Desperate Houseflies: The Magazine

Feel free to pull out your trusty fly swatter and comment on what is posted here, realizing that this odd collection of writers may prove as difficult to kill as houseflies and are presumably just as pesky. “Desperate Houseflies” is a magazine that intends to publish weekly articles on subjects such as politics, literature, history, sports, photography, religion, and no telling what else. We’ll see what happens.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Mid-Season All-Stars

This week's Sports Illustrated features Tom Verducci's mid-season All-Stars. Here's the list:

NATIONAL LEAGUE:
C: Michael Barrett
1B: Albert Pujols
2B: Chase Utley
3B: Scott Rolen
SS: Edgar Renteria
OF: Jason Bay
OF: Carlos Beltran
OF: Matt Holliday
SP: Brandon Webb
RP: Trevor Hoffman

AMERICAN LEAGUE:
C: Joe Mauer
1B: Jason Giambi
2B: Jose Lopez
3B: Troy Glaus
SS: Miguel Tejada
OF: Jermaine Dye
OF: Vernon Wells
OF: Alex Rios
SP: Johan Santana
RP: Jonathan Papelbon

Any disagreements?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Quarterly Book Report: Kevin Brockmeier's "The Brief History of the Dead"

The Dead, it would seem, live in a world not so dissimilar from our own. A parallel universe constructed much the same as our own. There are towns and streets and shops and newspapers. There are rich and poor. People go to work doing the same thing as they did when they were living. They are married to the same people, have the same friends, move in the same circles. The Dead try to recreate their life after death just as it had been when they were alive. And they don’t age. They are forever the age they were when they died. But the Dead, their world exists only as long as their memory is alive in someone’s mind. For instance, I would live in the next world only as long as someone I had known while alive, or had even met in passing, still lived. And because this world is created from the memory of someone still alive, only the good parts of a persons' life exist when they die. The living seem to have forgiving memories.

This is the afterlife Kevin Brockmeier creates in The Brief History of the Dead.

This version of the afterlife is created through a catastrophic event, a pandemic like none before. There is an unknown disease that strikes earth and within days wipes out almost every human. No one knows what the disease is or how it spreads. People develop symptoms and then are dead within a few hours. The only survivors are three researchers on Antarctica. They are in a remote outpost, even for Antarctica, and haven’t had any contact with anyone. So they are not exposed to the disease. But they are running out of supplies. Winter is coming. When they begin to run perilously low on supplies, they head out across the continent to their supply center.

The Dead have never really questioned why they are where they are. They seem to assimilate to their new home fairly quickly. It’s an easy process, as they are quickly surrounded by people they have known in their life. They seem to accept it when someone leaves them – when someone dead dies and moves on to whatever comes after death. These people disappear as soon as the last person who knew them dies. This is normal. But the catastrophic disease speeds up the disappearances. The Dead begin to wonder why so many people are disappearing so quickly. The Dead are disappearing so quickly that their cities are shrinking, their newspapers aren’t being delivered, they can’t find a decent hair-jelly. The Dead start putting the pieces together. They begin to figure out why they are still “alive.” They are alive because of their connections to the three researchers, the only three humans still alive.

So despite almost all of humanity dying, despite half of the book taking place in the land of the Dead, The Brief History of the Dead isn’t actually about the dead. It’s about how we remember – or forget – the people we meet in our lives. History, as the cliche goes, is often forgiving. Our uncle’s brutality in life is forgotten as we choose to remember the better aspects of his life. We remember his goof-ball jokes or his hard work ethic. We choose to remember the good things about those who die. One of Brockmeier’s unstated questions in the book seems to be: is this a good thing? Is it good to be so forgiving to the Dead? Is it good to forget about the mistakes those we were close to made during their lives? He doesn’t answer the question, he just constructs a world in which no one has faults, where no one has any knowledge of the faults of others. This sounds very much like Heaven.

The problem is, this isn’t Heaven. This is just another version of the same life people live on Earth. What comes after that...well, he doesn’t even speculate. So in essence, Brockmeier dodges the question of what actually happens after death. The second question unstated question of the book is: why can we only dream of places that we have been? For me, and for Brockmeier, that’s the real problem with death – trying to imagine what the next world will be like. If indeed there is a next life. Brockmeier's History is about how the living construct a world for the dead. It's about our inability to dream of a world very different from the one we now live in. Heaven is often just a better version of the life we already live rather than a completely different existence.

Brockmeier, for those of us from Arkansas, is a local boy – lives in Little Rock. He’s written several books, although this is the first one I’ve read. It’s very well written. He’s got talent, and he’s relatively unknown. At least I don’t hear much about him. And he writes a novel in which almost all of the characters are either dead or dying, and he does so without making this tragic. Which is an accomplishment.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Please Tell Me They're Kidding With This Crap

Well, I have to apologize to you all. For the past few weeks, I have been singularly uninspired and thus my lack of blog postage. Nothing really moved me to say something I thought worth sharing, at least not anything that I hadn't written about once or twice before.

But then I saw this article on Salon, and remembered that I had read something recently that induced gagging and retching noises. It's the flag-burning amendment.

[Note: what I'm about to say is highly inflammatory and written in a sarcastic, condescending tone. I honestly and sincerely believe that it is immoral to be patriotic, but I didn't write that post, I wrote this one. What can I say, I'm good at sarcasm. I promise to return to being warm and fuzzy next time].

I tried to think of something erudite and high-minded to say on this issue. But I got nothin'. Because this entire NON-issue is so soul-numbingly, mind-blowingly stupid, pointless, and asinine that it sets my teeth on edge. Never mind that hardly anyone inside the United States has burned a flag since the 1970s -- we need to amend the United States Consitution to prevent it anyway. The money and time that are being frittered away on this annoys the crap out of me.

I guess you've figured it out by now. Because I'm missing the "patriot" gene, I get exceedingly frustrated with those who have it. Yes, I will come out of the closet here: Patriotism is completely beyond my comprehension. It has always struck me as a thinly-disguised way to assert an ill-imagined superiority over people who live in other countries. A superiority that I, frankly, haven't felt since I was in junior high, before a classmate thankfully knocked me out of my Reagan-induced Yankee Doodle delusion with a much-needed dose of reason.

I should point out before anyone has their stereotypes reinforced that many, many of my otherwise progressive friends disagree with me about patriotism. They spout what sounds to me like inane hogwash about "reclaiming" patriotism, as if it ever was or could be a "good thing." I'm not buying. But most Americans apparently are, which is why this time, the amendment is closer to passage than it ever has been.

The flag thing is one aspect of the patriotism thing, and perhaps the aspect that I find most puzzling. Maybe someone in the audience can explain to me what this obsession with the flag is all about. It seemed pretty obvious to me when I was 13 and the Supreme Court struck down Texas' anti-flag-burning law, and it seems obvious to me today: it's just a piece of cloth, folks. Really. Burning a mass-produced replica of the Stars and Stripes is not at all akin to, say, flying an airplane into the Capitol. Why pretend that it is? Why waste a colossal amount of time and energy on something that happens so rarely and that has no effect at all on the continued functioning of the government or the well-being of the citizenry? Not to mention the fact that amending the Constitution is NOT something that should be taken this lightly.

