Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"Intelligence" Briefings

Our president-elect does not fail to disappoint.  The weeks preceding his inauguration have been, thus far, a multi-media sideshow worthy of the best reality TV.

And "sideshow" is the word.  Despite seeming like the random thoughts of a man with ADD and a Twitter account, the truth seems to be that Trump's strategy is to keep up a maddening stream of inane remarks designed to distract people from his team's more serious mischief.

Exhibit A is Trump's seeming war with the intelligence community.  He sits in his gaudy tower, tossing insults at the people he may most need to rely upon when he is called to make actual executive decisions, and makes a great show of ignoring the information they offer him already.  It is no surprise, then, that they have taken a swipe at the guy, releasing some information which suggests (surprise!) that the Russians have been manipulating him all along.  The problem seems to be that this information has long been in the hands of the press, which found it unverifiable and therefore useless.

But who cares, really?  Once Trump is in office, they will work for him. His chosen deputies will be in charge, and they will bring him the information he feels he can use. The relationship is off to a bad start, but it will work itself out.

Meanwhile, however, the guy is wreaking havoc with the traditions of American government. He has already taken steps to alienate China, which is -- lest we forget -- the world's other economic superpower, and with which the performance of our own economy is unalterably entwined. His proposed Cabinet is strangely heavy with generals and billionaires.  The nominees have an almost universal lack of experience with the mechanics of government, and a general contempt for the particular departments thy have been asked to administer.  Among the few people with actual governing experience is Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, a man who apparently does not believe secular thinkers have access to the truth.

His team has stage-managed confirmation process for Cabinet members intended to be so fast that no serious vetting can take place. Part of this has been allowing nominees to omit large portions of the usual vetting process, notably including ethical review.

And "ethical review" is a phrase we will hear a lot more in the days, months and years to come.  From the very beginning, Trump has made it clear that he intends to continue running his private businesses while also running the country.  On the campaign trail, he talked about a "blind trust" so glibly that reporters came to doubt that he understood the meaning of the words.  Already, foreign diplomats have been encouraged to book rooms at a Trump-owned property when they are in DC.

On top of which, earlier in the month,, Team Trump sent a shock through the Department of Energy, by asking for the names of individual scientists working on climate change -- hinting at a purge.

A spat with some spooks is serious, in its own way.  From some other president-elect, it would be a strange move that raised serious questions.  For Trump, it is a just a bit of smoke and mirrors, some showbiz puffery meant to distract us from what is really going on.  Our soon-to-be-president is putting together an administration run by ethically-challenged amateurs. He is already creating legal and diplomatic problems that will no doubt dog him, and our nation, throughout his time in office.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Rejoice ... and Repent

 Although Father Anonymous does not say much about public affairs from the pulpit, he knows that some of you may, and it seems very much to us as though St. James is having words with our president-elect.  Consider, if you like, the Epistle for Advent 3 A (Gaudete).

First, let us observe that several of Sunday's lessons offer images of a dramatic (and beautiful) change in the world.  In Isaiah 35:1-10, as a result of God's "coming," the desert blossoms, the weak are strong, the blind can see, and the wilderness becomes a safe lion-free travel zone.  A similar note is struck by Psalm 146 and the Magnificat, both of which are offered by the RCL:  the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, casts down the mighty from their thrones, and so forth.

Most of these images are what anthropologists classify as "the reversible world," a cross-cultural trope in which all our natural expectations are defied.  Think of the Roman Saturnalia, or those medieval celebrations of the Holy Innocents when a boy was chosen to serve as bishop-for-a-day.

But the particular changes envisioned by the Biblical texts are not played for comedy.  The weak, the damaged and the poor are made special objects of God's blessing.  These texts are more than a mere folkloric device; they are expressions of what liberal theology likes to call "social justice," or even "a preferential option for the poor."

Which brings us to James 5:7-10.  The passage at hand was no doubt chosen because it speaks twice of "the Coming of the Lord," parousia tou Kuriou or adventus Domini.  It also declares that the Judge is at the door.  The passage encourages Christians to wait with patience and good behavior until that Coming, a very useful message -- but also one which can be the cause of considerable mischief.  How many beaten wives have been told to stick with their abusers, to be humble and faithful and let Christ do the judging?  How many slaves have been given similar messages?  And how often have verses like these been recruited to that evil task?

The problem is that the lectionary gives us these verses in isolation. The passage just before them is quite different in tone:
1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. [or "as in a day of feasting"] 6You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. [NIV]
It is, in rather bald terms, a prophetic oracle against the rich. In the face of the Lord's Advent, it is they who have not waited patiently and graciously, but who have hoarded their money and defrauded their workers.  (And lived luxurious lives, which -- by the way -- Jesus seems to suggest was what Herod did, in contrast to the faithful rigor of John the Baptist, in our Gospel for the week.)  James goes so far as to accuse the wealthy of murder -- quite possibly even the murder of Jesus, if we read v. 6 as "the Innocent One."

