What He Taught

I was having lunch with a Jewish friend of mine the other day, a man whose personal integrity and ethics I highly respect. We argue all the time. He asked a question that threw into sharp relief what my faith often looks like from the outside. As best I can reproduce it, the conversation went like this. “I have never understood why you [Christians] make the cross the center of your faith.” I replied, “And what should we make the center of our faith?” Without hesitation, he answered, “What Jesus taught while he was alive.” He went on to contrast this Christian attitude that he perceived toward the moment of Christ’s death with his observation that in the Jewish tradition it is actions, and only actions, that matter as far as a person’s righteousness is concerned.

I do not know if my friend realized that I had heard this before, from non-Christians, prominently atheists, who will very often say that Jesus was a good man, whose teachings should be followed. This is always followed up by the observation that Christians in particular do a very poor job of following His commandments.

I would like to start my response to this by admitting that I believe one of the greatest failures of the Church, both as an institution and as a fellowship — more, as a matter of my own personal conduct — is our failure to follow Christ as he taught us to live. I am not going to waste time with excuses, but speak plainly: In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Church visibly choked on its own success. Its cultural dominance tempted it quite successfully to condemn unpopular sins and refuse to forgive such sinners, while at the same time ignoring unpopular sins and concealing them, or what was worse: preaching that they were no sin at all. The Church will therefore have to answer for all those who rejected Christ, not because they were offended by His teachings, but because they were offended by the Church’s refusal to obey them, and with Thomas Jefferson, “I shudder when I think that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

However, that historical fact has no bearing on another historical fact, and that is the matter of what Jesus actually did teach. And while Jesus taught us many hard lessons in personal conduct in the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, his teachings also include the following:

“And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must… be killed and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly.” Mark 8:31-32.

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” Mark 9:31.

“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” Luke 12:8-9.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent His Son not into the world to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved.” John 3:16-17

“Verily, verily I say unto you, before Abraham was, I AM,” John 8:58

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6.

The problem that Christians have is that we focus, perhaps, too much on the identity of Christ, and we forget that surrounding His identity, and pointing us toward Him are all Jesus’ commandments to us. We want a relationship with Jesus the man, and with Jesus the God, but we wish to ignore the commands of Jesus the Lord, with the authority to demand we change our behavior.

Non-Christians who criticize Christians for this, on the other hand, have both the opposite and the same problem. They acknowledge the authority of Christ when he preaches commandments to do righteousness, but they ignore that alongside those teachings, and intimately bound up in them are the commands to follow him and trust in His sacrifice. They ignore that the commands to change our behavior all come from and point to Christ’s mission to save humanity by His death and resurrection. And of course, as C. S. Lewis was famous for pointing out, either Christ is who He said He was, and we must all follow all of what he said, or he is a lunatic, on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg, and we need not trouble ourselves about any of what He said. And on a personal level, while I am aware of many other men who claimed identity with God, I know of no other who has gone on to be a great moral teacher. On the contrary, they were eccentric at best, and most often genuine monsters.

Jesus always knew that Christians would do badly in following him, and complained about it to His disciples: “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not follow my teachings?” The question to non-Christians would perhaps be better phrased, “Why do you insist my disciples follow my teachings when you deny the ones you don’t like?”
If there is anything that the two groups have in common, it is that the Gospel of Half of Christ is very attractive to them: Christians want to get to the center without troubling themselves about the commands that surround it. Non-Christians want to stay at the edge and ignore the teachings at the center. Both are wrong.

If the New Testament documents are worthy of any respect, then the same man who said “whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do also to me” also said “I am the resurrection and the life.” The problem with both Christians and non-Christian admirers of Jesus is that both of them want only a part of what Jesus taught, but Jesus himself demands a wholehearted following. And since none of us is capable of such a wholehearted following, the true Gospel of Christ is this: that the Father stands ready to welcome the Prodigal Son because He loves him. That the Son poured out His life for His weaker brothers and sisters that they, too, may stand in the Father’s embrace. But to turn away from the Son is to turn away from the Father, and walk away from the embrace. And this a Christian cannot do. We must indeed, as my friend said, follow what Jesus taught. But following it leads us, step by step, to the Cross.

 

 

Adult Themes. Not Safe For Anyone.

I am indebted to Steven Barnes, author of Dream Park, Lion’s Blood, and countless other wonderful novels for the genesis of this post. On social media, he discusses the concept of adulthood in detail.

I have come to believe that in our society, we are gravely confused about adulthood, and what adulthood means. Sometimes, I wonder what our civilization has come to when the most frequent context for the word “adult” is as an adjective describing entertainment with explicitly sexual themes.

It’s no wonder our society is obsessed with sex, and who is having it with whom, and who has the right to have it under what circumstances. Clearly, we have made the ability to copulate into a significant proof that we are worthy of an honor, and that honor is the privilege of being considered by our fellow adults to be reliable and responsible self-supporting beings. This is amazingly sad when you consider that this activity can be carried out by beings that literally have no brains. Yet for all this, there is a more sinister connotation to the use of the word “adult” in the context of entertainment.

We’ve turned “adult” into a word that means that you are free and unrestricted. That no one can stop you from consuming whatever you want. And the most disturbing thing about this definition of “adulthood” is not that it’s new or strange, but that it is old and depressingly familiar. It’s the definition that we all learned as children, when we resented our parents’ constant direction. They were the ones who stayed up late, watched anything they wanted, chose the food we all ate, liked it all, set boundaries and cut off fun. Our definition of “adult” is the child’s definition, and that says far too much about the culture we have settled for.

