Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Kneel before Zod!

After predicting Philander Chase's defeat in Lent (sic) Madness, Crusty Old Dean, as is his prerogative, has no problem switching courses and exulting in his predecessor's (as dean of Bexley Hall) stunning upset victory over some Roman Catholic monk who hung out with Buddhists (please do not point out COD spent 10 years as interreligious officer for the Episcopal Church).

There can be only several possibilities here.

1) The resistance to Lent (sic) Madness, Lenten madness, is firmly taking root. Scott Gunn, perched in his super villain fortress four floors above the Queen City, surrounded by his minion, must be quivering that his naked attempt to take down an obscure Episcopal Church bishop with a weird name and whose only known photo looks like Jonathan Winters with a best-selling, world reknowned spiritual figure who has actually crossed over into the cultural mainstream has failed miserably.

2) Crusty Old Dean has some real potential as a B-list nemesis for Scott Gunn, perhaps moving up from Tarantula to Hammerhead status. There are still several weeks that remain before his arch-nemesis returns, and perhaps Kingpin status beckons for COD.

3) People online thought that Philander was just a really cool name, not realizing it was lacking the final "-er".

The fact that Crusty Old Dean's father was a Massachusetts Democratic Party boss has nothing to do with the results. You may be assured all voters were alive at the time of their votecasting.

Sadly, retribution has been swift and merciless. Students at Bexley Hall and our sister school, Trinity Lutheran, awoke to check the results to make sure votes from Guam and Hawaii did not tip the election overnight to Merton. However, students living in the dormitories using the Trinity server and students using the Bexley Hall network and server found themselves all banned, as has COD himself, since COD and CODW have separate laptops but the same home network. Apparently, for Lent (sic) Madness, there is no one person-one vote, but each person must have their own computer/laptop and own network. In America, COD believed that
a) the poll tax was outlawed by Constitutional amendment,
b) we had rights of due process
c) we had the right to challenge our accusers

But not in the current dystopian future that Forward Movement is seeking to impose. Do they not realize this is the kind of thing in a backstory that pushes someone over the edge and helps them level jump from minor villain to major villain? COD had sought second tier nemesis status, but Gunn may have just gotten himself a Green Goblin to go along with his Tim Schenck Doctor Octopus.

In the end, though, we should not lose sight of the fact that the people have spoken. To celebrate, Crusty Old Dean will share the Kenyon College Philander Chase song (COD is astonished that Kenyon retains any corporate memory of its past life as an Episcopal college that housed a seminary for 144 years):

The first of Kenyon's goodly race
Was that great man Philander Chase;
He climbed the Hill and said a prayer,
And founded Kenyon College there.
He climbed the Hill and said a prayer,
And founded Kenyon College there.

He dug up stones, he chopped down trees,
He sailed across the stormy seas,
And begged at every noble's door,
And also that of Hannah More.
And begged at every noble's door,
And also that of Hannah More.

The King, the Queen, the Lords, the Earls,
They gave their crowns, they gave their pearls
Until Philander had enough
And hurried homeward with the stuff.
Until Philander had enough
And hurried homeward with the stuff.

He built the College, built the dam
He milked the cow, he smoked the ham,
He taught the classes, rang the bell,
And spanked the naughty freshmen well.
He taught the classes, rang the bell,
And spanked the naughty freshmen well.

And thus he worked with all his might
For Kenyon College, day and night;
And Kenyon's heart still holds a place
Of love for Old Philander Chase.
And Kenyon's heart still holds a place
Of love for Old Philander Chase.

COD has only two comments to make with regard to this song:

1) It's astonishing how little the job description for a seminary dean has changed.
2) Mmm...ham...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

On Baseball, Due Process, and Ryan Braun

As part of Crusty Old Dean's efforts to show his non-ecclesial side this Lent:

One of Crusty Old Dean's other loves in this world, along with good music and a good Islay, is baseball. He has been perplexed by the recent folderol surrounding the positive drug test by Ryan Braun, who won the MVP award in the National League last year.

The facts: Braun was randomly drug tested on the Saturday of the Brewers' first playoff game, October 1. He signed that his drug test had been properly taken and properly sealed. However, the drug tester could not find a FedEx open on a Saturday afternoon that late, so stored the sample in his refrigerator and didn't FedEx it until Monday morning, October 3.

Braun appealed, claiming that major league baseball (MLB) did not follow its own protocols -- that is, drug tests must be FedEx'd the day they are taken -- and that the sample could have been compromised in an unsecure location next to the drug tester's relish. Braun was facing a 50-game suspension and, probably more damning, being shown to be an idiot for still taking performance-enhancing drugs in a sport which does random testing with draconian penalties for first-time offenders.