It is a striking passage, and deserves to be held up for our congregations to hear.  The Lord's Advent is not an excuse for tolerating injustice, but a call to lives of justice and charity.

A preacher seeking examples of the rich and powerful who oppress the poor and powerless never has far to go. But we are struck by the image of "the wages you have failed to pay your workers," a phrase the NRSV, following the KJV, translates more accurately as "the wages ... which you kept back by fraud [apostereo]."  Because although cheating workers is an old custom ("I owe my soul to the company store"), there is one particular figure in our public consciousness who is notorious for this practice.

Years ago, when we consorted with artists rather more than we do now, a friend-of-a-friend was asked to apply a vast quantity of gold leaf to the entrance of a rich New Yorker's office.  This is a time-consuming and laborious process, which involves working with tremendous delicacy and uses terribly expensive materials.  Our friend himself used gold leaf often, and we watched him many nights, hunched over a small picture frame, using tweezers and feathers and whatever other exotic tools it required, to move shreds of precious metal far thinner than a piece of paper and stick them to a bit of wood.  We were both stunned by the cost and sheer labor required to gild an entire doorway.

The artist worked for months, going out of pocket for the materials.  And at the end, once the doorway was gilded, the wealthy New Yorker looked at it and said, in effect, "Nah.  Not what I wanted.  So I'm not going to pay you." The artist was not just upset; he was ruined.

Not having been there, we cannot vouch for the details of that particular story.  We do not even know the artist's name.  But the names of many other workers who have sued Donald Trump for breach of contract are matters of public record.  From drapiers and chandelier-makers to real-estate-consultant -and-reality-TV-personality Barbara Corcoran, Trump seems to have stiffed a vast range of artisans, employees, contractors and partners. Here is a Wall Street Journal article on it.  Here's one from Fox News.  And USA Today.

It seems to us that the message in our Epistle for the week only makes sense if it is read alongside the preceding verses -- and that those verses are in direct conversation with modern society, and Time's Man of the Year.  The Advent of the Lord means, specifically, that we cannot tolerate shady business dealings, especially those by which the wealthy defraud their workers.  If we are serious about Advent, we will call out this sort of behavior wherever we see it -- and if not, we should remember that the Judge is at the door.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Team Adultery Goes Big

So the president-elect, having been scared away from TV dad Mitt Romney by a public tongue-lashing from his loose-cannon campaign manager, is now considering David Petraeus for Secretary of State.

Petraeus isn't an absurd choice. Generals, even disgraced former ones, do a lot of work that is or approaches diplomacy. And to be honest, we are always a little worried by the way Secretaries of State seem hawkish by comparison to their peers at Defense; a military professional might bring a better sense of why the big stick is a dangerous negotiating tool.

But let's get back to those key words "former" and "disgraced," because they are highly relevant. Lest anyone forget, Bloomberg News reminds us that Petraeus
... left government under a cloud for sharing classified documents during an extramarital affair....
These are grave offenses, and they are not in dispute. Although Trump the campaigner made it sound as though Petraeus had done little by comparison to the putative security breaches of Secretary Clinton, a more objective conclusion is just the reverse. FBI Director James Comey, no friend to Clinton, described Petraeus as prosecutable where Clinton was not:
 Comey, who oversaw both the Petraeus and Clinton investigations [said in] a July 7 hearing, he told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Petraeus’s behavior was worse than Clinton’s, saying that he deliberately “lied” when first questioned by investigators.
“So you have obstruction of justice, you have intentional misconduct and a vast quantity of information” that was highly classified, Comey said. “He admitted he knew that was the wrong thing to do. That is a perfect illustration of the kind of cases that get prosecuted.”
Well. That says a great deal. "No reasonable prosecutor" would bring a case against Clinton, where Petraeus committed precisely the sort of crimes that should have been prosecuted. (Petraeus copped a plea and, as Bloomberg notes, would be the rare Cabinet member to serve the President while still on probation.)

Moreover, there is the adultery question. Like Trump and his cronies Giuliani and Gingrich, Petraeus has betrayed his marriage vows. As we pointed out at the time, this alone is a prosecutable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and not without good reason. An adulterer makes himself (or herself) susceptible to influence and blackmail. Had the general's paramour been a foreign agent, agent, the classified information he revealed to her might well have led directly to the death of American soldiers, or a compromise of American interests.

This is not, to say the least, a stirring recommendation for a top diplomat.

