Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday: A Passion for Peace through Justice

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week for Christians. On Palm Sunday Jesus enters Jerusalem riding a donkey, hailed by followers waving palm branches. The action is a deliberate symbolic protest.

Biblical Scholar John Dominic Crossan pinned an article just two days ago which explains exactly what Jesus was up to:
Jesus went up to Jerusalem to make twin demonstrations, first against Roman imperial control over the City of Peace and, second, against Roman imperial control over the Temple of God. In other words, put personally, against the (sub)governor Pilate and his high-priest Caiaphas.
Together with his friend and colleague Marcus Borg, Crossan wrote an excellent book a few years back with elaborates and clarifies Jesus purpose in Jerusalem: The Last Week. Early in this book they explain that:
The Meaning of the demonstration is clear, for it uses symbolism from the prophet Zechariah in the Jewish Bible. According to Zechariah, a king would be coming to Jerusalem (Zion) "humble, and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey" (9:9).... The rest of the Zechariah passage details what kind of king he will be .... This king, riding on a donkey, will banish war from the land - no more chariots, war-horses, or bows. Commanding peace to the nations, he will be king of peace.

Jesus' procession deliberately countered what was happening on the other side of the city [that Sunday, Pilate entered the city in a pompous pro-empire procession]. Pilate's procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus' procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is the heart of Jesus' life and message. Dedicated to non-violence, inclusiveness, justice for the poor and afflicted, and peace through justice for all, Jesus entered Jerusalem intentionally opposing his message and his mission to the power and injustice of empire.

The problem with Rome and the Priesthood for working so closely with Roman power. Was that this power disenfranchised, exploited, and oppressed the peasantry (a good 90% or so of the population) simply to create wealth and power for the elites.

Or to quote from Crossan once more:
After centuries of subjugation to various empires, the Jews of Jesus' time wanted to know: if God is just, and the world belongs to God, why is the world so unjust? One stream of Jewish tradition answered that question with this mantra: God will overcome, someday. At some point in the future, God would not only clean up the mess but also create a perfect world.... 
[To fight against Roman imperial power] Jesus told his companions to heal the sick, to eat with those they healed, and to announce that the Kingdom of God had arrived. Healing is the basic spiritual power. Eating is the basic physical power. That mutual sharing of spiritual and physical power, in a sense, recreated the sharing aspects of peasant life in contrast to the greedy life under Antipas' Romanization process. 
Think about those twin aspects for a moment. Those who bring healing and those who furnish eating are not exactly in the same position. They represent, respectively, itinerants and householders. By itinerants, I mean people pushed off family farms or family boats as the New World Order arrived in Lower Galilee. 
Think, for example, of how readily fishermen followed Jesus. By householders, I mean families who know how easily they could lose their own farms or boats in a changing economy. As itinerants and householders faced one another, the former saw where they had been, and the latter saw where they could be. The program of the Kingdom was to join both groups in support and common life.

In Leviticus 25:23 God says that, "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants." Land is life itself and cannot be bought and sold like other commercial commodities. In the gospels and throughout the New Testament there is little said about land and much said about food. But the continuity is clear--land is there for food, and the basis of life is land because it produces food.

Jesus' Kingdom program was not just about politics or economics as distinct from theology. It combined religion, politics, and economics; it was about divine distributive justice; it was about the ownership of this world; it was about a theology of creation ("Jesus' Kingdom ProgramBelief-net).
In other words, Jesus challenged his hearers to disobey Roman power by living in God's kingdom here and now. In effect he claimed that Roman authority was null and void, that the Temple leadership was dissolved, and that God was ruling in our midst. No wonder the authorities killed him!

To follow Jesus, therefore, is to oppose the forces of empire and violence. To fight for the radical inclusion and healing of all people.

Palm Sunday offers us a choice: we can follow Jesus the messiah of peace and justice, or align ourselves with the forces of empire. THAT is the gospel; THAT is the passion of Holy Week.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Health Care Reform Moves Forward

Despite all the fierce and angry rhetoric of the Tea-baggers and their allies in congress, the Democrats managed to pass a health care reform bill. The bill is lacking in many respects. There is no public option, nor anything to really guarantee strong price controls. Private insurance companies are left to run the show and even given some loopholes to avoid the worst of the new regulations put upon them.

