Sunday, June 29, 2014

Rendering Unto Caesar

I'm not sure to what degree author Suzanne Collins researched the Roman Empire before writing The Hunger Games and its two sequels, but there are more than a few similarities between the fictional Panem and the Roman Empire in decline, during the time of Christ. Life in the Capitol was filled with wine and song, while taxation increased the further one went out from it. Iniquitous leaders were skilled at projecting an image of benevolence, but often had administration officials killed when they felt threatened. Hedonistic crowds enjoyed watching games in which people pulled from conquered outlying territories were forced to kill each other. Existence in the outlying districts could be oppressive.

The setting for much of the New Testament is in one such district, Judaea. Local politicians and religious leaders had some autonomy there, but they also knew that the key to holding on to any local power was to remain in good graces with the Empire. This required a delicate balance on their part: they could not appear too aligned with Rome, or the people would despise them, but they also could not challenge Rome without grave consequences. Seeing that Jesus was gaining quite a following (and that he was often critical of these religious leaders), they plotted to eliminate this threat. From the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 12:

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar's.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.”
Surely his reply was a bit of a disappointment not only for those who had hoped to put him on Rome's watch list, but also for those who had hoped he would be more confrontational for their own sake. Many had started to wonder if this guy might be their (earthly) salvation from Roman rule, the long-awaited king that would rise up and destroy Rome, liberating the Jewish nation. The sixth chapter of John records that the people wanted to make Jesus their king "by force".  Of course, that wasn't the plan; in speaking with Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, Christ states, "my kingdom is not of this world."

Judging by recent events, it appears that many followers of Jesus in America today never got the memo. The recent federal court ruling against the state of Indiana's ban on gay marriage has caused the chorus again to swell: "The Bible says it's wrong, so we must get our way legally!" The song's verses spell out the doom of all society, typically following slippery-slope mentions of plural marriages, pedophilia, and bestiality; usually a charge of infringement on religious freedom is thrown in for good measure.

I would be one of the loudest voices among them, if the state was somehow mandating that I (or anyone else) would be forced into a marriage with a person of the same sex. However, such a strong reaction against the very idea that the secular government may allow things legally that individuals (or even churches) may oppose on religious grounds is puzzling. Legality does not make something morally correct, and even within the church there are great differences of opinion in what is or is not sinful: drinking, dancing, swearing, playing cards, second marriages, birth control - the list goes on and on. Of course, all of those things are legal options for me, whether I agree or not.

Perhaps part of the problem is the failure to understand that the church and the state have different roles, which is why there must be "a wall of separation between church and state." Fortunately, we had reasonable voices at our founding as a nation that demanded protection of religious liberty. In a pluralistic society, church and state must disagree, as they have opposite roles. The state must ensure freedom and equality; in other words, they must not endorse one thing over another, they must not discriminate. It is the church's job to discriminate; they must uphold a specific code or creed as superior, by definition. A church can exclude persons from church membership based on action or even belief, a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" can not refuse the same citizenship or rights based on creed.

Another recent challenge to the government (specifically, to the Affordable Care Act, more commonly called "Obamacare") from organized religion has been over the mandate that companies offer insurance, that they pay a portion of those premiums, and that those plans must include coverage for contraception. The Catholic Church, for example, opposes the use of contraception and has argued that forcing them, in effect, to pay for something they oppose is a violation of their religious liberty. The Supreme Court will soon announce a decision on this matter, and with it split so closely (5 conservatives and 4 liberals), it could go either way - but the argument itself does not hold water in either a historical (biblical) or a modern (legal) context.

As illustrated in the story above, Christ himself paid taxes that he knew were used in large part for things he did not condone. Quite plainly, an organization that claims to emulate Christ should do as he taught, to render unto Caesar what is Ceasar's, without expectation that the government do as they would have them do with those funds. While American colonialists were willing to kill to obtain independence from a system that taxed them without representation, this was not Christ's example; there was no hint of representation associated with the revenues collected for Rome, and yet he twice supported tax payment (and later Paul would urge obedience to the government and tax payment in the thirteenth chapter of Romans). Unlike the usual reply from the American mentality, Jesus did not respond with a concern for his own rights or a knee-jerk opposition to earthly authority.