So what’s the right definition? Steven Barnes has defined adulthood as (to the best of my memory) the ability to provide physically for yourself and another human being. There’s a lot to like about that definition. It’s practical, relatively easy to measure, and about as unbiased as anything I can think of. But although that is an excellent beginning, I think adulthood is something more than this, too. I think it has to be more. I’ve seen too many so-called adults who were certainly competent providers tear up their spouses, their kids, their co-workers, and their subordinates without ever losing their ability to make a living and support another person. And on a certain level, that’s just, because despite those faults, those people made themselves valuable to others in ways that couldn’t be ignored. But I saw my grandmother and grandfather, who passed the above test (in many ways, with flying colors) turn their marriage into a little annex of hell because of their childishness. And that childishness was a real and dangerous thing because it endangered their son’s ability to repeat their success. It certainly robbed him of many opportunities to learn from their strengths. Further, their childishness endangered their grandchildren’s ability to grow into real adults because of the pain they inflicted.

But now let me tell you about my father. He didn’t come out of that situation unscathed, but I’ll tell you this: he sure as hell took the opportunity to learn from his parents’ weaknesses. The older I get, the more I appreciate that my father took a bad situation, a situation that many people would have used as an excuse to be weak, looked at it, and said, “I will not follow this.” I don’t think I ever heard him put the whole lesson into words. He said things like: “You do what you have to.” He said things like, “We’re family, and this is what we do for each other.” But if I had to put it into words, I would say, that adulthood is the ability to accept pain in your life without sacrificing others to avoid it.

Life is pain. Life is joy, too, but that joy comes with a lot of pain. I can’t count the number of people I know who unhesitatingly, and sometimes with vindictive glee, will throw friends and family members in the path of pain so that they can avoid it. Or so that they can have pleasure. That’s why people have affairs. It’s why people neglect and abuse the children they are supposed to be turning into adults. And while many, possibly most of us, avoid the huge wounds that tear a relationship apart in one blow, most of us habitually indulge in the repeated violations of trust that stretch these bonds to the breaking point over years. Because we want what we want. We want it now. We’re too tired to do one more thing for those we say we love.

Of course, we all have our limits, and there’s such a thing as needing to love and nurture yourself, too. Adulthood is the ability to distinguish between the desires of your heart and the desires of your stomach. Adulthood is the ability to say no to what you want in favor of what you absolutely have to have. And if you can’t tell the difference, then you will never be more than half yourself, the other half eaten up by petty desires.

But I am dismayed when I see how many people seem completely unable to say “no” to themselves, and are trapped in the desire of the moment as if it is their life’s goal. I am grateful beyond measure that my father taught me how to say that word. And I am well aware that I don’t say it enough; I’m not as good at it as he was. And no, he wasn’t perfect either. But he’s better at it than I ever have been. Maybe I haven’t been close enough to the consequences of a marriage that completely breaks down to appreciate it. If that’s so, then there aren’t words to express my gratitude.

Today, I look out at my nation, and I see clamoring hordes of children, crying out that they are adults, but at the same time, clamoring just as loudly for an authority to give them what they want, rather than resolve to make it for themselves or do without. And when they are challenged on this, they cry even louder that they have rights (usually by virtue of existing) but no power to do what they want. These are not the cries of adults. These are the cries of frustrated children. And the thing about frustrated children is, that they usually do get what they need, but they find that it is not what they want. The adults hear their cries and treat them as children.

If we will not be adults, then the adults will come for us, and they will put us in the place we have asked for.

Space Trek: Into Derpness (A Fisking)

I actually had something profound to say this week, but what with a number of things, I was not able to get my thoughts into any coherent order by my self-imposed and oft-violated deadline of Blog Wednesday. Then, suddenly, a golden opportunity for a fisking was bestowed upon me. I’ve never done one of these before, so I thought I’d start with an easy one: A Guardian post that is either clever parody or mind-bogglingly stupid. I’ll let you take your pick. Rules for the fisking: The fisked article is in italics, and my responses are in bold.

What if the mega-rich just want rocket ships to escape the Earth they destroy?

Jess Zimmerman 

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the latest tech billionaire to invest his money in spaceships: on Tuesday, he debuted his space travel company Blue Origin’s newest rocket. Now, those who want to cruise the galaxy can choose between the sleek new rocket and the stubbier model Bezos announced in April – or they can opt to ride with Tesla founder Elon Musk on a SpaceX ship, or hop on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Well, yes, if by “cruise the galaxy” you mean “achieve Low Earth Orbit,” and in the case of Virgin Galactic, fail to do even that. This is not a promising beginning for any article that wishes to be taken seriously about the possibility of people destroying planets, if you can’t tell the difference between orbital craft, sub-orbital craft, and galactic cruisers.

At this rate, would-be space travelers will be able to choose their favorite tech company, find its richest guy and buy a ticket on his craft of choice. Why does everyone who achieves economic dominance over the planet immediately turn around and try to get off it?

Everyone? Three companies is “everyone?” This whole quantitative reasoning thing is a challenge for you, isn’t it? A better question would be, “What’s got you so obsessed with people who are reinvesting money into companies that are advancing our engineering knowledge and employing clever people?” Somehow, I’m guessing (re: The Ominous Title) we’re going to find out that this isn’t okay with you for various reasons.

The “boys and their toys” explanation is the obvious one – once you’ve bought all the cars and boats and planes you want, why not buy a rocket? (We don’t have a “girls and their toys” ethos yet because the cards are stacked against women getting to this level of obscene wealth, but I suspect a lot of us would want to buy rocketships, too.)

What? GIRLS wanting to buy rockets? I’m shocked. I thought that womyn were far too responsible and caring to want to go to space with “boys and their toys” since that’s how you dismiss the whole enterprise (no pun intended). But, I’ll give credit for some honesty. I really like women who think rockets are awesome.

Space is inherently cool, and even if it weren’t, space is inherently other – which matters a lot to the man who has everything terrestrial. By the same token, someone who already has a watch that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars can buy a watch that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars but comes from space.

Okay, I have to agree with you on that one: those watches are damned stupid. On the other hand you just compared someone who is spending millions of dollars to develop the capability to launch spacecraft with someone spending several hundred thousand to own a toy. Is it possible that these men are more interested in capability than they are with ownership? Or is it possible that you really don’t understand the difference between the two? (HINT: That says a lot more about you than it does them).

