It would be a gross understatement to say that New York Times reporter John Harwood is not a big fan of Barrack Obama’s. Which is why his editors usually restrict him to reports that focus on Republicans or Republican push-button issues. And perhaps today’s report “Dissent Festers in States that Obama Forgot” is simply more of the same. Yet, might I suggest to John Harwood’s editors that this reporter is clearly drunk?
No. There is not a single political strategist – not one – who would recommend that Mr. Obama take his show to South Dakota, Arkansas, Idaho, South Carolina or Utah. And he was probably ill-advised to visit Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Tennessee and Wyoming.
Nevertheless, based solely on a handful of out-of-context quotes from Donna Brazile, Mr. Harwood is going to cobble together a “news” report that pins political polarization and radical right-wing dissent – you got it – on Mr. Obama himself. Clearly Mr. Obama’s mistake has been that he hasn’t leaned far enough to the right, hasn’t been enough of a bridge-builder, hasn’t sought to meet his opponents in the middle. Never mind the continuous, ongoing, unmitigated racial slur that Mr. Obama has had to endure for six long years. Because that is what it is.
The problem with Mr. Harwood’s “article” is that no one – no one – who is not solidly in the camp (and likely in the pay) of the Republican leadership would ever suggest that Mr. Obama should lavish more attention on the folks who want to see him assassinated, politically or otherwise. Did Harwood write similar pieces when Mr. Bush avoided Berkeley, Austin, Madison, and Ann Arbor? Was that what sunk Bush’s ship? His reluctance to lean further to the left?
Well, in matter of fact, Mr. Bush did John McCain a sincere disservice dragging the Republican base so far toward Mussolini and Franco that he had absolutely no chance of polling anywhere above the low single-digits among minorities, women, and people with more than a fifth grade education. Perhaps Mr. Harwood should have written that article. But he didn’t and he wouldn’t.
Mr. Obama by contrast has reached so far to (and past) the center that his policy proposals on healthcare, taxes, social security, and education make Dwight D Eisenhower look pink and Richard M Nixon look red. So, if Obama is now standing where the right wing of the Republican Party stood a generation ago, guess where the right wing of the Republican Party is now standing. (Re-read first sentence of the last paragraph.)
If anything, Obama needs to redouble his focus on those who would, should, and could have been his base: the left wing of the Democratic Party. But, don’t look to Mr. Harwood to make that argument. He’s too busy shilling for the next Republican candidate, unless of course his editor has convinced him to enter into rehab.
Although they are not selected randomly, the connections among the readings for the Revised Common Lectionary are rough and intentionally leave much to the movement of the Spirit, thankfully.
Nevertheless, as we live with a selection of texts – perhaps any selection of texts, images, words, sounds, impressions – we inevitably find relationships among them.
Today I am beginning to reflect on Lot’s choice to settle in the Jordan Valley. Abram says that he would be happy with either the lush Valley or the more parched surrounding hills. He asks Lot to choose. Lot chooses the Valley. Commentators all agree that he chooses the Garden, a reference to the primal Garden of Eden. And, yet, something is wrong.
I suspect that we all might be inclined to fault Lot for choosing the easy way to the Garden, his decision not to pass through the desert or the parched hills. His decision makes for a convenient pairing with Luke 11:3’s “Give us each day our daily bread.” And so we might feel that it was Abram’s asceticism (and not his faith as scripture tells us) that was counted to him for righteousness.
But, then, we are faced with the RCL’s choice of Colossians 2:6-19, a text that condemns the asceticism and self-denial to which some Colossians were apparently attracted.
So, what is the common thread? Is there a common thread?
Not necessarily. But, in this case I believe there is; at least today. Because today I am inclined to think that there is absolutely nothing wrong, essentially, with Lot’s attraction to a land flowing with milk and honey. Lot seizes upon the promise. Who wouldn’t? Its a great promise and who among us wouldn’t want to have it realized?
But then the image of Vegas floods into my head. Vegas, too, is a kind of Garden of Eden. Isn’t it? I think of Broadway and Columbus and Carol Doda’s Condor with its huge lit-up sign: Garden of Eden. So, what are we missing? What’s the difference?