Braun won his appeal by a 2-1 vote by the arbitration panel. Instead of wanting to get back to playing baseball, however, Braun has gone on the offensive. He has proclaimed that "truth is on his side" and lambasting MLB's drug testing process. He has garnered the support of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who tweeted that MLB had tried to "sully the reputation of an innocent man."

Crusty Old Dean is no lawyer, but Braun seems to be confusing several issues here.

One is the difference between due process violation and a determination of guilt. His appeal was granted not because the arbitrators believed his claims he didn't do performance enhancing drugs, but because, technically, MLB didn't follow its own procedures. This is something mystifying, wonderful, and maddening about America: that we would rather let a few possibly guilty people off rather than compromise long-established precedent for due process and people's rights to be protected from illegal searches. This can be embarrassing, like when, in the words of Alan Dershowitz, the LAPD decided to frame a guilty man and OJ got off in 1994. It can be maddening, with Caylee Anthony dead and no one held accountable. It can be mystifying to the rest of the world which does not have these principles as enshrined and more evidence can be admitted. But this is America, and we have these protections. Braun could have said, "God bless America, were our rights are protected." But he didn't. He is claiming his appeal on a technicality as an opportunity to pronounce his innocence.

And herein seems to be a second confusion Braun is making: the difference between "non guilty" and "innocent." Again, COD is no lawyer, but did serve as a foreperson of a jury, and had a judge more or less explain the difference between the two as part of jury instructions. (At first COD was baffled the judge would make a 24-year-old seminary student serving on his first jury the foreperson. Until COD was in the jury room and most of his fellow jurors ended up talking about the tie the district attorney was wearing. COD realized the judge knew COD was the only one who could probably pay attention and understand the instructions.) "Not guilty" means we can't say that you did it beyond a reasonable doubt. We may still think you probably did it, but that doesn't matter, because the onus is on the prosecution to prove it beyond all doubt. Don't confuse finding someone guilty or not guilty with thinking the person is innocent and didn't do it at all. Braun seems to be trying to proclaim himself "innocent" based on 2 out of 3 arbitrators ruling on a procedural technicality.

Though, in the end, it perhaps make sense for Braun to do all of this, because of the fact he won the MVP award in the same season. The court of public opinion has come down hard on performance-enhancing drug users. Tony LaRussa hired Mark McGwire as his batting coach to try to rehabilitate the slugger's image, figuring if he hung around sportswriters enough maybe he would begin to pick up more support in his abysmal Hall of Fame voting. Hasn't worked, he only gets about 25% of the votes for the Hall of Fame when he needs 75% of all votes cast. Next year, when Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, two more performance-enhancing drug users who have likewise tried to spin every court ruling into an affirmation of their innocence, will likewise go over like lead balloons in HOF voting since everyone knows they used performance. The other option is to admit it and move on, like Alex Rodriguez, but otherwise Braun would know his MVP award would be tainted.

Still unsure if this is a sad reminder that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is widespread or proof that some people are still pretty stupid. Braun's performance on and off the field may help determine which of those is relevant in his case.

Striking a Blow for Holiness AND Grammar: Lenten Madness!

Crusty Old Dean is doing a good job so far of holding to his Lenten devotions. To remind you, these are:

1) write about stuff other than questions stemming from the 1789 Constitution of the Episcopal Church and the equally important (but almost bereft of scholarly study) 1901 major revision, or, put more broadly, backing off what sucks about the structure of the Episcopal Church

2) auditioning as substitute nemesis for Scott Gunn while his arch-nemesis puts their battle on Lenten hiatus.

In fulfillment of #2, Crusty Old Dean unveils LENTEN MADNESS. Striking a blow for proper grammar (Lent is a noun, not an adjective) and correcting the grievous errors of a certain bracket which has been making its rounds.

To whit, here is an alternative to the current rounds so far. The abbreviations stand for:

GIB (grammatically in incorrect bracket, aka Lent Madness)
RLB (revisionist Lenten bracket)

Day 1:

GIB: Joan of Arc
RLB: If you want a female saint who struck a blow for women's spirituality in a time of patriarchy, why choose a young woman who was manipulated by the political forces of her day, executed as a heretic, and rehabilitated mainly because of a play by George Bernard Shaw and a reactionary, post Vatican 1 Catholic Church? How about Teresa of Avila?