Of course, uber-wealthy tech entrepreneurs aren’t just buying rockets for their personal amusement. They’re founding or investing in space travel – they want to get you off-planet, too. Well, not you-you, but someone like you with much, much, much more money.

Well, um yes. The development of new vehicles has always, ALWAYS been for the rich to do. What’s that? You don’t believe me? Okay, you are free to prove me wrong. Go out into the wilderness — any wilderness you choose — and make me a vehicle used by poor people today. Like a passenger train. No? A city bus, then. Still no? Well how about a bicycle? Can’t be hard, peasants in developing nations use them. No? Okay, how about a dugout canoe? People in STONE AGE tribes use them.
(pause)
Well, of course you’ll need an axe. Get to making one.
(pause)
You would need metal for that. Or stone, it’s all over the place.
(pause)
I know you don’t know how. That’s the point.
No vehicle to carry humans has ever been developed cheaply, unless it was already being done by an advanced society and the vehicle was a variant on an existing design. You have to pay for the R&D, the failures, and the sucky prototypes, and all that costs money, so it gets done by the relatively rich, i.e. the people well-fed enough and with enough disposable time and energy to make tools, break tools, make more tools, and go on living.

And that’s where the vogue for billionaire space travel magnates gets a little weird –and maybe even sinister. It’s already very true that money expands your world; the person with the funds to have a car is less restricted in her movements than the person without one, and the person with a huge plane and the money to fly it is less restricted still.

Yes. Money is good. It expands your range of choices. Not sure why that’s sinister, unless you believe that richness is de facto suspect, which of course, you do.

The expansion of rich people’s travel horizons comes at a price for everyone, both rich and poor. With the exception of America’s weirdly-expensive Amtrak system, cost and luxury scale with fossil fuel consumption; travel that costs more and feels more indulgent is also travel that has a cataclysmic effect on the environment. The faster and further you can afford to travel, the greater your environmental footprint. And often, the people less able to travel are the ones left holding the toxic-chemical and pollution-filled bag.

Yes. The expansion of rich people’s travel horizons comes at a price for everyone, both rich and poor. AND IT BENEFITS EVERYONE, BOTH RICH AND POOR! I’m sorry, but there’s no way to get around this. Governments concerned with helping the poor didn’t invent trains. They didn’t invent buses. They didn’t invent cars. They did make those trains and buses run badly and they did make the cars unaffordable, but all of those things were invented and owned by rich, rich people, who wanted to make more money and found that transporting the poor (and their goods) did that quite efficiently. The poor generally liked this, and got cheaper and cheaper transportation.
And excuse me, but “cost and luxury scale with fossil fuel consumption?” I know you’re talking about leaving the planet, but have you ALREADY LEFT? How much fossil fuel do luxury yachts burn? Or are you talking about cheap, non-fossil fuel nuclear submarines? Or aircraft carriers? Oh, you don’t think those are fair comparisons? How about this: I didn’t buy a hybrid last time I went car shopping, because I calculated that gas would have to stay a steady $5.00/gallon for it to be worth the extra up-front costs.
The only reason that argument holds together long enough to be even vaguely deceptive is because people like you have made sure it stays that way by denying us the possibility of building cheap nuclear plants because too many people saw Godzilla and THEM! in the theaters in the fifties and got scared of THE RADIATIONS!
Still, it’s good there are socially conscious people like you who walk and bike everywhere you go.
I mean, I assume you don’t own a car, because that would make you, comparatively, a rich person leaving toxic-chemical and pollution-filled bags in the hands of the approximately 88% of the poor you seem so concerned with. And that link is to a leftist source, so I’m sure it’s reliable enough for you.
And I’m sure you’re not that kind of hypocrite.

Companies like Blue Origin are using money and resources to push outwards, to expand the worlds of their rich customers all the way into space.

Their money and their resources, yes, but all property is theft except mine, right?

But those same customers – and some of the owners – are making their terrestrial money in the classic capitalist terrestrial way: by working around any obstacle to profit, including environmental regulations and conservation efforts. Almost all industry is environmentally disastrous, after all; truly prioritizing earth-friendliness would destroy most companies.

Oh, I see! It’s INDUSTRY that’s the problem, because it’s all “environmentally disastrous.” Hey, you know what’s MORE environmentally disastrous? Trying to feed seven billion people without industry. We’d have to feed the world on organics then, baby, because no evil industrialists would be there to make the Bad Chemicals that kill insects and weeds. But of course, I’m missing your point. Your point is we shouldn’t have seven billion people at all! We should go back to when the human race WASN’T overpopulating the planet! Of course, we didn’t have birth control then, because there wasn’t any industry to create cheap, reliable condoms or hormonal birth control.
Oh, wait: we DID have reliable population controls.
They were called “infant mortality” and “death in childbirth.”

Some people with a great deal of money care more about the fate of the world than others, but they’re all willing to cut corners if it affects the bottom line. You can tell because they have a great deal of money; you can also tell because they’re willing to spend it on a ride in a spaceship.

Yeah, those colossally selfish jerks. It’s almost as bad as those selfish bastards driving their cars. Or spending their precious working hours using computers instead of growing food for the poor.

Which raises the question: are they just gearing up to wash their hands of the planet and leave the rest of us to clean up? By pushing outward while ignoring the problems it causes back on the home turf, are they effectively creating a galactic upper class that rests on the backs of the earthbound? Even if that’s not literally the plan, it may be the ultimate outcome.