The argument is also faulty on a modern basis, in that there are a number of Christian sects, especially Anabaptists, that promote pacifism and oppose violence. Yet, persons belonging to these sects must still pay the same taxes as everyone, even though approximately 20 percent of the budget goes to the defense department. In a time of war, that means that the monies paid by such groups is actually going to pay for the bombs and bullets that kill human beings, sometimes child civilians. There are numerous groups that oppose capital punishment, and yet some states will use a portion of state taxes paid for this purpose (it is not practiced in all states). There might be some conservative sect that opposes women working outside the home, but taxes paid by individuals with such beliefs may still be used by the state or even federal government on programs to advance career opportunities for women. In short, the concept of religious liberty does not prohibit another person, who may not share my views, from ever using funds I give them for some purpose I would condemn. No matter where you are on the political spectrum - liberal, conservative, moderate (and especially if libertarian) - I can guarantee that the government is doing something with your money that you would find repulsive. Even in the course of normal congressional elections (both state and federal), 49% of the voters may have chosen the other candidate, and thus do not approve of the winner's agenda, but everyone pays their salary, agreement or not.

The Violent Take it by Force

In no way am I suggesting that Christians should not be involved in political activism. Citizens of the United States, no matter their faith, enjoy freedoms almost unheard of through most of human history, and it would be rather discriminatory in itself to deny the voice of those aligned with a particular faith in a democratic republic. At the same time, we must be aware that others may have different views on a number of subjects, even within the very same congregation. Thus, what one person may see as an attack on his or her religion may be in complete alignment of another's understanding of the same religion. Disagreements can be had without tactics of intimidation.

As a case study, let us examine the controversy over Chick Fil A back in 2012. Chief Operating Officer Dan Cathy, in a radio interview, expressed his views against same-sex marriage. Given his background, the philosophy of Chick Fil A as a company, and the conservative-Christian radio show Mr. Cathy was being interviewed on, the content (and even tone) of his comments should have surprised no one. While liberal groups and the mayor of Boston at the time suggested boycotts of Chick Fil A in response, even the ACLU (supportive of same-sex marriage) defended the rights of Mr. Cathy to believe (and speak) against same-sex marriage without fear of government interference or economic threats.
Yeah, not so much.

This would have been a great opportunity to have a meaningful national conversation, but it instead became a national shouting match. Mike Huckabee called for a "Chick Fil A Appreciation Day" (note: not appreciation of free speech or even religion, but of a corporation) that was, to be honest, intended as a show of force. The intended message was clear: the majority of people who eat here are in agreement against same-sex marriage, we outnumber you, we have more money. These supporters were not in the habit of appearing en masse to simply to defend the right of business leadership to decide its own message, as they certainly did not hold a World Partners Appreciation Day to defend their leadership's decision in 2014 to simply allow homosexuals to work there (quite the opposite). In both support and boycott, the "Christian" response was to flex their own muscle, their economic power, rather than show compassion.

In the Sermon on the Mount, believers are referred to as salt and as light. But salt does not compete with food, and there is certainly no mandate to overpower it. In the same way, some light is quite helpful, but it is also capable of causing blindness. There is no mandate for Christians to collectively throw their weight around politically or economically to achieve dominion over the national culture. It is unfortunate that even faith is not immune from the pervasiveness of American culture, that almost instinctual response to conflict that says, "I'll show you". It's the same attitude expressed more coarsely by Toby Keith in his reactionary 2002 anthem "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue". It's the American way.

Perhaps this explains the apparent fear behind various posts that I've seen predicting that the current majority - Christians, Caucasians, even speakers of English as a first language in some parts of the country - may soon become a statistical minority. At least on a subconscious level, we know how minorities have been treated. Like Macbeth, we fear that we may someday be the victim of the same sort of disrespect (if not disenfranchisement) that we have (at the least) allowed.

