Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Reflections: Light only Shines in Darkness

Christmas is - and has long been - a predominately commercial holiday. In other words, it is marketed, increasingly early and more forcefully with each passing yuletide, in order to make people buy things.

Because of this the holiday is typically presented as pure happiness; everyone feels good, everyone sings, and everyone has a great old time. I suppose that advertisers have long realized that a holiday bereft gloom, loss, struggle, and pain is a holiday best able to sell all manner of trinkets.

The fact is, however, that Christmas, like any other time of the year, has it share of sorrow, loss, and pain. Loved ones die, people divorce, homes are foreclosed, and jobs are lost.

Christmas (as marketed) cannot handle these tragedies. It's sappy sentimentalism and consumer driven "feeling good" is simply not equipped to deal with real suffering in life. People who are seriously soul searching and struggling with real human experience are at lot less inclined to consume.

This is Ironic.

Christmas is, both in symbol and in origin, a celebration of light in the darkness, warmth in the winter, hope in the shadow of fear. Ancient pagan festivals from which Christmas evolved, like Yule, Solstice, and Saturnalia, were all filled with symbols of triumph, joy, light, and life in the midst of a winter filled with death and darkness.

Coming at the darkest time of the year (in the northern hemisphere at least), when the world is cold, the trees bare, the ground frozen, and the elements harsh, Christmas is a reminder that in the face of death life persists, in the dark of night light can still be found, and that in the death of winter, there is still food to eat and warmth to warm us.

We have chosen to use only half of the holiday symbols. We think of the joy, the light, the warmth, and the cheer. But there is no joy without sorrow, no warmth without the cold, no light without darkness. In order to truly celebrate Christmas, we are going to have to keep the other aspects of the season before us.

One may argue, of course, that the holiday is meant as some form of escapism from the dark side of life. Sure, many think of it that way; the advertisers revel at that fact.

In reply I simply appeal to the history behind the holiday, both pagan and christian. We can reject those. We can buy into the the Christmas that makes retailers a fortune and drives us crazy with commercial-induced stress. But if we do we are leaving something deeper and more significant, for something sappy, cheaper, and far less meaningful.

By embracing the pain, suffering, and grief symbolized in the dark side of Christmas, we are leaving aside the shallow "cheer" of consumerism and cheap tinsel, for the deeper joy that results from what some might call a "tragic-optimism" or even, perhaps, a "tragic-romanticism."

To clarify what I mean, let us compare tragic-optimism and tragic romanticism, with their commercialized counterparts. The commercial brand of optimism tells us that all things are right with the world, that only "grinches" get sad during the holiday, and that if we just spend enough of our money at Hallmark and Target, Christmas will warm our hearts with its eggnogy bliss.

Commercial romanticism tells us that if we just put up the right decorations, buy the right "goodies" and follow the formula, we can have the kind of Christmas we had when we were 7 years old.

What I mean by tragic-optimism, on the other hand, is a view that life is hard. People die, dreams are broken, prospects fail to materialize. The tragic-optimist understands that great sorrow is an inescapable aspect of life, and we would be fools to deny that. But, despite this, the tragic-optimist finds existence ultimately joyful. Life is good, being is good, it is all worth it. In spite of all the pain and suffering, life is filled with joy. And this joy is not experienced in spite of pain and sorrow, but somehow, in part, because of it.

This is where tragic-romanticism comes in. Tragic-romanticism, as I understand it, is the appreciation that pain, sorrow, suffering, and grief can add to the joy of life, by making there opposites all the more potent and complete.

In searching for a Christmas image or song that exemplifies what I'm trying to express, I found myself drawn to the Judy Garland performance of "Have yourself a Merry little Christmas." [the story of this song fits in well with my position here, check it out] The song is filled with pain. And yet, somehow, one cannot miss the hope and triumph in Garland's voice.

Real optimism should never be confused with the attempt to delude ourselves that nothing bad is going to happen. Bad things will happen to us all. We cannot, and we ought not, downplay that. But hope, as opposed to delusion, is the conviction that it is all worth it. Despite the tragedies we must encounter in life, living is a beautiful and joyous thing. It is this kind of optimism, this genuine hope that Christmas should really be all about.

Christmas is indeed about being joyful and triumphant. But to know joy, we have to know pain, and to be triumphant we must conquer something, presumably the tragedy and pain in our lives

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Should we still celebrate Thanksgiving?

The question of this post's title might seem totally irrelevant, since it seems that most of America skipped Thanksgiving and jumped right on to Christmas within minutes of the end of trick or treating hours on Halloween! But I think the question is relevant.

There are at least two possible objections to observing Thanksgiving: 1) Animal rights, and 2) the plight of American Indians.

The first objection, I suppose, would look like this: Our food production system is one of intensely cruel factory farming. Pigs, Cows, Chickens, and other livestock are treated so inhumanely, that is sickening. In light of this, can we really contribute to a holiday that asks us to consume so much animal product, thus supporting this cruel system?

That objection is rather easy to answer. We can, of course, have a vegan, vegetarian, or free-range & small family farm version of thanksgiving.

The second objection is more serious. Thanksgiving celebrates the founding of this county, symbolically at least. But was not this country, in part, founded by stealing land from American Indians, killing them off, and generally treating them with inhumane cruelty and treachery? Yes. Sadly it was.

Despite this, I don't think Thanksgiving has ever been about this tragic and sorrowful fact. It's simply a time for families and friends to gather together and be thankful. It need not, and I think for almost no one is, about how this nation wronged the American Indians.

Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate and rejoice in what we have, to express a profound gratitude for life and living; for friends, family, and other loved ones. It is the start of the Holiday season; the one time of year left in this country when we actually slow down our mechanical routines a little bit and celebrate what really matters in our lives.

So by all means celebrate tomorrow! Eat your Turkey (or Turkey substitute) and mashed potatoes, watch football, say grace, and retire for the evening comfortably full and happy. Despite the struggles in life, there is always something to be profoundly grateful for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Christ of Faith: The Face of God

Regarding my post on "the historical Jesus"A thoughtful reader asked me if I cared so much about what the Jesus of history said because, perhaps, I thought "he was God." This is a question I've heard many times "was/is Jesus God?" I think the very question itself misunderstands the issue.