Wow. You really just shoved the whole premise of your article into the last paragraph as an airy supposition, didn’t you? Did you get that idea off watching Elysium? Where would these rich people go? Do you expect them to build giant space habitats and leave us all here to rot (despite the fact that life in space is bad for you and uncomfortable on a number of levels that we haven’t begun to solve). Or do you expect them to go to Mars? (HINT: It’s NOT HABITABLE. “The Martian” is NOT A DOCUMENTARY.)
What kind of person leaps ahead to those kinds of implausible, and hence unproven (hell, except for her, unalleged!) generalities? This is like watching a spoiled rich girl addicted to soap operas who runs to her mother when she finds an ENVELOPE in DAD’S POCKET with a WOMAN’S HANDWRITING… which turns out to be a birthday card from his mother.

Oh, wait, I know what kind of person does that.
It’s the kind of person who confuses three with everyone and uses “galactic” to describe things in near-Earth orbit.

From Somewhere In Orbit The Galaxy

The Sacred Feelz: A Double-Edged Sword

Well, that was a long time since last I wrote, wasn’t it? I’m afraid that was the result of the school year starting again with more-than-the-usual bumps in the road. Here’s hoping this blog never has to take such a long hiatus again. That said, let’s get to it.

Mr. Spock, the beloved Vulcan whose human vessel died this past year, regarded emotions as the great failing of humankind. We, of course, think differently. Our feelings are what make us human. Throughout all of speculative fiction, we have told stories of the one who does not feel. They are the robots, the undead, the soulless. A character who does not feel is a sign of serious danger, for he or she is not entirely human. Mr. Spock and Mr. Data may be the only examples of unfeeling characters to earn our sympathy, and they do so by how they make us feel. Feelings are important.

On the other hand, anyone with the least experience in dealing with feelings knows the truth of Mr. Spock’s observation. We are often the victims of our own feelings. Feelings can be false. Most of the universe around us, though it can influence our feelings profoundly, has no more regard for how we feel than I do for the ants in my garden. In many areas of life, our feelings simply do not matter.

This double-truth has the potential to lead us to a very dangerous and destructive double-standard, which I see playing out every day, and it has its roots in simple selfishness. It begins with a truth: we say, “My friends and I are people, entitled to human dignity, and our feelings are sacred.”

Then in the next breath we turn and say, “The feelings of our enemies are nothing but outraged posturing to cover up their shame at being found out as hypocrites and liars. Their feelings are beneath contempt and do not matter.”

I would hope that it is obvious that such a course can never make us the sort of people we should desire to be. Besides the hypocrisy, it is wrong on at least two levels. Firstly, of course, it neatly removes the responsibility for anyone’s feelings out of our hands. Under this system, when we feel badly, it is because of the actions of our enemies. When our enemies feel badly, on the other hand, it is because of their own actions. Our culpability vanishes, and we imagine ourselves free.

This is a profound mistake, one many people make: it confuses power with privilege. Power is the ability to control the reactions of yourself and others. Privilege is the ability to demand that people react appropriately to you. The confusion arises because the two often go hand in hand: If you do not respect my privileges, I have the power to see that you regret it. But they are not the same. Power protects. Privilege is what is protected. Privilege is inherently fragile; power is inherently strong.

Secondly, therefore, the approach of valuing our own feelings while devaluing others is exactly the opposite of being a rational and loving person. We have only the ability to interrogate our own feelings, and determine whether they are honest or dishonest. We have almost no power to interrogate the feelings of others (except insofar as they may express feelings contrary to provable fact, i.e. I just feel that 2+2 = 5) and none at all to determine their power to resist them. Therefore, if we are the rational and loving people we wish to be, we ought to question our own feelings mercilessly in order to change and order them. At the same time, we ought to do what we can to respect the feelings of others. Only in this way can they ever grow to respect ours. This is hard work, and work at which I am not especially skilled. It is nevertheless, true.

From Somewhere In Orbit

A Christian Case For The Legality Of Gay Marriage

So much has been said on the subject of the recent Supreme Court ruling that it is nearly asinine even to mention that much has been said. And yet, in all that has been said about love, and all that has been said about justice, and all that has been said about fairness and all that has been said about hatred and bigotry and hypocrisy and force, I have yet to hear anyone address an issue that, in my opinion, the Church must acknowledge. That issue is whether or not we, the Church of Christ, are obligated to be honest to the world about what we want out of our government.

Despite some of the histrionics that I have seen from scaremongers on the extreme left, most of the Christians that I know and fellowship with do not want a theocracy in America. I have lived in enough places in this nation and spoken with enough Christians that I can say with assurance that most Christians do not want this. They do want their faith, and the right to practice it protected, and like all people, they get scared (despite the Lord’s command that they should not) and overreact. But the vast majority of them don’t really want a Church State.

I am going to speak, then, to those in the Church who agree with this principle. If we really do agree that Church and State should be separate, and that the State should have nothing to do with the Church, it is difficult for me to understand why the Church should consider it relevant what definition the State places on “marriage.” “Marriage” to the State denotes a legal arrangement that allows for special privileges between the married parties, most of which have to do with parental and property rights. What do we have to do with what the State says, unless it directly challenges our rights to be the Church of Christ?

I submit that it is dishonest of the Church of Christ to both want and not want the State to do our bidding. If we wish to seize the power of the State to make laws (which I think would be a grave mistake) then we should at least be honest enough to proclaim that this is what we want, and work openly for the establishment of a theocracy, which would make laws along Christian principles. I trust that such laws would include making divorce and the remarriage of the divorced illegal as well. But I have not seen the part of the Church that campaigns against the legalization of gay marriage waging a campaign against laws that recognize these other practices of marriage. All of them are practices which the State permits and Christ condemns.

The Muslim faith does, under certain conditions, permit and encourage its adherents to lie to unbelievers in a practice known as taqiyyah. Some Muslims have interpreted this to justify any lie to a non-Muslim. Others stress that taqiyyah only allows Muslims to lie about their Muslim identity to escape torture and death at the hands of persecutors. This is a difference between the Muslim faith and the Christian faith. As Christians, we are charged in the strongest terms to openly avow our faith in Christ when asked. We cannot be honest with God if we are dishonest with the world.

