Does God need the Third Degree?

By Alan Bean

Jon Burge

Jon Burge

Jon Burge (the name rhymes with ‘surge’) was hired by the Chicago Police Department in 1971, just three years after the police riot at the 1968 Democratic convention.  Chicago was looking for a man with Burge’s unique skill set.  Described as “all man” by the men who interviewed him for his first job with the department, Burge was studied in the arts of torture; records suggest he learned creative uses for electricity while interrogating prisoners in Vietnam.

Soon Jon Burge was slipping plastic bags over his victim’s heads before attaching electrodes to sensitive parts of the anatomy.  He would then crank the handle on a little wooden box.  The combination of suffocation and agony produced confessions in short order.

Soon Burge was presiding over a team of detectives famous for solving horrifying crimes by extracting confessions from suspects.  No one asked too many questions.  Burge and company have always denied that suspects were tortured, and his superiors were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Until 1991, when Burge’s luck ran out.

Prior to the Wickersham Report of 1931, torture was routinely used by American police officers to extract confessions from the “bad guys”.  It wasn’t legal, even then, but it enjoyed a-wink-and-a-nod tolerance.

“The third degree” was a polite synonym for torture. Suspects were beaten, scalded and electrocuted into compliance.  At the time, the law enforcement community was convinced they couldn’t do their jobs properly if deprived of the third degree.  You couldn’t expect the criminal element to confess of their own good will.

The Wickersham Report was inspired by law enforcement’s failure to enforce Prohibition.  Only when investigators took a peek beneath the surface did the widespread use of torture come to light.

Researchers argued that third-degree techniques made it impossible to know if a suspect was actually guilty or merely copping to a crime to make the pain stop.

Police officers would pick a suspect, extract a confession through torture, then build a case to suit the details of the confession.  This often required threatening potential witnesses with beatings and perjury charges if they refused to harmonize with the state’s narrative.

When the case went to trial, police officers routinely lied on the stand.  The biggest lie was insisting, under oath, that no one was tortured in the course of the investigation.

Initially, the third degree produced scores of easy convictions, but unintended consequences began to accrue.  Juries began acquitting criminal defendants because police testimony was viewed as inherently suspect.  The third degree, it turned out, was a great way to close cases, but a lousy means of distinguishing guilt from innocence.

Forty years after it was officially repudiated, Jon Burge and company revived the third degree in Chicago.  But in 1991, twenty years after joining the force, Burge was fired when an investigation determined he and his men had tortured a man suspected of killing a police officer.

Only then did Burge’s victims gain a hearing.  In 2000, Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois. The widespread use of torture during Burge’s tenure made it impossible to assess the legitimacy of criminal convictions.  Abuses continued after Burge left the force because the practices he introduced had become institutionalized.

This week, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel backed a plan that would pay fifty of Burge’s victims (more than 200 have been identified) up to $5.5 million in reparations.  The police commander served three years in federal prison on perjury and obstruction charges and is serving the final year of his sentence on house arrest.  He continues to receive a monthly pension of almost $4,000.

God doesn’t resort to torture (or threats of torture) to get his way.  God doesn’t need a little wooden box to extract confessions from the guilty.

Like police officers in the 1920s, evangelists claim they couldn’t do their job without the third degree.  Why would anyone choose to be a Christian, they ask, if they didn’t think a Burge-like deity was waiting to slap a plastic bag over their faces before attaching those nasty electrodes and cranking that nasty wooden box?   If crime pays, what will stop the criminals.

Threats of divine torture in the not-so-sweet-by-and-by once worked sufficiently well, at least on some suspects.  But those days are gone.  Most Americans (60% by one recent survey) say they believe in hell (including a slight majority of mainline Protestants), but most feel you have to do something really awful to go there, and practically no one thinks they fit the bill.

But whether the threat of torture availeth much or little, the doctrine raises questions about the character of God.

westboro1-3d0baab9ccc674c5428c2cf5342da0ffcee7da0e-s6-c30The good folks at Westboro Baptist believe in hell with all their hearts and they’re willing to live with the theological consequences.

The Westboro God revels in the death of practically everyone, gays and Muslims in particular. Like Jon Burge, their God has refined the arts of torture and can’t wait to strut his stuff.

Good people everywhere are horrified when Westboro Baptist yells despicable slogans at military funerals; but is Westboro theology, stripped of the over-the-top rhetoric, that much different from what most Americans believe?

Only in one particular.  We believe only the baddies are going to hell; they believe practically everyone in America is headed for the pit.

For a long time no one paid the folks at Westboro Baptist Church any mind.  Then someone had a eureka moment: what if we express these precious truths in the most objectionable way imaginable?  It took a while to come up with something as toxic as “God hates fags,” but the church didn’t quit until its shtick was perfected.  They’ve been making headlines ever since with dismal regularity.

We love to hate the haters.

But if our God is willing to torture the intransigent for eternity (whether they be few or many) doesn’t the deity bear a marked resemblance to old Jon Burge?  We may object to Westboro’s syntax, but their theology possesses a relentless logic.

However you slice the theological cheese, if God punishes unrepentant sinners, and if the GLBT community (and practically everybody else) is guilty of unrepentant sin, Westboro Baptist Church has the equation about right.

Denny Burk, a Southern Baptist professor of biblical studies at Louisville’s Boyce College, did us all a favor when, in good Westboro spirit, he argued that same-sex attraction is just as sinful as gay sex.  Burk doesn’t care if sexual orientation is innate or chosen; it’s rebellion against God.

Denny Burk’s God is meaner than Jon Burge.  Way meaner.  A little wooden crank box can’t hold a candle to the blazing fire of eternal hell.