Look, despite my tenure with the ACLU, I am not fully a First Amendment absolutist. In fact, the First Amendment is the least of the reasons I oppose the existence of this trumped-up issue. My reason is that I don't think the American people need to have their knee-jerk desire to view themselves as the most virtuous, most powerful, and most blessed people on earth reinforced. We have our problems just like everyone else. Sure, there are positive aspects to our system of government and our civil society. There are also lots of negative ones. I don't understand why it seems so central to the sense of self-worth of the average American voter to believe that we are better than other people due to the accident of having been born here. The potential passage of the flag amendment seems to me like the latest manifestation of this misguided patriotism fetish -- and worse, of the fact that Republican ideas about patriotism are currently winning the day.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Failure of Imagination

My favorite passage in Graham Greene’s classic novel, The Power and the Glory, is found in a prison cell, when the main character (a pitiable alcoholic priest) considers one of his cell mates. The novel is set in a time when Christianity was outlawed in Mexico, and the sad priest is on the run. His alcohol addiction lands him in jail, an inhuman, overcrowded jail. It is here, surrounded by hopelessness, that the priest reveals who he is, only to find himself ridiculed by a woman for being a bad priest.

Greene writes, He couldn’t see her in the darkness, but there were plenty of faces he could remember from the old days which fitted the voice. When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity… that was a quality God’s image carried with it… when you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.

Hate was just a failure of imagination. That is a statement I intend to carry with me. Jesus-followers are called to learn to love one another, but maybe the prerequisite course is to first learn how not to hate. To do so, we must learn to use our imaginations, to see God in every person. Jesus said that it is easy to love those who love us, those who are like us, those we count naturally as friends and family. It is not easy to learn to love those different from us: for some, this is those who are looked down on in society (the outcasts), while for others, this is the religiously stuffy.

Whoever it may be, the call is to look beyond the exterior, to employ the imagination to see hints of God in those we find different, not to hate, and then, if by grace, to love.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Something More Important Than Sports

* NOTE: I'm going to be out of pocket for several days (just so's ya know). I didn't feel like bragging about the NBA Finals today or making fun of either Clemens or Pujols in their grand returns yesterday. I did run across this both troubling and inspiring article in an email from Sojourners this week, and I wanted to share it with you for your consideration and/or comments.


Shining a ray of light on Thailand's sex trade
by David Batstone

My ongoing investigation of the slave trade - 27 million people around the globe are trapped in forced labor at this moment - took me to Southeast Asia this past week. Prior to the trip, I had poured over a considerable amount of research about the trafficking of women and children for the sex trade in the region. Reading about the practice is disturbing enough; seeing it first hand proved to be overwhelming.

In Cambodia and Thailand I visited several projects that care for individuals lucky enough to escape - or be rescued - from the bars and brothels that exploit them. I cannot get out of my head the sight of the 50 girls between the ages of 7 and 12 who found safe haven in one rescue center in Cambodia. To think that grown men used these innocent, slight girls for their sexual pleasures numbs the mind. Thanks to the efforts of faith-based activists, these girls are now in a safe environment where they can imagine a better life.

A growing movement of abolitionists offer a glimmer of hope in the human trafficking story. In the spirit of William Wilberforce and his 19th century contemporaries who felt called by God to bring an end to the African slave trade, they act with faith and conviction to "bring release to the captives."

Annie Dieselberg, who operates a refuge in Bangkok, Thailand, views abolition as her Christian vocation. She calls her project NightLight Ministry, playing off the image of a light that leads to safety in moments of darkness. The creativity behind her project matches the compassion that brought it into existence.

When she launched NightLight in 2005, Annie aimed to offer an alternative for young girls who work in bars that operate as brothels. Annie and her husband had worked in various ministries in Thailand for more than a decade. Witnessing so many women in Bangkok forced to engage in demeaning sex work stirred her to pray for the chance to help them. In early 2005 she took a visiting U.S. church group to a brothel bar. While the men in the church group stayed outside praying, Annie led the women went inside to make a caring connection.

"One of the young prostitutes told me that she hated being at the bar," says Annie. The woman was 22 years old, with two children. "When I asked her where she would like to be in her life," Annie continued, "She told me that she would like to be home with her kids."

So Annie and her sisters in the faith paid the bar owner 600 baht (roughly $15) to take the woman out of the bar for the night - the normal price for a customer. This night, however, the price transformed into a redemption. Annie decided to turn this one-night reprieve into a life-changing opportunity. She had spent the last year teaching herself to make jewelry, and she spontaneously offered the young women a job to work alongside her.

Programs that encourage girls to escape the sex trade but leave them poor and jobless do not lead to long-term success stories. In short, the girls remain vulnerable to being trafficked once again.

Annie designed the project to equip young women for life beyond the brothel. Like a prism, NightLight can be viewed from a number of angles. To start, it is a for-profit business that trains women how to make and sell jewelry. The products are made in NightLight's humble factory in central Bangkok, and sold through church networks in Thailand and the United States. The jewelry is high-quality and the design ranges from classic to trendy - my 15-year-old daughter was thrilled with the NightLight pearl-string necklace with a cross that I brought back for her.

NightLight pays the mostly young women a salary twice the minimum wage established by Thai law. Obviously, the workers will not become rich quick off this pay, but the compensation does offer a sustainable livelihood. To pay the women a salary rather than a piecework scheme (per produced item) also enables NightLight's underlying mission to develop healthy women. During the course of a work day, women engage in workshops on health care and HIV/AIDS prevention, managing personal finances, and take English classes. The workforce also is invited to daily worship services to kick off the work day, and a weekly spiritual formation class. Participation in religious activities is not a requirement for employment.

NightLight now employs 32 women in its jewelry business and several more women are on a list pending employment. The biggest hurdle for expansion: financial resources. Truth be known, Annie never intended to grow this fast. The project took on a life of its own as word spread through the brothel bars that escape was possible. And Annie understandably finds it hard to put on the brakes. "At one point early on I felt like we had to halt our progress," she said. "But then one young woman whom I had been praying for over six years called me and asked if I would help her leave the brothel where she was working. I took it as a sign from God to move forward," she said. As she says this last statement, she raises her arms as if to add, "And who am I to stop God's work?"

The mixed demographic of the women who find their way to NightLight reflects the international scope of human trafficking. The 32 escaped prostitutes come from nine distinct countries: Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand, China, Laos, Ukraine, and India. These girls did not plan to come to Bangkok in most cases to work in a brothel. They were deceived, kidnapped, trafficked, and exploited.

Annie makes it clear that resisting the criminal networks that make money off the trade of human beings must go beyond the humble efforts of NightLight. "We badly need a movement of the Spirit in the global church," she tells me. When I ask what that will take, she remarks with a laugh that more Christians need to read Sojourners. "What I mean by that," she explains, "is that Christians need to understand that their faith has to take specific action for justice in the world."