Thus, when we as Americans take offices that require us to execute the laws of the State, and consider ourselves as citizens whose rights are protected by the State (not, please note, granted by the State), we are obligated to make and interpret the laws of the State in a spirit of honesty. And I cannot see how, honestly, we can deny the State the right to define legal marriage as long as we assent to the State’s right to grant changes in married couples’ right to hold property and raise children. If we deny it this right, then we are essentially lying. We are trying to make the State into the Church. I see nothing Biblical in this. It would be just the same as if I, in my capacity as an employee of a private business, took money from my employer and then used my time and effort to preach the Word of God. That would not glorify God. That would be fraud, and sin.

If we assent that a secular State is good, and that we, as the Church of Christ can partake of it, then we must assent to the State the right to make its laws, and its right to, within those laws, enforce them. Otherwise, we are committing fraud, and this we cannot expect the Lord to honor. Note that this applies to Christians regardless of whether you believe that the Bible teaches that homosexual acts are sinful.

If the Church is not honest about its contracts and its obligations as a citizenry, it is not really being the Church. It is being a den of liars and fraudsters. This cannot be a good witness. This cannot glorify God.

RANT: How To Tell A Feature From A Bug

I am sure all my readers are familiar with the phrase: “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”

As noted in the title, this is going to be a rant, and mostly, it’s a rant directed at those who cannot tell human features, which will be with us as long as we are recognizably this species, and bugs, which can be fixed and eliminated by human effort. For those of you who have figured the difference, you can tune out now. For those of you who haven’t I’m about to stomp all over your sacred cows, and if that hurts, you can take this as my invitation to enter the big scary portal marked ALL HOPE ABANDON.

Here’s your first clue: if you are upset about a problem that confronts humanity (or a large part of it), and you feel the problem you are trying to solve is so huge that it can only be solved by everyone pulling together and putting their attention on THAT problem, then it is a feature of the human condition, not a bug.

If you think there is only one way to solve the problem, and anyone doing it any other way is, of necessity, making the problem worse by doing it their way and not yours, then it is a feature, and not a bug.

So let me just tell you this: I have damned well had it up to the limits of my tolerance, patience, and silence with people who spout a continuous line of bullshit about how the only reason they haven’t saved the human race yet is because all the rest of us are “complicit” in its evils. Which stripped down to plain English means that we aren’t as smart as or as good as they are, because they know everything and the only possible reason for disagreeing with them is that we don’t care. It means that they get to decide how to use our energy and time for the best good of all humanity, and if we don’t shut up and follow, then we are the bad guys.

I am damned tired of people like this, who will tell you that Dave Ramsey is really a horrible person because he tells people they can lift themselves out of debt and doesn’t acknowledge the “structural injustices” of the system. Or people like this who hate a beauty-pageant contestant because she dared suggest self-defense could be a good thing. Or people like this who can’t stand that a successful person will give ordinary folks tips on how to adjust themselves rather than “the system” for a more successful life.

I shouldn’t even have to say this, but here goes: if you want to change the system, go ahead. Give it your best shot. Change it. But changing systems takes years of effort, and it takes a kind of patience that is ready to accept years or decades of failure and work before the system ever gets changed. If you don’t have that (and most of us don’t) and you still want to get better, then your only option — the only option that will make life better for you, no matter what any “system” looks like — is to change yourself. And that’s what most people have to hope in. That’s the change most people can make on a scale that will give them strength.

So work to change the system. It’s great. The NAACP did. Teach men not to rape. It’s part of a good and effective approach to ending sexual violence. Work for good economic laws. I’ll help. But don’t piss and moan because good people are showing women how to beat the shit out of an attacker. Don’t whine that the poverty of the world isn’t fixed because everyone won’t get on your Marxist dream-train.

Any system that depends on changing everybody everywhere by the efforts of everybody everywhere ignores the simple and basic fact that everybody everywhere never agreed on what to order for lunch. Any system that promises victory “if we all just pull together” is the moral and practical equivalent of promising that we will defeat the enemy after the enemy all drops dead. It’s opening the locked chest with the key you find inside of it. If we had that power, we would already be gods.

But we’re not. We’re just humans. And one of the strengths of humanity is that we try lots of things to solve our problems. That is one of the ways we move forward. So if you are teaching that everyone not on board with your method to solve a problem is part of the problem because they see value in a different solution? I’ve got news for you: THEY are not part of the problem. Because the problem is YOU! You are the one trying to remove an essential strength from humanity and call it good.

And we don’t need your kind in our midst. We need you to grow up and love humanity the way it is, and the way it always will be.

Come back when you’re ready.

Things Fall Apart. The Center Cannot Hold These Rights

I have been reluctant to respond in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to declare marriage rights constitutional rights. I do not feel the need to retread ground that others, more intimately connected to these issues and the conflict surrounding these issues, have covered more adequately and better than I can. However there was one post that has stuck with me. Rachel Held Evans a popular Christian and political blogger, said on her Facebook page (6/27):

“Civil rights aren’t up to a vote. They aren’t up to public opinion. Civil rights are part of what it means to be an American citizen. Theological arguments around marriage set aside for another day, I simply cannot find a single compelling argument in support of denying civil rights to LGBT people that does not rely on an unhealthy marriage (sorry!) between church and state.”

I suppose Ms. Evans may have meant that civil rights are not up for an ordinary vote. If so, then what she said was a bit sloppy, but essentially correct. However, I suspect that what she meant was that Civil Rights are not up for a vote at all. Certainly it’s what was meant when Gay Rights activists in the seventies marched behind a banner reading “Human Rights Are Absolute,” quoting Jimmy Carter. His quote thus takes its place at the end of a long line of ideas that sound like wonderful affirmations of the human spirit until they are subject to five minutes’ thought.