What is the Garden of Eden? Yes, its milk and honey and wine and dates and figs and cheese and goats and lamb. Yes, it is all of those things. But is it only things? Is there an express lane to Eden that bypasses human relationship and care and fellowship and mutual ministry? Or might these other things – which are not things – form the actual core, the heart, of what Eden is? And might not Lot when he chose the Jordan Valley have been a little naive or self-deluded in believing that the opulence of the Valley outweighed the risks of settling in this ready-built, manufactured, commercially viable Eden – this sham duplicate?
Or is it any surprise that when Sarah and Abram see the three strangers, the foreigners, approaching in the desert, their first instinct is to bake bread and serve up the lamb? This daily bread, this feast, surely was far less opulent than the spreads regularly set out in the Jordan Valley. Similarly, some among the Colossians also felt that they could bypass relationship and go straight to God, apparently completely unaware that relationship is itself God, not a means to an end, but is itself that end. Which means that when they retreated, depriving themselves of food, drink, and fellowship; when they beat their bodies into submission, when they mortified their flesh, oddly enough these Colossians were on the same page with Lot who also believed that he had found an express lane to the divine.
The Epistle for Proper 12 is Colossians 2:6-15(16-19). Here is a fun exercise: Google Colossians 2:8 and see what comes up.
Colossians 2:8 in case you haven’t guessed is the famous verse that reads: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”
From the first, this verse has generated more heat than light since it would appear to authorize anyone and everyone who wants to brand his or her opponent a “philosopher,” a lover of falsewisdom. None perhaps is more famous than Tertullian’s exposition on Col. 2:8:
Fuerat Athenis et istam sapientiam humanam affectatricem et interpolatricem ueritatis de congressibus nouerat, ipsam quoque in suas haereses multipartitam uarietate sectarum inuicem repugnantium.  Quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolymis? quid academiae et ecclesiae? quid haereticis et christianis?  Nostra institutio de porticu Solomonis est qui et ipse tradiderat Dominum in simplicitate cordis esse quaerendum.  Viderint qui Stoicum et Platonicum et dialecticum christianismum protulerunt.  Nobis curiositate opus non est post Christum Iesum nec inquisitione post euangelium.  Cum credimus, nihil desideramus ultra credere. Hoc enim prius credimus non esse quod ultra credere debeamus (De praescr. 7).
[The Apostle had been at Athens, and in his argumentative encounters there had become acquainted with that human wisdom which affects and corrupts the Truth, itself also being many times divided into its own heresies by the variety of its mutually antagonistic sects. What then hath Athens in common with Jerusalem ? What hath the Academy in common with the Church ? What have heretics in common with Christians? Our principles are from the “Porch” of Solomon, who himself handed down that the Lord must be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with those who bring forward a Stoic or Platonic or dialectic Christianity. We have no need of speculative inquiry after we have known Christ Jesus; nor of search for the Truth after we have received the Gospel. When we become believers, we have no desire to believe anything besides; for the first article of our belief is that there is nothing besides which we ought to believe.]
Beyond the obvious problem with such counsel – i.e., that we are elsewhere counseled to love Wisdom – there is the deeper problem of knowing which or what wisdom we are to love and which or what we are to beware since through it we are liable to be cheated. Nor is there really any help here in pointing to the “elemental spirits of the universe” or, perhaps better “the laws of nature” [stoicheia tou kosmou], hence the “first principles” embraced within Stoicism. As we negotiate the world from day to day we all rely upon a rough map about how it works. And were we to abandon this rough map of first principles we would quickly find ourselves in a serious bind.
Yes, we do draw our principles from Solomon’s “porch,” which, to Tertullian, implied simplicity. But everything that is simple is not divine.
Which is why we need to attend more carefully to the practical, communal, social dimension of the Epistle’s counsel. The Epistle is not inviting us to throw out our philosophy books. Nor is he inviting us to stop thinking. Rather is he inviting us to reflect on the kinds of practices and relationships with one another through which we might cultivate our relationship with God.
We are all aware of spiritual guides and plans – they line the bookshelves of our bookstores – that recommend this or that diet, this or that daily or monthly or annual set of techniques; spiritual enlightenment guaranteed or your money back, no questions asked.
2:16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.
2:17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
2:18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking,
Contrast these dietary and contemplative restrictions with the practical advice of the Epistle:
2:19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
We are related to one another. And the private, ascetic path to God – follow these steps, embrace this philosophy, do this, don’t do that, eat this, don’t eat that – is does not build up the body, but divides it.