In popular imagination God is a supernatural (and usually male) person who "lives" outside of the universe somewhere and periodically intervenes in it to perform "miracles." If one believes in this kind of God and adds to it the un-nuanced belief that "Jesus is God." On believes presumably that Jesus was not really a human being, but simply God visiting us incognito. This perspective sees the humanity of Jesus as some kind of costume that he temporally donned before flying up back home to heaven.

I might take the view seriously if a kindergartner suggested it, but it is far from the view of any sophisticated Christian theologian.

First I repeat my own position about the reality we appropriately term "God":
I ascribe to a theology known as panentheism. To sum up this position briefly: I understand panentheism as the view that the term "God" does not refer to a separately existing supernatural and person-like being "out there" beyond us. The term "God" refers rather to reality at its ultimate level, "Being itself," "The ground of being," the all-inclusive whole. The best way to understand what these abstractions signify is through an analogy: We know from physics that reality has levels of being which require ever deeper descriptions of the same object. Take, for example, a table. At the level of human interaction the table is a solid object of such-and-such size, weight, height and so on. But at a deeper level of physical description the table is properly described as a certain relationship of interaction between fundamental particles. Both descriptions are correct, the latter simply describes the realty of the table at a "deeper" level.

The panentheist takes this basic claim about the table and extends it to reality as a whole. The universe at the level of physical observation is the total collection of matter and energy interacting in space and time. If we go deeper, however, we can think of the universe as being reality itself only at a less than ultimate level of description. If we think of reality at its greatest or ultimate depth, we must think of it has having no boundaries or limits of any kind (after all what could limit it?). Ultimate reality would then be infinite (no limits), eternal (no beginning or end), and self-caused. All things in our universe can be seen as simply various expressions of the one ultimate reality at a level of less depth. Panentheists call ultimate reality "God" partly because it is eternal, infinite, and self-caused, but also because reality as a whole is so awe-inspiring, mysterious, and tremendous, that we can only feel reverence, humility, and awe when we contemplate it. In other words, for the panentheist all things are parts of God, but the reality of God goes deeper than reality at the level of things, though God does not exist apart from things as another being; God is, rather, the "ground of all being."
Now, let us try to understand the traditional idea of the "divinity of Jesus" in light of this panentheistic understanding of God. To begin with, a great many theologians and New Testament scholars would never say, crudely, "Jesus was/is God." The position is usually stated with far more nuance. Theologians tend to say things like "Jesus is the decisive revelation of God," "the place where we meet God most clearly," "our fullest of experience of the divine in our lives," or other subtly worded variants.

Usually the theologian makes the following moves: 1) The truest way to God for the Christian is through love and justice. In other words, in fighting for justice, in compassion, in loving others, we meet the divine. 2) Jesus is the clearest expression of a human being dedicated to compassion and love that we can know (more on this point below). 3) Therefore, to the extent that Jesus incarnates the very compassion and justice that is where we find God, he is the clearest expression of God to us and for us.

In short, theologians need not - and typically they do not - say that the historical Jesus was/is God; but they are committed to the view that, for the Christian, God is made known most clearly, most fully, and most powerfully in the life, deeds, words, death, and abiding presence (for my view of the resurrection of Jesus click here) of this first century Galilean.

This is my position as well.

Let me now consider two objections to it:

Objection 1: Christians for many centuries called Jesus God, so you can't be a Christian without saying it so bluntly.

Reply: It is not the case that all Christian theologians said, so bluntly, "Jesus is God." But even if they did, the claim that religions can never change, and must always and forever express exactly the same ideas in exactly the same sense is both absurd and manifestly false.

Objection 2: "Why do you choose to follow Jesus as the decisive revelation of God? Lot's of people are committed to justice and compassion! Can't the same claims be made for Buddha, Muhammad, Gandhi etc?"

Reply: Yes the same claims can be made for other figures. In fact, to the degree that anyone lives a life of justice and compassion, that person incarnates God. There is a necessarily subjective element at play here in seeing Jesus as the fullest incarnation of God. It's similar to my love regarding my wife. I often tell my wife that she is "the most amazing, or the most beautiful, woman in the world." When I tell her this I mean it and believe it. But I'm not claiming it as some kind of objective fact about her; rather, I am proclaiming my commitment to her. My statements are statements of my commitment to her; not objective facts about her person. Yet they are not totally subjective either. If my wife turned out to be very different than the person I thought she was, say she turned out to be a cruel and evil person (she is not- don't worry!), then my commitment would end.

Exactly the same is true of my commitment to Jesus as the clearest and fullest incarnation of God for me. In saying, "in Jesus is where I see God most clearly." I am making a claim about my commitment to Jesus; not simply stating facts about Jesus (e.g. that he was 5'3). But again, this claim is not without objective content. If historical research revealed that the Jesus who actually lives was not a man committed to compassion and justice, but was actually a violent sociopath, then I could not follow him, could not see God in him.

To use another analogy. Suppose I declare that Tolstoy is the greatest novelist in history. One way, perhaps the most helpful way, to understand that is to say that this is how Tolstoy effects me: the power and beauty of literature comes to me most clearly and fully in Tolstoy. Furthermore, although there are many other novelist I also find great, none quite effect me like Tolstoy does. This claim does require, I think, that Tolstoy actually be a remarkably great writer, but to call him the greatest instead of say Dostoevsky or James Joyce requires an element of subjectivity.

Similarly, I do see God made known in lives like Gandhi and Desmond Tutu, but other lives just don't quite bring God to me like Jesus does.

I believe that we all incarnate God to the degree that we are passionate about justice and have compassion for our fellow human beings. Jesus of Nazareth, both in the gospels and, as far as I can tell, in history was a person who manifested these traits to a remarkable degree. I do not, of course, claim he did so to an unparalleled degree. But, in a way similar to my love and commitment to my wife, or my personal view that Tolstoy is the greatest novelist of them all, I find that it is Jesus who most clearly makes God known to me.