Historically, of course, the idea that Civil Rights are not up for a vote is utter and complete nonsense. The very meaning of Civil Rights is “the rights you have as a citizen.” Do people really not understand the way this works? The Civil Rights we enjoy in the United States were created by a process of voting, from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitutional Convention, up through the Civil Rights Acts of 1964-68. All of those were done by voting. Some were prefigured in the English Bill of Rights of 1688, also passed by vote of Parliament.

To be sure, the Constitution itself declares that it is not the source, but rather the instrument, of the rights. The simple enumeration of these rights, declares the Ninth Amendment does not disparage the others retained by the states or the people. It points to a principle that the rights exist, but are merely codified by the Constitution, or the laws.

However, one of the very rights the Constitution protects, and explicitly enshrines, is the right to alter the Constitution itself, and that includes the Bill of Rights. Which of course, implicitly makes the claim that some rights are more absolute than others. The most important, in this case, would be the right to edit the codification of rights.

So when we say that human rights are absolute, do we mean they are morally absolute, and belong to us no matter what the State might say? Or do we mean that they are legally absolute: that we have a right to laws codifying and supporting our exercise of our human rights?

Historically, of course, we have meant the latter. This very process that we have seen last week meant the latter, except that the courts, rather than the vote direct, were the lever of choice. And when those Civil Rights have not been left up to (or enforceable by) the vote, both our American and British ancestors have fallen back on the other guarantor of Civil Rights: the sword. Which of course, is an even more dangerous precedent to build your human rights upon than the vote, although it is ultimately the same, because never, in the whole history of humanity, has there been an expression of popular will (or legal ruling) that did not ultimately depend on the possession and willingness to use force.

However, if the legal battle is merely over the power to express human rights that permanently exist and are, as Jimmy Carter said, absolute, then where do those absolutes come from? It certainly does not come from “science” or “nature.” A thorough study of science and nature will not lead to the least idea that “human rights” — certainly not rights to “life, liberty and happiness” — exist in nature or because of laws that can be derived.

See, I know Jimmy Carter and his religious background, and I keep coming back to one inescapable source for that absolute. The same one that the Declaration of Independence referenced, right after its 18th-Century Enlightenment appeal to “Nature:”

“Nature’s God.”

The Enlightenment thinkers, the Founding Fathers among them, may have had a lot of problems with their philosophies of life. Unthinking racism, sexism, an acceptance of chattel slavery as the cost of doing business, and a blind trust in a “Nature” they barely understood (hence “natural” rights), but one error they didn’t fall into was believing that an absolute was not required.

The idea that human rights — much less Civil Rights — are not up for a vote presupposes that they are grounded in an absolute truth. This must be clearly understood, because if it is not, then the whole idea that they are in any way special is founded on a lie. Moreover it is founded on the worst kind of lie: the lie that knows it is a lie, and does not care that it is a lie. It is the treacherous lie of the mob to itself that says, “We have created our own absolute, which we know is not an absolute, but we will call it one anyway because it makes us feel better.” Like the treacherous spouse that swears “Until death do us part,” all the while knowing they can call the divorce lawyer if ever they are dissatisfied, rights founded on this lie have no permanence and deserve no respect. At best they are a sort of mass-mysticism of human passion, liable to turn on their present beneficiaries in the next crisis. If we do not see this, we are blind. We can hold to no rights.

If we wish to reclaim our sanity, and to claim our rights are based on an absolute authority, we must identify that authority and its claims. And then we must submit to it. And if there is one thing I see in our nation that frightens and disheartens me, one thing that all sides in our present political morass share, it is the utter unwillingness to submit. Submission is only for our foes to do to us. Which will lead us inevitably back to the Absolute of the Sword.

It is, of course, those who are winning legal support to express their rights that should be most aware of the danger here. They are the ones who were most recently that target of laws that favored others’ expressions of rights above their own. They will feel most keenly the fear that tempts them to use their new power to suppress their old foes. To take revenge. To silence and destroy them. And this is a very real and complex conflict: just how far do we dare press some rights at the expense of others? We have seen above that we cannot treat them as equally absolute. In our present law, the right to change our legal rights reigns supreme. This is perhaps wise, as it allows that we may have erred in the past. But we could make laws immutable, favoring other rights. Legally, anyway.

What right will be favored? The right to express our feelings? Or the right to the feelings themselves, enforced by the binding of expression? Choose carefully. And admit to your absolute. The hypocrisy you avert must be your own.

From Somewhere In Orbit

In Slavery to Freedom

I was brought up in the American nation, and I was brought up in the Christian faith. And I quickly learned the two lessons you are supposed to learn growing up in those two traditions. They are not hard lessons to grasp; my five year-old son can do it:

1) A follower of Christ loves God’s people (that means “people,” by the way. Not “people I approve of,” or “my co-religionists.”)

2) Americans, and all people, are of right and should be free.

Now that is very, very simple, and I find it incredible, really, that American Christians seem to have lost our way on what really should be the very beginning of Christ’s teaching here. This week I see examples of that failure all around us. Who could possibly miss them? The Church, no less than the nation, has erupted into rage and outrage, cries and outcries. We see outward condemnation and smug self-righteousness everywhere. So maybe we have to go back to two very simple points, one about love and one about freedom:

Point 1: If you will not love a person that you can love, then you are doing evil.