If I thought God looked even a little bit like Jon Burge (or any other torturing thug you might name) I’d get in line behind Ivan Karamazov to turn in my heaven card.

Torture doesn’t work any better for the Almighty that it worked in Prohibition-era America or for Jon Burge and his cronies.  God doesn’t need threats of torture to get through to a broken humanity; he has the amazing love revealed in Jesus Christ and that produces much better results.

Theo Shaw, Jena 6 defendant, wins full-ride law school scholarship

Originally posted on Friends of Justice:

Theo Shaw during his college days Theo Shaw during his college days

By Alan Bean

Almost five years have passed since I wrote a blog post called “Jena 6 to Law School”.  Back then, Theo Shaw was ready to graduate from the Louisiana State University, Monroe and was dreaming of law school.

Theo Shaw is dreaming no more.  As this article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports, Theo has been awarded a full-ride scholarship to attend the School of Law at the University of Washington.

Since graduation, Theo has been working with the New Orleans office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a job that frequently saw him working with prison inmates.  Interviewed in 2012, Shaw explained why he wanted to be a defense attorney.“This could be my ego,” he said, “but I really think I could be an awesome trial attorney as far as being able to advocate on behalf of other people – being…

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Theo Shaw, Jena 6 defendant, wins full-ride law school scholarship

Theo Shaw during his college days

Theo Shaw during his college days

By Alan Bean

Almost five years have passed since I wrote a blog post called “Jena 6 to Law School”.  Back then, Theo Shaw was ready to graduate from the Louisiana State University, Monroe and was dreaming of law school.

Theo Shaw is dreaming no more.  As this article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports, Theo has been awarded a full-ride scholarship to attend the School of Law at the University of Washington.

Since graduation, Theo has been working with the New Orleans office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a job that frequently saw him working with prison inmates.  Interviewed in 2012, Shaw explained why he wanted to be a defense attorney.“This could be my ego,” he said, “but I really think I could be an awesome trial attorney as far as being able to advocate on behalf of other people – being able to tell their story to a jury in a compelling way.”

Now, thanks to the University of Washington, Theo will get his chance.

This isn’t just another feel-good redemption story.  Theo grew up on the poor side of Jena and, as a high school student, was much more interested in football than books.  But being indicted on grossly overblown charges in 2007 changed everything.  Only a miracle saved Theo and his co-defendants . . . and there aren’t many of those in the criminal justice system.

Until Friends of Justice, the non-profit I direct, got involved in the case, no one from outside central Louisiana had taken an interest in the Jena 6.  It took months of community meetings, media outreach, and coalition building to get the Jena story big enough to attract pro bono legal representation.  In the end, however, the defendants benefited from the best legal council money can buy and Theo Shaw knew he just dodged a bullet.  He was one of the lucky ones, and that gave him a sense of obligation.

Theo has always denied involvement in the beat-down of Justin Barker, and I am inclined to believe him.  Eye witness testimony taken on the day of the assault is so inconsistent that, had any of these cases gone to trial, it would have been very difficult to win a conviction . . . unless you had an attorney like Blaine Williamson who rested his case without calling a single witness.

But Theo wasn’t stuck with Blaine Williamson clone; he had a top-flight cadre of attorneys defending him headed by Rob McDuff, one of the top civil rights attorneys in Mississippi.  The Jena 6 saga died as soon as 50,000 protesters left town in September of 2007, but, though it took DA Reed Walters a while to admit as much, the legal fight was over.

All six Jena defendants have made the most of their second chance, but Theo Shaw would never be satisfied with a college diploma, a decent job and a couple of kids–he wanted to be an attorney.  This isn’t just about making money (defense attorneys make well under six figures unless they represent rich folks); it’s about paying a debt.  A debt of gratitude.

‘Jena 6′ defendant Theo Shaw wins full scholarship to law school

By Jarvis DeBerry

Louisiana almost threw Theo Shaw away. This state – which discards black men and boys like pecan shells, like potato peels and coffee grounds — nearly added Shaw to its refuse pile, to its towering heap of incarcerated bodies.

A Louisiana prosecutor had Shaw charged with attempted murder, alleging that he participated in an attack at Jena High School, a high school so simmering with racial tension that three white students there had hung a noose from a tree.

Shaw and the other young black men who became known as Jena 6 were presented to the world as the epitome of savagery. They needed to be charged with attempted murder for sending a white schoolmate to the emergency room. It didn’t matter that he was soon discharged or that he was feeling well enough to attend a school event the next night. The Jena 6 needed to be taught a lesson. They needed to be thrown away.

But in September 2007, several thousand people from across the country converged in Jena and expressed outrage at Louisiana’s attempt to permanently ruin the young men’s lives. Shaw, whose inability to post bail had left him in jail seven months, was eventually released. Though he insists that he played no role in the attack on the student, in court Shaw pleaded no contest to misdemeanor simple battery.

Almost eight years after that massive march in Jena, Shaw is breaking free of Louisiana. He will enroll this fall at the School of Law at the University of Washington. That law school, which U.S. News and World Report puts in the country’s top 30, has chosen Shaw as one of the incoming class’ five William H. Gates Public Service Law Scholars. It’s a full scholarship, covering tuition, books and even some money for room and board and incidental expenses.

“You have already shown yourself to be a person of commitment and drive,” the letter congratulating Shaw reads. “Your participation as a Gates Scholar will help us continue to build our law school community, and will also help in making our world a better place.”