Now, here is the thing. People inclined to dismiss adultery as Giuliani has -- "everybody does it," and to privatize it by saying "I confess that to my priest" -- don't see the Petraeus case as anything especially grave. That is because they fail to grasp the central point of Christian moral philosophy, which is that we do not exist merely as individuals, but as a community. One person's sin does not merely harm himself and his relationship to God, but harms all of society.  This is true even of occult sins, but more demonstrably so of gross public ones.
The early penitential tradition was far more concerned with the latter than with the former; our earliest records indicate a very public process of confession before, dismissal from, and restoration to, the Christian community.  Well into the Middle Ages (and beyond), Church leaders distinguished themselves for holding political figures accountable to the community for their moral lapses.  Think of Ambrose demanding penance from Theodosius or, with a bit more moral ambiguity but no less drama, the German king standing prayerfully in the snow at Canossa.

Let's not push the moral point too far.  Petraeus is not asking to be admitted to Holy Communion; he is asking for another government job.  The question before Mr. Trump, and the rest of us, is not whether Petraeus is repentant, but whether he is competent.  We have little doubt that Petraeus is intellectually competent -- he is by most reports brilliant.  But competence extends to more than mere intellect.  A figure who, when trusted with enormously high office, has criminally abused the public trust in ways that have exposed himself to potential blackmail and those under his command to far worse is not, by our old-fashioned way of thinking, a great candidate for still-higher office.

But that line of reasoning only makes sense if you understand just why adultery is bad, and we are not convinced that Mr. Trump, or many of those around him, do understand this.

Friday, November 18, 2016

An Uncertain Collect for Christ the King

For Christ the King, at least in Year C, the collect of the day prescribed by Evangelical Lutheran Worship reads:

O God, our true life, to serve you is freedom, and to know you is unending joy. We worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory. Abide with us, reign in us, and make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

It is a lovely prayer.  What interests us is its origin.

Gail Ramshaw, in a very helpful index to ELW, identifies it as the work of St. Augustine, as found in The Westminster Collection of Christian Prayers, edited by Dorothy M. Stewart.  She adds two asterisks, her shorthand for prayers that have been altered significantly for republication, as well as the warning that all the prayers have a long textual history.

A bit of detective work -- okay, googling -- suggests that the attribution to Augustine, while centuries old, is likely mistaken.

The prayer in question appears in a devotional book by George Stanhope, entitled Pious Beathings:  Being the Meditations of St. Augustine, His Treatise of the Love of God, Soliloquies and Manual (London, 1728).  Chapter 31 of the Meditations includes this passage:
O God, the true Life, of, and by, and in whom all things live, the common Source of all Good! Our Faith in thee excites, our Hope exalts, our Love unites us. Thou commandest us to seek thee, and art ready to be found; thou biddest us knock, and openest when we do so. To turn from thee, is to fall into Ruin and Death. To turn to thee, is to rise to Life and Glory. To abide in thee, is to stand fast and secure from Danger. No Man loses thee, who does not suffer himself to be deceived; no Man seeks thee, who does not submit to Instruction and Reproof; no Man finds thee, who docs not seek after thee with a clean Heart and purifyd Affections. To know thee is Life, to serve thee is Freedom, to enjoy thee is a Kingdom, to praise thee is the Joy and Happiness of the Soul. I praise, and bless, and adore thee, with Heart, and Voice, and every Faculty. I worship thee, I glorify thee, I give Thanks to thee for thy great Glory, for thy great Goodness, for thy innumerable and inestimable Mercies, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.
That is certainly our prayer, in a rich, full form.  But it is not by any means certain to be Augustine's work.  The interpolation of lines form the Gloria in excelsis should raise a red flag at once:  in Augustine's time, this canticle would have been used in the Greek church, but not (as widely, at least) the Latin one.

In fact, the so-called Meditations of St. Augustine are mostly taken from another work, the Libellus, of Jean de Fecamp, an 11th-century abbot.  Here's the Latin text of the Meditations (Chapter 32, in Migne).

It appears that Stanhope took at least one modest liberty with his text.  The single phrase, cui servire regnare est, literally "to serve whom is to rule," he has divided into two thoughts:  "to serve thee is freedom, to enjoy thee is a kingdom." Our modern version "to serve you is freedom," seems unfairly democratized by the replacement of rule with freedom, which is a rather different idea, both in politics and in personal spirituality.  To rule, even if one rules only oneself, may indeed be a kind of freedom; but it is not the kind suggested by the word freedom in post-Enlightenment discourse.  Not to mention that the loss of "kingdom" is ironic in a prayer designated for Christ the King.

But we digress.  Again.  Here's the point:  We're not sure who wrote this prayer, but -- however much we like it -- it does seem unlikely to have been the Doctor of Grace.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Most Political of Church Feasts

As we approach the end of the liturgical year, many churches will observe the solemnity of Christ the King.

Christ the King is, at this point in history, a reasonably ecumenical event. We are assured by our new Presbyterian neighbor that even his congregation -- so poorly catechized in matters of worship that he is required to teach them what the Epiphany is! -- recognizes it.