In these respects, the bill that has passed is a poor one. It is not the ideal of reform that many progressives hope for. It it is not even merely imperfect; there are very serious problems with this health care reform.

Having said that, however, I think that the passage of the health care bill is a cause for celebration. Coverage will be expanded to millions of people who currently lack it, more poor people will be given financial aid to afford health care without spending their last penny, and it will be harder for health insurance companies - at least in most cases - to deny claims and care. This is a foundation we can build upon and a real improvement in our rather cruel and barbaric health care system.

But remember that our celebration must be a qualified one. This is but the first step in health care reform and it is the stumbling of a child who cannot yet really walk on its own. We must continue the fight. In particular we must work to strengthen the regulations on private health insurance companies, find a real mechanism for controlling costs, make it even harder for them to deny claims, and in the end to take the profit motive out of health care all together.

It appears certain that the transition from the cruel for-profit health insurance system that has harmed and taken so many lives to a system of health coverage that really works to heal and help people must, in the United States, be a gradual and incremental one. It is truly a sad thing that the American mindset and political system seems gridlocked into working in this slow and painful manner. Nevertheless such appears to be the case.

Given this American "incrementalism" we can and should be proud of this health care bill as an important first step. But let us not forget that we cannot stop with the first step, we must take the remainder of the steps on the path before us. Let us keep the vision of a truly humane and democratic health care system in our sight and keep on walking toward it.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Capitalism a Love story

Michael Moore's latest film is out on DVD. It's a usual Moore flick. Some good insights, funny, but one-sided, sometimes superficial, and lacking at key points in depth. It is surely among Moore's better films and does reveal a great deal of crucial information about how our economic system is run ... or better, run into the ground.

Some of it, as in most Moore films, is really very well done. The best example of this is when Moore asks various financial experts to explain what a "derivative" is. In each case it is so complicated, they cannot! Very telling, and very disturbing.

The most interesting thing about this film is Moore's use of his own Catholic faith to attack Capitalism. Catholic economic justice runs strongly counter to our culture of greed and cut throat competition. And it is nice to hear this said. It is also nice to hear from the religious left. Too often religious messages in the media and film are right wing.

In a particularly telling and funny scene Moore dubs over an old movie about Jesus. He has Jesus mouth capitalist catch phrases, and the result is quite damning. It's impossible to imagine the Jesus of the gospels saying such things or even approving of anything like our own economic system.

I highly recommend anyone interested in the social justice aspect of Jesus' life and teaching to read Jesus a Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan. Once you have studied the figure in his historical environment, you will see that Moore has the social justice and anti-capitalism of Jesus and much Christian social justice teachings absolutely correct.

Of course the usual superficiality and pompousness of Michael Moore does hurt the film. But I think the film is worth seeing, and much of the message is well presented and substantially correct.

But if you don't have time to see Moore's film here is his October interview with Charlie Rose that pretty much sums it up:

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

That Catastrophic Spider Immanuel Kant

Nietzsche once remarked that Immanuel Kant was a Catastrophic Spider. By this he meant that Kant's moral Philosophy sucked the life out of human beings. I suppose today we might refer to Kant as a "vampire" hence the image I have placed here of Nosferatu resembling the sage of konigsberg.

It is not hard to see why Nietzsche thought this. For Kant all our personal drives, goals, and inclinations must be sacrificed to an abstract and absolute duty. This is even worse then it sounds. Kant makes it quite clear that if we do good deeds out of natural inclination our actions have no moral worth. We must act, Kant asserts, out of a pure respect for duty; it is not enough to do our duty, we must do it simply because it is our duty. No other reason has moral worth.

Kant uses two examples to illustrate his bloodless claim that we must act for the sake of duty alone. First, Kant explains - one can almost hear the stern Prussian lecturing and imagine him wagging his finger at us - that a person who is naturally kind and charitable toward others (the "friend of humanity" Kant calls him) cannot be morally praised. He is good to others because his character is kind. This will not do, he is acting out of inclination, not a purely rational sense of duty.

Kant then asks us to consider a man of "cold temperament" a genuine misanthrope who has no desire to do good for others, but makes himself do so out of sheer duty. This man's actions have moral worth. He is, for Kant, a moral hero. In much the same vein, Kant would be forced to say that loving parents who raise their children well out of natural affection cannot be morally praised, but hateful parents who despise their children and yet strive to do right by them for the sake of duty alone are morally commendable!