Day 2: Jerome. Seriously? This is guy is the late antique period's version of the guy in Florida shouting, "Get off my lawn!" Disliked by most everyone but his rich patron, he holed up in his study with only a lion for company, spewing invective across Christendom, his main product an OK translation of the New Testament that would be treated as almost inerrant by the medieval Catholic Church.

RLB: Erasmus, whose 1516 critical edition of the New Testament made possible many of the theological foundations of the Reformation. Or John Patteson himself, who only lost this because of Jerome's name recognition, or perhaps the fact people confused him with the guy who holds the mirror for Morris Day of The Time in Purple Rain. I would vote for that Jerome.

Day 3: Martin de Porres v David Pendleton Oakerhater. No arguments here, either would be a fantastic choice. COD's objection is not with GIB but with the collect for Oakerhater in HWHM, its use of "captain" to play on Oakerhater's miltaristic past as a warrior is not the best translation of the term from Hebrew (COD prefers "pioneer") and does not do justice to the original context of the metaphor from Hebrews 2:10 (which is not militaristic at all). However, Oakerhater shouldn't have to go up against Emmagabohw in the second round (presuming Emmagabohw can knock off COD's namesake, but more on that later).

Until next time -- Lent is a noun, not an adjective!

Friday, February 24, 2012

On What Rushmore and the Hunger Games Have in Common

As promised, Crusty Old Dean is going to try to write about something than inside baseball Episcopal Church polity, as part of multi-pronged strategy to reach out to the 99.5% of the world who doesn't care about it.

Even though COD spends an inordinate amount of time reading things, apparently, no one else cares about (remembers being shocked when a) he reached the 100-book checkout limit while in graduate school, and b) someone actually requested a recall on one of them), he also tries to keep current on what's going on. See, COD is not all that Crusty. Unlike some people my age, COD doesn't think music reached perfection in 1973 with the Led Zeppelin album "Houses of the Holy" (the song Houses of the Holy, curiously, is on Physical Graffiti, not the album of the same name). It wasn't even the best album of 1973 (Stevie Wonder, Innversions) let alone the peak of Western music. You can't put baby in a corner or pigeonhole COD, who understands there is always great music being made in every era. The Replacements. Wilco. Titus Andronicus. By some band out there right now nobody knows about.

COD also keeps current in his reading, and, burying the lede once again, is engrossed in The Hunger Games. Hereafter abbreviated THG, The Hunger Games brought together COD's love and COD's hate.

Love: I have always loved dystopian and/or (preferably and) post-apocalyptic fiction ever since I saw Charlton Heston in the Omega Man. Old man alert: in the old days before daytime TV was a wasteland of reality TV, infotainment, and fawning talk shows, in the 1970s there were only three things on TV in the afternoon. Cartoons, smarmy talk shows (Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, etc.), and reruns of old movies. Channel 6 out of Providence, RI, showed old movies every afternoon. Coming home from school COD would make some Za-rex, eat some Hydrox, and watch the afternoon movie. He saw all the Planet of the Apes Movies, countless Japanese monster films (in the process learning which color Gargantua is the good one and which color is the evil one; COD still thinks Godzilla got robbed in Godzilla v. King Kong), and old sci-fi. The Omega Man, based on the novel I Am Legend and recently remade into the pretty good Will Smith version of the same name, hooked COD on post-apocalytptic/dystopian fiction. Maybe it was growing up in a monochromatic community, but something about the genre I found frightening and compelling at the same time - the notion that our world could quickly collapse into something both recognizable and unrecognizable.

So over the years COD has devoured the obvious (Brave New World, 1984, Handmaid's Tale, Running Man, Farenheit 451 etc.), and the cult classics (I Am Legend, Canticle for Leibowitz, etc.), and downright outliers (Yevgeny Zamiatin's "We"). Zombie movies which involve post-apocalyptic scenarios are acceptable (28 Days Later), otherwise not interested. The only one COD could not finish was "The Road," mainly because I started to read it right after my son was born, and it was too intense. I couldn't rock him to sleep for his nap and then pick that book up and read about a father and son struggling to stay alive with only each other to rely on while he slept blissfully next to me. Maybe when he goes off to college I'll try again.

COD stepped cautiously into THG -- because of the hate to COD's love referenced above. Hate: Young Adult Fiction. I avoided THG mainly because the odds were stacked against it, since there is so much crap published for young adults. Last time COD was in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore (don't ask), there was even an entire SECTION with the title "Teen Paranormal Romance." An entire section! COD feared that THG would involve werewolves or mopey teens or something. I mean, come on -- the Goonies is the best teen movie of all time, and it didn't resort to Vampires or Zombies.