We wouldn’t be talking about Shaw’s potential to improve the world if he were still in prison. And he’d probably be in prison without that mobilization on behalf of the Jena 6. Those protesters didn’t know Shaw personally. They may not have even been able to call his name, but, he said Monday, “They knew me, they knew us, through history.”

It’s a history that includes young black boys being thrown away as trash. It’s a history that’s bigger than Louisiana’s.

Shaw said in a May 2014 interview that he was so unconcerned with school that he thinks he was ranked dead last in his senior class. Black, poor, uneducated and male in Louisiana. What better candidate for being thrown away like trash?

All the more reason, perhaps, that the state of Louisiana, in the form of LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters, had no qualms about throwing Shaw away.

It was widely reported that before the incident leading to Shaw’s arrest, but while racial tensions at Jena were simmering, Walters warned a Jena High assembly that he could change their lives “with the stroke of a pen.”

Read entire article here.

When God Changes His Mind*

Peter's vision

By Alan Bean

It wouldn’t be the first time, you know.

If Fox News wants to see what “fair and balanced” looks like they should check out National Public Radio.  You know the folks at the helm are left of center, but they invariably pass the microphone to folks on both sides of controversial issues.

Take Morning Edition’s coverage of the firestorm of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  On Thursday morning, the suave and unflappable Steve Inskeep interviewed the Rev. Tim Overton, a Southern Baptist pastor from Muncie, Indiana who supported the Indiana RFRA in its pre-clarification form.  The following day, Inskeep visited with the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

What is more, these opposing voices had enough time to lay out a nuanced position: Watkins, had five minutes; the Overton piece was two minutes longer.

The coverage was as fair and as balanced as it gets; but what did we learn?

First, we learned that people of faith aren’t all on the same page when it comes to gay marriage.  Frank Bruni made this point in a New York Times column this week, but it is commonly supposed, on the left and the right that real Christians oppose gay rights.

This misunderstanding exists for two reasons.  First, the conservative position on gay rights lends itself to bumper sticker simplicity.  Second, there is little theological consensus, on this or any other hot-button issue, within the Protestant mainline community.

These realities shaped the twin interviews of Morning Edition.  The Southern Baptist pastor knew his congregation, and his denomination, had a simple response to gay rights:

As a Baptist pastor who believes the Bible, I believe God made us male and female. And embracing God’s will is embracing our gender and acting accordingly.

Nothing complicated about that.  Because the Bible teaches that God created only two sexual orientations, men should marry women and women should marry men.  So, if you think you are gay or lesbian, you’re mistaken because God, by definition, doesn’t make mistakes.

Tim Overton came across as a nice guy who just wants to honor God will his whole being.  He knows that a lot of people disagree with his stand because they don’t share his commitment to biblical authority, and he respects that.  Still, he says,

I would hope that society would make allowances for traditional Christian theology and belief and allow us to practice our faiths in the workplace and in public as well as our houses of worship.

WatkinsSharon3

Rev. Sharon Watkins

Sharon Watkins couldn’t speak with that kind of clarity.  She appeared on Morning Edition as a denominational representative and the Disciples of Christ have struggled to achieve consensus on the issues of gay marriage and ordination.  True, at least 80% of the folks attending the 2013 National Convocation accepted a resolution affirming gay marriage and opening the door to the ordination of gay men and lesbians.  But, Watkins made it very clear that pastors, congregations and regional assemblies were free to reject the resolution if they so chose.

Steve Inskeep wanted to know how Watkins dealt with people in her denomination who, like Tim Overton, believe the Bible opposes gay marriage.  Her response was revealing:

Yes, that is one of the words that is heard for sure. A couple of years ago, we had quite a discussion on this, and I can’t say that we came to consensus. But we acknowledge that just as we think and understand that Jesus welcomes all in love that we have to try to do the same. And so we just struggle to learn from our disagreement about the power of God’s love to hold us together, even when our opinions would seem to tear us apart.

Jesus welcomes all, so we must welcome all.  That is at least the kernel of a theological argument.

Inskeep was too polite to state the obvious rejoinder, so let me lay it out for you as bluntly as possible: If Jesus welcomes all, and the Bible doesn’t, are Jesus and the Bible at odds?

You know how Tim Overton would have answered that question.  We find God’s Word in Jesus and in the Bible and the two witnesses agree.  God doesn’t contradict Himself.*

Could Sharon Watkins handle that question with a crisp soundbite?  No, she could not. No denominational leader in her right mind would pit Jesus against the Bible.  That doesn’t play in Peoria.

But it doesn’t take a lot of theological perspicuity to notice that conservative Christians argue from the Bible while liberals appeal to Jesus.  There is a good reason for this.  It is fairly easy to find several passages in a big book like the Bible that appear to condemn homosexual behavior.  Leviticus calls it an “abomination”, along with eating the meat of a sacrifice on the third day (days one and two are fine), eating unclean birds (eagles, vultures, buzzards and the like), and eating unclean animals (camels, rock badgers, rabbits and, of course pigs).

The Old Testament understanding of “holiness” isn’t primarily a matter of ethics or morality.  God created the world with a certain order, and when you mess with that order life goes bad.  Which is why Tim Overton, the Baptist pastor from Muncie, says that “embracing God’s will is embracing our gender.”

Simple enough, right?  If you believe the Bible you reject gay marriage.

But it isn’t that simple.  Take Peter’s vision in the eleventh chapter of Acts.

There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me.  As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.  I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”

Maybe God can contradict himself.  Or maybe this is a test, like when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

Peter takes his stand on the Bible, certain that God would approve.

But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing unclean has ever entered my mouth’

Peter was expecting God to say something like, “Well spoken, my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”

But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.

Or, what God has called clean, you must not call an abomination.

