Friday, June 14, 2013

The Boston bombing and the "commerce of violence"

Wendell Berry:

I am absolutely in sympathy with those who suffered the bombing in Boston and with their loved ones. They have been singled out by a violence that was general in its intent, not aimed particularly at anybody. The oddity, the mystery, of a particular hurt from a general violence—the necessity to ask, “Why me? Why my loved ones?”—must compound the suffering.
What I am less and less in sympathy with is the rhetoric and the tone of official indignation. Public officials cry out for justice against the perpetrators. I too wish them caught and punished. But I am unwilling to have my wish spoken for me in a tone of surprise and outraged innocence. The event in Boston is not unique or “rare” or surprising or in any way new. It is only another transaction in the commerce of violence: the unending, the not foreseeably endable, exchange of an eye for an eye, with customary justifications on every side, in which we fully participate; and beyond that, our willingness to destroy anything, any place, or anybody standing between us and whatever we are “manifestly destined” to have.

Click here to read the rest.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Matter matters (learning from the Church Fathers)

In recent years there's been a revival of interest in the church fathers among evangelical Protestants. This is a great thing in my opinion for it reconnects us to the writings and practices of the generations of saints that came immediately after the apostles. As part of a Christian tradition that sprung out of the 16th-century Reformation it would be very easy for me to go back only as far as Martin Luther and John Calvin, but that would be to neglect the fact that no less than Calvin quoted the Patristics constantly, and saw himself as leading the church in a course correction back to the path blazed by Augustine and his predecessors.

Contributing to the revival of interest in the fathers is a series of books by Christopher Hall, chancellor of Eastern University in St. Davids, PA. I've been enjoying the third volume in that series Worshiping with the Church Fathers.

At the outset Hall acknowledges one of the biggest hurdles to the typical evangelical reader -- the fathers' sacramental worldview, or what he calls "sacramental realism". To them the elements of worship -- water, bread, wine, oil -- were much more than symbolic. Hall suggests that they had a more balanced view of the material stuff of worship than later generations who drifted in the direction of ascribing magical qualities to such as bread and wine, or those at the other extreme who tended to see these as merely symbols. Against the Gnostic philosophies of the day that taught a radical dualism between the spiritual and the physical, the church fathers believed that God had blessed physical matter, and was using it to accomplish our salvation. When common elements such as water, bread and wine were consecrated they became conduits of divine grace. Something actually happened in the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist (the Lord's Supper). In this belief they had to look no further for confirmation than the Incarnation.

I really like this quote from John of Damascus for the way it illustrates their balanced approach.

I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked. . . . I reverence the rest of matter and hold in respect that through which my salvation came, because it is filled with divine energy and grace.

Does that fall strangely on your ears? It does mine. But this is one of the values of reading the church fathers noted by Hall -- they force us to confront potential theological blind spots. We may find ourselves disagreeing with them, but disagreement should only come after we've listened carefully and self-critically to what they have to say.

Quote from p. 23 of Worshiping with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity, 2009)

Friday, June 7, 2013

An Augustinian take on PRISM and the National Security State

Conor Friedersdorf pulls no punches in an article in The Atlantic -- "All the Infrastructure a Tyrant Would Need, Courtesy of Bush and Obama". Here's a key paragraph:

To an increasing degree, we're counting on having angels in office and making ourselves vulnerable to devils. Bush and Obama have built infrastructure any devil would lust after. Behold the items on an aspiring tyrant's checklist that they've provided their successors:
A precedent that allows the president to kill citizens in secret without prior judicial or legislative review
The power to detain prisoners indefinitely without charges or trial
Ongoing warrantless surveillance on millions of Americans accused of no wrongdoing, converted into a permanent database so that data of innocents spied upon in 2007 can be accessed in 2027
Using ethnic profiling to choose the targets of secret spying, as the NYPD did with John Brennan's blessing
Normalizing situations in which the law itself is secret -- and whatever mischief is hiding in those secret interpretations
The permissibility of droning to death people whose identities are not even known to those doing the killing
The ability to collect DNA swabs of people who have been arrested even if they haven't been convicted of anything
A torture program that could be restarted with an executive order
Even if you think Bush and Obama exercised those extraordinary powers responsibly, what makes you think every president would? How can anyone fail to see the huge potential for abuses?

Probably without meaning to Friedersdorf gives a very Augustinian argument about the corrupting influence sin has upon the best of men, and the best of motivations. He goes on to point out that as Americans we tend to overestimate our ability to preempt abuses of power. Could a burgeoning national security apparatus that started out as a well-intentioned attempt to keep us safe from terrorists turn out to be our undoing as a free society? I fervently hope not. But a biblical anthropology teaches us that trusting fallen humans to use power wisely -- in Friedersdorf's words counting on them to act like angels -- is a naive and dangerous posture.