However, it was not ever thus.  Unlike those many ancient festivals which are the shared inheritance of the whole Church, or at least its Western portion, Christ the King is distinctively modern, and rooted in the modern experience not merely of Catholicism but of Roman Catholicism.  Those of us among the separated brethren who plan to preach upon it may do well to reflect upon the similarities and differences which condition our own communities of faith, and especially upon how our churches think of their relationship to the civil realm or, bluntly put, to politics.

In 1925, troubled by the rise of secularism and anticlericalism, Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical Quas primas, which established the feast of Christ the King.  These movements are closely connected to the liberalism inspired by the Enlightenment, as well as the nationalism which in its most destructive form gave rise to Fascism in the 20th century.

So, for example, we find that in France, Napoleon's 1801 Concordat made the Church a servant of the State, and the 1901 "Law of Associations" suppressed religious orders and confiscated their property.  The popes had opposed Italian unification, and after it was accomplished found their power quickly reduced; they lost their land holdings, civil marriage was approved, and university theological faculties were suppressed.  Parallel developments took in Germany, Spain, Mexico and Venezuela.  And these were -- excepting perhaps Germany -- "Catholic countries," in which Rome was accustomed to exercising vast influence.

To such developments, Pius responded with Quas primas.  Drafted (it seems) by a French Thomist named Edouard Hugon, this document did more than establish a feast.  It asserted the absolute supremacy of Jesus not merely in spiritual matters, but in political ones:
It has long been a common custom to give to Christ the metaphorical title of "King," because of the high degree of perfection whereby he excels all creatures. So he is said to reign "in the hearts of men" .... But if we ponder this matter more deeply, we cannot but see that the title and the power of King belongs to Christ as man in the strict and proper sense too. For it is only as man that he may be said to have received from the Father "power and glory and a kingdom," since the Word of God, as consubstantial with the Father, has all things in common with him, and therefore has necessarily supreme and absolute dominion over all things created.
This meant that no civil government had the right to interfere with the Lord's earthly community, by which Pius specifically means the Roman church.  In other words, parliaments and presidents and so forth have no right to suppress the Jesuits, or to take away ecclesiastical property.

The point was not, however, that Church and State should rightly be separated, in the American fashion.  On the contrary, Pius retained for the Church a role in civil affairs, calling it "a grave error" to say otherwise.  And then he made a curious move, saying that virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in [Christ's] power. Nevertheless, during his life on earth he refrained from the exercise of such authority, and although he himself disdained to possess or to care for earthly goods, he did not, nor does he today, interfere with those who possess them. 
In other words, Jesus own your stuff, but chooses not to take it away -- meaning that you retain an effective right to own property, no matter what the Communists say.  This raises a red flag (as it were) for some readers, signaling a preference for one sort of modern statism over another.  And indeed, Quas primas was issued during the early years of Mussolini's reign (which had begun in 1922), when hostility to the Church was a vigorous part of the Fascist program.  By 1929, Il Duce chose to be re-baptized, and enlisted the Catholic faithful as a phalanx in his battle against Communism.

There is another red flag, although we aren't sure what to make of it.  Pius reminds us that Christ exercises a "threefold power which is essential to lordship."  He identifies this as Law-giver, Priest and King, with considerable attention to the first part.

This framing is ... unusual.  We are accustomed to the threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King, first laid out in the patristic era but made much of by Calvin and his successors, including the Lutheran Scholastics.  Now, it is not too very much of a jump to argue that the Biblical prophet was, kinda sorta, a law-giver.  Moses certainly was.  But for the most part, the roles are separate.  Prophets critique unjust rulers, but they do not generally rule.

This reframing is especially problematic for Lutherans, whose confession of faith specifically denies that Christ is a law-giver, and that to claim otherwise diminishes his work as a sacrificial propitiator of the divine law. (Apology 4:15-16, 392).  It is possible to argue that Melanchthon is denying that Christ has given a new moral law, while Pius is asserting that Christ does give a new civil law, and so the two claims refer to different categories and can be thus reconciled.  Such an argument is naturally very technical and, in our opinion, a little dubious.

None of this will keep us from observing Christ the King, nor should it keep anybody else.  But while celebrating, it may be fruitful to recall that the very existence of this most modern feast represents a strong position in several modern controversies -- and not necessarily the position to which preachers are most congenial.  To call Christ "King," in this context, is to assert his primacy not merely in personal morality, but in civil affairs; it is to resist the past three centuries of Enlightenment-driven liberalism, and claim an expansive role for the Church in the political realm.  it is to claim that the Church may judge kings, but not vice-versa.

We're okay with this ... but only if it's our Church.  Those other guys teach some weird stuff that we don't want enshrined in our laws, no-sir, no-how. And therein lies the problem, dunnit?