Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Witnessing Jehovah

Let’s talk about Jehovah’s Witnesses.  When I was a young adult, they came to call with an interesting story about a better kingdom under the authentic government of Jehovah.  To me it sounded like a Star Wars sort of thing, and it wasn’t clear if they represented the good rebels or the evil emperor.  Later on it was just a matter of politely slamming the door in their faces.  I imagine they get a lot of that. 

Not long after I was ordained, and walking in full clerical garb to the corner of 90th and Lexington in NYC, I was mobbed by an entire van load of Witnesses.  I pulled out my newly sharpened Nicene Creed and prepared for battle.  It didn’t last long.  I scored no direct hits, not even a few near misses.  Their leader called an early halt.  I think the fun was over, or maybe they just got bored.  They all piled back into the van and disappeared in a Brooklynish direction.

Now I’m just an old retired Episcopal priest living in a small western city, and it looks like I’m on the rota for the local Kingdom Hall gang.  Oddly enough, I’m enjoying it.  Two very nice ladies and I had a long visit about biblical translations, and the meaning of orthodox Christianity.  I wished them God’s speed on departure.  About a year later it was two older men.  We visited about whether these were the worst of all possible times proving that the end was near.  That led us into a survey of several centuries of history and the various worst times they had seen.  Perhaps our worst times are not quite as bad as we sometimes think.  They also left in peace.

 A few weeks ago it was two middle aged men.  We talked about the role of Constantine in early Christianity.  How the Arian controversy got worked out in the context of a largely Arian Roman army and a couple of Arian emperors.  We also had a fascinating discussion about the proper name of God.  They left with a blessing, but I need to track them down.  I made a big mistake in our brief conversation about Deuteronomy when I attributed the mysterious “book of the law” to Hezekiah instead of Josiah.  I always get those two mixed up.  If I can find Randy and Bob, I’ll apologize for the error.


As it is, I’m almost looking forward to the next door knock.  I let them start off, ask a few questions about their opening gambit, and the conversation begins.  It sure beats whatever is on T.V.  

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Playing the Trump Card

I think Mr. Trump needs to be taken seriously for two reasons.  

The first is the amount of emotionally powerful support he continues to receive from people who might otherwise consider themselves conservatives.  I’m not so sure about that.  Conservatives, on the whole, are inclined to resist radical change without a close examination of how it might affect their own well being.  Trump’s supporters are inspired by emotional rhetoric calling for radical change, laying blame for every ill on scape goat populations, and demanding unparalleled spending of public money with no plans for how to raise it, but with the vague idea that it would go for a militarized Maginot Line style southern border.  That’s not the conservative way.  I find it appalling that Glenn Beck and I agree about that.  That moment of unlikely astral conjunction aside, the momentum that Trump has managed to create and sustain is deeply troubling.  I don’t think he could win an election, but he has demonstrated the depth and breadth of an unhealthy current not seen in American society for over 75 years.

If it’s not the conservative way, what way is it?  That’s where the second reason comes in. Scanning the menu of currently available political systems, there is only one answer.  Fascism.  The problem with naming it for what it is, is that Fascism has become a personal insult rather than a description of a political system.  That means that calling someone a Fascist is considered witty by some, crude and unsophisticated by some, and impolite bad taste by others.  Not to be taken seriously in any case.  

Well it’s not an insult, it’s an observation about the reality of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and methods, and about the reality of the response he has generated.  So what is Fascism?  I’ll leave it to you to do a little research on your own, but essentially it is a form of radical protective nationalism that envisions the militarization of a whole society for the purpose of self preservation.  It idealizes the cultural mythology of its members, identifying others as enemies, some of whom are responsible for whatever ills they think beset them.  Relying on strong, authoritarian leadership, most Fascist political systems also create tremendous opportunities for private enterprise to profit by selling the goods needed for a highly militarized agenda to be carried out.  Think of it as Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex having mutated into an even more powerful monster masquerading under the cloak of national security and moral purity.