When I press Annie whether churches can actually impact the global slave trade, she becomes resolute: "I grew up in the mission field in Zaire for most of my childhood, along with a couple years in Thailand, and I saw a great deal of injustice. But when I watch the darkness that destroys the lives of young children in the sex trade, I feel that I am confronting a profoundly evil spiritual force."

For that reason, Annie looks to churches to deploy prayer and action against human trafficking in their own local region, and link those efforts to international movements. "The world badly needs the love for family and bonds of community that the church teaches," she said. "Now we have to go out into the society and live it."

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The First and Oldest

I’m not really posting a day early. Actually, I’m six days late. Real life intruded on the Blogisphere last week - visits by all three children and three grandchildren plus moving my mother-in-law in to live with us.

Meanwhile, a lot of interesting anniversaries in history have gone by, but none of them any more important than this one. 218 years ago today, the oldest continuously functioning written national Constitution in the world became official. On this day in 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document, hammered out by the Constitutional Convention nine months before, thus achieving the 2/3 majority required for it to become binding. The new Constitution actually went into effect on March 4, 1789, with 9 states participating. Virginia and New York signed on that summer, North Carolina in November, and the final of the original 13 Colonies, Rhode Island, in May 1790. The final piece of the puzzle, the Bill of Rights, wasn’t ratified until the following year.
At the close of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 18, 1787, a lady in the crowd stopped Benjamin Franklin and asked him directly: "Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?" "A republic, if you can keep it" responded Franklin.

Americans were the first colonial people to successfully revolt and separate from the mother country, and our Constitution has become the standard for representative government. What do you think men like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton would think if they could see us today? We hear a lot of talk about “Original Intent” concerning interpretation of the Constitution. If these and other original authors and collaborators could see how the document has been amended and is being interpreted today, what do you think they would say?

A few interesting quotes about a Republic verses a Democracy:

"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."
"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."

Winston Churchill

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!"
Benjamin Franklin
[Any NRA members out there? I wonder why Franklin’s quote isn’t their national motto.]

"Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos."
John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, 1801-1835

Comments?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

On Father's Day

I’ve been reading a lot of stuff recently written by a complex theologian named Stanley Hauerwas. He doesn’t think like… well, anybody. Possibly too smart for his own good, he comes at issues from different angles and causes everyone to think (whether you like him or not). When I haven’t been completely lost, I think I’ve learned a thing or two.

Some of his essays criticize the romantic presuppositions about marriage in our culture. People think they should marry because they have “fallen in love” with one another, though this motivation for marriage is not a Bible idea, nor even a very old motivation. One of the negative side effects of this romantic ideal is that people also choose to have sex because they have “fallen in love” instead of reserving sex for marriage. The tragedy is that this misguided notion has led many men to leave women alone when they have “fallen out of love,” leaving them to care for children without the help of the husband.

Christians should offer an alternative view to the world. Marriage commits two people for a lifetime. In addition, Christians should care for everyone, especially the weak and vulnerable (and both children and single parents more than qualify), so in a world like ours, Christians should be prepared to open their arms for all who are in need. As James puts it, a significant part of pure religion involves caring for the “fatherless.” (1:27)

So on Father’s Day, those of us Christian men who have produced children should be reminded of our responsibility to our children. But taken one step further, we should all remember our responsibility to serve as “fathers” to so many in the world who have fallen victim to our misguided culture. May Father’s Day remind us of that calling.

Friday, June 16, 2006

So, What Do We Think About Breast-Feeding?

I feel bad for not posting on my appointed day -- incredibly busy week at work -- so I thought I would share with you all this article from the New York Times regarding a new ad campaign that suggests that formula-feeding babies is bad for their health.

Now, I know that the audience for this blog is largely male, but that's exactly why I thought it would be interesting to get some reactions. Here's some background for those who've never thought about this issue: I don't know the precise timeline, but mid-20th century breast-feeding fell very out of fashion and out of favor with doctors. Breast milk out, formula in. Over time, it became apparent that the switch to formula was not in fact better for babies, and evidence has been mounting that formula is greatly inferior to breast milk. But the formula companies had already sunk their claws into American culture and were not letting go without a fight. Large swathes of the country apparently still believe that formula is just as good as breast milk. Many of these same people find breast-feeding icky, think that "breasts are for husbands, not babies," and that it shouldn't be allowed in public (a la Barbara Walters on The View). Formula companies provide free samples that hospitals push on women, discouraging them from continuing to breast-feed at the first sign of trouble. Workplaces (except in California) are not required to accommodate breast-feeding mothers, and many don't provide pumping breaks or a clean and private space to pump. All of this can and should change, in my view.

On the other hand, a lot of people find the ad campaign to be overstated and heavy-handed. I agree. Misstating the facts about the science on this issue, and in general using shock-value tactics to raise public awareness, seems the wrong way to go about this. When they feel preached or condescended to, people often tend to react by opposition -- not what anyone who wants to improve the health of America's infants really wants.

I don't know where I'm going with this, I guess I just wanted to hear someone go off about the breast-feeding Nazis and how people should be able to feed their babies sugar water and put a nip in their bottles because that's our God-given right as free Americans. Any takers? :)

FINAL(S) ANALYSIS (or, FINAL-ly)

Shaq said it best: “I think this is our first almost-good game.” My sentiments exactly.

After a good 1st quarter in Game 1, the Heat played ten horrible quarters in a row, but beginning with a strong 4th quarter in Game 3, they are now on a five-quarter winning streak. But even though Dallas has outplayed Miami 10 to 6 in terms of quarters, the bottom line is that the series is tied at two games apiece with a best of three remaining for the NBA championship. We’re starting over now.

As much as I’d like to promote basketball strategy as rocket science, it just isn’t that hard. It is probably more complex than some people expect it to be, but in the end it comes down to a few simple things: (a) there are two sides of the court, offense and defense, and (b) there are three important areas on each of those ends: match-ups, intensity, and execution.

When two teams play for the NBA championship, intensity on both ends of the floor should be a wash, although for most of this series, Dallas has wanted to win more than Miami. That seemed to change somewhat last night.

When it comes to match-ups, Miami has what should be a big advantage. With a huge presence in the post, a Jordan-esque guard, and spot-up shooters on the offensive end, the undersized Mavericks shouldn’t have an answer. And although Nowitski is a wonderful freak of nature on the other end of the court… (a) Dallas has no inside game, (b) penetrating to the basket has the unfortunate mountain of Shaq to deal with, so (c) their only strength is on the perimeter. (I learned my senior year in high school, if that’s all you got, you aren’t going to win very much.)

So it should come down to execution. If Miami executes (and plays like they care), they should win.

Last night’s Game 4 pretty much showed this. Miami still allowed Dallas too many open 3-point shots (twenty-two!). Miami still had far too many careless turnovers (eighteen!). Their intensity and execution still wasn’t what it ought to be to win a championship.

But, as Shaq said, it was their first “almost-good” game.