Kingdom v Kingdom

The relationship between the state, culture, and Christianity was of particular interest to 19th century Danish philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard. In the "concluding unscientific" postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard argues that true faith (or, "religiousness") is inward, and as such can't be touched by cultural norms or restrictions. His words then (in 1846) retain a particular relevance to the state of religion today.
S. Kierkegaard
"When at times religiousness in the Church and state has wanted legislation and police as an aid in protecting itself against the comic [critic], this may be very well intentioned; but the question is to what extent the ultimate determining factor is religious, and it does the comic an injustice to regard it as an enemy of the religious. The comic is no more an enemy of the religious - which, on the contrary, everything serves and obeys - then the dialectical. But the religiousness that essentially lays claim to outwardness, essentially makes outwardness commensurable, certainly must watch its step and fear more for itself (that it does not become esthetic) than fear the comic, which could legitimately help it to open its eyes."
Simply put, reducing religion to a set of cultural positions is already admitting defeat. Yes, it is nice to live in a nation where faith is protected (and Kierkegaard certainly approved of the concept of separation of church and state), but faith is untouchable by earthly authorities. It does not require that the government agree, that we pay no taxes, or that we not face any conflict for our beliefs. It certainly does not require that we impose our will on those who believe differently.

Again referencing the Sermon on the Mount, Christ instructed that, should a Roman soldier command you to walk a mile (likely carrying armor or some other load for him, as was the rule at the time), that the response was not to fight the power (as tempting as that is), but to "walk with him two". Not only would refusal to walk the first mile be against the law, but using one's religious beliefs to get out of some obligation (including the Affordable Care Act) could easily be seen as convenient - perhaps the "conviction" was manufactured simply to get out of having to pay one's fair share. However, if due to our convictions we do more than required, or serve where there is no gain to ourselves, how is this not a greater impression?

Or, more directly, why is it that (some) faith-based organizations can throw millions toward specific candidates or to efforts to pass some legislation it sees as favorable (or to defeat legislation it does not approve of), much of which amounts to nothing (especially if their side should lose), yet not provide for those in need (especially non-Christians)? Perhaps the Church is not here to serve itself?

Monday, June 9, 2014

Second Amendment Rumpus

It seems to me that every decade or two, almost as if by human nature, society must deal with some great panic. Some of these are reactions to real events, such as the stock market crash of 1929 or the terrorist plot of 2001; events such as these throw us all into understandable distress as we deal with uncertainty. However, real events are not necessary fuel for mass hysteria. In spite of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, it turns out that most actors in Hollywood during the 1950's were not, in fact, Communist agents. "Y2K" did not render all of our power stations, computer networks, and ATMs useless. The world did not end in 1988 or 1999 or 2011 or 2012.  Even though Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and won re-election in 2012, numerous prophets of doom were incorrect in that, to date, there has still been no proposal to confiscate firearms or to repeal the second amendment.

I find it quite difficult to discuss any aspect of gun use in America in an open forum (like Facebook) because the vast majority of argument - on both sides - is built on misinformation. While I don't believe that the government is plotting to steal privately-held guns, I also don't believe that gun owners are irresponsible, or that the mere presence of guns are a detriment to society. I can't begin to understand the grief of a parent who has lost a child to gun violence, but I have to confess that there may not be an effective legislative response, no matter how well-intentioned.

There has been a lot of debate about the wording of the second amendment, and what the intent of the "founding fathers" was in adding it to the Bill of Rights. I will concur that the simple fact of it being the second amendment implies particular importance, being listed next after the five freedoms of the first amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition of grievances. Since the second amendment itself refers first to "a well regulated militia", some have suggested that the right applies only to those in military service, but the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 (District of Columbia v. Heller) that it does guarantee an individual's right to bear arms independent of association with a militia. This was upheld in 2010 (McDonald (et al) v City of Chicago, Illinois), in which Justice Samuel Alito stated, "it is clear that the Framers . . . counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty." Even Supreme Court decisions can be wrong, and/or later reversed, but I would agree with the fundamental right of individual ownership. I believe that an individual gun owner does have every right to use that weapon in defense of his (or her) own family and even property, but I should also note that this passage, and others from our founding fathers, indicate that the intent was not "each man for himself", but rather the need for a common defense. The second amendment is concerned primarily with "the security of a free State", indicating that the mindset was more concerned with the impact to society than to individuals.

With the first half pretty well decided, impassioned debates continue over the latter half: "...the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed". Does it mean all arms? Is regulation a form of infringement? Does "bear" mean one can carry a gun everywhere? Can anyone be denied a firearm for any reason? Can the federal or state government require training, a waiting period, or registration?