I’m not surprised that Mr. Trump appears to be an almost archetypical Fascist.  As long as he was playing his personal game of Monopoly along the Atlantic seaboard, he was mildly entertaining.  I am surprised that so many ordinary Americans seem to admire him for it, and are willing to go along with it.  That’s why he needs to be taken seriously.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Womb of God

Sunday’s gospel lesson on August 16 from John 6 was about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood in order to have new life.  It’s a pretty disgusting thought that caused many of his followers to desert.  Carried into the liturgical language of the early Church, it caused some critics to accuse Christians of cannibalism.  Many modern day denominations deliberately avoid any language that would imply eating flesh and drinking blood, treating Holy Communion as an infrequent memorial.  Eucharistic churches are known to have strangers express revulsion at the idea of the flesh and blood of Jesus being present in the bread and wine of Communion.  A few have told me that it is the one thing they cannot abide about our theology.

All of that was going through my head as I prepared for a sermon yet to be written.  Was there, I wondered, a more acceptable example of new life brought into being by the consumption of one’s body and blood, and there is.

Maybe only women who have borne a child can fully appreciate it, but isn’t that what happens in the womb?  A woman gives of her body and blood to bring the potential of embryonic life into the fulness of personhood.  That’s the way new human life comes into being, and there isn’t another way.  What if Jesus was trying to help his followers understand something like that?

Remember way back in the winter months when we read about Nicodemus coming to Jesus to ask about new life.  What did Jesus tell him?  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” and “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  The eating of Jesus’ flesh and the drinking of his blood is to be enfolded in the womb of God being nourished by the very essence of God until we are ready to be born into new life that is as much greater and more fully human than an embryo is to a new born baby.  

Those of us in the Eucharistic tradition perhaps understand the nourishment we are receiving in a more viscerally materialistic way than others do.  We believe, even if we don’t always understand, that in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, we are absorbing into our very being the physical presence of God as the necessary nourishment for our growth into new life.  Having said that, I have no doubt that the Spiritual womb of God can, and does, enfold and nourish all of creation, each part of it according to its own needs.  I don’t need to know how that works, nor do I need to know what sort of new birth will take place for the parts of creation that do not follow my tradition.  What I do know is that our birth into new life cannot come from any source other than the source of life itself, and that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh that has brought that source of life into face-to-face, flesh-to-flesh, blood-to-blood communion with our lives.


Being born again is a popular topic in contemporary Christian conversation, but I suspect the kind of rebirth Jesus and Nicodemus talked about was of a different order.  To be sure, we can claim being born again through baptism, and of course there are many who claim to be born again through their acceptance of Christ as their personal savior.  I’ve never found the latter to be persuasive, but if it works for them it’s OK with me.  However, I’m more inclined to believe that when Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be  born again, he was talking about being born into a new life beyond this life in God’s immediate presence. And there is no other way to be born again than to be nourished in the womb of God by God’s flesh and blood.  Of course these are human words using human examples for that which no human word or example can suffice, but it’s the best we, or at least I, can do for the time being. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Some Thoughts on the "Debate"

I watched the Fox sponsored “debate” along with a group of local Democrats.  I’m not sure which was more depressing: the debate, or the room of aging liberals with whom I sat.  As one might expect, the gathering applauded the “debaters” with choruses of guffaws, harrumphs, and snickers.  I wasn’t unsympathetic. I felt pretty much the same way, but I also listened to the cheers of loud approval coming from the convention center crowd.  The more repressive the hyperbole mouthed by candidates, the louder the cheers of approval.  I don’t think my Democratic friends understand what that means.

Those cheers, I believe, were echoed by the majority of voters in our part of the state, because the far right wing political ethos that has come to dominate electoral politics around here has convinced most voters to be scared, suspicious, and certain that their way of life is being taken from them.  They see themselves as rugged individualists who want their freedoms guaranteed by a strong military through an authoritarian government that will squash those who are threatening those freedoms.  They are frightened by out of control government spending that is not out of control.  They are frightened of the mushrooming growth of a government that is not growing.  They are fearful that our security is jeopardized by the weakness of a heavily guarded southern border, and by the declining power of a military that is the largest in the world.  They are infuriated at the lack of economic opportunity, yet oppose any effort to regulate corporate abuse.  They want us to be more competitive in world trade, but don’t want any trade agreements.  They are afraid that the military they adore might be used against them. They are terrified that unless we bomb someone else into obscurity, someone else will do that to us.  They deny any kind of systemic racism, and can’t stand the idea of a black president.  They detest his dictatorial executive orders, but don’t know what an executive order is, and can’t name more than one, which they think has something to do with granting illegal immigrants citizenship. 