Rarely has COD been hooked so fast, probably the last time I was hooked this fast was when COD met the future CODW. COD was entranced after Chapter 1, and, like many others, has found it to be a book that I can't put down, and actually ration the chapters slowly, prolonging the enjoyment this kind of engrossment brings.

The best things about a good dystopian novel is its ability to bring you into that world, while leaving enough unanswered questions; and the ability to both terrify you with the barbarity of that dystopia combined with being able to see so many aspects of one's current situation present as well. The real terror in any dystopia is the fear that it could happen. Without giving away too much, THG strikes those necessary balances.

But there's even more. What distinguishes THG from, say, Canticle for Leibowitz, is the way it combines another genre: the coming of age story. The title very well could have been, "Are You There, Hunger Games? It's me, Katniss." Growing up, in the pre-paranormal teen romance days, most coming of age books were dully plotted things like A Separate Peace or the Judy Blume canon (with the excellent exception of Lord of the Flies, a sort of proto-THG in combining dystopia and coming-of-age teen fiction). The teen coming of age story is another one with a long history -- many of which COD would like to forget. But when they stand out, they stand out.

It's difficult being a teenager; THG ingeniously sets this universal experience against the backdrop of dystopia. While ostensibly thrusting its main character into a battle-t0-the-death staged by the totalitarian government that rules North America, the novel is really about figuring out who you are, negotiating changing relationships with friends and family, and dealing with traumatic events which occur to us all even when we're not in a post-apocalyptic future. This is a tricky thing, combining genres. While COD loved the Harry Potter books, he was never interested in the moping Harry of Books 5 and 6 or the moping Ron of Book 7 or the whole Cho Chang subplot. The teen angst parts of the books seemed to fall flat, but thankfully it always got back to Voldemort and light bursting out of wands.

Which is where THG has something in common with COD's favorite teenage coming of age story, Wes Anderson's classic from 1998, Rushmore. ( The fact Anderson seems to feel the need to more or less tell the same story over and over in all his movies in some form using many of the same actors has taken a little shine off, but try to think of it without the intervening 14 years worth of Anderson films.)

The genius of Rushmore was that the central, motivating factors were handled so subtly. Max is saddened and traumatized by the untimely death of his mother, something which gets so little mention and so little screen time, but which is connected intimately to his passion. It is his mother, after all, who gave him the typewriter. Similarly the other main characters, Herman (haunted by his time in Vietnam) and Rosemary (whose husband drowned) are emotionally shattered by the losses in their lives, with only Rosemary's situation being openly mentioned and discussed. Herman's past is brought out only when Max asks him, "So, you were in the shit?" and Herman replies laconically, "Yeah...I was in the shit." (He is also the only one who doesn't put on the protective goggles and earmuffs during Max's Vietnam-era play, because, after all, he lived through the real sounds of gunfire and explosions.) Anderson has no Matt Damon-Robin Williams tear-jerking "It's not your fault" scenes between any of his characters, because life is rarely like that. We are all far more like Max and Herman and Rosemary.

Similarly, though growing up in a dystopian future, Katniss, the hero of THG, is more shaped by her father's untimely death and her mother's depression, and all the trauma and responsibility those events thrust on her, than by the totalitarian regime that governs North America.

I thought of Rushmore after finishing THG: realizing that I had just finished an excellent story about how difficult it is to be a teenager, where the metaphorical minefields of negotiating changing relationships were juxtaposed against real minefield of the arena. Combining genres is a difficult thing, and THG does it masterfully.

COD just started Book 2! No spoiler alerts in any comments sections!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Welcome to the New (for a time) Crusty Old Dean

It is time to reveal Crusty Old Dean's Lenten devotions. As you can see, COD had availed himself of the different blogger templates and chosen an appropriately violet covered one for the Lenten season.

There are two Lenten devotions Crusty Old Dean will dedicate himself to, including those Sundays in Lent. Sadly, unlike our Eastern brothers and sisters, Western Christians never have gotten this number of days in Lent thing right, so there are those Vegas/international waters/Massachusetts dog track-like seven Sundays in Lent, places which don't seem to fit into the normal space-time continuum. Unlike in the Orthodox Church, where Lent starts on a Monday and they throw down the fasting and devotions to the bitter end.

COD digresses.