Something has surely gone wrong here. Kant acts as though our character, the kind of person we are, is not something for which we can be morally praised. On the contrary, he argues that a good character seems to prevent us from being authentically moral. An impoverished theory if there ever was one.

Can any one honestly believe that we are only moral to the extent that we act against our character and inclinations? This is perverse! Surely who we are matters at least as much as what we do.

To see just how impoverished Kant's morality is check out the correspondence between Kant and Maria Von Herbert. That entire correspondence with scholarly commentary can be found here. The gist of the conversation is as follows. Von Herbert wrote Kant explaining that she was seriously contemplating suicide but knows from reading Kant that suicide is not morally permissible.

As the correspondence continues, we see that Von Herbert is chronically depressed. She writes:
My vision is clear now. I feel that a vast emptiness extends inside me, and all around me - so that I almost find my self to be superfluous, unnecessary. Nothing attracts me. I'm tormented by a boredom that makes life intolerable. Don't think me arrogant for saying this, but the demands of morality are too easy for me. I would eagerly do twice as much as they command. They only get their prestige from the attractiveness of sin, and it costs me almost no effort to resist that.
The commentator notes that Kant is here confronted with a Kantian moral saint. The woman has no passions and therefore simply acts out of a concern for duty alone. In a very telling passage Von Herbert wonders if Kant himself is as empty and lifeless as she is:
I beg you to give me something that will get this intolerable emptiness out of my soul. Then I might become a useful part of nature, and, if my health permits, would make a trip to K├▒nigsberg in a few years. I want to ask permission, in advance, to visit you. You must tell me your story then, because I would like to know what kind of life your philosophy has led you to - whether it never seemed to you to be worth the bother to marry, or to give your whole heart to anyone, or to reproduce your likeness. I have an engraved portrait of you by Bause, from Leipzig. I see a profound calm there, and moral depth - but not the astuteness of which the Critique of Pure Reason is proof. And I'm dissatisfied not to be able to look you right in the face
Kant, unable to see this woman as anything other than a "crazy lady," dismisses her letters and refuses to respond. Ten years later she finally did commit suicide. I concede that Von Herbert is not really the "perfect Kantian" she has no passions to master. For Kant an act appears to be moral to the extent that we have mastered our natural passions which run contrary to this. But her chief motivation is duty, and her lack of passion poses no problems for a Kantian. For Kant must, in the end, regard our natural impulses and desires as something we would be better off without. Maria Von Herbert lacks these impulses and desires and the result is chronic depression. She rightly sees that Kant's philosophy pushes us all in that direction. This is a very serious problem.

Kant's total failure to see, in this woman, a profound criticism of his philosophy as lifeless is damning. I would not, however, consider it worth the bother of a blog post if this were just about Kant.

Throughout his work Kant stressed that he is simply the philosophical spokesmen for common sense morality. I fear he is right. Kant's cold, impersonal, and inhuman ethics are the logical conclusion of a very common conception of what morality is. Many of us think of morality as essentially prohibitive. It is a set of external commands that, more often than not, forces us to oppose our natural impulses and normal inclinations, that demands we obey regardless of our happiness or well-being. Kant builds his theory with the dreadful consistency of a math problem on just this conception.

One need not reflect all that deeply to see that this conception of morality and the moral life is the spider Nietzsche said it was. An ethic that makes enjoyment and character, well-being and fulfillment the enemy of duty is a sick one.

Whatever the proper theory of ethics is, this is not it.

We must think again.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Diogenes' Lamp

Diogenes of Sinope is not a name one often hears. Even in the world of Professional Philosophy his name is not among the most studied minds. By way of short summary, Diogenes was a Cynic, a word which does not quite carry its contemporary meaning of a cynical and bitter person. In the ancient world a Cynic was one who repudiated - in word and deed - the entire culture of normalcy and "fitting in" that dominates the lives of most of us. For the Cynic culture is filled with injustice, exploitation, and inhumanity.

The basic idea is that social conventions and the desire for status that arises from them enslave us. Insofar as we attempt to conform to the ideals and patters of the dominant society, we are in bondage. And not only are we in bondage, but we exploit and demean one another. Only a rejection of the norms of society as binding on us can liberate and empower us.