So, maybe God can change his mind after all.*

Jesus preached, and lived, radical inclusion.  The company he kept sparked scandal at every turn.  Why does he consort with tax collectors, prostitutes, women, Samaritans, the poor, the sick and the insane?  Doesn’t he know an abomination when he sees one?

To which Jesus replied, in effect, “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.”

Logically, God, being God, cannot contradict himself or change his mind.  But if the Bible is anything to go by, God can change his mind six times before breakfast and regularly does.  It doesn’t just happen in the ministry of Jesus or in the New Testament, the Bible is a book about an mystifying God who shifts directions when you least expect it.

Are we comfortable with that kind of God?  Of course we’re not.  So what?  That’s the kind of God we’ve got.  How do I know?  The Bible tells me so.  Over and over and over.

Once again, the rejoinder is obvious.  If God is radically welcoming, who is excluded?  Nazis, pedophiles, drug dealers, terrorists?  I mean, where do you draw the line?

Maybe drawing lines isn’t as important to God as it is to us.

Moreover, if God can change his mind about the nature of abomination, how do we know he hasn’t changed his mind about homosexuality?  Or, to put a slightly different spin on the ball, what if we have been wrong about God all along?

All the evidence points in one direction: sexual orientation is not something we choose.  Some of us are born with long legs.  Call it a blessing or a curse, but, as Jesus himself noted, you can’t change it.   God is responsible for the length of my legs, not me.

You can see where I am going with this.

May I introduce the Honorable Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth?  Texas has its own version of RFRA, a bipartisan measure passed in 1999 that resembles the federal statute.  The intention was to protect the religious liberties of individuals against unwarranted government intrusion and has functioned admirably in that capacity.

But some Republicans wanted to amend the law in ways that would protect those wishing to discriminate against the LGBT community.  This wouldn’t be stated explicitly, of course, any more than it was in the original form of the Indiana bill, but the intention is clear.  The Indiana statute was carefully written to protect businesses from civil rights suits filed by individuals.  Instead of protecting individuals from the government, the Indiana bill (and the proposed changes to the Texas law) protect businesses from aggrieved parties, in general, and LGBT couples in particular.

Although the proposed changes to the Texas law protected businesses, the chamber of commerce and other pro-business groups were alarmed.  Identifying Texas as a gay-hostile state, they argued, would be bad for business (and this was before the Indiana fiasco).

Matt Krause

Matt Krause

Matt Krause didn’t care.  When others dropped the amendments to the Texas law, Krause picked them up. The proposed amendment to the Texas RFRA might be bad business, he admitted, but it’s good law, and even better theology.  (Krause has a law degree from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University so he knows the law, the Bible, and how the two should overlap.)

When reporters asked if Texas really wanted to mess with a toxic bill that was being reconsidered in red states like Indiana and Arkansas, Krause had his talking points ready:

Should a Jewish bakery have to bake a cake for the neo-Nazi convention coming into town? Nobody would say that. Nor would anybody say a gay florist couple has to give flowers to a Westboro Baptist protest at funerals.  All [the proposed bill is] saying is that if you feel like it has been burdened, that gives you a chance to go to court to say the government is infringing on my religious freedom because they are forcing me to do this.

Wrong analogy, bro.

If sexual orientation is God-given (as all the evidence suggests), it isn’t gays and lesbians who we should be comparing to Nazis and the haters at Westboro Baptist Church.

How does the “God hates fags” theology espoused by Westboro Baptist differ from the position Indiana pastor Tim Overton and Texas politician Matt Krause are defending?

Overton and Krause eschew the term “fags” and they don’t protest military funerals (thanks on both counts, guys), but they embrace Westboro theology with an unholy passion.  Their God might not hate fags, but he calls homosexuals “an abomination”.  Written either way, the equation yields the same answer.

A majority of Americans have learned to see their gay brothers and sisters as . . . well, brothers and sisters.  You know, real people.  Just like straight folks.  Any God who hates these people (or finds them abominable) is a morally compromised deity.  And no one gets a pass for pumping up the hate just because their morally challenged God says they must.

If gay people were consciously messing with the straight orientation God gave them, the abomination argument ring true; but they aren’t.  They just aren’t.  And that changes the moral equation.

Now for the Nazis.  In the Third Reich, homosexuals were verboten.

Beginning in 1933, gay organizations were banned, scholarly books about homosexuality, and sexuality in general, were burned . . . and homosexuals within the Nazi Party itself were murdered. The Gestapo compiled lists of homosexuals, who were compelled to sexually conform to the “German norm.”

The wiki article on homosexuals in Nazi Germany starts there and gets worse with each succeeding paragraph.

homosexuals in the 3rd Reich

Homosexuals arrested in Nazi Germany

Matt Krause’s Nazi analogy might work if he had compared gay-haters to Nazis.

It wouldn’t have been a perfect fit, of course.  Rev. Overton doesn’t want to see gay people punished, harassed or discriminated against and I trust that Mr. Krause concurs (you do, Matt, right?)  No one (well, hardly anyone) wants gays shot on sight or shipped off to death camps, but what is the appropriate response to abominable people?  Public shunning at the very least, I would think.

Abominable people should certainly be denounced from the pulpit, and we shouldn’t give the wretches any special legal protections.  Not when the fix is so simple.   At any moment, by Pastor Overton’s account, gay men and lesbians could simply “embrace their gender and act accordingly.”

But they don’t.  That’s why they are abominable.

Begin with a faulty premise and you’re headed for strange territory.

If Jesus could welcome a traitor (tax collector), a terrorist (zealot), and a scoundrel (Judas) into his inner circle, surely he can make room for us.  All of us.  We might prefer to live in separate silos, but Jesus says no.