That is how I understand the divinity of Jesus.

Update (8/24/11):

In conversation with a Theologian friend on this post, I mentioned to him that:
The suffering of Jesus and the failure of his mission is clearly part of this revelatory package too. In the brutal death of this man, his betrayel by those close to him, etc, we learn, clearly, that God is present - maybe even most present - in our moments of pain, sorrow, suffering, defeat, and loss.
He replied to me by adding:
I would add that in Jesus Christ God pronounces a final verdict on the choice human beings have made and continue to make for violence. But instead of inflicting violence on his enemies, God chose to absorb their violence in himself, in the one nailed to the cross.
It is clear to me that these insights have to be added and developed to my account of the "divinity of Jesus."

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Angry White Voters: The Truth about the Tea Party

I have long thought that the tea party was nothing more than a group of far-right extremists that have long spewed their uninformed, bigoted, and angry opinions toward all things they perceive - with fear and trembling racking their frightened forms - as "liberal," "progressive," "humanistic," and "secular."

The only difference between them now and over the past 50 years is that obscenely rich and self-interested charlatans like Dick Armey and the Koch Brothers - feel free to snicker at the thought of a "Dick" and the couple of "Koch's" funding the "tea-baggers" - have given them odd signs and banners, and bankrolled their crank rallies.

It appears, unsurprisingly, that I was correct. Hard data now demonstrates that the so-called tea-party is, in Joan Walsh's words:
Scholar Robert Putnam, best known for his study of American atomization in "Bowling Alone," has produced new data on the Tea Party and it's being billed as a shocker. Sit down before you read this: They are older, white conservative Christians "who were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born."
Putnam's article is available at the New York Times. According to his research:

Beginning in 2006 we interviewed a representative sample of 3,000 Americans as part of our continuing research into national political attitudes, and we returned to interview many of the same people again this summer. As a result, we can look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later. We can also account for multiple influences simultaneously — isolating the impact of one factor while holding others constant.

Our analysis casts doubt on the Tea Party’s “origin story.” Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.

What’s more, contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession. Many Americans have suffered in the last four years, but they are no more likely than anyone else to support the Tea Party. And while the public image of the Tea Party focuses on a desire to shrink government, concern over big government is hardly the only or even the most important predictor of Tea Party support among voters.

So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.

More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics. And Tea Partiers continue to hold these views: they seek “deeply religious” elected officials, approve of religious leaders’ engaging in politics and want religion brought into political debates. The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.

This inclination among the Tea Party faithful to mix religion and politics explains their support for Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. Their appeal to Tea Partiers lies less in what they say about the budget or taxes, and more in their overt use of religious language and imagery, including Mrs. Bachmann’s lengthy prayers at campaign stops and Mr. Perry’s prayer rally in Houston.

In short, the tea-party is nothing but a new name for the same old right-wing bigots who have opposed every socially progressive policy since the Civil Rights act! The same bigots who wanted to make sure black people could not vote, live in their neighborhoods, or attend their schools, now oppose a black president. The same right-wing religious extremists who want Genesis taught in their kids' biology courses and think America should be a nation for Christians only, now want Michelle Bachmann to lead their country.

Enough nonsense! There is no such thing as the tea-party; it's just the same far right cranks and loons we've had to deal with for a very long time. So let's do what you ought to do with such quacks: let them rant and rave like the madmen they are, and ignore their wild chants when we actually sit down as rational people to attempt policy.

It's time to throw the tea-bag in the trash.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Jesus: Proclaimer of the Now and Future Kingdom

When I first created this blog my purpose was to discuss politics. But it appears that religion has come to dominate more and more of my posts. Things change of course and I will, no doubt, return to politics as a primary focus eventually. For now, however, I shall continue to post on the matters most in my thoughts, and presently those matters pertain to religion.

I want to write briefly about the central message of the Historical Jesus.* But first some necessary preliminaries:

1) By the term "Historical Jesus" I refer to the actual flesh and blood person who walked the dusty roads of ancient Israel, insofar as that individual can be reconstructed by means of historical-critical scholarship. This Jesus is not to be confused with the "Jesus of Faith." The latter is Jesus as he is experienced in the religious life of Christian believers. The difference between these two is crucial to solid scholarship.

2) The four New Testament gospels are not straightforward historical accounts. This is a fact that no serious Bible scholar or historian doubts and it has been well known for around 200 years now. The gospels contain myths and legends (e.g. the birth stories, the temptation by the devil, walking on the sea) exaggeration, theological musings projected into narratives about Jesus, propaganda, and so forth.

3) Despite (2) the gospels are not useless as historical documents. Two centuries of painstaking historical research has established beyond reasonable doubt that the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have a solid historical foundation. The gospel of John is not close to history and is not accorded the same status as the synoptics by historians.

4) The narrative spine of Mark (and thus Matthew and Luke who used Mark as a primary source) is broadly historical: Jesus came from Nazareth, briefly followed and was baptized by John the Baptist, shortly after John's arrest went out on his own mission, chose disciples to follow him and do what he was doing, taught in parables, gathered people together around a common meal, worked as an itinerant healer and exorcist, and, at Passover in the year 30, journeyed to Jerusalem, confronted the leaders there with the judgment of God by word and deed (the demonstration in the temple) and was crucified by Rome for his troubles.

5) Scholars also generally agree that much of the teaching in a hypothetical document called "Q" is authentic to the Jesus of history. Q is a source that was used by Matthew and Luke (they also used Mark). We have no copy of this source as it is lost. But it is clearly visible in the passages that Matthew and Luke have in common but that are not in their other source, Mark. It is also fairly clear that the majority of the parables (though not the interpretive gloss gospel writers sometimes give them) go back to the Jesus of history as well.