The author of the Epistle rather than counseling us to avoid philosophy is instead counseling us to follow practices that build up the body, that attend to it, that nurture it. But these are precisely the kinds of practices that we cannot perform alone, by ourselves, inwardly, privately. Rather are these the kinds of practices that cannot be performed without one another.
We might therefore do well to ask whether the philosophy we embrace is a philosophy that requires mutual service and ministry or whether, to the contrary, it could just as well and easily be performed by ourselves, privately. Does it require our, inevitably messy engagement with one another? Or could I just as easily or even more easily fulfill my love of wisdom by myself? Or, finally, is it a philosophy that demands a strict observance of rituals that aim less at genuine practical service than at ritual exclusion?
More to the point: does our commitment to ritual purity – perhaps liturgical purity – actually constitute a philosophy of exclusion?
The Epistle for Proper 12 is Colossians 2:6-15(16-19), which begs the question: what do we do with pseudepigraphical Pauline texts?
Does it matter who wrote the letter or when or to whom or why?
The short answer is “Yes”; but not for the reasons that are generally hauled out on such occasions. Colossians would prove no less canonical were it not written by the Apostle Paul; nor would its counsel prove any more authoritative were it actually written by the Apostle. Nor need we be disturbed by the claims, front and back, that Paul is the author since (1) we do not know whether these claims appeared in the original letter; (2) copying or revising the essence of a Pauline letter for delivery to another community would still demand that Paul be named as the author; (3) authorship and ownership of texts in the pre-capitalist world did not follow the same standards and did not convey the same meanings we today attach to them. In short, even if the Apostle Paul were not the author of Colossians, which he was not, no one in the first or second centuries would have taken his name in this letter as a “lie” or “fabrication.”
The importance of authorship revolves instead around questions surrounding the all important: what did the author mean? And in order to figure this out it is helpful to know who he was, when he wrote, to whom he wrote, and why he wrote. If he is not the Apostle Paul writing some time before his death in 68 CE; if he is someone else writing some time after Paul’s death and specially after the all-important 70 CE, when the mass exodus of Jerusalem’s Jews, expelled by the Roman destruction of the Temple, completely changed the composition and character of synagogues throughout the eastern Mediterranean, then this would change not the authority of the letter but its meaning. In the long shadow cast by Chalcedon and Nicea, it has generally been assumed that the author of Colossians was warning his readers to avoid or purge some erroneous beliefs about Christ; thus the central, high, even cosmic place the author gives to Christology throughout his letter.
Research based on Mary Douglas‘ anthropological approach have made me dubious of this conclusion. What we see plainly on the surface of Colossians is not an intellectual dispute over Christology, but a practical dispute over liturgy, over the practice of the community of faith, not over doctrine. What the author of the letter would appear to be contesting is the adequacy or fitness of the liturgy practiced at Collosae to their confession. The author repeatedly reiterates the standard Christological formula precisely because it doesn’t match up with the practices of this group (Broekhoven, THE SOCIAL PROFILES IN THE COLOSSIAN DEBATE, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 66 1997).
Several elements come together in this reading:
1) In a post-70 CE setting, after which the James-Peter Jerusalem community will have fanned out into Asia Minor and joined Paul-Barnabas’ existing synagogues, the synthesis of these two communities will have further polarized the Christians and Jews in these communities. We know that it was only after the destruction of the Temple that the diaspora synagogue expelled its Christians, compelling the Christians (Jews and Gentiles) to adopt more permanent and independent institutional forms.
2) This push away from Judaism and toward the Roman mainstream helps to explain two important features in the letter: a) the adoption of the household codes; and b) the regularization and institutionalization of ritual and liturgical forms. The community in Colossae aspires to become and be more mainstream. (Compare this community to either the communities in Philippi or Corinth or Rome.)
3) This suggests that the author’s dispute with some group at Colossae surrounds their preference for cultivating their faith in private, ascetic, mystical, renunciatory, and perhaps even ritually physically painful and destructive practices. The author’s “realized eschatology” reflects both his conviction that Christ is not going to return to the Temple in Jerusalem to establish God’s reign and his conviction that there is nothing that Christians can do or need to do in order to bring God’s reign, whether individually or collectively. This self-obsessed group at Colossae misunderstands the meaning of their confession and their hymns. They now need to bring their liturgy, their practices, into line with their confession. They need not pursue ascetic, mystical, individual or private, self-destructive practices.