If you don’t care what Jesus says, that’s not an issue.  But if you are Matt Krause, or Tim Overton, the radically inclusive Jesus is impossible, an illusion, a figment of the liberal imagination.  What God has called unclean, they say, let not Jesus call clean. God spoke once and for all in Leviticus and, like the law of the Medes and Persians, God’s immutable Word stands for eternity.

The real Jesus can’t be boxed in like that.  The real Jesus reverses the verdict of Leviticus whenever he chooses.  He does that because he is God’s Son and, like they say, the apple don’t fall far from the tree.

*I realize it is bad theology to use exclusive pronouns for God; but good theology sometimes translates into clunky prose.  My apologies for those who, for excellent reasons, are offended by references to a boy-God.

The marriage of Christ and anti-Christ

XXX TED CRUZ 2016 HDB327.JPG A  HKO USA VAWhen Ted Cruz launched his presidential campaign at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University reaction on the left was predictable.  Some suggested that Liberty students were only in their seats because attendance at chapel is mandatory at Liberty. Liberals don’t like Ted and the feeling is mutual.

Libertarian response was mixed.  Ted’s political career is funded by billionaire libertarians Charles and David Koch, he despises Obamacare, and he wants to abolish the IRS.

Libertarians haven’t forgotten that Cruz’s famous filibuster speech against Obamacare was studded with Ayn Rand quotations.

Who could ask for anything more?

But hard core, “objectivist” libertarians are baffled by Ted’s fervent embrace of the religious right, in general, and his staunch opposition to abortion, in particular.  Why, for instance, did a lifelong admirer of Ayn Rand announce his candidacy at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University?

Ayn Rand hated philosophical compromise as much as she hated Jesus; and she hated Jesus very, very much.  Consider this oft-quoted line from her novel, The Fountainhead:

The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent.  He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves . . . this is the essence of altruism.

Jesus and Ayn share one quality: consistency.

Rand asserted that nothing beyond the demands of the detached and independent ego really matters.  Altruism, living in response to the needs of others, was thus the worst kind of heresy.  When we live in service to others, she taught, we become slaves.

Randian objectivists wish Ted would lose his religion so they wouldn’t have to qualify for their support.  But everyone, even libertarians, appreciate that Ted’s career arc would plummet to earth if he trampled on the cross.  In America, we are free to disagree with Jesus on every important point, so long as we’re singing “Oh How I Love Jesus”.

A cynic would assert that Ted Cruz embraces both Christ and anti-Christ because he is a pragmatic politician. But you can’t understand the Junior Senator from Texas apart from the culture that shaped him.  Religious superstars from Dwight L. Moody to Billy Graham embraced Wall Street for the same reason Ted Cruz courts the Koch brothers–publicity is expensive.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand

The best way to impress the wealthy is to tell them how wonderful they are, and Ayn Rand made a comfortable living singing paeans to the powerful.  They were the only people that mattered to her; everybody else she called ‘looters’, ‘moochers,’ and (when she was feeling kind) ‘parasites’.

Not all wealthy people enjoy praise and adulation, of course, but most of them do. Charles and David Koch love Ayn Rand and Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter because they speak rapturously of the wealthy and contemptuously of everyone else.  No surprises there.

Ted Cruz grew up in a religious subculture in which Christianity and laissez-faire capitalism dovetailed neatly.  Mainstream evangelical Christianity soft-pedals Jesus’ teaching on money, greed and solidarity with the poor because, while no one was watching, we became a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate America.  If you think this is overly-harsh, check out the Sermon on the Mount and you will see the problem.

But this marriage of Christ and anti-Christ goes deeper than political pragmatism and the lure of mammon.  Ted Cruz isn’t just a conservative Southern Baptist who occasionally shows up at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas; he is also an enthusiastic Dominionist.

This stealth enterprise goes by a variety of names: the Reconstructionist Movement, Dominionism or, more recently, the New Apostolic Reformation (I have written extensively on this subject).

Dominionism is rooted in the “presuppositional” theology of Cornelius Van Til and the political-religious musings of Rousas John Rushdoony.  (If you are unfamiliar with Cornelius and Rousas, this primer will come in handy.)

Think of it as the Reformed doctrine of election on steroids.  Rushdoony put it like this:

“The purpose of Christ’s coming was in terms of the creation mandate… The redeemed are called to the original purpose of man, to exercise dominion under God, to be covenant-keepers, and to fulfill “the righteousness of the law” (Rom. 8:4) . . . Man is summoned to create the society God requires.”

The theological category of “election” makes the marriage of Christ and anti-Christ possible.

Both Randian objectivists and Christian dominionists contrast the glories of “us” with the depravity of “them”.

It’s an anti-Christian species of Calvinism.  The wealthy and the powerful have the right to dictate to the poor and the powerless because, well, they’re so super.  Dominionists associate this authority with God (from whom all blessings flow).  For Randian objectivists it’s the law of the jungle: If the makers don’t rule the takers, the takers will rule the makers, and we can’t have that.  Both conservative Christians and anti-Christ objectivists dream of that great day when the elect will triumph and the unworthy will get a richly-deserved comeuppance.

I am not suggesting that everyone associated with the religious right thinks this way. They don’t.  But culture war logic ensures that conservative critics of this marriage of Christ and anti-Christ will be consigned to the outer darkness.