You have to take that seriously.  Guffaws, harrumphs, and snickers are not an adequate response.  Moreover, I said that I believe such views are held by a majority of voters, not a majority of the people, and in an election it is the voters that count.  Public polling indicates that the majority of the public in our part of the state leans toward a more traditional, pragmatic conservatism that, oddly enough, values most of the progressive ideals espoused by Democratic candidates.  But most of them are Republicans.  Why?  Because they have always been Republicans, and what that means is that the majority of potential voters don’t vote.  What might be called center right Republicans don’t vote because they are not persuaded by the far right extremism of the so called base.  Center left Democrats don’t vote because what’s the point in such a conservative region.  Statewide figures indicate that about 73% of eligible voters are registered to vote.  In the last general election about 54% of them did vote.  It means that a little over a third of the voting age population decided who was in and who was out for all the rest.  


So who are they, the ones that vote?  The frightened neo-fascist gang on the far right, and the smaller group of aging socialist hippies on the far left.  OK, that’s a gross exaggeration, but unless more progressive minded folks can find a way to make their message heard in a way that appeals to the pragmatic, show me, majority of potential voters who have quit voting, our region will continue to elect far right candidates who can do little good and a great deal of damage. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

stevenwoolley.com now online

For those who care: this site can now be accessed through stevenwoolley.com

Monday, August 3, 2015

Trophy Hunting and Children

The killing of Cecil the lion has filled the last week with outraged indignation expressed all over the media and Internet.  It also provoked a Facebook conversation in which one person was even more outraged at the world wide condemnation of the killing of one lion, while it remains strangely disinterested in the killing of children by the thousands.  

I appreciated her anger but don’t think she’s entirely right about it.  For one thing, public outrage is not a very good indicator of the willingness of society to come to grips with moral evils.  The killing of Cecil was an event relatively easy to understand, and the miscreant who did the deed was identified and held up to public ridicule.  It was easy to generate public outrage over it.  But what does that have to do with children?  

Let’s start with the fact that animals and children share a popular status as symbols of innocence, but children are human beings, and they must take precedence.  The problem is that all the ways in which our children are abused and killed are very complex, difficult to understand, and the guilty can often hide with ease.  It’s hard to raise public outrage over problems that are so complicated, embedded in local culture, yet universally condemned.  Moreover, the public outrage over Cecil will fade away as soon as the next lurid event comes along.  Public outrage is fickle that way.  Seldom does it have endurance.  On the other hand, there is a small army of persons dedicated to stopping child abuse in all its forms.  They are in it for the long haul and will not give up.  Nor have the media ignored the issue.  In depth reporting has taken place, and will take place again.  

However, as long as the public is outraged over big game trophy hunting, it would be a good time to turn the spotlight on a different kind of trophy hunting.  Because that’s what it is.  Trophy hunting.  It’s trophy hunting when men (and I presume women) deliberately engage in sex tourism that preys on young boys and girls in places where they can be captured, herded, kept, and driven into the sites of sexual trophy hunters.  Thanks to media reporting, many of us are aware of the sex trafficking industry that makes a considerable profit off the children they control, but we may think it as a Southeast Asia thing far removed from our shores.  It’s not.  It exists right here with operations in most any train or bus station.  

Not every big game trophy hunter pays big bucks to go to Africa for his kills.  Some are content to bag their trophies closer to home and for not much money.  The same can be said for those who trophy hunt our children.  Why spend all that money to go to Thailand when main street in most any town can be as good, especially with the help of the Internet?  And here is where our Facebook correspondent is wrong.  Even in our small city, the community and the agencies that serve it are determined and untiring in doing what they can to prevent trophy hunting of children, pursuing those who do, and exacting appropriate justice.  