It strikes me that, whoever its author, this warning against turning inward might be particularly appropriate for communities inclined or drawn to experiencing God less through practical engagement in the lives of members of his body than through private ascetic discipline, even mortification, of the body. Which makes me wonder how this might apply to St Mark’s. It also dovetails nicely with the stories about Abraham and Sarah’s radical hospitality and the pericopes surrounding the Lord’s Prayer in Luke. What is hospitality? What is the body? How do we encounter God?
We might note to begin with that it is only Matthew and Luke who include these pericopes.
Next, however, it is interesting to note that in Luke this set of stories is preceded by the Parable of the Good Samaritan (10:29-37) and the pericope about Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) – of which there are no parallels in the other gospels – Matthew prefaces his text with a discourse on almsgiving (Matt. 6:1-4) and a discourse on prayer (Matt. 6:5-8).
Third, while Matthew and Luke hold in common Jesus’ discussion of loving one’s enemies, Matthew places this discussion immediately before his discussion of almsgiving and prayer (Matt. 5:43-48), whereas Luke places this discussion (Luke 6:27-28, 32-36) immediately after the blessings and curses (Luke 6:20-26), the beatitudes and the woes.
In other words, while the trajectory in Matthew is loving one’s enemies => almsgiving => prayer => Lord’s Prayer, the trajectory in Luke is Good Samaritan => Mary and Martha => Lord’s Prayer.
We might suppose that this reordering of texts along with the insertion of Luke’s peculiar stories (Good Samaritan and Mary and Martha) tell us no more than the order and condition of the stories when they reached these two different communities (Matthew’s and Luke’s), we may also be curious over how these two additional stories made their way into Luke’s text and how loving one’s enemies came to be associated in Luke’s community with the beatitudes and the woes.
Finally, what might we make of the appearance of both of these uniquely Lukan stories – of the Good Samaritan and Mary and Martha – in the Gospel of Marcion and the Gospel of Philip?
In seven Sundays after a brief (twenty-four year) vacation from the pulpit, I will once again be praying God use my gifts of preaching and prophecy. It is a pretty big deal because on the one hand I am bound to listen to how the Spirit has spoken to the community of faith over the past, oh, 2.5M years (which is where I date the emergence of human beings from other protohominids) while on the other hand I would not be mounting the pulpit did I not believe that God would minister through me by bearing witness to a word specifically directed to them, a new word. And both are pretty terrifying; both listening to how the Spirit has spoken through time and listing to how the Spirit might be speaking today.
I say might because, according to our tradition, it is up to the spirits of the prophets to judge whether or not any of them is actually speaking an authentic word from God (I Cor. 14:32). There is nothing automatic or inevitable about the divine power of the word preached from the pulpit.
And what a passage the Spirit has assigned me: Genesis 18:20-32 (the alternative text for Proper 12). Woe.
Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.”
So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” (Genesis 18:20-32, ESV)
Sodom and Gomorrah. Does everyone feel what’s coming next? Ouch!
Now, whether obvious or not, Abraham’s petition to God is inseparable from his and Sarah’s radical hospitality displayed in Gen. 18:1-19. And, again, perhaps not so obviously, there is a kind of playful parallelism between chapters 18 and 19 of Genesis. Abraham and Sarah, barren and spent wanderers in a dry and unproductive desert, are contrasted to Lot and his family, productive and fecund occupants of a wet and lush oasis. Both entertain guests. Both practice hospitality. And, yet, they are so different.
But what strikes me is Abraham’s posture towards these differences and God’s responses to Abraham’s doubts. Does Abraham know that his God is gracious? Does Abraham believe that his God will be lest just, less forgiving, less gracious than Abraham and Sarah themselves? But it is also remarkable to me that God does not shower fire and brimstone upon Abraham. What? You believe that you are more forgiving than I am?
The passage, at first take, strikes me as a real indictment against all of us who, upon experiencing difference, secretly or openly want God to do bad things to those who are different; it speaks to the widespread conviction that God is ready and willing to do bad things to bad people; but it also speaks to Abraham’s sincerest desire that God be merciful and to Abraham’s boldness to call upon God’s mercy.
And let there be no doubt; Lot is a bad man. He offers his daughters to strangers to do with them what they will. This Lot God spares in the story. Moreover, God does not spare Lot’s wife, which begs the question of where she was when Lot was offering the strangers his and her daughters. What is this brotherhood that preserves Abraham/Lot, but destroys Lot’s wife and offers up his daughters?