This often took extravagant forms. Cynics frequently eschewed property and social standing - Diogenes himself was said to live in a barrel - they damned titles and any official power. Wealth, fame, and worldly success was frequently anathema to them. The logic of the cynic is that the world corrupts, society corrupts, we must return to nature and free ourselves of such corrupting influences.

One need not look far to see they have a point. The amount of hurt that has come from human beings' need for power, wealth, status, position, and comfort is truly staggering. The degree of violence, death, and needless tragedy that results from our struggle to succeed in the social world is so vast that I cannot begin to enumerate it.

Perhaps the most famous story about Diogenes is the tale of his wondering about town in broad daylight with a lantern. Asked why he was behaving in such a manner, he declared "I am only looking for a human being." The implication is that he had not found a human being. We, all of us, have failed to live up to our humanity. What can that mean? How have we failed? The injustice and villainy that fill the world may be our despairing answer to these questions.

In a world where the rich continue to prosper at the expense of the poor, a world where violence is the norm, discrimination an every day occurrence, injustice, brutality, anger and hate commonplace, have we yet to find a human being? Have any of us lived up to what we might be?

Need we light the torch brighter? Or does Diogenes' lamp merely reveal that there is nothing to find?

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The Truth about Grad School

Grad school, at least in the Liberal arts and Sciences, cost a fortune, forces one to live in poverty for many years, and has a very low probability of resulting in a job. AND I MEAN VERY LOW.

Finally The Simpsons reveal the truth, in the following video clip:

This is only a very slight exaggeration, it's nearly this bad.

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

We Must Pass Health Care Reform Now!

I am not crazy about the Democrats bills for health care reform. The problem with Health care in the United States is that so much of it is left in the hands of for-profit companies. This is the reason Health care costs so much (just look at the administrative costs and the regular jacking up of premiums) and the reason so many are denied coverage and claims. The bills passed by the house and the senate leave these companies with far too much power. They should be removed from the game entirely.

To quickly illustrate the problem. For-profit companies cannot maximize profits by providing good coverage. The best, perhaps only, way to maximize profits is to raise premiums absurdly often, deny care to those who need it most, and then deny every possible claim you can for any reason at all. That's really very simple. This ends up bankrupting families, causing home foreclosures, tremendous personal debt, high administrative costs (takes a lot of paper work to deny claim after claim), lack of treatment, death, misery, and ruin. No one should doubt this. Those who do are either inexcusably ignorant and/or willingly blind.

Our health care system is (by far) the most expensive on earth (for citizens and government), the only system in advanced countries that fails to cover everyone (47.5 million uninsured and rising), and the result is higher infant mortality, a shorter life-span, more chronic illness, more bankruptcy, more home foreclosures, and more personal debt than any other advanced democracy!! No one can rationally defend so broken, perverse, and corrupt a system. Ideology is useless here. The facts cannot be denied; the system cannot be defended.

Because of this there are some liberals who argue that we should oppose the passage of these bills and give up health care as "lost again this round." Part of me agrees with them. Until profit is removed from health care coverage, the United States will continue to have a health care system that is cruel, barbaric, and inhumane.

The problem, however, is that too many people can no longer afford their premiums. Too many Americans are losing their jobs and therefore their health insurance. Too many people are denied care because of "pre-existing conditions." The situation is frankly intolerable and inexcusable.

The current bill does at least alleviate some of these problems. The bill would eliminate denying care for pre-existing conditions, regulate (albeit insufficiently) how much insurance companies can raise premiums, and expand coverage - and crucially government aid to afford coverage - to millions who are currently denied it.

This bill, in short, is essential. It is not only imperfect, but poor; and yet there are parts of this bill that will really help many people.


Make no mistake, the passage of this bill is not a final solution. Health care coverage in this country will never be acceptable until the profit motive is fully removed from insurance. Until we adopt a system like Germany and France have - highly regulated, NON-PROFIT, but private health insurance - or simply go to a single-payer system (not my choice, but light-years better than a for-profit system), our health care will remain a cruel joke. We must return to this issue again.

But the passage of a bill which eliminates pre-existing conditions, expands coverage, and slows down the rates of rising premiums will at least do some good. This might even be the first step to a functional health care system.

Republicans will rant and rave about "big government." Let them. Idiotic and uniformed morons who foam at the mouth about "socialism" should be given no more attention than lunatics on the street who pass out pamphlets informing us that "the end of days is near."


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