Today, there are an estimated 300 million guns in the US, the vast majority in the hands of private citizens. The USA is, by far, the nation with the most guns, both in raw number and per capita. I should point out, however, that there are different ways to describe gun ownership in America, and each side manipulates the statistics to their perceived greatest advantage. While the number of guns divided by the number of people produces a number like the one above, it is also true that the majority of US households do not have a gun. The reason for this is that many households with a gun have more than one. Likewise, depending on what the desired outcome is (right or left), statistics can show that gun ownership in the US is on the rise (especially in just the past few years), or that it is on a downward trend...and that violent crime is on the rise, or in decline, with implications that more (or less) guns are the reason why. In my research, I have found no convincing parallel either way.

Agreement with the Right

As stated earlier, I concur with recent Supreme Court rulings that individuals do have a constitutional right to firearms, for any lawful purpose. Some people hunt, others enjoy shooting as a pastime (typically at clay pigeons or a target at the shooting range). Some are merely collectors of weapons, perhaps even as investments, and have no intention of ever pulling the trigger. Some have purchased weapons as a means of self-defense. As for myself, I have never owned a gun (that didn't fire either water or balls of paint), and may never do so. The decision to own or not to own is one guaranteed by law (except for when George Washington had a little government-decreed "individual mandate" of his own requiring men of a certain age to purchase a gun and certain supplies).

This is why I cringe just a little when I hear comments akin to the following:
“Nobody needs a 15-round ammunition magazine unless they are a domestic terrorist or a gangster.” - Bryan Miller, Executive Director, Heeding God's Call (a faith-based group committed to reducing gun violence)
I understand where Mr. Miller is coming from, and he may even be correct in the strictest sense (how many things does anyone really need?), but there is a difference between a "need" and a "right". What is a right, if not something one can do without a requirement of proving need? I despise racist hate speech, for example, and would agree that no one needs to spew that kind of garbage, but I also strongly believe in the right of free speech. The first amendment is in "the top ten", collectively known as the Bill of Rights (not the Bill of Needs) - as is the second. Do we really want to start a legal precedent of having the government decide if individual rights are really "necessary"?

Another point on which I find myself in agreement with the right is the rather amorphous methodology of defining the term "assault rifle". The term itself seems engineered toward negativity, as an assault is typically considered a bad thing, outside of war. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 banned some guns by model, but most due to having certain attachments or capabilities, including grips, adjustable stocks, and other largely cosmetic enhancements. In some cases, a banned "assault rifle" was nearly identical to a legal rifle, and gun manufacturers were able to bypass restrictions in many cases with very slight modifications. The 1994 ban was passed with bipartisan support (even President Ronald Reagan lobbied for its passage) but expired in 2004. Since then, a number of weapons have been unofficially given the label, even if they would not have qualified for it by the terms of that now-expired legislation.

According to the official study by the National Institute of Justice, the ban had little impact on overall gun violence, in part because (even before the ban) such weapons constituted such a small minority of those used in violent crime. While certain high-profile cases have caused a national focus on certain models (like the AR-15), even a legal rifle can be used for illegal purposes. In fact, any focus on rifles is somewhat off the mark, as the majority of gun crimes are committed with handguns. As a comparison, more people are murdered by blunt objects each year than by rifles.

Agreement with the Left

Perhaps the Church of England can't have extreme points of view, but apparently there are no such limitations within the GOP. According to Public Policy Polling, half of Republican primary voters believed (even in 2011) that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Additionally, the majority of right-leaning voters (in a 2009 Gallup poll) thought that President Obama would "attempt to ban the sale of guns in the United States". 

I have already stated that I have a good deal of agreement with my more conservative friends on the scope of the second amendment. However, the more extreme assumptions of the far right seem irrational, from my perspective. For example, while we agree that the second amendment does guarantee the right of gun ownership (and legal use), I must add that no freedom is absolute. If you joke about explosives or hijacking an aircraft while going through the airport's security checkpoint, do not be fooled into thinking that you will be able to successfully defend yourself from any charges by claiming "freedom of speech". Use of marijuana (outside of Colorado or Washington) is still illegal, even if a Rastafarian calls it an attack on religious freedom. The tenth amendment (at least after the Civil War) can't be interpreted as to allow for slavery. All rights are still subject to some measure of regulation, and for my part, I do not equate regulation with infringement. I have a right to vote (and I urge everyone to do so, no matter who they support) - but I also must register to vote months before election day, a de facto waiting period. Additionally, in the state of Indiana my registration does undergo a limited background check: according to, the registration database "also exchanges data with the...Department of Correction to...remove incarcerated voters convicted of crimes." By the logic of the NRA, the government is obviously aiming here to remove my ability to vote.