I know that for some of you this will come as a complete surprise, but in the event that you have not explored my website or About Me page you should know that I am an ex-seminarian (MA 1989), have been a member at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley, where I currently serve on Vestry, the local governing body. And I have agreed to preach on July 28 at both the 8 am and 10 am services. Over the next few weeks I will be submitting occasional reflections on the text leading up to the service. Feel free to both attend and respond.
Since we will be leaving in a little over two months to live and teach in Bosnia, you can understand why I might be a little anxious over the recent protests outside the Parliament Building in Sarajevo. The occasion for the protests was the refusal of MPs from the Republika Srpska to lend their support to a new law granting IDs to newborns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Support from the MPs was necessary because, under the current constitution, Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot pass legislation without support from their Republican Serbian partner. But, ironically, since they do not want to be partners in a Federation that includes Bosnians and Herzegovines, the Republika Srpska MPs withheld their votes. (Granting identification numbers to newborns in a system that did not respect the divisions among partner regions in BiH could have appeared to be a concession, an admission of defeat.)
Without weighing in on whether or not this specific law or any law identifying newborns should be passed, it might be helpful to wonder what, if anything, could bring all of the parties in BiH and RS to warm to a multiethnic, multinational political entity. Why might any of us embrace such a historically peculiar arrangement?
My own research suggests that, whoever we are, we take our identities from the practices and relationships by which we are formed. We are formed most immediately and earliest by our families, our neighbors, perhaps by civil organizations or groupings our into which our parents wish to introduce us. But, usually, as we mature, these practices and relationships broaden to include individuals and groupings – economic, legal, administrative, regulatory – that are more formal and less socially and culturally specific. In many instances, as these formal relationships and practices become more prominent in our lives, members of our original family and community groupings may find it difficult to even recognize us.
I have purposefully used benign, formal, developmental language to describe the transition of individuals from members of the smallest, most intimate circles to members of the largest and broadest political, economic, and social groupings. Yet, most of us actually never pass through this transition. Rather do we find ourselves already born into families that aspire to world citizenship; we are already born cosmopolitan in the broadest sense. And so we may find it not only difficult, but even impossible to empathize with individuals born with and into identities that are fiercely local, parochial, but who manage nevertheless to redefine themselves, even remake themselves, into individuals who must appear foreign to their original families, friends, and neighbors. We therefore imagine that the “transition” we ourselves never made from one to the other must be something like a natural, inevitable development. But I am now led to believe that it is not.
We – call us “the cosmopolitans” – are a most unnatural and far from inevitable creation, products not only of a highly specific set of political and institutional developments, but, more importantly, of a highly specific set of historical social and economic developments. For reasons too involved to elaborate in detail here, those who eventually became cosmopolitans were very early on torn free from the purely local practices and relationships common to all communities and were compelled to adopt an entirely novel set of practices mediated by abstract time and abstract value. These new arrangements would never, however, have succeeded in places with strong, deeply entrenched institutions, regulations, and laws. These new arrangements succeeded largely because of the relatively weak, flexible, and fluid institutions, regulations, and laws that predominated in Western Europe. Yet, the current cosmopolitan community, with roots in seventeenth century England, was not only the product of the new regime of practices born out of early capitalism; it was also the product of two centuries of imperial domination abroad and industrialization at home. These new practices completely eradicated and eliminated whatever remained of the purely local and parochial fabric by which Western European society was sustained century after century.
The wealth extracted from imperialism and industrialization, and the laws and institutions by which this wealth was organized and regulated, defines the practices and relationships that make us what we are; cosmopolitans.
Back in the fourth century BCE, a Macedonian thinker named Aristotle, the beneficiary of a successful military campaign launched by Alexander the Great against the City State of Athens, speculated that the ingredients for any successful Republic would be the wealth, leisure, education, and good health of its political class. This formula for res publica, for republican institutions and values, was adopted virtually unchanged by the framers of the US Constitution in 1783. Absent such wealth, leisure, education, and good health neither Aristotle nor the framers could imagine a political community that would not decay into localism, parochialism, war, conflict, and eventually into oblivion.
So the question we should perhaps be asking ourselves is how can we make Republika Srpska and all of BiH healthy, wealth, and wise? Because try as we may, history shows us no examples of cosmopolitan states – multiethnic, multinational, secure and peaceful polities – that did not also enjoy wealth, leisure, education, and good health. And history shows us many examples of states whose decent into barbarism was predicated on poverty and ignorance.