6) But, even in "Q" and Mark we do not have unbiased plain history. And scholars are careful to point out that in those two early sources some material is still suspect. In particular, passages that too obviously reflect the theology of the later Jesus movement (as evidenced in, say, Paul's letters) is unlikely to go back to Jesus. Passages in which Jesus speaks to the conditions of his followers in the 50s and 60s (see Mark 13) are clearly not from the Jesus of history, nor are passages in which Jesus speaks of himself as a heavenly judge and one who will come again - this rules out all future "son of man" passages, which has very important ramifications, as will be seen below.

With these preliminaries in place we can now ask who Jesus was? Or better, what picture of Jesus emerges from our earliest sources (Q and Mark - excluding the obviously unhistorical passages)?

I will here restrict myself to the core image in the teaching of the historical Jesus: The Kingdom of God. Better translated as the "ruling activity of God" this phrase refers to the concrete activity of God in the world whereby He establishes that He is in charge. The phrase does not indicate a place or nation in which God is actually the king.

Though the phrase "Kingdom of God" could mean many things, by the time of Jesus it serves as an eschatological image. Eschatology is that branch of theology dealing with "end-times," death, judgement, eternal life, Heaven and Hell. But used in reference to the period in which Jesus lived it refers rather to the expectation and hope, shared by many of the Jewish people at the time, that God would soon act decisively in human history to once and for all end injustice, oppression, and evil and usher in an age of prosperity, peace, and harmony.

Some scholars misleadingly speak of the time that God would do this as "the end of the world." But that is not what most of these Jewish people expected (Crossan The Greatest Prayer, 79). What they expected, rather, was that God would transform this world, not end it. Many did expect that only a supernatural act could accomplish this and thought also that events like the raising of the righteous dead to new life would accompany the eschaton. Indeed, most early Christians thought that the kingdom would be decidedly established by a return of Jesus to earth, to end evil and usher in an age of everlasting peace.

Many scholars have claimed that Jesus' own eschatology was close to that of the early Christians. He too, so they argue, expected a supernatural event in the very near future that would transform the world forever. On this view, Jesus' message was simply "the kingdom is coming soon, so you better repent and get ready for it."

I don't think this position is particularly well supported for several reasons. First the only gospel passages in which Jesus speaks of an imminent and spectacular arrival of God's kingdom are in the passages in which he speaks of the coming of the son of man (himself) from heaven. But the work of such scholars as Geza Vermes and Norman Perrin (as well as many others) demonstrate clearly that such passages do not go back to the historical Jesus, but are products of the early Jesus movement and depend upon the belief that the executed Jesus is raised up to God's right hand and that he will return from there to establish everlasting justice and peace. These passages reflect the view of Jesus' followers after his death, not the view of Jesus himself.

Second, Jesus' message in Q and Mark is simply not "repent, pray and wait for God to act." On the contrary his message reads more like "This is what the kingdom is, you are called to live out and participate in that kingdom, so get to work!" (Crossan The Greatest Prayer, 90)

So the overtly apocalyptic or end-of-the-world Jesus is not the Jesus of history. Nevertheless, I cannot quite agree with those scholars who claim that for Jesus the Kingdom of God is only a present reality made known to those who realize it in themselves. Even without the son of man passages there are enough texts that show that Jesus did teach that the kingdom, though clearly a present reality to enter now, in its full glory lies in the future (Matthew 5: 3-11, Mark 14: 25, etc.).

Did Jesus then believe that the great eschaton was soon to come? That God would indeed radically act so as to transform the world forever?

It seems to me that a careful reading of the earliest sources does not support the claim that Jesus spoke of a Kingdom of God about to burst upon the world in the future, either immediately or at some unspecified time. Nor do those teachings support that Jesus denied this in favor of a mystical present kingdom. Geza Vermes has expressed the position I am reaching for well:
[Q]ueries concerned with whether the kingdom had come, was on the way, or would come later, must be irrelevant. At issue in New Testament eschatology is the actual movement itself of turning back, of entering into the kingdom. It is in the surrender of the self to God's will that his sovereignty is realized on earth (Jesus in his Jewish Context, 35).
And Norman Perrin expressed it similarly:
In the teaching of Jesus the emphasis is not upon a future for which men must prepare, even with the help of God; the emphasis is upon a present which carries with it the guarantee of the future (Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 205).
In short if we are to understand the eschatological mindset of the historical Jesus we must look to what he actually says about the kingdom. Jesus speaks of the kingdom as a reality that people can enter now (Luke 16.16), that is among us (Luke 17:20), but that will be our destiny in the future as well (Mathew 8:11). The kingdom is known in acts of healing (Luke 11:20) in the embracing of social outcasts, forgiving each other, in peace, non-violence, love for others, and the fight for justice (Matthew 5-7). In short, it is in healing each other, forgiving each other, battling injustice, and ending oppression that the kingdom is entered into by all who choose it here and now.

For Jesus, it appears, the full fruits of the kingdom do lie in the future, but it does not seem that his message is about waiting for that future. Rather than seeing the kingdom as imminent - as about to burst forth on the earth - it seems that Jesus saw the kingdom as ultimate. The Hebrew God of justice and compassion would, in the end, perfect the world, would eliminate injustice and usher in a time of everlasting peace and plenty for all. This is the heart of prophetic Judaism, and the core of the vision of the historical Jesus. Where Jesus takes his faith in God's kingdom a step further is in his clear conviction that the coming kingdom is even now already present. Like the leaven in the dough that has not yet risen, or the mustard seed that has not yet grown into a great tree, the kingdom is here, now and we may enter it, confident that the tree will grow and the bread will rise, and we must work with it.

So the message is not to wait for God to fix things. The message of the historical Jesus is rather, embrace the outcasts, combat injustice, forgive those who have wronged you, heal the sick. Do all this and you have entered the kingdom. As John Dominic Crossan puts it:
[Jesus called others] to do exactly what he himself was doing: heal the sick, eat with the healed, and demonstrate the kingdom's presence in that reciprocity and mutuality. It is not, he said, about intervention by God, but about participation with God. God's Great Cleanup of the World does not begin, cannot continue, and will not conclude without our divinely empowered participation and transcendentally driven collaboration (The Greatest Prayer, 90).
*My understanding of the Historical Jesus is most indebted to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. But I also draw considerably on Geza Vermes and Norman Perrin. To a lesser but non-trivial extent I am indebted to the work of N. T. Wright and Richard Horsley. I find the Jesus of such scholars as Paula Frederickson, Ed Sanders, and Bart Erhman to be historically problematic (given its rejection of politics and its reliance on "the son of man" style eschatology), and the very non-jewish wondering sage (who seems to have no relation to Jewish politics or eschatology!) of Robert Funk and Burton Mack even more so.