The National Rife Association itself illustrates the recent drift toward the extreme: as recently as 1999 (in the wake of the Columbine tragedy), NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre stated, "we think it's reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone." Mr. LaPierre has recently (and quite emphatically) reversed his opinion on the matter, even though 74 percent of NRA members support universal background checks. The growing distance between the leadership of the NRA and its members was cited by Adolphus Busch VI in his high-profile resignation from the NRA last year, which he blasted as "dominated by manufacturing interests." As a mouthpiece for companies looking to sell more guns, reliance on the NRA as an authority on gun matters makes about as much sense as relying on Hostess as an authority on nutrition.

The earlier argument against the Assault Rifle Ban, that criminals can use another model nearly identical, also works the other way. While the NRA and others on the right have suggested that they desire certain models for defense, other (legal/non-banned) models would work just as well. I have heard several people suggest that this or that rifle, or even guns in general, works much like a magic wand, able to prevent any tragedy. A gun is simply a tool. Buying or having a gun in itself does not make one safe - it is still a contest, assuming the adversary also is armed. The best gun in the world can still be useless against the worst; such violent situations have many factors, almost all of them out of your control. Will you be able to access it in time (robbers, rapists, and murderers typically will not politely announce themselves and/or their intentions), and if so, are you able to fire more quickly and more accurately than your attacker? If self-defense is one's purpose for a gun, then regular training is also essential. Imagine if I suggested that if I only could buy the same running shoes Usain Bolt uses, then I'd simply be able to run down anyone that tried to dash off with my wallet.

I know that (some on) the right are fond of suggesting that, if only the school hadn't been a gun free zone, then lives would have been saved. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples otherwise: Reagan was shot while standing feet from armed guards. Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL and reportedly the most lethal sniper in American military history, was shot and killed on a shooting range. Unfortunately, another situation occurred just yesterday in which a man and a woman in Las Vegas shot two armed police officers, and when an armed citizen attempted to confront the duo, he was also shot and killed. There are times when a "bad guy with a gun" is stopped by a "good guy with a gun", but more often (at least in cases of mass shootings), the bad guy is stopped by his own gun.  Carrying even the best weapon, with years of training, is not a guarantee of safety for the individual or for society.

Still, many have argued that the real reason for the second amendment is to protect us from our own leaders. Rising conservative star Dr. Ben Carson recently wrote that the amendment was designed to be "a deterrent to the development of a tyrannical central government", and he is not alone in this idea. Such a stance is understandable, especially in an age in which the vast majority of Americans (not just the party opposite the President) does not feel adequately represented. I may also go so far as to say that our founding fathers may have had a similar idea in mind while assembling the Bill of Rights, but it simply breaks down under logical scrutiny, at least in today's world.

Firstly, while government guns are seriously outnumbered by those in private hands, even a million AR-15s are no match for one M4 Sherman tank, a single battleship, or a couple of Tomahawk missiles. One might be able to shoot down a single drone, but to use Tony Stark's words, "there is no version of this where you come out on top." If this dreaded scenario ever takes place, a host of handguns and shotguns would be all but useless.

It is interesting to note that the people I know who are most "pro-gun" are also often quite vocal about their support for "our troops", the men and women who serve in the American armed forces. They tend to be quite patriotic, and yet they often rail against the government. More than once, a Republican candidate has put out a lightly veiled threat about an armed revolution. In a recent campaign, Republican candidate for Senate Sharron Angle said "...if this, this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those second amendment remedies" (Sarah Palin and Rick Perry have each made similar comments). I wonder if any of them have thought that idea out. I know it's easy to stir up fear or hate of the incumbent one is running against, and I am sure that public opinion polling showed that such comments were popular especially with the Tea Party (a group that named itself after an act of vandalism and theft as an acceptable means of protest) - but if the big bad government comes for you, it won't be President Obama, or Nancy Pelosi, or any other suited government official knocking on your door. It will be these same, uniformed men and women that the right claims to support. So, Mr. Let-them-just-try-to-take-my-gun, which of these American soldiers are you planning on killing first?