This formula for a republican future reverses the usual order. Usually we account for any community’s current make-up by looking to its past. Here, however, there is no past that might rise to a republican future. And for this reason we need to identify the republican future we desire and then establish its foundations now.
The alternative is faulting some body, here the Republika Srpska, for failing to have practices and relationships in the past that generate a cosmopolitan present or future. Yes, we could all wish that MPs for Republika Srpska were ready to embrace a more cosmopolitan, multiethnic, multinational future. And, yet, wishing so cannot make it so. It cannot change the past. But this should not imply that the past is irredeemable. When citizens in the Republika Srpska enjoy sufficient wealth, leisure, education and good health – when they enjoy the conditions that make for res publica – then will they also discover a past that is less parochial, less ingrown, than the past to which they today are unfortunately compelled to cling. But faulting them for not enjoying this past today is putting the cart before the horse.
The sooner the international community recognizes the relationship between republican institutions and values and the wealth we hold in common, the sooner we will ward off the balkanization of a world that extends far beyond the Balkans.
No one will be surprised to learn that I am troubled by our tribal God. Local gods. No problem. But, tribal gods. There’s the rub.
But before we get there, I want first to dispatch the alternative, the universal, transcendental, immaterial God – the God whose very lack of any identifiable features or attachments makes this God at once quite easy and quite irrelevant. For, whatever else we can say about the biblical God, that God is not a God without features or attachments. Which is presumably why the psalmist is bold to invoke his God – this tribal God – when confronted by his enemies. The psalmist is certain that his enemies are God’s enemies; that God will defend him because God takes his side in this dispute.
O God, break the teeth in their mouths;
tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!
Let them vanish like water that runs away;
when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away! (Psalm 58:6-9, ESV)
Don’t get me wrong. I can well understand why the Jews might want the Babylonians to leave them alone. Just as I can understand why the author of the St John’s Revelation might relish the destruction of the Romans who have razed Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, slaughtered God’s people, and sent them fleeing into permanent exile; or why communities anywhere and everywhere might wish the destruction of those who occupy their homes and communities.
Still I am troubled by our tribal God, by this God’s localism, by this God’s parochialism.
Which brings me to wonder whether there might not be some way for God to be our advocate without simultaneously being another’s foe. Am I here wishing for an irrelevant God, a God Who is so universal, so transcendent, so unattached as to be of no concern or interest?
But, let us suppose for the moment that God is the tribal God of all of the tribes, not collectively, but individually. Let us suppose that God is as disturbed by the suffering of my enemy’s communities as God is by the suffering of my own community’s members. Does this not shift the ground beneath us? What if the enemy is not this or that community, this or that foe, but . . . death, pain, hunger, nakedness, violence and violation?
And what if the blessings that God wants for God’s “chosen people” God also wants for all people?
We have a choice about how we are going to interpret these tribal passages. We can interpret them . . . tribally. That’s how many Christians choose to interpret them. This is, after all, their plain, straightforward meaning. However, we might also interpret them as witnesses to the kinds of responses to pain, hunger, violence, and death with which we are all familiar; they testify to how we would respond; they testify to how we do respond. In this case, there is nothing particularly divine or revelatory in these passages except that they mirror back to us how we ourselves would and do behave under similar circumstances. And, I suppose that, insofar as they validate our normal, human response, these passages provide some comfort, some reassurance that God is taking our side against our enemies. That does seem to be how the psalmist is responding to his hardship.
However, we could also conjecture that the same good things that God wants for God’s “chosen people” God also wants for others in God’s creation; or, more specifically, that what God wishes for the Jews stands as an emblem for the specificity of God’s intentions towards everyone. In which case, God’s tribalism is less an indication that God favors some tribes but disfavors others than it is a sign of the specificity of God’s favor. We could then rest confident that God opposes the violence of the violent and resists the hatred of the hateful; just as we could rest confident that God favors the clothing of the naked, the sheltering of those who are exposed, the feeding of the hungry, and so on – not in general, but specifically.
In this case, we could also adopt a critical position to tribalism, to the mistaken belief that God will side with my tribe even when my tribe is the cause of pain and hardship for others. God will not. As these passages clearly indicate, God wants only good for God’s people.
Do you believe in the tribal God? Or do you believe in the God who wishes good upon all tribes?