Note: The Picture accompanying this post is from a BBC documentary which attempts to construct a face for Jesus that actually looks like a 1st century Galilean.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Touching the Eternal

Is there life after death?

I have briefly raised this question in an earlier post. Since life after death was the topic of my philosophy of religion class tonight, I thought I should sum up that discussion as a continuation of this topic.

Let us first consider the concept of an immortal soul. On this view we are essentially non-physical souls that inhabit bodies during this life only to "go to the spirit realm"- or something like that - upon the death of the body.

There are a few problems with this view. Most importantly, our consciousness and thinking processes are so intimately connected with our brains that is strains credulity to think that there is some non-physical substance that accounts for our minds. Furthermore, since I can explain mental processes in terms of bodily processes, it would seem that Occam's razor obliges us to reject any explanatory need for the soul in the first place. Indeed, it is a very good principle of critical thinking to avoid positing entities - particularly entities we cannot explain or understand - unless very compelling evidence forces us to do so.

On the other hand, should strong evidence for an immortal soul exist, we should embrace it. But there is no such evidence. The most commonly sighted evidence are the following:

1) Near Death Experiences
2) Ghosts
3) Accounts of past lives
4) Visits from recently deceased loved ones
5) Mediums

This evidence is simply not compelling. Near Death Experiences can be replicated in the laboratory, there is no hard evidence of any merit for ghosts, accounts of past lives are not confirmably accurate often enough to overcome skepticism, visits from the recently deceased could very well be grief hallucinations - they are impossible to confirm or deny - and mediums have far too often been exposed as frauds and never passed the rigors of controlled experiments (The case against all these varieties of evidence is nicely summed up by Paul Kurtz).

When all is said and done, given the strong physical evidence that our minds are, if not identical with our brains, at least strongly interconnected with our neural processes, and the very inconclusive - at best - nature of the above pieces of evidence, it seems that we must say the existence of an immortal soul is rather unlikely. I personally do not entirely rule it out, as I know that my knowledge and reasoning skills are limited, but I'm strongly inclined to disbelieve it.

Another possible belief in immortality rejects the immortal soul idea in favor of "bodily resurrection." On this traditional Christian view God will, at the end of time, raise up the dead to live again and forever in transformed bodies. The only evidence of this view is an appeal to divine revelation. But it is clear to me that human beings have never received any specifically articulated divine revelation. All holy books, creeds, etc, are clearly human inventions. We cannot argue from such sources.

Does this mean then that death is the end of us?

Not necessarily.

As I have often written on this blog, I ascribe to a theology known as panentheism. To sum up this position briefly: I understand panentheism as the view that the term "God" does not refer to a separately existing supernatural and person-like being "out there" beyond us. The term "God" refers rather to reality at its ultimate level, "Being itself," "The ground of being," the all-inclusive whole. The best way to understand what these abstractions signify is through an analogy: We know from physics that reality has levels of being which require ever deeper descriptions of the same object. Take, for example, a table. At the level of human interaction the table is a solid object of such-and-such size, weight, height and so on. But at a deeper level of physical description the table is properly described as a certain relationship of interaction between fundamental particles. Both descriptions are correct, the latter simply describes the realty of the table at a "deeper" level.

The panentheist takes this basic claim about the table and extends it to reality as a whole. The universe at the level of physical observation is the total collection of matter and energy interacting in space and time. If we go deeper, however, we can think of the universe as being reality itself only at a less than ultimate level of description. If we think of reality at its greatest or ultimate depth, we must think of it has having no boundaries or limits of any kind (after all what could limit it?). Ultimate reality would then be infinite (no limits), eternal (no beginning or end), and self-caused. All things in our universe can be seen as simply various expressions of the one ultimate reality at a level of less depth. Panentheists call ultimate reality "God" partly because it is eternal, infinite, and self-caused, but also because reality as a whole is so awe-inspiring, mysterious, and tremendous, that we can only feel reverence, humility, and awe when we contemplate it. In other words, for the panentheist all things are parts of God, but the reality of God goes deeper than reality at the level of things, though God does not exist apart from things as another being; God is, rather, the "ground of all being."

So how does this relate back to surviving our death?

Since, according to panentheism we are all a part of God, we are, like everything else, one with God at the deepest level of reality. This means that the core of who we are, that part of us that causes us to be, to love, to think, is nothing other than the very power of being-itself and since being itself is eternal, that core part of us is eternal. In a classic analogy we are like waves in relation to the water. The waves perish, but the water remains. In like manner, it may be true that our memories, personality, and self-awareness perish at death (though I am open to the possibility that something of these remains, I am not convinced that any of it does), but something of us, something that makes us who we are is eternal and imperishable.

Many find this less than reassuring. On this non-personal understanding of immortality, there is no reunion with departed loved ones, and probably no self-conscious awareness of an everlasting life. On the other hand, I'm not so sure that living forever with a conscious awareness like we have now would be enjoyable or rewarding. I could easily imagine it as a kind of inescapable tedium.

But I find the idea that the core of my being is eternally one with reality at its ultimate level to be quite inspiring. This means that my thoughts, loves, deeds, and joys have something of eternal value and meaning to them, that something of my true being partakes of the rhythm of the eternal dance, that the relationships I've had, the things I've learned, and who I've been are taken into and indeed part of the eternal creative act of Being itself.