My denomination, for instance, requires all parish leadership and anyone who works with children to undergo background checks and complete training in how to protect our children.  The schools and non profit agencies working with children do the same.  We know that leaves big gaps, but it’s a start.  Our police department has a unit designated to investigate crimes against children, and they do so with considerable success.


So, no, maybe the kind of public outrage some would like to see isn’t there.  But the long term, resolute work by many to bring a halt to trophy hunting our children is determined and ongoing.  I don’t have much faith in pubic outrage.  I think it is shallow at best.  I do have faith in the hard work of many to bend to the task and never give up.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Few Thoughts on a Balanced Budget Amendment

Our member of congress and a few regular letter writers have been making noises about a balanced budget amendment to the constitution.  I think the letter writers are sincere, and I’m impressed by the amount of work some of them have put into trying to prove their point.  For people who distrust almost anything scientific, they have a remarkable ability to hook together arguments that give the impression of methodical research and logical formulation.  I’d like to think that our member of congress is just posturing for the next election cycle, doing her best to appeal to the most conservative of her followers.  However, her performance over the last decade suggests that she probably doesn’t know very much, so her posturing is what she really believes.  

Anyway, I started to write an article about why a balanced budget amendment would be a bad idea, but my enthusiasm for it waned to nothing.  The few who read these articles already know what a bad idea it is, and those who think otherwise are not going to be persuaded by anything I say here.  What about a letter to the editor?  The most frequent writers to our local paper about anything to do with the federal government or climate change are so thoroughly convinced of how right they are that absolutely nothing can engage them in conversation, much less inspire a change in understanding.

Even many of my closest colleagues want a simple understanding and a simple answer to keeping government spending under control, as if just raising the issue is enough to suggest that it is out of control.  The most popular suggestion is that the federal government should be forced to balance its budget the way a responsible person balances theirs.  It sounds good, but the analogy has some fatal flaws.  Look at it this way.

Suppose you earn $75k a year, a little higher than the median for our area.  Do you own a home?  What do you owe on the mortgage?  Because you are cautious, let’s say $150k.  How about a car, boat, or r.v.?  Do you owe anything on furniture or appliances?  What about school?  Did you take out a vacation loan or anything like that?  Then there is credit card debt to add in.  Let’s say, because you are cautious, that you owe another $75k in long and short term debt.

So, now you have $75k in income against $225k of debt.  Your debt load is 3 times your income.  Nevertheless, you balance your budget, and even lay aside a little something for savings.  What you mean is that you can make your monthly payments and have something left over.  The federal government debt load is around 1 times national income, so your household budget doesn’t look like a very good role model by comparison.  Of course you plan on paying down your debt over time, but, if you are like many other responsible persons, you will replace one debt load with another for most of your life.  It’s just not a good analogy.  Drop it.

Maybe we just need to quit deficit spending.  That sounds simple enough.  But what’s a deficit?  It depends on how much debt a nation can carry, how confident a nation is in future income growth, whether one is in a booming economy or recession, whether at war or at peace, whether it is systemically corrupt, the structure of its commercial and tax codes, etc.  It depends on the rate of inflation, and how inflation is measured.  It depends on the money supply.  It depends on a lot of things that are not so simple.  Deficits are squishy things that resist easy definition.

A simple balanced budget amendment could not factor in the complexities of what balance means.  Trying to word an amendment to accommodate  today’s complexity could not anticipate the conditions of tomorrow.  The result of any such amendment is hard to anticipate, but it would surely limit the ability of the federal government to meet the needs of the nation, and drive America toward second tier status.  That’s the part my very conservative friends don’t get.  They are certain that the only thing standing between an America of unlimited opportunity and economic well being is a federal government that is “out of control.”

So I have given up on writing an article about the proposal for a balanced budget amendment.  No!  You won’t see one on these pages.  The End.




P.S.  The same thing goes for the goofy debt limit legislation that forces congress to argue needlessly, but heatedly, every few months.