I will not backtrack on this statement, though I know a lot of people will want to call me on it. They are going to say that I have no right to tell them to love. They will say that they cannot love anymore. They are going to say that they will love once they have justice.
Well, the first one is right on; I do not have the right to tell anyone to love. I can only point to Christ, who does have that right because he earned it in the only way that kind of right can be earned: by showing just how far his love would go, and He took it very far indeed. As for those who truly cannot love anymore, I will not judge them, but I will say that if you truly cannot love, then you are as close to powerless as a human being can be. The power of a human soul is nothing other than the power to love, and if that has been taken from you, then I can only counsel that you try to do no harm and pray for God to change you. But the idea that you are going to love only when you have justice, or worse, freedom, is truly a perversion. For one thing, it creates the terrible delusion that justice could ever be anything other than love. And this, of course, is what the protests in Ferguson, in New York, and in Cleveland have got to be about, or they are nothing but bloodlust.
Justice is about restitution, both to the person injured, and to the one who has done the injury. We may do harm to the offender, but it is in the name of (at best) turning him or her from an offender back into a free citizen. At worst it is about stopping him or her from injuring others, because we cannot do what is best.
Now if these protests are about anything meaningful, they are about the perception that White America does not love Black Americans. That we are more interested in doing what is worst: controlling, suppressing, and eliminating them than we are in taking the risk involved in doing what is best, and relating to them like we would to other human beings with different skin colors and voices and cultures. And love entails taking risks just as surely as justice entails love. Law enforcement should understand this more than anyone, and while I don’t want to dump on the police here, who face a lot of risk daily over the dumbest things imaginable, the fact of the matter is that the very reason we respect the police is because they are willing to take risks. They signed up for the awful privilege of taking those risks, not because they are good at avoiding them. And that does mean putting themselves in harm’s way to avoid killing.
But likewise, when we demand justice from the police and from the state, we must remember that the police and the state are in the end human constructs of human beings. Society itself is nothing more than individual human beings.
Now, if our goal is to engage that society with the hope of changing it for the better, then it must be in love. Either that, or we might as well go all the way and admit that we do not want to better our society or our neighbors, that we are two societies at war, and start fighting in earnest, so that the horror of it might be spilled out, and show the survivors how not to do it.
But if our goal is to be free and claim power for ourselves, then it is even more vital that we love. When we fight, do we not fight for the right to be safe enough to love our families and our friends? And when the “enemy” whoever it is, has been defeated, how then do we treat our families? Which of my readers has never been involved in the terrible wars that families wage, or the bitterness of broken friendship?
This is the terrible and painful truth: If we will not claim the power to love our enemies, we will never be able to love anyone as we must. We cannot pretend that the injustice done to us gives us some “right” to withhold love, or justice, from our oppressors, as if that were a strength. It is a false strength. Which brings me to my second point:

Point 2: If you cannot love until you have a thing, you are a slave to that thing.

When you deny that you can love, because you have not received enough justice, or enough safety, or enough equal treatment, or enough respect, you are effectively ruled by that thing that others have the ability to deny you. And yes, you can really be ruled by that thing. It would be stupid for a man held at gunpoint to pretend there is no gun. I am not one to recommend non-violence in all situations. Hold a weapon on me, or God help you, one of my children, and you will see what violence I can do.
And I do have sympathy (for reasons I will not go into here) for those who find it difficult to get out of that type of thinking. Who really have been traumatized to the point where they have difficulty believing they can ever really be out of danger. It takes for them great courage to love. It is not their fault that they have been wounded. But this is not really about fault. This is about healing, and all healing requires the act of courage, at the last, to say to oneself, “I will go out into the world that has hurt me, even though the danger is not past, and live again.” Anyone who cannot do this is not really healed, but wounded. Anyone who is wounded is not really strong yet.
We have accepted a lie in this nation, which is that strength is the ability to take what we want by force, and ignore our enemies. This is a powerful illusion, but it ends up with us treating everyone like an enemy, and being the slaves of our wants: safety, respect, and possessions, and even freedom itself. Only when we learn to love like followers of Christ will we be truly free.

We Hold These Rights IV: What Is Our Property In Rights?

Preface: In one week, I’ll be going to a conference on the Bill of Rights, sponsored by The Bill of Rights Institute, on Civil Liberty and the Constitution. As part of this conference, I have been asked to read a number of historical documents, written by the framers, their mentors, and those who lived, legislated, and worked within that Constitutional frame. This resonates deeply with me, as I have been struggling for some time now with concepts such as “rights,” “freedom,” and “justice.”  What follow are my thoughts.

In my last post, I discussed Madison’s view that people have rights to property, following the Lockean idea that property exists when a person claims a part of the common through his or her own labor. But Madison also refers to the “property” that we have in our rights. The implication of these intersecting ideas is that we, essentially, “own” our rights in the same way that we own our property. These would be Locke’s rights of life, liberty, and property, though not the franchise, necessarily. That was something that could be reserved for persons who owned other property, in Madison’s day. Now recall what Madison said of property; it is: “every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.” Further, “a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them… He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.”

So far, so basic: I have the right to express myself to the extent that I do not make it impossible for you to express yourself. I have the right to practice my religion to the extent that I do not make it impossible for you to practice yours. And I have the right to a free use of my powers so long as I don’t stop you from using yours. But the implications for treating these rights as property are frankly staggering. Locke began his argument for the government as the judge of rights by framing the yielding of a man’s rights to the government as a kind of trade: In exchange for equal protection under the laws, I renounce my right to be the executor of the laws. In other words, rights, whatever their source, can be traded and bartered for other rights by contract, because they are property.

This is a thought that is thoroughly frightening, and I’m sure many of my readers will see it at once, but let’s spread it out verbally: People are commonly thought to have a right to set the price for their own property. Commonly, the price for property is other property. But if our rights are property and our property are rights, then we could also say that the price for our rights is other rights. If we think about it, we make this bargain daily, or at least, those of us who are employed for wages and salaries do: We trade our rights for the “free use of our faculties” for the money of our employer.

Lest anyone say that this analysis merely shows the moral bankruptcy of the very concept of “property” I must point out that substituting “rights” doesn’t take us very far. After all, if you refuse to speak of property, how will you determine who has the right to consume? Any body with the power to distribute the right to consume to one who cannot produce has by definition the power to deny the right to consume to one who can. And that is the very definition of slavery. Slavery does not, however, consist in the trading of rights for other rights: that, it is obvious, as we have seen.