If they can get their act together, the series is now theirs for the taking.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Finally... (the last installment in the Hauerwas speech)

The Male Issue

When addressing abortion, one of the crucial questions that we must engage is the question of the relationship between men and women, and thus sexual ethics. One of the things that the church has tried to do--and this is typical of the liberal social order in which we live--is to isolate the issue of abortion from the issue of sexual ethics. You cannot do that.

As this evening's sermon suggests, the legalization of abortion can be seen as the further abandonment of women by men. one of the cruelest things that has happened over the last few years is convincing women that Yes is as good as No. That gives great power to men, especially in societies (like ours) where men continue domination. Women's greatest power is the power of the No. This simply has to be understood. The church has to make it clear that we understand that sexual relations are relations of power.

Unfortunately, one of the worst things that Christians have done is to underwrite romantic presuppositions about marriage. Even Christians now think that we ought to marry people simply because they are "in love." Wrong, wrong, wrong! What could being in love possibly mean? The romantic view underwrites the presumption that, because people are in love, it is therefore legitimate for them to have sexual intercourse, whether they are married or not. Contrary to this is the church's view of marriage. To the church, marriage is the public declaration that two people have pledged to live together faithfully for a lifetime.

One of the good things about the church's understanding of marriage is that it helps us to get a handle on making men take responsibility for their progeny. It is a great challenge for any society to get its men to take up this responsibility. As far as today's church is concerned, we must start condemning male promiscuity. The church will not have a valid voice on abortion until she attacks male promiscuity with the ferocity it deserves. And we have got to get over being afraid of appearing prudish. Male promiscuity is nothing but the exercise of reckless power. It is injustice. And by God we have to go after it. There is no compromise on this. Men must pay their dues. There is absolutely no backing off from that.

Christians must challenge the romanticization of sex in our society. It ends up with high school kids having sexual intercourse because they think they love one another. Often we must say that that is rape. Let us be clear about it. No fourteen-year-old, unattractive women--who is not part of the social clique of a high school, who is suddenly dated by some male, who falls all over herself with the need for approval, and who ends up in bed with him--can be said to have had anything other than rape happen to her. Let the church speak honestly about these matters and quit pussyfooting around. Until we speak clearly on male promiscuity, we will simply continue to make the problems of teen-age pregnancy and abortion female problems. Males have to be put in their place. There is no way we as a church can have an authentic voice without this clear witness.

The "Wanted Child" Syndrome

There is one other issue that I think is worth highlighting. It concerns how abortion in our society has dramatically affected the practice of having children. In discussions about abortion, one often hears that no "unwanted child" ought to be born. But I can think of no greater burden than having to be a wanted child.

When I taught the marriage course at Notre Dame, the parents of my students wanted me to teach their kids what the parents did not want them to do. The kids, on the other hand, approached the course from the perspective of whether or not they should feel guilty for what they had already done. Not wanting to privilege either approach, I started the course with the question, What reason would you give for you or someone else wanting to have a child?" And you would get answers like, "Well, children are fun." In that case I would ask them to think about their brothers and/or sisters. Another answer was, Children are a hedge against loneliness Then I recommended getting a dog. Also I would note that if they really wanted to feel lonely, they should think about someone they raised turning out to be a stranger. Another student reply was, Kids are a manifestation of our love." "Well," I responded, "what happens when your love changes and you are still stuck with them" I would get all kinds of answers like these from my students. But, in effect, these answers show that people today do not know why they are having children.

It happened three or four times that someone in the class, usually a young woman, would raise her hand and say, "I do not want to talk about this anymore." What this means is that they know that they are going to have children, and yet they do not have the slightest idea why. And they do not want it examined. You can talk in your classes about whether God exists all semester and no one cares, because it does not seem to make any difference. But having children makes a difference, and the students are frightened that they do not know about these matters.

Then they would come up with that one big answer that sounds good. They would say, "We want to have children in order to make the world a better place." And by that, they think that they ought to have a perfect child. And then you get into the notion that you can have a child only if you have everything set--that is, if you are in a good "relationship," if you have your finances in good shape, the house, and so on. As a result, of course, we absolutely destroy our children, so to speak, because we do not know how to appreciate their differences.

Now who knows what we could possibly want when we "want a child"? The idea of want in that context is about as silly as the idea that we can marry the right person. That just does not happen. Wanting a child is particularly troubling as it finally results in a deep distrust of mentally and physically handicapped children. The crucial question for us as Christians is what kind of people we need to be to be capable of welcoming children into this world, some of whom may be born disabled and even die.

Too often we assume compassion means preventing suffering and think that we ought to prevent suffering even if it means eliminating the sufferer. In the abortion debate, the church's fundamental challenge is to challenge this ethics of compassion. There is no more fundamental issue than that. People who defend abortion defend it in the name of compassion. "We do not want any unwanted children born into the world," they say. But Christians are people who believe that any compassion that is not formed by the truthful worship of the true God cannot help but be accursed. That is the fundamental challenge that Christians must make to this world. It is not going to be easy.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

In At The Knees

I took this at Ameriquest in Arlington a couple of summers ago. I liked it.

Image hosted by Webshots.com
by alsturgeon

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Heat is Off

If I could claim a sport as my own, it would have to be basketball. So after suffering through last night’s Game 1 of the NBA Finals, I’ve got to make some comments.

Sports Illustrated gives the series edge to Dallas. They published this pretty little chart which says that Dirk and Jason Terry are superior at their positions, Shaq and Dwyane Wade are superior at theirs, and that the Antoine Walker / Adrian Griffin match-up is a wash. With a deeper bench and home court, SI gives the nod to Dallas. That all makes for a pretty page in a magazine, but that’s not the way basketball works.

And I should preface my comments with the fact that I am pulling for Miami. As an SEC sort of guy, the fact the four of the five Miami starters are from SEC schools makes me a bit biased toward the Heat, and when you add the fact that the fifth starter (Wade) is one of the most electrifying players in the league, I really like their starting lineup. Though I have nothing against Dallas, except the one thing that really tilts me toward Miami, and that is that I do not want to even imagine what will happen if Mark Cuban wins a title. Let me get back to basketball before I get nauseous.

Simply put, Jason Terry was amazing last night. In addition to exhibiting self-control in not punching anyone where the sun don’t shine (like he did in San Antonio), he played an amazing game from start to finish. I was very impressed.

On the other hand, Miami stunk.

Oh, for the biggest part of the first quarter, they looked awesome. Williams and Wade driving to the hoop as the playmakers they are supposed to be. Haslem and Walker were hitting the boards and knocking down the open jump shots as NBA forwards should, and Shaq was there as a mountainous distraction on the offensive end and a rebounding force on the defensive end. Then, it all went to pot.