Liberals, for their part, don’t know enough about Ayn Rand or Christian Reconstructionism to discern the elephant in the room.  Besides, it’s too easy to lampoon politicians like Ted Cruz if you’re working with a liberal audience.  You can make jokes about Liberty University students compulsory attendance at the Cruz announcement speech in twenty quick seconds flat.  Liberty students wearing Rand Paul T-shifts is a great five-second sight gag.  So why do the hard work of answering hard questions that no one is asking?

Mainstream analysis, desperate to sustain the illusion of objectivity, eschews in-depth analysis of anything.  Cruz kicked off his campaign at Liberty University in an attempt to court religious conservatives.  End of story.  The marriage of Christ and anti-Christ rarely gets a mention on CNN or CBS.  It sounds mean-spirited and it smacks of liberal bias.  We don’t want to lose more conservative viewers to FOX.

But our silence comes with a price.  Ted Cruz holds this marriage of convenience together by pretending that neither Jesus nor Ayn Rand were serious.

They were; and they are.

Must we choose between belief-less Christianity and fundamentalism?

jesus-on-shroud

John Shuck is a Presbyterian pastor in good standing who doesn’t believe a single thing you learned in Sunday school.  In a recent Patheos post, Reverend Shuck issued a list of six affirmations designed to boil the blood of every right-thinking American:

  • Religion is a human construct
  • The symbols of faith are products of human cultural evolution
  • Jesus may have been an historical figure, but most of what we know about him is in the form of legend
  • God is a symbol of myth-making and not credible as a supernatural being or force
  • The Bible is a human product as opposed to special revelation from a divine being
  • Human consciousness is the result of natural selection, so there’s no afterlife

You may be wondering why, having jettisoned God, Jesus, the Bible and heaven, Rev. Shuck still wants to play church.  What’s the point? Continue reading

Why the American church can’t talk about war (and why that needs to change)

fallows pictureBy Alan Bean

“The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.”  James Fallows

If we hope to think more deeply and more honestly about the American military, we must find the courage to think morally.  In his thoughtful essay in The Atlantic, Fallows notes that public confidence in the American military soared after 9-11 and has remained strong every since.  And this while confidence in all the other institutions of society was plummeting.

In 1975, 68% of Americans reported “a great deal or quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion; in the latest Gallup survey, only 45% felt the same way–a drop of of 23 percentage points.  During the same interval, public confidence in the military moved from a low of 50% in 1981 to a high of 85% at the time of the Gulf War in 1991.  After spending most of the 1990s hovering between 65 and 68%, confidence in the military soared to 82% with the invasion of Iraq and remained strong despite the utter failure of the Iraq mission.

Fallows wonders why Americans are so willing to celebrate the military regardless of its embarrassing failures, why we are willing to spend limitless sums on high tech armaments and why we find it so easy to ignore the human cost of our military misadventures.

Fallows asks a nuanced question: Why the best soldiers in the world keep losing so badly?  He is impressed with the training, professionalism, dedication and performance of our armed forces.

Ours is the best-equipped fighting force in history, and it is incomparably the most expensive.  By all measures, today’s professionalized military is also better trained, motivated, and disciplined than during the draft-army years.  No decent person who is exposed to today’s troops can be anything but respectful of them and grateful for what they do.

Fallows is certainly right.  Soldiers are physically fit, responsible, highly disciplined, dedicated, courageous and passionately loyal to their comrades.  Charles J. Dunlap Jr., a retired Air Force major general, told Fallows that “the military constitutes “a better society than the one it serves.”

Dunlap points out that, in contrast to the World War II generation, very few Americans have a personal stake in the armed forces.  While grateful for “our brave fighting men and women” and eager to “support the troops” Fallows thinks most of us are indifferent to the plight of an increasingly insular military class.

People within that military tribe can feel both above and below the messy civilian reality of America.  Below, in the burdens placed upon them, and in the inattention to the lives, limbs, and opportunities they have lost.  Above, in being able to withstand hardships that would break their hipster or slacker contemporaries.

And yet everything the American military touches turns to dust.  Soldiers return from combat dripping with broken bodies and shattered souls.  Continue reading

We still can’t handle the truth: Chris Kyle and the religion of Empire

By Alan Bean

25KYLE-sub-articleLargeThe jury didn’t buy Eddie Ray Routh’s insanity defense and the legal experts weren’t surprised.  To win at trial, Routh’s attorneys had to prove that the ex-marine didn’t understand that shooting Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield in the back was morally wrong.

It is difficult to know what was going on in Eddie Routh’s mind the day he gunned down two innocent men at an upscale firing range in suburban Dallas.  Nicholas Schimdle’s “In the Crosshairs”, a carefully researched New Yorker  piece written shortly after the murders, makes a strong case that Routh not only suffered from PTSD but was deeply depressed and delusional in the months leading up to the murders.  But that wasn’t sufficient.  As state witnesses repeatedly emphasized, a defendant can suffer from mental illness and still distinguish right from wrong.

It is likely, in fact, that Eddie Ray Routh killed Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield because he had taken a fancy to Kyle’s spanking new Ford F-350.  Would a sane individual believe he could get away with a crime this brazen? Probably not.  But even if Routh was too detached from reality to appreciate the consequences of his action, that wasn’t enough to convince the jury.

Moments after his arrest, Routh undermined an insanity defense by answering affirmatively when a state trooper asked him if he knew what he did was wrong.

american-sniper_612x380_1Chris Kyle is widely regarded as a war hero in Stephenville, Texas and several jurors had recently seen American Sniper a Clint Eastwood biopic featured in packed theaters as the trial unfolded.  Kyle’s widow attended the Academy Awards (where American Sniper lost the best-picture competition to Birdman) short days before testifying in Routh’s trial. Continue reading

What the prayer breakfast flap is really about

obama_national_prayer_breakfast_washington_

By Alan Bean

President Obama’s comments at the annual prayer breakfast sparked a tsunami of protest from conservative politicians and opinion leaders, but it’s not clear why.  The president’s remarks were measured and carefully calibrated to the point of being banal.  But two weeks after the speech, Rudy Giuliani is using Obama’s remarks as evidence that the president “doesn’t love America.”