Where we do get very close to slavery, however, is when our power to make trades becomes limited, as we observed in our last post, by those private or public powers who can use disparities of power to force a trade which can be of benefit only to their own side. When labor is so plentiful, and money so scarce, that 100% or more of a person’s capacity for labor must be exchanged to obtain the bare minimum of property s/he must consume to stay alive, we have effective slavery.

We have it in other areas, as well. We have in the Constitution rights to freedom of speech and of the press. But we have never interpreted that to mean that we have the right to use instruments of speech and press that are the property of others. If, however, the means of communication are such that 100% or more of a person’s capacity for labor must be exchanged to access (or create) these instruments, we have effective censorship.

Moreover, if we have the right to “the free use of (our) faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them,” that implies the right NOT to be communicated to, if communication is undesired by us. If the communication of others is inescapable, or nearly so, our right is violated. I find it curiously ironic, upon George Orwell’s recent birthday, that so much attention was paid to Orwell’s message on the right to self-expression, when the truly oppressive quality of Orwell’s dystopia was not so much that his hero could not speak, but that he could not escape the incessant, unfettered speech of the Oceanian State.

The only solution I see to this problem of our property in rights is by appealing to the most basic principles of contract, though that is problematic, too. After all, a person is held responsible, and thought responsible, for signing a bad contract, and is held to the terms of that contract, even if it spells financial ruin. But no contract is valid which confers no benefit to one of the parties. And if a person is in such a situation, where his or her rights must be traded away for no benefit, the conclusion must be that the contract cannot be a binding one. The dividing line between a bad contract and no contract is not always so easily seen, however.

The other corollary I see here is this: the Bill of Rights denies to the government many powers, especially powers that limit the freedoms of citizens. It seems to me impossible that the founders meant to make it impossible for the government to oppress its citizens, while at the same time guaranteeing the right of certain citizens to oppress their fellows. Since the Citizens United case, much has been made of the slogan that “money is not speech.” This has always struck me as naive in the extreme: of COURSE money is speech, and always has been. The purpose of the First Amendment is in part to make sure that my money is as good as yours for the purpose of buying the paper, ink, airwaves, bandwidth, etc. that goes into spreading speech. It was written to ensure the government could NOT consider opinions a type of currency that trumped money. But now we run into an inherent contradiction that I cannot as yet resolve: when YOUR opinion is worth more to you than MY money, and you are willing to ignore my money to propagate your opinion (especially if YOU control the medium in question), then has the government not granted to you the power from which it has recused itself: to silence, effectively, my point of view?

I’d love tto hear some opinions here.

We Hold These Rights, Part III: What Is Our Right to Property?

Preface: In three weeks, I’ll be going to a conference on the Bill of Rights, sponsored by The Bill of Rights Institute, on Civil Liberty and the Constitution. As part of this conference, I have been asked to read a number of historical documents, written by the framers, their mentors, and those who lived, legislated, and worked within that Constitutional frame. This resonates deeply with me, as I have been struggling for some time now with concepts such as “rights,” “freedom,” and “justice.”  What follow are my thoughts.

As I read further into the documents of our founders and their influences, I find myself compelled to broaden my definition of the term “property.” All my life, I have been taught by my family, my church, and my schools to think of property as mere objects. Things. To treat a person as property is tantamount to slavery, and nothing — literally, no thing — could be as important as a human life.

This was not the mindset of our founders:

“This term in its particular application means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.” In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage. In the former sense, a man’s land, or merchandize, or money is called his property. In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them. He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person. He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”

— James Madison

Note that Madison did not consider his thoughts as unimportant as his property. He considered his property as important as his very thoughts: “every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.

The italics are not mine. The implication is vast: If you have a right to it and value it, it is your property, so long as your possession of that property does not deprive anyone else to their right to 1) value such a thing and 2) have a right to such a thing. At first glance, that seems contradictory. If I own an apple and eat it, you can’t eat it too. But that’s not the statement. The statement is that if I own an apple and can eat it, it must be possible for you to own and eat apples as well. I have no right to own all the apples everywhere.

Further, the implication for the legitimacy of any sort of market manipulation is not good. I don’t know all of Madison’s opinions on everything, but we do know as a matter of historical record that one of the primary motivations behind the American Revolution was the British homeland’s systematic refusal to allow the American colonies to sell and buy freely on the international market, using their own ships and setting their own prices. Jefferson complains of laws being passed denying the American colonists the right to manufacture their own goods.

I am uncertain what the founders’ arguments would be, but I question seriously whether we can differentiate between a government that passes laws preventing us from the use of our own property, and a business interest that makes it impossible to acquire or use property. If it is immoral and unjust to pass laws that establish monopolies and exclude others from them, then it seems to me equally immoral and unjust to allow such monopolies to exist without passing laws against them. The founders seem to be upset that they are being excluded from, as it were, the democracy of money, the idea that my money is just as good as yours. Yet monopolies and market manipulators regularly exclude others from this democracy by price-manipulation. I myself have little patience for the corporate-phobia that runs rampant through popular culture, but one hardly needs to believe in vast, shadowy corporate conspiracies to dominate the world to see this process. When speculators drive up the price of oil (or anything else) simply because they believe (or fear) that the price will rise, their money is better than ours, because they will pay less today than they will force us to pay tomorrow. They never intend to use this property. They intend merely to sell it to us again when we need it, and at a higher price.

I suggest that this cannot be the right to property. G.K. Chesterton, at the opening of the 20th century, spoke of those who denied rationality as purveyors of “the thought that destroys thought.” In the same manner, those who advocate the right to speculate and manipulate prices wholesale are trading in the property that destroys property. It is, ethically, theft disguised as property. It is a counterfeit of property, just as sure as the thief is the counterfeit of the producer of wealth. It denies the right to own property just as surely — more surely, if the drug trade is any example to us — as the most draconian laws.

I have more to say on property in rights, but this post is long enough.

Somewhere In Orbit