States and around the world."  It goes further to specify that they aim to "protect religious liberty and safeguard human rights and dignity."  Surely, a group dedicated to protecting religious freedom would be something I could support, if there wasn't again a large disconnect between these stated ideals and reality. 

Where the ACLJ considered it defense of religious liberty to present oral arguments against the prohibition of Christian literature distribution and fund solicitation at post offices (United States v. Kokinda,1990 - the prohibition was upheld by the Supreme Court), they not only failed to defend the rights of Muslims to build a mosque in Manhattan - they actually argued against it.  How can one claim to value religious freedom only for some?  While it may be noble to fight for the rights of some persecuted group that you are affiliated with, it takes a man (or woman) of principle to fight for the rights of another group, where there is little or no opportunity for personal gain.  Even more impressive is one who insists on solidarity with the oppressed, as when Dora demands to be put on the train in Life is Beautiful or when William Lloyd Garrison demanded he not be buried in any location that does not allow blacks to be buried there as well. 

Pursuit of "justice" only for your own simply isn't.  Freedom demands justice, and justice demands equality.  No, I do not believe that Christianity hates equality - quite the opposite.  I believe it demands that believers fight for the oppressed, and not just fellow Christians.  Gay or straight, liberal or conservative, white or black, Muslim or Jew or Atheist, any attack on any of them is an attack on us all; there can be no better presentation of the faith than showing our principles to be unwavering.  What better contrasts with the norm?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Occupational Veneration

I was very recently engaged in a political discussion with a friend that I will not reference here, other than to say that in the course of our exchange he wisely referenced the Lake Wobegon Effect among political figures.  The name, of course, is derived from the many tales of the fictional Minnesota town as spun by Garrison Keillor on the radio program "A Prairie Home Companion."  **WARNING: Do not visit the PHC website if you consider public radio to be a liberal machination for the purpose of widespread indoctrination against Jesus and His many teachings on free market principles.**

Of course, in all truthfulness this is quite unavoidable.  On an individual level, one could argue that self-image is often warped.  Sometimes these warped images manifest in unrealistic self-criticism, as it does in the case of anorexia.  Surely decades of edited photographs and unrealistic ideals in media have taken a toll, especially on women, but outside of these external idols an intrinsic illusion of superiority is far more common.  Nearly every time I peruse the comments on any current-event website that could possibly have a political angle (and sometimes even where there is no tie to politics), someone will proclaim their views immediately after or before the two-word imperative "wake up", typically in all capital letters and excessive punctuation.  This, of course, politely informs the reader that the views of the poster are the obvious truth, and that anyone who disagrees with his or her position is obviously asleep, or drugged by "Kool-Aid".

While I acknowledge the phenomenon on an individual level, and even to some degree concerning a group that the individual may be associated with, I am a little more perplexed about the veneration of certain occupational groups that seem to steep into all of society.  While lawyers, for example, tend to enjoy a negative occupational reputation, veterinarians are usually assumed to have a kind devotion similar to that of the nuns that didn't teach at parochial school.  While stable, this unwritten list is obviously subject to change, as teachers used to be on the "noble" list when I was growing up but in more recent national discussions tend to be portrayed as opportunistic and overpaid.  I still hold to the former ranking, but that's probably another post.

Sometimes the relative position is so great that it comes with an almost oxymoronic title of nobility, such as the Honorable Randy Neugebauer or His Holiness Pope Francis.  Among the Christians that do not believe a human (outside of Christ himself) can embody holiness is Pope Francis himself, who when asked recently to describe himself began with "I am a sinner."  I greatly admire Pope Francis for such humility, which contrasts so starkly with Congress who more often than not believe themselves to be honorable.  I suppose we have the feudal system to thank for these many titles.

Two other occupations, that I believe to both be honorable in themselves, have also approached dishonesty in their unofficial marketing: medical doctors and military servicemen.  Now, before everyone grabs the pitchforks, I appreciate our men and women of the military and their service to our nation, as well as the sacrifices their families must make while they are away.  Obviously, many never return from armed conflict.  I also greatly admire and give due respect to medical doctors, knowing the years of study and work that they must complete in order to obtain their title and position.  I refer more to the public rhetoric of these groups in general, which I will further explain. 

I have heard many people credit a doctor with "saving lives".  While I understand the sentiment, I think the wording goes a bit too far.  Beyond theological objections, I still think it might be more appropriate to say "extend" a life, because no one treated (or "healed", or "saved") by a doctor 150 year ago is alive today.  Again, this is more a public sentiment than a proclamation from doctors as a group.  Surely their work is valuable, and I might go so far as to say a patient may be saved from symptoms, or pain, or maybe even that years of a life were saved, but the simplified version of "saving a life" is somewhat misleading.  Indeed, hearing an MD object to the phrase himself/herself would be as refreshing as hearing the Pope call himself a sinner.

Likewise, I have heard many (non-military) people rightly express gratitude to the individuals of our armed forces but incorrectly include the phrase "they are fighting for our freedom" or something similar.  I have heard some go so far as to say that we can worship in church or assemble peacefully thanks to those serving in today's military, which is obviously incorrect.  One could make a case that there were, in a certain age, men who sacrificed for the cause of American independence, from which flowed the Bill of Rights some years later.  Our rights in these regards have been unchanged (for white persons) in the past two centuries.   It might even be appropriate to say that since the Patriot Act, we enjoy fewer freedoms today than we did 20 years ago.  Our military does an admirable job defending our nation's interests as defined by various administrations, and as they by design do as commanded, I certainly object to the way many in the military are demonized by persons opposed to specific military actions (most notably the Vietnam conflict, yet sadly still an issue today).  Yet, on the other side of the coin, I've had people insist that opposition to a specific conflict is "not supporting our troops", which I find rather odd; what better way to support those families than to bring the absent back safely? 

Again, I do not fault either group for these errant phrases.  I have never heard an actual serviceman (or woman) make a statement like "you owe your freedom to me".  They are typically too humble to take credit even where it is due.  It just seems that in each of these cases, the public latches on to an ideal that pushes the boundary of truth...but why?  And if a veteran comes home and becomes a civilian police officer, does he or she go from selfless hero to arrogant pig?