It all began when Riley screwed up a good thing with substitutions. I’ve never understood that. When you are hitting on all cylinders, why would you mess with it? You don’t do that in football (Peyton Manning is on fire today, so let’s sit his butt down and let the backup quarterback throw a few). You don’t do that in baseball (Clemens has a no-hitter going through four – let’s go to the pen). I know Shaq needs about eight beach towels every once in a while and a few gallons of water to deal with all that sweat, but Zo only played five minutes last night. It was the refusal to hammer the Mavs with what they couldn’t stop in the first quarter that shifted the momentum of the entire game.

I could just complain. Gary Payton played like basketball was a new sport to him. Dwyane Wade was actually lazy in between highlight reel plays. Shaq’s free throw performance looked like a preschooler.

But the bottom line is that Riley didn’t do anything noteworthy after the first quarter when things went south.

DEFENSE: The Heat held the Mavs to 90 points, which may seem like an accomplishment, and yet the Mavs never had to adjust to anything! The Heat have a tremendous advantage on the interior, and instead of playing to their strength, they allowed the Dallas perimeter game to function all night, scoring 60 of their 90 points outside the paint. The Mavericks never had to adjust to anything, scoring equally in every quarter, and from the same places, and this was mostly because there was no intensity on the Heat’s defensive end. Wade had a couple of spectacular blocks and steals, but outside of that, he was lazy.

OFFENSE: But the Heat defense was exemplary compared to their incompetent offense. Regardless of SI’s handy comparison chart, the Heat should murder the Mavs on the offensive end. There is absolutely no reason they shouldn’t. They have no answer to Shaq. He is too huge to stop, and when double-teamed, he is one of the best passers in the game. This is not rocket science. Send the ball in to the big fella every stinking time. Haslem & Walker & Wade & Williams can all cut to the basket and finish. They can all knock down the open jumpers all night long. Absolutely no answer. (Unless, that is, you put in Gary Payton who can neither shoot nor finish.) The Heat scored 31 points in the first quarter when they were sticking with their obvious offensive strategy that should win the series for them. They scored 49 points the rest of the entire game when they didn’t (including a whopping 13 in the 2nd quarter and 12 in the critical 4th quarter).

So if Pat Riley’s listening, and I’m sure he is, all is not lost. A few simple things and Miami will win as they should:

#1: Ride your team’s butts on the defensive end (take a lesson from Avery). Chew Wade out when he’s lazy in defensive transition. Ask them to possibly play defense like they might want to win. Have Haslem make Dirk drive, where he will have to run into Shaq/Zo and a sneaky Dwyane Wade. Make everyone drive. You have the advantage in the paint. They have the advantage on the perimeter. Just play to your advantage!

#2: Pound the ball inside and have your starters ready to spot up and/or cut to the basket. Once again, not rocket science. Do this. Rinse and repeat.

#3: Only play Gary Payton to make a point about defensive intensity. Then sit his butt down before he shoots.

#4: And finally, might someone suggest to Shaq to use his legs when he shoots a free throw? Sheesh! Require him to use his legs when he shoots. I know you hate to mess up his 0-8 rhythm, but I say it’s worth a shot anyway!

Okay, now I’m ready for Game 2.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Today in History

"History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon"
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 - 1821)

Being ask to post something about "History" is almost like being given a license to steal. You can ride off in any direction and still claim some tie it in with the subject.

Here are only a few of the people and events associated just with this week:

June 5
First manned public balloon flight - 1783
First installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin published - 1851
Robert F. Kennedy mortally wounded by Sirhan Sirhan - 1968
Ronald Reagan dies - 2004

June 6
William Quantrill killed - 1865
First federal gasoline tax (1 cent/gal) - 1932
First drive-in theater opens (enhancing the romantic prospects of several generations of American teenagers) - 1933
D-Day - 1944
George Orwell’s 1984 is published - 1949

June 7
Mohandas Gandhi’s first act of civil disobedience (Pietermaritzburg South Africa) - 1893

June 8
Muhammad dies at Medina - 632
Apache Chief Cochise dies in Arizona Territory - 1874
RFK buried at Arlington, near his brother - 1968

June 9
Battle of Brandy Station (largest Cavalry battle of the Civil War) - 1863
Donald Duck has his film Debut - 1934
"Pay as you go" income tax withholding instituted - 1943

June 10
Briget Bishop hanged (first of 19 victims of the Salem Witch trials) - 1692
Clyde Barrow wrecks car near Wellington Texas, and his girlfriend, Bonnie Parker Thornton, is badly burned. Earlier the same day, but almost 1,000 miles east, John Dillinger, with two other men, robs his first bank (New Carlisle, Ohio). Gets $10,600 - 1933

June 11
John Wayne dies - 1979

Anyone in this group who can’t find something to comment on out of that list is just not trying very hard.

My personal favorite from this week, however, involves a fellow named Richard Henry Lee. In the summer of 1776, Lee was 44 years old, the same age as George Washington, and was a well known and respected delegate to the Second Continental Congress from Virginia. Even though fighting with the British had begun over a year ago, the sentiment in the Colonies for independence was far from universal, but Lee was part of the group that believed it was time to formally place the question before Congress. On June 7, 1776, he rose and offered the following resolution:
"That these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown; and that all political connexion between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

The issue was debated for three days, and then the Congress resolved to delay further discussion until "The first Monday of July next." They further resolved that "in the mean while, that no time be lost, in case the congress agree thereto, that a committee be appointed to prepare a declaration to the effect of the said resolution."

Normal parliamentary procedure would have placed Mr. Lee, as the original mover of the resolution, as head of the committee for the preparation of the declaration. Lee had already proven himself an eloquent man in both speech and pen, so he would have, no doubt, written the bulk of the document himself. Just at that point, however, he was called home to Virginia due to a family emergency, and his younger fellow Virginian, 33 year old Thomas Jefferson, was appointed in his place. The rest of the committee was made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston.

Mainly through the urging of John Adams, Jefferson was assigned to produce a draft of the document, with the rest of the committee acting primarily as his editors. They crossed out some of Jefferson’s more inflammatory charges against George III and added a few of their own thoughts, but remained in the background so that sole authorship is generally attributed to Jefferson alone. The result, of course, was the document that became the bedrock of the American system of government.

On July 2, 1776, Congress voted for independence from England and adopted the final draft of Jefferson’s document, which was published two days later.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the Declaration of Independence in any other form. Except for an untimely family illness on June 10, 1776, however, it would almost certainly have been a different document written by a different man - another Virginian named Richard Henry Lee.

One of the quirks of history.

What about the Declaration of Independence? How is it holding up after 230 years?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

My Thoughts on Abortion, Revisited

In response to one of Al’s recent posts, I wrote the following about abortion:

[Characterizing pro-choicers as that rather than “pro-abortion”] is similar to other "necessary evil" issues such as war and capital punishment. No one wants to be known as pro-war as a general matter, because it is acknowledged that war entails some destruction of human life. But people argue vociferously for it in certain circumstances, notwithstanding that it destroys life. Similarly, most people are not pro-capital punishment for the sake of it, or for every crime. It is considered desirable or permissible only within a defined set of circumstances. And I think with respect to both issues there is a near-universal agreement that it would be better if war and capital punishment did not happen at all.