The first Lenten devotion is a desperate attempt to piggyback on the excellent work that Scott Gunn is doing at Forward Movement and gain some free publicity by trying to expose the dark side of Lent Madness. Is it promoting gambling? An effort to collect our personal information? Forcing American understandings of holiness on the rest of the Communion? Is Gunn on the take from the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to promote traffic to their site researching their votes? Check for periodic efforts to unmask the Wizard and see what really is behind it all.

(In addition, this is in service of Crusty Old Dean's attempts at branching out and developing his crustiness in new ways during this Lenten season. With Scott's archnemesis on a Lenten hiatus from their eternal, Highlander-meets-Zoroastrianism-meets-Howard-the-Duck-and-Garko-the-Frog battle of good and evil, Crusty Old Dean is looking to audition for B-list, second-tier nemesis status. Like Mysterio is to Spider-Man or Impossible Man to the Fantastic Four or Apocalypse to the X-Men -- preferably a step above people like Paste Pot Pete or Chemistro.)

The second is completely unlike the first: Crusty Old Dean will take a break from boring people on the intricacies Episcopal polity which entertain only about 2% of the people in a church which is less than 1% of the population as a whole. Crusty Old Dean will be showing his alternative side, writing about stuff that has very little to do with, well, everything else written here in the past few months.

As a teaser: up next, what Crusty Old Dean is reading right now! Well, not right now, because I'm reading this sentence. You know, Russian has two different words for "now" (COD took eight years of Russian -- see, you wouldn't know that, because COD has never written about it). One means "right now", like "I'm studying Greek right now" meaning you're doing it while you're speaking it. Or, a different word, "I'm studying Greek right now" meaning in general, like you're taking a Greek class this semester. Anyway, COD means it in the second sense.

Coming up: What COD is reading right now! (again, second sense in paragraph above)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I Was Not Angry Since I Left Wisconsin

Crusty Old Dean will be unveiling his Lenten discipline shortly, which means major changes for the blog. Fear not, though, COD is not going silent for Lent, is not taking any kind of respite or hiatus. If anything, he plans on being crustier, but bringing the crust in a different way -- kind of like when you go to Canada and everything seems the same but not quite the same.

However, COD will be postponing the unveiling of the new COD for another day or two. Believe it or not, COD found himself recently speechless. Yes, it happens rarely. But imagine what it must take to render COD speechless!

Backstory: COD spent the last 5 1/2 years in the great state is Wisconsin. The diocese has been dealing with a difficult situation where a church, St Edmund's, joined with a schismatic Anglican group and attempted to leave the diocese, while keeping its property. Eventually, they lost their legal case all nearly all these groups do, and recently vacated the building.

But not without writing before leaving, apparently in charcoal, several Hebrew letters on the stone altar, which could be translated as "No Glory" or "The Glory of God has departed." (Hebrew is not like a Western language and does not have similar tenses or grammatical constructions, so this kind of ambiguity is possible.) They also left the sanctuary lamp - the red lamp often hanging in a church lit to indicate the Sacrament is reserved - upside down on the altar, meaning, in a literal sense, that the sacrament is not reserved at that very moment. Or, in a broader sense, meaning Christ is not present there. The outgoing rector claimed this had nothing to do with making any kind of statement to the diocese when it took over the property again, but was part of the closure and leave-taking the congregation needed to do. Which, of course, is complete and utter nonsense. If it has nothing to do with diocese, then why not clean up the property after you leave it? It has everything to do with sending a message to those they consider apostates and impure.

Crusty Old Dean's fellow priest of the diocese of Milwaukee, Fr David Simmons, wrote about this at his blog, which can be found here, including actual photos of the graffiti left behind.

At this point, COD would have assumed there were few things could possibly leave COD speechless. And he has seen some crazy stuff in the nearly 20 years spent as a lay and ordained professional in the church -- death threats, sexual harassment, financial misconduct, you name it -- but this is something else. One group of Christians defacing a place of worship and indicating that God was no longer present after they had left.

And all of this, ostensibly, over the question as to whether gay and lesbian persons are capable of being Christians. I should say I think this is the case, because it's not as if Wisconsin is the West Hollywood of the Episcopal Church. Bishop Steven Miller is not on the liberal wing of the church; partnered gay and lesbian persons may not be ordained in the diocese of Milwaukee and clergy may not preside at same sex blessings. So their beef, apparently, is largely with a church that tolerates inclusion anywhere, a sort of bizarro re-interpretation of Dr King's words that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere. Apparently, for the true Christians of the ex-St Edmund's, tolerating a gay Christian anywhere is a threat to "real" Christians everywhere.