In short, I am inclined to agree, to an extant at least, with Paul of Tarsus, when he says that
For none of us lives unto himself,
and no one dies unto himself.
For if we live, we live unto the Lord;
and if we die, we die unto the Lord.
Therefore whether we live or die
we are the Lord's (Romans 14: 7-8).
Indeed just as "we live and move and have our being" in the reality that is God (Acts 17:28), so we die into that same reality, our deepest being taken into and included in that divine essence.

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Monday, May 30, 2011

Bill Moyers on Memorial Day

The following video is from 2009 but it is still timely and relevant. Moyers' comments should help us to reflect more carefully on what memorial day is really about.

Here's the video:

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reflections of Eternal Life: Part 1

I've decided to do a few blog posts together as a series on the issue of - for lack of a better term - "life after death." I don't know how many posts this series will finish up with, although I'm sure I will write at least three. I should begin with a candid admission that I am agnostic regarding life after death. I simply do not know - and am pretty sure that none of us can know - anything about what might happen to us after death (other than the facts that our bodies will decompose).

I thought, however, that I ought to compose a few reflections on the topic, since it has of late become something of a newsworthy item.

A well known evangelical pastor has recently come out with a book questioning the existence of Hell. There is, predictably, much controversy over this. The Religious left has long embraced this universalist conclusion, and the religious right damns it as blasphemy. But in my opinion he is only half right. I think it is VERY UNLIKELY that anything like the traditional concept of a personal afterlife can be true.

The idea that after death we will hang out again with Grandma and the beloved family dog we lost at age 12 is without any support of any kind. And it requires a commitment to the view of God as a supernatural being "out there" somewhere in a equally supernatural heaven; a God who makes plans, has intentions, thoughts, feelings, and will judge our merit (or gracefully forgive us all our failings) based on our moral behavior.

Belief in such a person-like God is hard to sustain given the impersonal nature of the laws that govern the physical world, the vast age and size of the universe, and the rather obvious historical development of that concept of God over time together with its clear role as a psychological projection. This is not to say that I embrace atheism. I do not. But I think that any viable conception of God must recognize that the view of God as person-like and supernatural is deeply problematic. If we are to retain concepts of deity, they must be of a different nature. I've discussed this elsewhere and refer my readers to that earlier material.

The reader may already guess where I am going with this. Just as it is possible to reject a supernatural and person-like creator without eliminating God all together, it seems to me that it is possible to reject a continuation of ourselves as persons after death without rejecting some essential continuation of ourselves all together. What I have in mind is something like this: Perhaps it is true that we do not "go to heaven," do not continue to exist after death in the same person-like state (filled with memories, images, sense-perception etc.) after our death - at any rate I'm inclined to believe that we do not so exist; but this need not mean that we completely cease to exist. It could well be that there are important senses in which something non-personal but essential about us continues to exist for eternity.

It is such non-personal conceptions of eternal life that I will consider in my future posts for this series.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dissertation Defense : Videos of the Questions and Answers Round 1

Following the post of my summary of the dissertation, I thought I'd add some videos of the first round of the question and answers sessions. In many ways this is more important and interesting than my summary:

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Spinoza's theory of individuals: Video of my dissertation defense

Hello Readers!

I successfully defended my dissertation today and am now "Dr. Wion." It is very nice to have earned this degree after 16 years of toil, debt, and struggle. I provide here the videos of my summary of the dissertation. The Q&A sections of the defense will be posted later. If you don't know Spinoza's thought that well, I recommend that you read the Introduction to my dissertation which I have pasted here right below the video.


Spinoza speaks often of individuals. Indeed, the well-being of a particular set of individuals, namely human individuals, is the principal focus of his philosophy. Naturally we expect such a systematic philosopher as Spinoza to provide a theory about what, precisely, an individual is. This expectation is bound to be present with regard to any philosopher who stresses the importance of individuals. For Spinoza, however, the problem is particularly acute, for he famously argues that there is only one substance, one self-existent being. If there is only one substance, it seems to follow that there is only one individual. Since substance in the western philosophical tradition is ordinarily restricted to particular individuals, this seems to be a sensible conclusion. It thus appears that Spinoza would conclude that there is only one individual. He does not do this, however. He repeatedly speaks of individuals in the plural, in particular of human individuals and their well-being. It is obvious that Spinoza holds that there are multiple individuals. Since he holds that there are many individuals but only one substance, it follows that most individuals are not substances. This invites the question of what an individual is for Spinoza.

In this study, my principal concern is to answer the question of what Spinoza holds an individual to be. My secondary aim is to argue that Spinoza's conception of an individual has important moral and political consequences regarding the nature of the state and the role of the community in the life of the individual.

I will present my reading of what an individual is for Spinoza and the moral and political implications that follow from his conception of individuals over the course of five chapters. Chapter 1 will argue for and explain my reading of Spinoza's system as a whole. We cannot begin to understand Spinoza’s conception of an individual without a firm grasp of the nature of his larger metaphysical system. This means that we must first clarify Spinoza’s central metaphysical concepts. These concepts are principally found in Ethics 1 and 2. They include the concepts of substance, attributes, and modes, as well as the central ideas which Spinoza offers on the relationship of the mind to the body, and his argument for universal casual determinism. A thorough investigation of Spinoza’s conception of the individual requires an adequate comprehension of these concepts.

In my second chapter, I will look closely both at Spinoza's primary texts for his understanding of what an individual is and at the work of leading interpreters on this aspect of his thought. The critical issue that I will examine in chapter 2 is what exactly counts as an individual for Spinoza. Although this issue, for reasons that will be presented, cannot be fully resolved, I will venture some conclusions about the origins of Spinoza's account of individuals and what he considers to be paradigmatic individuals.

Chapter 3 proceeds from the doctrine of individuals in general to a particular application of that doctrine. My focus here will be on whether or not the state (or “civil society”) counts as an individual. This question is important because Spinoza claims that the human individual is part of some larger individual, though he never explicitly says what this larger individual is. Since, for Spinoza, to be part of a larger individual is to have one's very nature determined by that individual, it is absolutely critical to determine what that individual is. In this chapter, therefore, I will carefully examine the work of Alexandre Matheron and his critics, primarily Steve Barbone and Lee Rice. Matheron argues that Spinoza thinks of a civil society as a kind of individual of which human beings are a part. Rice and Barbone argue against Matheron's reading.