C’mon, as though the Tea Party and its Koch’ed up allies did not deserve a little more scrutiny. They are, after all, outspoken anti-Federalists, which, in itself, puts them on the record as opposed to the US Constitution. And, who knows what the FBI wants with Verizon’s business phone records. Might there not be a terrorist on the loose and is not the deprivation of liberty in the pursuit of security a price all of us twelve years ago said we would be willing, even glad, to pay? Ditto AP reporters’ phone and email logs.
So, why the outrage? For Murdock and his media empire, the answer to this question is clear enough. So long as these extra- and anti-Constitutional tools are wielded by one of their own, all is well. But in the hands of someone who might actually use them to promote the public interest, that is entirely another matter.
But what about the outrage of progressives? Well, I suspect our outrage is the same today as it was in 2001. To defend the use of anti- or extra-Constitutional means by arguing that they promote (reputed) Constitutional ends is incoherent. And, so, we continue to return to our defense of the Constitution. But, what if no one cares about the Constitution?
Surely the US Supreme Court cares not one wit about the US Constitution. Didn’t they just rule that, even without probably cause, its OK for a police officer to pry open a suspect’s mouth to take a DNA sample? Why? Well, said the author of the majority opinion, because it helps to solve crimes more efficiently. Like the crime of unreasonable search and seizure? But, hey, what could possibly be unreasonable about solving crimes more efficiently? Yea, that’s what the framers must have meant by “reasonable.” OMG.
No. The US Supreme Court cares not one wit about the Constitution. Congress? Are you joking? All that Congress can afford to care about is how it can afford to win the next election. And the only way that it can afford to win the next election is by starting to raise campaign donations from the deepest pockets the day before it wins this election. Constitutional protections? What are those?
But surely the people care about the Constitution. Really? These are the same people who elected the last slate of clowns – Republicans and Democrats – and who overwhelmingly supported both the first and the second versions of the Patriot Act, the very act that makes it OK to troll for information in your and my phone records and email. It will take no less than twenty years of independently financed elections and sufficiently financed and independent public schools for a new generation of voters to even begin to appreciate why they should care about a free press or freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.
Until then, the public discussion will not advance an inch past whether or not I trust the man or woman in the Oval Office – which is so trivial and shows such poor grasp of republican institutions and values as to lead to decades of psychiatric treatment for depression. No, the people have zero interest in the US Constitution.
So, where does that leave us? It leaves us, I think, with the National Security State that everyone claims to have wanted: Republicans and Democrats wanted it following 9-11 because it made us all think that they were doing something (like relieving us of our civil rights and liberties); the Bush Administration wanted it because they and their supporters have never been all that fond of the 1783 radically federalist and republican version of the Constitution; and the public wanted it because in a plutocracy where public institutions are underfunded to the point of drowning them in a bathtub (thanks Grover Norquist), students and citizens have not the slightest clue what all the hubbub is about anyhow.
So, Welcome to Your National Security State. Now, obviously, if you happen to be among that minority of educated progressives who still believe in the radical federalist and republican vision advanced by the framers, then the National Security State is about as bad as it gets. Clearly we need to sever the relationship between private wealth and our political institutions and replace it with res public, the Wealth we hold in Common or Commonwealth. That is the radical republican vision. But we also need to redouble our efforts to save our public schools (shame on you Rom Emanuel!), where alone there might be hope to reintroduce students to this radical republican vision. Finally, however, we need to make it transparently clear why defending the Constitution at all is still worth our while.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is not. Remember the 1960s? I do. Remember how we laid into the Constitution because it was written by wealthy white guys with a vested interest? Were we wrong? No, not entirely. But, while we were taking a scalpel to the US Constitution, the anti-federalists and anti-republicans were taking a sludge-hammer approach. They never did like the whole idea of federal courts, federal taxes, federal laws, and federal institutions. Nor did they like the whole idea of republican institutions and values, institutions and values framed in light of the wealth we hold in common. Rather did they prefer values and institutions shaped by private wealth, oikonomia. So, while we were setting out to frame an even more perfect constitution, they were setting out to destroy its very foundations.
Guess who won. Today there is no one who much cares for this document or the rights and liberties embodied in it. Which means that before we attempt to defend this document, we better be damn certain about why we are doing so. Because we are losing the battle against the National Security State. And we are losing this battle because it is the National Security State we all wanted. Now we have to show why we may not want it any more.