The whole incident reminded COD of something I have long sought to forget, something which will haunt me, probably, all of my years (once again, breaking character and using first person shows COD being serious). Several years ago I agreed to help out a Lutheran colleague of mine and serve on very short notice as part-time interim pastor of two yoked Lutheran churches in a small Wisconsin town. They had had a pastor on a term contract, and a week earlier had voted on whether to call the person whom they had had on contract as a settled pastor. This was a two-point parish, it had two different congregations worshipping in two different churches about 10 miles apart, a relic from the days before cars when there would be a church for the townfolk and a church for the farmers. One congregation voted to call the pastor permanently; the second narrowly, by a handful of votes, voted not to call the person.

The pastor resigned, and my friend asked me to come in and serve as interim pastor on short notice. I agreed, wanting to help him out of a jam, and arrived the Sunday after this vote was taken.

While at this congregation, I began to notice that the situation on calling the pastor was part of a much deeper conflict, years in the making. A previous pastor had walked out, taking 2/3rds of the people with him, and founded an independent Lutheran church a mile down the road. The ostensible reason was that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America tolerated homosexuality, which was an abomination in the eyes of God, even though, of course, the official policy of the ELCA at that time was that partnered gay and lesbian persons could not be ordained. Again, toleration anywhere is a threat to purity everywhere.

If only it were that. If only the story ended there and these hatemongers were able to create their pure fantasy ecclesial dystopia. But no. I was preparing for first communion class, as part of my duties as pastor, and to help in my preparation looked over the file which contained previous years of first communion curricula. This was a Lutheran church which practiced the usually Catholic practice of having children aged 7-8 be instructed in what communion is before receiving it. Children, mind, you, 7-8 years old. As part of this, in a previous year, the pastor before me had asked the children to describe what communion meant to them on a sheet of paper -- they could write something, or draw, or do anything they'd like.

One of the sheets of paper had the following words on it, written in a clumsy child's hand, in the space to describe their understanding of communion: "God is not here."

I was confused by this, wondering if it was in the wrong place, if this was really some other kind of project which was misfiled. So I showed it to the parish secretary and asked her if she knew what it was about. She got visibly upset -- tears started to form in here eyes -- as she told me, "The pastor who left told all the children in Sunday school before he left that those who remained here were not Christians because we would not go with them, because we tolerated what was evil in God eyes. And he told them all to come to Sunday school one last time and tell us that."

This is one of the few times in my life I ever wanted physically to hurt someone in the church. I wanted to find that pastor, so outraged was I at him peddling his hatred in such a manner. He was nowhere to be found, of course -- being the true coward that he was, he retired a year after splitting the congregation and founding the breakaway parish and moved away, but not after helping to destroy a community.

I suppose the truly sad thing is that I was not terribly surprised to hear what the people at St Edmund's had done, desecrating their house of worship simply because they could not have it. The Hebrew Bible tells the story of Solomon and two women who came to him with a living child and a dead child. Both claimed the living child. One woman claimed the other's baby had died and she had switched the living with the dead child; the other woman denied it. Solomon told his guards to cut the living baby in half with a sword, giving one half to each. One woman agreed; the second said no, give the child to the other woman -- and by doing so proved herself the child's mother, since she would rather see the child be given away than hurt. I was also reminded of the scene in Henry V, when the French slaughter the young teenage pages in the English army out of fury and spite that they have lost the battle, prompting Henry to shout, "I was not angry since I came to France/Until this instant!"

All too often people can act like that mother who would rather both children dead, so twisted and warped as she was by grief at the loss of her own child.

Unable to accept a world that does not think exactly as they do, the people of St Edmund's not only ripped a community apart, but defaced the house of God that they considered themselves to be the rightful owners and stewards of. A sad testimony to what grief, hatred, and insularity can do.

I'd like to add I don't think all conservatively theological persons in the church are small-minded hatemongers -- far from it, I have met plenty of faithful, committed, and thoughtful persons who would probably be considered conservative theologically. And I have told several of them personally that the continued refusal or reluctance or cowardice to call out and denounce the actions of the reactionaries among them only serves to de-legitimize them as well. Crusty Old Dean personally refuses categories of liberal or conservative -- I am surprisingly liberal on some things and conservative on others -- and has little patience for those are willing to claim those who disagree with them are not "real" Christians or Episcopalians or Jews or whatever.