This comparison to war and capital punishment was intended to lead to a general argument about abortion that we tolerate other things that are not strictly "pro-life" (in a broad sense) in certain circumstances, and that there are similar justifications for allowing abortion in some circumstances.

The place where we see this most clearly is in examining the exceptions that even otherwise anti-abortion people favor. My understanding is that most people who are against abortion are in favor of exceptions for rape, incest, and the mother's life. (I’m not sure of exact numbers, but I think it's a majority). Just as there are relatively few people who are absolute pacifists, no exceptions, there are relatively few people who think that the fetus trumps all else at all stages, in all circumstances.

These three particular exceptions reflect particular views of when it is permissible to end a fetus’s life in service of another goal. The rape and incest exceptions reflect a view that women or girls who did not participate willingly in the sex act that led to conception should not be forced to bear a child that is the product of that forced (or coerced) sex act. There is no getting away from the implications of this view: essentially, that bearing a child is a deserved punishment for having sex. Otherwise, why this particular exception? There are any number of other exceptions that would seem to make equal sense. If financial concerns don’t permit a woman to take proper care of a child (arguably hurting the child after and often before it is born), why not an exception for income level? If the concern is characterized as, “it would hurt too much to see your rapist or molester’s face in your child,” why couldn’t that hurt be equally at issue in a situation where, for example, the father abandoned the mother? No, the only interpretation that seems credible to me is that the rape and incest exceptions exempt the “innocent” woman from the punishment of bearing a child because she is not culpable for having become pregnant. [I'm not saying that individuals consciously think this. Most probably don't, but subconsciously this is what motivates the feeling that the exception is right].

The “life of the mother” exception is supported by a similar view. Here, where a woman’s life is threatened by a pregnancy, we will allow an abortion because while the mother is culpable for having become pregnant, she is not required to forfeit her life for it. This would be too severe a punishment. Of course, there are other reasons to support a “life of the mother” exception, and I think it’s safe to say that support for such an exception is nearly universal. This is an acknowledgment that when push comes to shove, we are forced to acknowledge that we value the life of an adult or adolescent more highly than that of a fetus of any age. And all but the most virulently anti-abortion folks will, in the end, admit that.

Cases in which a woman’s life is threatened by a pregnancy and in which an abortion will alleviate this threat are probably few. That exception is always talked about not because it is common, but precisely because it is uncommon – as most people feel that abortion should be. It delineates the end of the continuum at which a majority of Americans would feel comfortable allowing abortion as a lesser of two evils. But what people are uncomfortable with regarding abortion, I believe, is the idea that permitting it leads to the wanton and careless destruction of life for any reason at all.

So, one might conceptualize the other end of the continuum as this example: a late-term abortion, say in the ninth month of a normal, healthy pregnancy, because the woman suddenly decides that she does not want the baby. That pretty much encapsulates the nightmare scenario where the vast majority of people would say that the “right to choose” has gone too far. This is because we correctly perceive that there is value in the unborn fetus, especially at this stage so close to birth, and that this woman has no legitimate competing concern that would weigh in favor of allowing her to choose to end the fetus’s life. Like the “life of the mother” scenario discussed above, I would bet money that this scenario has almost never happened during the history of legalized abortion in this country. But it is useful because it demarcates the other extreme on the continuum. It is this scenario that is disquieting to most people, and it is for this reason there is broad support for bans on so-called “partial birth abortion.” In truth, the support was for bans on late-term abortion rather than the D&X procedure targeted by the law, which is sometimes also performed in the second trimester. (There were other problems with the law too, but I won’t get into that here). The point being, we clearly value the life of the viable fetus highly, and the only value that can compete with this is that of the life (or perhaps health) of the mother.

But in between these two extremes – a really compelling reason to abort a viable fetus, and no reason – lies the first and perhaps part of the second trimester. It seems reasonable to me, and I imagine that many would agree, that the value we place on the fetus as weighed against competing concerns increases at each stage of development. Thus, early in the pregnancy, the fetus's right to continue developing may be small enough that it should yield to competing concerns. Then the question becomes, how early? Since the development of an embryo and then a fetus is a process, different people would draw the line at different places. But at some point, drawing a line at all seems absurd, because how do we know that we’re drawing it at the right place? The answer is that we don’t, and we can’t really delineate a precise moment that serves as the line of demarcation between an excusable destruction of an embryo or fetus and what seems to many like infanticide.

That’s what makes the pro-life view that “life begins at conception” so attractive – ever-elusive certainty. The purported ease of drawing that boundary between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. But the problem for me with that boundary is that between 30 and 70 percent of conceptions never make it to implantation. Prior to implantation, the fact that a conception has occurred cannot be determined with current medical technology. Even after implantation, a significant percentage of early pregnancies are lost to miscarriage – the numbers on this are impossible to know with certainty, but if you include women who never knew they were pregnant it probably tops one-third of all pregnancies. Early pregnancy is such a fragile process, and so often does not progress for natural reasons, that in my view the right of the embryo at this stage is quite negligible, which is why I find objections to Plan B, in vitro fertilization, stem cell research, and other “embryo-killing” practices utterly without merit. It is simply absurd to conceptualize each of these lost embryos as a full human being and to mourn that loss as if it were equivalent to the loss of a friend or loved one. And, in fact, people typically don’t do that. Miscarriage can be upsetting – but as I have argued in a previous post, what’s upsetting about it is the disappointment of losing the expectation of having a baby, not the loss of an actual baby. Because early miscarriage is not the loss of a baby. That’s why it’s called miscarriage and not stillbirth. I’ve been through it, and I have to tell you, as much as I want children, I am rational enough to call a spade a spade – or in this case, an embryo that was so flawed that it stopped growing. It was not a baby. I think at some level most people understand this.

But another reason people have discomfort with the idea of abortion, even at the earliest stages, is the idea that the competing concerns of the woman are not weighty enough to tip the balance and that, in general, the reasons that women have abortions are not good reasons. Some people believe that there are no good reasons that don’t have to do with the mother’s physical health. That’s a legitimate view. Personally, I have a different view. I honestly believe that many women who have abortions do so because they want to be good mothers, to future children or to children they already have. Nothing about an unplanned pregnancy can be characterized as “good.” All anyone wants to do in such a situation is make the decision that is least bad. In some cases, abortion might be the least bad option.

That’s wrong, the argument goes. Most women who have abortions do so out of selfishness and convenience. They should never have gotten pregnant to begin with – they were careless and irresponsible. They shouldn’t have been having sex if they couldn’t deal with the consequences. This is another thing that worries people about abortion: the idea that it is used “as a form of birth control,” i.e. that people feel free to be irresponsible and allow pregnancies to happen with the idea that abortion is their backup. Probably some do, although I imagine that unplanned pregnancy more often stems from ignorance than willful irresponsibility. The amount of information that is not generally conveyed to young women about their bodies is staggering. If this information was more broadly known, I have no doubt that many unplanned pregnancies would be prevented.