In chapter 4, I will shift my analysis to the moral and political implications that follow from Spinoza's understanding of what an individual is. I will argue that Spinoza, contrary to some common readings of him, is not an egoist. Spinoza is not an egoist because his conception of individuals is primarily a relational one; whereas egoism, I will argue, depends upon a non-relational theory of individuals. To demonstrate this contrast between a relational and non-relational understanding of individuals and its role in interpreting Spinoza's position, I will carefully examine the work of feminist scholars who have written extensively on this issue. I will also contrast the work of these thinkers with the contribution of Rice.

Chapter 5 will briefly examine some political implications for Spinoza's theory of the individual. In particular, I will argue that Spinoza's understanding of the individual requires a strong commitment to what is often called “the welfare state.” To illustrate his commitment to a strong welfare state, I will argue, on the basis of his general political theory and several key texts, that Spinoza would support universal health care coverage.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spinoza: The Movie

I have just discovered that there is a movie about Baruch Spinoza! As I have written my dissertation on Spinoza, I find this very interesting.

The film does not present a very deep or even an entirely accurate understanding of Spinoza's philosophy. But presenting Spinoza as "the Apostle of Reason," weeping, cringing, screaming, and feebly coughing blood as tuberculous saps his life away, makes for interesting viewing.

As he implores all those around him to think rationally and live honestly, the irrational fanaticism of his society grows more violent, more deceptive, and ever less sane.

As you watch (it's only 52 mins long) pay special attention to the angry mob and Spinoza's reaction to their ways.

Here's the film:

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

How to Become a Teacher...: Preface: A Change of Plans

So I just discovered a new blog on teaching that I think all my readers should check out. Here it is:

How to Become a Teacher...: Preface: A Change of Plans: "A funny thing happened while pursuing my dream of becoming a philosophy professor. I hated, (this may even call for all caps) HATED my mast..."

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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Mr. Moore comes to Madison

The protests on part of unions in Wisconsin is drawing big names. Michael Moore gave a speech in Madison today to support the cause. Here is that thirty minute speech:

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Word about Unions

As the conflict in Wisconsin over Gov. Walker's proposal to strip unions of their right to collective bargaining continues, I find that many still do not understand what the debate is all about and why Walker's actions are terribly wrong and even deeply immoral.

First, let us dispel a few red herrings. This debate is not about whether unions have their flaws and foibles. Unions, like any other organization, have weak points, make mistakes, and are imperfect. So what? The criticisms of unions are no different than any other type organization. Second, the debate in Wisconsin has nothing to do with "balancing a budget" or "reducing the state deficit." To begin with, taking away the right of unions to bargain collectively does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to reduce a deficit. Even worse, since Walker created the so-called deficit by giving tax breaks to his rich donors and even refusing stimulus money and the jobs that would be created by high speed rail, he can hardly say that we "must" strip unions of anything, let alone their right to bargain collectively!

Second, there are those who think this is about union members' greed. The unions have agreed - I would not have - to the cuts in their pensions and to pay more for health care. They insist only on holding onto to collective bargaining. Furthermore, many of the same people who insists that teachers are greedy for having a good health care plan also claim (out of the other side of their face I guess) that we have no right to raise any taxes on millionaires! If I hear from someone that millionaires should be given a break from their estate tax, but that teachers getting a solid pension is what we should really cut, I will simply laugh off this kind of stupidity and address it no further.

Third, I hear, all too often I am afraid, that public employees should not be given "fat benefits" that private employees lack. This is just absurd! If you think that public employees enjoy better jobs than their private sector counterparts, then you should fight to bring back union membership to private workers, to get them those "fat benefits," rather than want to remove them from public employees! Again, however, this misses the point. Unionized public employees and their allies are not fighting for better benefits, but for their right to bargain collectively! Let's please stay on track here.

These red herrings dispelled, we can now look at the justification for the existence of unions. In the employee/employer relationship the employer has all the power. The employer pays the wages, hires and fires, decides who takes breaks, when, and for how long, and so forth. If each employee must face their employer alone, they simply lack the power to fight for better wages, more time off, better working conditions, etc. The only way for employees to have anything like the power of their employer in this relationship is to come together and bargain collectively. This is what a union is, this is why unions are needed, and this is why their right to collectively bargain must be preserved.

The heart of the Battle in Wisconsin, and other states, is the battle to allow working people some power, some equality, some voice in determining their working conditions. As the collapse of unions in the private sector has already made clear, when unions go, working conditions for people fall dramatically. Without the existence of unions the power is solely in the hands of the employer, and we should all have long since understood that history clearly reveals that in any and all relationships where the power is all one side, the powerless never find themselves treated justly.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

The Battle for Wisconsin: What's happening and why

The working people of Wisconsin are under attack. The hand-picked corporate stooge that is now Governor of the state has decided to risk his entire political career and the well-being of the people of Wisconsin (admittedly the latter mean little, if anything, to him) to destroy unions, to hurt the opposing political party, and to strip away one of the very few protections left to working people. I intended to blog about what is happening in Wisconsin and what it means, but Mother Jones has already written exactly what I wanted to say! Here is what MJ says (I will add my own thoughts at the end):

What's Happening in Wisconsin: Explained

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 3:30 PM PST
Activists protesting new GOP Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union proposals have occupied the rotunda of the Wisconsin capitol building in Madison for the past week, but Walker is pressing ahead anyway.

If you need to know the basics of what's going on in Wisconsin, read on. If you're already up to speed, you can follow the action on Twitter or jump straight to today's updates from our reporter on the ground in Madison.

With additional reporting by Nick Baumannand Siddhartha Mahanta

The basics:

For days, demonstrators have been pouring into the streets of Madison, Wisconsin—and the halls of the state's Capitol building—to protest rookie Republican Governor Scott Walker's anti-union proposals. Big national unions, both major political parties, the Tea Party, and Andrew Breitbart are already involved. Democratic state senators have fled the state to prevent the legislature from voting on Walker's proposals. And the protests could soon spread to other states, including Ohio [....]