Crusty Old Dean is preaching today. It's Ash Wednesday, something I've celebrated my entire life, since there never really was a time I didn't go to church. I've preached on Ash Wednesday about 10 times in the past 15 years. It's hard to find a fresh perspective sometimes on readings which are so familiar. My sermon this year is on the reading from the prophet Joel. It would seem Joel doesn't have good news to announce -- the day of the Lord is coming, full of darkness and gloom and blackness, a day unlike anything anyone has ever seen. Yet in the midst of that there is hope: It is not too late, even now, to return to the God who is merciful and abounding in steadfast love.

Even now, it is not too late, as much of Christianity careens towards irrelevancy, throttled by its structure, accommodated to the class and racial caste systems of society, reflecting the petty bigotry of its cultures: even now, it is not too late, Joel tells us. May it be so.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The USCCB & Obama

Crusty Old Dean spent the last post beginning a discussion on the thorny question of religious conscience and how that relates to broader society: where does acknowledging the right of religious liberty relate to the right of people not to be bound by another's conscience?

In passing, COD noted the current folderol between the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Obama administration on the question of requiring contraception coverage in health care plans administered by Catholic institutions which employ large numbers of non-Catholics. We're not talking about St Joseph the Worker's music director and Christian education director. We're talking about Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, and secularists who work for, say, Georgetown University.

Twenty-eight states already have some form of provision for this. Yet the Obama administration's mandate unleashed a well-planned and well-orchestrated onslaught from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, denouncing this as an attack on religious liberty. The administration offered a compromise, and Crusty Old Dean opined that we will see the bishops' true colors in how they respond.

The compromise has been rejected by the bishops as not enough: and thus they show their hand.

Why not the onslaught on those 28 states as well? Why this concerted effort now?

Might it be an election year?

The USCCB is stepping consciously into the culture wars to campaign against the President: attacking a President who probably agrees with them on other Catholic social concerns like a social safety net to care for the poor and needy in order to get one a Republican one that agrees with them on abortion, stem cell research, birth control, abstinence only education, and other issues.

And, in doing so, have chosen to play into the attack on religious liberty of the anti-Christian Obama administration, a trope already created by evangelical Christian organizations and Republican strategists, culminating in the farce of a hearing in the House of Representatives which only permitted testimony by people opposed to contraception regulation (read more about it here.)

And, in doing so, cloaking their efforts under the guise of religious liberty. Look, it's true Amish people don't have to buy health insurance and are exempt from many of these provisions. But if Amish people required people who buy their cheese or furniture to get ride of the buttons on their clothes, we would think that absurd. After all, the knee-jerk anti-Muslim sentiment in this country came down hard on Muslim cab drivers who refused to carry passenger carrying alcohol because it was against their religion. How dare they force their opinions on other people! While at the same time not letting me force my opinions on other people working for large organizations employing thousands of non-believers and already required under 28 state laws is a violation of religious liberty.

But we are to accept that a student a Georgetown University might need to have to an ovary removed because the University could not cover the birth control pill which might have saved her from having that procedure and she developed an ovarian cyst while appealing that decision.

It's not only the naked political overtones to this, because, frankly, everyone does it. Religion and politics are intertwined, and one the one hand every Democratic presidential candidate goes to places like First AME Church in Los Angeles while conservative religious organizations do their own thing. Problem is, the USCCB runs the risk of falling prey to sliding into two major ethical morasses:

One is what Pope John Paul criticized much of society for doing: failing to have a consistent ethic of life. John Paul and Catholic teaching have argued that one cannot be anti-abortion but pro-death penalty -- to value life is to create a society where it is valued and treasured. COD supports this, in principle, while he still believes abortion should be safe and legal, he also believes we should live in a world which also makes sure there are fewer unwanted pregnancies, where we don't forget about fetuses once they become children and are no longer useful political weapons and do things like have adequate health care and education for them. These conversations should be part of valuing life in all its stages, not just reduced to the worn-out talking points of political wedge issues. In giving in so openly to the political dimensions of this, is this consistent ethic of life in danger of becoming a thing of the past for the USCCB?

A second is that the Catholic Church has been a victim of persecution and prejudice in this country, when they were a minority in a larger tide of Protestantism, forced to read from the King James (Protestant!) version of the Bible and sit through prayers led by Protestants. Catholics founded their own schools because they resented, in part, the pan-Protestantism of American public education at the time. Now they want to impose they insist on doing exactly what was done to them: forcing their opinions onto other who are not just persons of another faith, but not faith at all.

Not that the USCCB has headed down either of these paths: but their current actions suggest that this is not as once unimaginable as it may have seemed. The USCCB, after all, bucked its own precedent in passing over its Vice President to elect Archbishop Timothy Dolan as its current President -- indicating, to many, that the VP was passed over because he was not deemed conservative enough.