To end this post, I initially wrote a paragraph detailing specific policies I support, but I am omitting it because I think it might distract from the rest of my thoughts. In essence, I think that prevention of unplanned pregnancy should be the paramount goal, but early abortion should remain available. And, for pete’s sake, motherhood and children should not be conceptualized as a punishment for having sex, even implicitly. That’s a screwed-up concept that should be abandoned. Oh, and finally, please don't read anything into the fact that I'm posting this on June 6, 2006. The devil is not speaking through me. It is purely coincidental.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Next Installment in the Abortion Speech (Hauerwas)

From the Pro-Life Side: When Life Begins

Against the background of the church as family, you can see that the Christian language of abortion challenges the modern tendency to isolate moral dilemmas into discrete units of behavior. If that tendency is followed, you get the questions, What is really wrong with abortion?," and "Isn't abortion a separate problem that can be settled on its own grounds? And then you get the termination-of-pregnancy language that wants to see abortion as solely a medical problem. At the same time, you get abortion framed in a legalistic way.

When many people start talking about abortion, what is the first thing they talk about? When life begins. And why do they get into the question of when life begins? Because they think that the abortion issue is determined primarily by the claims that life is sacred and that life is never to be taken. They assume that these claims let you know how it is that you ought to think about abortion.

Well, I want to know where Christians get the notion that life is sacred. That notion seems to have no reference at all to God. Any good secularist can think life is sacred. Of course what the secularist means by the word sacred is interesting, but the idea that Christians are about the maintenance of some principle separate from our understanding of God is just crazy. As a matter of fact, Christians do not believe that life is sacred. I often remind my right-to-life friends that Christians took their children with them to martyrdom rather than have them raised pagan. Christians believe there is much worth dying for. We do not believe that human life is an absolute good in and of itself. Of course our desire to protect human life is part of our seeing each human being as God's creature. But that does not mean that we believe that life is an overriding good.

To say that life is an overriding good is to underwrite the modern sentimentality that there is absolutely nothing in this world worth dying for. Christians know that Christianity is simply extended training in dying early. That is what we have always been about. Listen to the Gospel! I know that today we use the church primarily as a means of safety, but life in the church actually involves extended training in learning to die early.

When you frame the abortion issue in sacredness-of-life language, you get into intractable debates about when life begins. Notice that is an issue for legalists. By that I mean the fundamental question becomes, How do you avoid doing the wrong thing?

In contrast, the Christian approach is not one of deciding when has life begun, but hoping that it has. We hope that human life has begun! We are not the kind of people that ask, Does human life start at the blastocyst stage, or at implantation? Instead, we are the kind of people that hope life has started, because we are ready to believe the at this new life will enrich our community. We believe this not because we have sentimental views about children. Honestly, I cannot imagine anything worse than people saying that they have children because their hope for the future is in their children. You would never have children if you had them for that reason. We are able to have children because our hope is in God, who makes it possible to do the absurd thing of having children. In a world of such terrible injustice, in a world of such terrible misery, in a world that may well be about the killing of our children, having children is an extraordinary act of faith and hope. But as Christians we can have a hope in God that urges us to welcome children. When that happens, it is an extraordinary testimony of faith.

From the Pro-Choice Side: When Personhood Begins

On the pro-choice side you also get the abortion issue framed in a context that is outside of a communitarian structure. On the pro-choice side you get the question about when the fetus becomes a "person," because only persons supposedly have citizenship rights. That is the issue of Roe vs. Wade.

It is odd for Christians to take this approach since we believe that we are first of all citizens of a far different kingdom than something called the United States of America. If we end up identifying persons with the ability to reason--which, I think, finally renders all of our lives deeply problematic--then we cannot tell why it is that we ought to care for the profoundly retarded. One of the most chilling aspects of the current abortion debate in the wider society is the general acceptance, even among anti-abortion people, of the legitimacy of aborting severely defective children. Where do people get that idea? Where do people get the idea that severely defective children are somehow less than God's creation? People get that idea by privileging rationality. We privilege our ability to reason. I find that unbelievable.

We must remember that as Christians we do not believe in the inherent sacredness of life or in personhood. Instead we believe that there is much worth dying for. Christians do not believe that life is a right or that we have inherent dignity. Instead we believe that life is the gift of a gracious God. That is our primary Christian language regarding abortion: life is the gift of a gracious God. As part of the giftedness of life, we believe that we ought to live in a profound awe of the other's existence, knowing in the other we find God. So abortion is a description maintained by Christians to remind us of the kind of community we must be to sustain the practice of hospitality to life. That is related to everything else that we do and believe.

Slipping Down the Slope

There is the argument that if you let abortion start occurring for the late-developed fetus, sooner or later you cannot prohibit infanticide. Here you are entering the slippery slope argument. There is a prominent well-respected philosopher in this country named H. Tristam Englehart who wrote a book called Foundations of Bioethics. In the book Englehart argues that, as far as he can see, there is absolutely no reason at all that we should not kill children up to a year and a half old, since they are not yet persons. Foundations is a text widely used in our universities today by people having to deal with all kinds of bioethical problems.

I have no doubt that bioethical problems exist. After all, today you can run into all kinds of anomalies. For example, in hospitals, on one side of the hall, doctors and nurses are working very hard to save a five hundred-gram preemie while, on the other side of the hall, they are aborting a similar preemie. There are many of these anomalies. There is no question that they are happening. You can build up a collection of such horror stories. But listen, people can get used to horror. Also, opposition to the horrible should not be the final, decisive ground on which Christians stand while tackling these kinds of issues. Instead, the issue is how we as a Christian community can live in positive affirmation of the kind of hospitality that will be a witness to the society we live in. That will open up a discourse that otherwise would be impossible.

Now I know that you probably feel a bit frustrated by this theological approach to abortion--especially when you are trying to deal with concrete, pastoral problems, as well as the political problems that we confront in this society. In some ways what I am asking you to think about regarding abortion and the church is a little like what the Quakers had to go through regarding slavery. Some of the early abolitionists, as you know, were Quakers. Then somebody pointed out to them, there are a lot of slaveholding Friends." So the Quakers had to turn around and say, "Yes, that's right." Then they had to start trying to discipline their own ranks, and, as a result, they ended up creating a bunch of Anglicans in Philadelphia.

One of the reasons why the church's position about abortion has not been authentic is because the church has not lived and witnessed as a community in a way that challenges the fundamental secular presuppositions of both the pro-life side and the pro-choice side. We are going to have to become that kind of community if our witness is to have the kind of integrity that it must.

[Note: One final section follows this one...]

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Picture of the Week

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by alsturgeon

Friday, June 02, 2006

Athletes?

Hello world, this is frustration.

My old friend, Terry, is beating the pants off everyone in my fantasy baseball league. Yes, he drafted Albert Pujols. And yet, to prove that my ability to lose transcends even Superman, I am currently being de-pantsed in another league by everyone - even though I drafted Phat Albert.