Bobby Jindal, the increasingly cantankerous governor of Louisiana, was so thrilled with Giuliani’s tirade that he called the former New York mayor to congratulate him.

Mike Huckabee spoke for many when he claimed that Obama favors Islam over both Christianity and Judaism.

Here’s the sound bite that really bothers conservative Christians:

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

His critics maintain that Obama was creating a moral equivalence between contemporary Christians and the ISIS thugs who burned a Jordanian pilot to death.  Christians may have done some bad stuff back in the day, the argument goes, but that was before the Protestant Reformation when a lot of bad stuff was going down.

The reference to slavery and Jim Crow really got folks riled.  “He also brought in Jim Crow laws,” Huckabee said, “as if it was Christians who were responsible for racism in America.”

Well, actually, Christians were responsible for just about all the evil perpetrated by American citizens over the centuries.  Historically, the vast majority of American decision makers have been practicing Christians.  There is a good reason why southern evangelicalism focuses so intently on personal sanctity and the afterlife while ignoring the social relevance of the gospel.  The southern “gospel” was designed to make Christianity compatible with racial oppression.  Once you have signed off on slavery, how much gospel have you still got?

The flimsy inaccuracy of the criticisms directed at the president’s prayer breakfast address suggest that something deeper is in the works.  A simple history lesson isn’t going to satisfy these people.  Either they don’t want to know their own religious, national and religious history or they know and simply don’t care.  This isn’t about that.

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann

In 1997, four years before 9-11, an Old Testament scholar named Walter Brueggemann published his Theology of the Old TestamentIn the opening chapters he offered a pencil sketch of “the economic-political crisis” driving contemporary scholarship. The big reality of the late twentieth century, Brueggemann said, was “the decentering of the long-established privilege of Euro-American Christendom.”

One sign of that “decentering” is “the relentless rise of Islam as a challenge to Christian domination.”  The tension between a dying Christendom and a resurgent Islam created “a situation of revolutionary struggle that will not abate any time soon.”

Prophetic words, as it turns out.  And it is precisely this “decentering of the long-established privilege of Euro-American Christendom” that energizes Obama’s critics.  Christianity is a spent force in Western Europe, Canada and Australia, and her demise is increasingly apparent in the coastal United States.  There are plenty of Christians living in these regions, of course, but, with few exceptions, they have become politically irrelevant.  In the West, with few exceptions, it is axiomatic that religion and politics don’t mix.

Conservative Christians in evangelical America look out on a sea of social problems and dream of a Christian America.  The last bastion of Western Christendom is in the heartland and southern states of the United States, and this is where the president’s harshest critics live.

When president Obama is chastised for “not loving America”, it is the America where Christendom is still a thing that folks are talking about.  Obama wasn’t saying that Muslims are more lovable or praiseworthy than Christians and Jews; but he was arguing that all religions should enjoy an equal footing in America.

atlantic-cover-isisObama also realizes that non-Muslims must be careful about commenting about inter-Muslim affairs.  As Graeme Wood argues in his excellent Atlantic essay, “Non-Muslims cannot tell Muslims how to practice their religion properly.”  The people with the best chance of undermining ISIS, Wood says, aren’t westerners who have no idea what’s happening or secularized Muslims who ignore Islamic teaching they find inconvenient.  Not only does ISIS not speak for Islam, Wood says, it doesn’t even speak for the vast majority of ultra-conservative Muslims who interpret the Quran literally and dream of living in a purified Islamic state.

All three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have been shaped by warfare and tragedy.  Most of the literature found in what Christians call the Old Testament was either inspired by the Babylonian catastrophe of the 6th century BCE or reworked in response to that unspeakable tragedy.  This helps explain the curious mix of beauty and rage we find in the text.  In Psalm 137, for instance:

By the waters of Babylon–there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.

gives way to

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

The author of these lines isn’t a monster; he had simply seen too many vulnerable children die in precisely this manner.

Similarly, the seer of Revelation almost certainly lived through the destruction of Jerusalem in CE in 70 CE, a debacle that claimed over 1 million people lives.  His desire to see the smoke rising from Babylon (a code name for Rome) was palpable.  As a result, the beauty of Revelation is frequently engulfed by the fires of hell.

People who want to submit completely to a religious tradition in times of great upheaval will often seize on the most violent aspects of that legacy.

leadThe young men flocking to the banner of ISIS aren’t subhuman animals; they are normal human beings who have been overshadowed, stressed and manipulated by western hegemony for so long that the desire for revenge has become all-consuming.

I cannot grasp, for the life of me, how a video depicting the immolation of a helpless man can spark dreams of glory. ISIS videos are of a piece with the postcards Southerners once distributed to commemorate the lynching (often over an open fire) of a poor Black man.  Both cultural artifacts fill me with dismay and incomprehension.

Those fighting for the survival of American Christendom can’t see the ISIS fighters as human beings; instead they are regarded as pure evil, a subhuman manifestation of the demonic.  The evil driving ISIS is undeniable; but it is a sadly human species of evil.  In fact, it’s precisely the brand of evil that has marred the American story.

Those fighting a last ditch battle to preserve American Christendom have good reason for concern.  But Western Christendom, like Babylon and Rome before it, is a doomed enterprise.  The patient is on life support; the kind response is to pull the plug and let her go.  Then we can start considering comes next.