What's actually being proposed?

Walker says his legislation, which would strip most state employees of any meaningful collective bargaining rights, is necessary to close the state's $137 million budget gap. There are a number of problems with that argument, though. The unions are not to blame for the deficit, and stripping unionized workers of their collective bargaining rights won't in and of itself save any money. Walker says he needs to strip the unions of their rights to close the gap. But public safety officers' unions, which have members who are more likely to support Republicans and who also tend to have the highest salaries and benefits, are exempted from the new rules. Meanwhile, a series of tax breaks and other goodies that Walker and the Republican legislature passed just after his inauguration dramatically increased the deficit that Walker now says he's trying to close. And Wisconsin has closed a much larger budget gap in the past without scrapping worker organizing rights.

What's really going on, as Kevin Drum has explained, is pure partisan warfare: Walker is trying to de-fund the unions that form the backbone of the Democratic party. The unions and the Democrats are, of course, fighting back. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein drops some knowledge [emphasis added]:

The best way to understand Walker's proposal is as a multi-part attack on the state's labor unions. In part one, their ability to bargain benefits for their members is reduced. In part two, their ability to collect dues, and thus spend money organizing members or lobbying the legislature, is undercut. And in part three, workers have to vote the union back into existence every single year. Put it all together and it looks like this: Wisconsin's unions can't deliver value to their members, they're deprived of the resources to change the rules so they can start delivering value to their members again, and because of that, their members eventually give in to employer pressure and shut the union down in one of the annual certification elections.

You may think Walker's proposal is a good idea or a bad idea. But that's what it does. And it's telling that he's exempting the unions that supported him and is trying to obscure his plan's specifics behind misleading language about what unions can still bargain for and misleading rhetoric about the state's budget.

Walker's proposals do have important fiscal elements: they roughly double health care premiums for many state employees. But the heart of the proposals, and the controversy, are the provisions that will effectively destroy public-sector unions in the Badger State. As Matt Yglesias notes, this won't destroy the Democratic party. But it will force the party to seek funding from sources other than unions, and that usually means the same rich businessmen who are the main financial backers for the Republican party. Speaking of which....

Who is Scott Walker?

Walker was elected governor in the GOP landslide of 2010, when Republicans also gained control of the Wisconsin state senate and house of representatives. His political career has been bankrolled by Charles and David Koch, the very rich, very conservative, and very anti-union oil-and-gas magnates. Koch-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Reason Foundation have long taken a very antagonistic view toward public-sector unions. They've used their vast fortunes to fight key Obama initiatives on health care and the environment, while writing fat checks to Republican candidates across the country. Walker's take for the 2010 election: $43,000 from the Koch Industries PAC, his second highest intake from any one donor. But that's not all!:

The Koch's PAC also helped Walker via a familiar and much-used political maneuver designed to allow donors to skirt campaign finance limits. The PAC gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn spent $65,000 on independent expenditures to support Walker. The RGA also spent a whopping $3.4 million on TV ads and mailers attacking Walker's opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Walker ended up beating Barrett by 5 points. The Koch money, no doubt, helped greatly.

What are the Democrats and the unions doing to respond?

Well, they're protesting, obviously—filling the halls of the Capitol and the streets of Madison with bodies and signs. They're calling their representatives and talking about recalling Walker (who cannot be recalled until next January) or any of eight GOP state senators who are eligible for recall right now. Meanwhile, all of the Democratic state senators have left the state in an attempt to deny Republicans the quorum they need to vote on Walker's proposals, but if just one of them returns (or is hauled back by state troopers), the GOP will have the quorum they need. (Interestingly, the head of the state patrol in the father of the Republican heads of the state senate and house of representatives, who are brothers.) Finally, Wisconsin public school teachers have been calling in sick, forcing schools to close while teachers in over a dozen other school districts picket the capitol, plan vigils, and set up phone banks to try to block Walker's effort.

How could this spread?

Other Republican-governed states are trying to mimic Walker's assault on public employee unions. The GOP won a resounding series of state-level victories in high-union-density states in November. Now they can use their newly-won power to crack down on one of the Democrats' biggest sources of funds, volunteers, and political power. Plans are already under consideration in places like Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.

Speaking of Ohio:

As Suzy Khimm outlined on Friday, an estimated 3,800-5,000 protestors came out in full fury in Columbus, Ohio, to vent their anger over a similar anti-union bill that would limit workers' rights to bargain for health insurance, end automatic pay increases, and infringe upon teachers' rights to pick their classes and schools. As in Wisconsin, both the Ohio state house and governor's mansion flipped from blue to red last year. "This has little to do with balancing this year's budget," former Governor Ted Strickland told the AP. "I think it's a power grab. It's an attempt to diminish the rights of working people. I think it's an assault of the middle class of this state and it's so unfair and out of balance."

How are conservatives working to support Walker?:

It was only a matter of time till the Tea Party got in on the action. Stephanie Mencimerreports that activists are bussing into Madison, and are "promising a massive counter-demonstration." The push is being led by American Majority, a conservative activist group that trains impressionable young foot soldiers to become state-level candidates (check out their ""I Stand With Scott Walker Rally" Facebook page). Founded by Republican operatives, the well-funded group (which, according to tax fillings, had a budget of nearly $2 million in 2009) gets much of its money from a group with ties to those adorable Koch brothers. Conservative media baron Andrew Breitbart will be leading the rally, and will be joined by presidential candidate Herman Cain and maybe—if we're lucky—Joe "The Plumber" Wurtzelbacher. Expect fireworks.

I wish to add to Mother Jone's analysis only this: The rights of workers in this country are under serious assault. This is an absolutely historical moment. If we fail, if Walker successfully destroys the unions in Wisconsin, we are headed back to the age of robber barons and unaccountable corporate power. We have already taken too many steps in that harmful and unjust direction. Not only must we stop walking toward such an abyss, it is time - NO LONG PAST TIME! - that we turned around and walked the other direction.

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