So this morning I check out ESPN to find out why one of my closers, Mariano Rivera, did not come in the one-run Tigers-Yankees game in the 9th inning to do his job. It turns out that he injured himself getting dressed before the game. Putting his shoes on. (This is a true story.)

Now I'll admit that playing 162 games a year could be considered somewhat on the grueling side of professional sports. I mean, having to work three to four hours a day for seven months a year for a scant few million dollars can't be easy, especially when you have to work out in the offseason in preparation for a year-long nightmare of having to endure such exhausting feats as getting dressed.

Are baseball players really wimps, or is this just me (frustration) talking? Shouldn't you be able to expect, for a few million dollars a year, a group of guys who could at least run to first base without pulling a hamstring? Or, at the very least, put on their shoes?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Next Segment on Abortion (Stanley Hauerwas)

Calling a Spade

We must remember that the first question is not, "Is abortion right or wrong?," or, "Is this abortion right or wrong?" Rather, the first question is,"Why do Christians call abortion abortion?" And with the first question goes a second, "Why do Christians think that abortion is a morally problematic term?" To call abortion by that name is already a moral achievement. The reason why people are Pro-choice" rather than Pro-abortion" is that nobody really wants to be pro-abortion. The use of choice rather than abortion is an attempt at a linguistic transformation that tries to avoid the reality of abortion, because most people do not want to use that description. So, instead of abortion, another term is used, something like termination of pregnancy. Now, the church can live more easily in a world with "terminated pregnancies," because in that world the church no longer claims power, even linguistic power, over that medically described part of life; instead, doctors do.

One of the interesting cultural currents that is involved is the medicalization of abortion. It is one of the ways that the medical profession is continuing to secure power against the church. Ordained ministers can sense this when they are in hospital situations. In a hospital today, the minister feels less power than the doctor, right? My way of explaining this is that when someone goes to seminary today, he can say, "I'm not into Christology this year. I'm just into relating. After all, relating is what the ministry is really about, isn't it? Ministry is about helping people relate to one another, isn't it? So I want to take some more Clinical Pastoral Education courses." And the seminary says, "Go ahead and do it. Right, get your head straight, and so on." A kid can go to medical school and say, "I'm not into anatomy this year. I'm into relating. So I'd like to take a few more courses in psychology, because I need to know how to relate to people better." The medical school then says, "Who in the hell do you think you are, kid? We're not interested in your interests. You're going to take anatomy. If you don't like it, that's tough."

Now what that shows you is that people believe incompetent physicians can hurt them. Therefore, people expect medical schools to hold their students responsible for the kind of training that's necessary to be competent physicians. On the other hand, few people believe an incompetent minister can damage their salvation. This helps you see that what people want today is not salvation, but health. And that helps you see why the medical profession has, as a matter of fact, so much power over the church and her ministry. The medical establishment is the counter-salvation-promising group in our society today.

So, when you innocently say "termination of pregnancy," while it sounds like a neutral term, you are placing your thinking under the sway of the medical profession. In contrast to the medical profession, Christians maintain that the description "abortion" is more accurate and determinative than the description "termination of pregnancy." That is a most morally serious matter.

You must remember that, morally speaking, the first issue is never what we are to do, but what we should see. Here is the way it works: you can only act in the world that you can see, and you must be taught to see by learning to say. Again, you can only act in the world that you can see, and you must be taught to see by learning to say. Therefore, using the language of abortion is one way of training ourselves as Christians to see and to practice its opposite--hospitality, and particularly hospitality to children and the vulnerable. Therefore, abortion is a word that reminds us of how Christians are to speak about, to envision, and to live life--and that is to be a baptizing people which is ready to welcome new life into our communities.

In that sense "Abortion" is as much a moral description as "suicide." Exactly why does a community maintain a description like "suicide"? Because it reminds the community of its practice of enhancing life, even under duress. The language of suicide also works as a way to remind you that even when you are in pain, even when you are sick, you have an obligation to remain with the people of God, vulnerable and yet present.

When we joined The United Methodist Church, we promised to uphold it with "our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service." We often think that "our presence" is the easy one. In fact, it is the hardest one. I can illustrate this by speaking about the church I belonged to in South Bend, Indiana. It was a small group of people that originally was an E.U.B. (or Evangelical United Brethren) congregation. Every Sunday we had Eucharist, prayers from the congregation, and a noon meal for the neighborhood. When the usual congregation would pray, we would pray for the hungry in Ethiopia and for an end to the war in the Near East, and so on. Well, this bag lady started coming to church and she would pray things like, "Lord, I have a cold, and I would really like you to cure it." Or, I've just had a horrible week and I'm depressed. Lord, would you please raise my spirits You never hear prayers like that in most of our churches. Why? Because the last thing that Christians want to do is show one another that they are vulnerable. People go to church because they are strong. They want to reinforce the presumption that they are strong.

One of the crucial issues here is how we learn to be a people dependent on one another. We must learn to confess that, as a hospitable people, we need one another because we are dependent on one another. The last thing that the church wants is a bunch of autonomous, free individuals. We want people who know how to express authentic need, because that creates community.

So, the language of abortion is a reminder about the kind of community that we need to be. Abortion language reminds the church to be ready to receive new life as church.

The Church as True Family

We, as church, are ready to be challenged by the other. This has to do with the fact that in the church, every adult, whether single or married, is called to be parent. All Christian adults have a parental responsibility because of baptism. Biology does not make parents in the church. Baptism does. Baptism makes all adult Christians parents and gives them the obligation to help introduce these children to the Gospel. Listen to the baptismal vows; in them the whole church promises to be parent. In this regard the church reinvents the family.

The assumption here is that the first enemy of the family is the church. When I taught a marriage course at Notre Dame, I used to read to my students a letter. It went something like this, "Our son had done well. He had gone to good schools, had gone through the military, had gotten out, had looked like he had a very promising career ahead. Unfortunately, he has joined some eastern religious sect. Now he does not want to have anything to do with us because we are people of 'the world.' He is never going to marry because now his true family is this funny group of people he associates with. We are heartsick. We don't know what to do about this." Then I would ask the class, "Who wrote this letter?" And the students would say, improbably some family whose kid became a Moonie or a Hare Krishna." In fact, this is the letter of a fourth century Roman senatorial family about their son's conversion to Christianity.

From the beginning we Christians have made singleness as valid a way of life as marriage. This is how. What it means to be the church is to be a group of people called out of the world, and back into the world, to embody the hope of the Kingdom of God. Children are not necessary for the growth of the Kingdom, because the church can call the stranger into her midst. That makes both singleness and marriage possible vocations. If everybody has to marry, then marriage is a terrible burden. But the church does not believe that everybody has to marry. Even so, those who do not marry are also parents within the church, because the church is now the true family. The church is a family into which children are brought and received. It is only within that context that it makes sense for the church to say, "We are always ready to receive children. We are always ready to receive children." The people of God know no enemy when it comes to children.

[Note: There are two previous sections that have been posted already. There are probably about two more to go after this one. IOW, this is not a stand-alone argument, as you could probably tell w/o my having said so.]

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