A religious consensus grounded in a myopic Southern evangelicalism isn’t sustainable, nor should it deserve to be sustained.  Young people are not inspired by the old, old story us old-timers took in with our mother’s milk.  Millennials are asking hard questions and the guardians of American Christendom have no answers.  None at all.

The only choice is to go back to the beginning.  For Christians, that means returning to the majesty of Jesus and hearing him speak to us as if for the first time.

Lincoln_O-62_by_Gardner,_1862-cropBut president Obama is right to insist that neither Christianity nor any other religion should claim special privilege in America.  We can still be “the last, best hope of earth,” but not by clinging to privilege.  Lincoln’s “last, best hope of earth” reference dovetailed with an appeal for new dreams.  “The dogmas of the quiet past,” Lincoln insisted in 1862, “are inadequate to the stormy present.”

Lincoln was right.  We live in a revolutionary time. You see it in the Muslim world, and you see it in the peculiar religious politics in our America.  The old verities and compromises cannot stand; the center will not hold. New light is needed.

This means that Christians, Muslims, Jews and representatives of all the great religions of the world must bring their wisdom to the table.  In times of religious strife secularism looks mighty tempting.  For some it may be right.  We need the calm voice of reason.   But excluding religious wisdom from the world of politics is neither practical nor desirable.

If we have the courage to realize that “the dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present,” we might still become the last, best hope of earth.

Kyle or Kayla: who’s your hero?

abc_gma_vega_130206_wgBy Alan Bean

There is Kayla Mueller’s America and there is Chris Kyle’s America and we can’t identify with both.  There is Kayla Mueller’s Christianity and Chris Kyle’s Christianity and the two religions have little in common.  Kyle or Kayla; who’s your hero?

Kayla Mueller was taken captive by ISIS militants while working with Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) in a hospital dedicated to treating refugees from Syria’s civil war.  This was how she lived out her faith.  Earlier faith adventures took Mueller to India, Israel and Palestine.

Kayla-Mueller-YouTubeMueller traveled to Israel in 2010 to work with African immigrants but spent most of her time working with the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement.  Mueller later reflected on this experience in a blog post.

“I could tell a few stories about sleeping in front of half demolished buildings waiting for the one night when the bulldozers come to finish them off; fearing sleep because you don’t know what could wake you…. I could tell a few stories about walking children home from school because settlers next door are keen to throw stones, threaten and curse at them.”

“The smell and taste of tear gas has lodged itself in the pores of my throat and the skin around my nose, mouth and eyes. It still burns when I close them. It still hangs in the air like invisible fire burning the oxygen I breathe. When I cry tears for this land, my eyes still sting. This land that is beautiful as the poetry of the mystics. This land with the people whose hearts are more expansive than any wall that any man could ever build.”

In the eyes of many, Kayla Mueller’s sympathy for the Palestinian people defined her as anti-Israel and anti-American.  Such conclusions make sense from the perspective of Chris Kyle Christianity.

I haven’t read Kyle’s book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, nor have I seen Clint Eastwood’s movie.  Chris Hedges read the book and watched the film and came away horrified.

Kyle was given the nickname “Legend.” He got a tattoo of a Crusader cross on his arm. “I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting,” he wrote. “I always will.” Following a day of sniping, after killing perhaps as many as six people, he would go back to his barracks to spent his time smoking Cuban Romeo y Julieta No. 3 cigars and “playing video games, watching porn and working out.” On leave, something omitted in the movie, he was frequently arrested for drunken bar fights. He dismissed politicians, hated the press and disdained superior officers, exalting only the comradeship of warriors. His memoir glorifies white, “Christian” supremacy and war. It is an angry tirade directed against anyone who questions the military’s elite, professional killers.

“For some reason, a lot of people back home—not all people—didn’t accept that we were at war,” he wrote. “They didn’t accept that war means death, violent death, most times. A lot of people, not just politicians, wanted to impose ridiculous fantasies on us, hold us to some standard of behavior that no human being could maintain.”

Chris Kyle has a point.  It is unrealistic to expose young men to pro-military propaganda, send them to boot camp, hand them a rifle, tell them to kill citizens of a demonized race, and then criticize them for joking about mass murder.  War does mean “violent death”.  And repeated exposure to violent death destroys the spirit.  This is particularly true when you are personally responsible for the violence and death.

Military veterans deal with the spiritual damage of war in different ways.  Some end up on the streets.  Some, like the tormented vet who gunned Kyle down at a shooting range, veer into madness.  Kyle dealt with the trauma of war by creating a version of Christianity featuring a mirror image denial of everything Jesus did and taught: a bizarre blend of white, middle class, hearth-and-home sentimentality and a Manichean dualism driven by hatred of the “other” and a joyful (and uniquely American) embrace of violence, pornography, machismo, hatred and death.  (If you think I’m exaggerating here, please read Hedges’ review of American Sniper, book and movie.)

Kayla Mueller’s Christianity flowed from the gospel of the kingdom that sent Jesus to his cross.  The oft-quoted words from her prison cell are twenty-first century Dietrich Bonhoeffer (you can read the hand-written letter in its entirety here):

“I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else … + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.”

Will Hollywood make a movie about Kayla Mueller?  Don’t hold your breath.  As the box office success of American Sniper shows, Chris Kyle Christianity enjoys mass appeal. By contrast, Kayla Mueller Christianity reminds us that “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Kayla “tenderly cradled” the victims of violence; Kyle embodied the myth of redemptive violence.  Kyle and Kayla can’t both be heroes; you’ve got to choose.