There is another option, here, one which frankly isn't much better. It's that the USCCB isn't as well organized and on-point as we might assume, and even though they are picking up these Republican party taking points maybe it's not intentional. Maybe this is just them venting their spleen and anger that we live in a society where they no longer have the power and influence they once used to. Crusty Old Dean grew up in Boston, and when Pope John Paul II came, they canceled school. They canceled public school. I don't really imagine that happening now. The bishops may just be furious they no longer have the influence they once did, and are lashing out.

Neither explanation is a pretty one. Hard to believe the rich history of the Catholic bishops in this country in caring for the least and the vulnerable in this society is being sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lord Carey's Whine

Though not as headline-grabbing or outspoken during his term in office, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey has issued a number of public statements, articles, and books since the end of his tenure. (Since he is life peer, he will be referred to as Lord Carey as befits his office.) In a recent interview in the Telegraph to plug his new book, Carey speaks of the needs for Christians to have rights in a society that is on a "crusade" against them. Read the interview here.

To this, Crusty Old Dean has a two-word review: Boo-hoo. COD almost wishes Lord Carey would maintain his silence, as he is tired of those who uncritically reaped the benefits of Christianity's privileged place in society now petulantly demanding to be accorded special privileges in a world they have failed to minister to for almost a century.

The question of religious liberty and discrimination is a complicated and complex one, and is not as simplistic that those who own a B&B who refuse a room to a gay couple are having their religious liberties destroyed by a secularist crusade, one of the examples Lord Carey cites here. What is the role of personal conscience in a society where that conscience is not solely informed by a single religious influence? Not all Christians even think homosexuality is a sin. Increasing numbers of persons in Britain do not claim a religious tradition. Why should the interpretation by just some Christians, who are in turn a minority in the country as a whole, be determinative on society as a whole?

The hospital where COD did his chaplain residency was formed in the 1920s when the good white Protestant doctors in Providence, RI, refused to work alongside Jewish doctors, who in turn founded their own hospital. The USA has had laws against interracial marriage -- indeed, in the year 2000, when Alabama put its interracial marriage ban on the ballot for repeal, 40% of those voted to retain the ban. One could make plausible religious arguments that Jews are cursed as deicides by Matthew's passion gospel and children of the devil from John's Gospel, and for centuries many Christians believed black persons were under the curse of Ham. Would Lord Carey believe Christian white supremacists have, under religious conscience, the right to refuse service to Jews and Christians? This is not an argument ad absurdum; if Lord Carey is demanding that the right of a small group of persons to be respected, then how small does that group have to be before society determines that right is not permissible?

And what are Lord Carey's opinions on the injustices perpetuated on society when Christianity had a legal and cultural hegemony? After all, Britain is the country which freed its slaves before it accorded full civil rights to Catholics in 1829 and removed all restrictions against Jews in 1845, while, of course, refusing to recognize marriages performed in non-Church of England churches until relief acts of 1836 (which also removed the requirement of non-Anglicans to pay a tithe to the Anglican Church). These, apparently, are the good old days when one kind of Christianity was still able to force its opinions on society as a whole.

Lord Carey's own title belies the absurdity of his claims: the man is a life peer with the right to vote on legislation affecting all Britains, purely by virtue of an office he was not elected to. A victim of persecution, indeed.

Crusty Old Dean would like to add that he believe in respecting religious conviction as much as possible -- this is, for instance, why he supports the President's recent compromise on the question of religious organizations providing for contraception for employees who may not share that conviction which was recently proposed. Religious conscience is a right. Owning and operating massive multimillion dollar universities and hospitals is not a right. Forcing that conscience onto others through the institutions you own and operate is not a right. The true anger which has emerged regarding "religious liberty" from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is, in COD's opinion, nothing more than a collective Carey-esque whine by the bishops: furious that society no longer accords them the privilege to reap the benefits of conscience while at the same time refusing it of other persons. The compromise on the table is an effort to walk the line between respecting the conscience and liberty of all persons, and if it is refused we can discern the true motives of the USCCB here.

Religious liberty and conscience should be true religious liberty and conscience. After all, America runs the risks at times of interpreting the First Amendment as applying only to some people, as the despicable bigotry of the Park51 religious center in New York demonstrated. Religious liberty is religious liberty: not a smokescreen for demagogues to use Christianity to try to claim its former powers and privileges in society or to manipulate religious differences for political gain.

Pining for the days of tyranny of the majority and whining in the minority is not becoming, Lord Carey. Even you deserve a better legacy than this.