Friday, December 19, 2014

His Blood Be Upon Us

Like my last post, this one deals with torture. Don't read it while you're eating or if you don't like things that are hellish in their ghastliness. Otherwise, uh, soak it up, I guess.

O for a voice like thunder, and a tongue
To drown the throat of war! When the senses
Are shaken and the soul is driven to madness,
Who can stand? When the souls of the oppressed
Fight in the troubled air that rages, who can stand?
When the whirlwind of fury comes from the
Throne of God, when the frowns of His countenance
Drive the nations together, who can stand?
When Sin claps his broad wings over the battle
And sails rejoicing in a flood of death;
When souls are torn to everlasting fire
And fiends of hell rejoice upon the slain,
O who can stand? O who hath caused this?
O who can answer at the throne of God?
The Kings and Nobles of the land have done it!
Hear it not, Heaven, thy ministers have done it!

-- Poetical Sketches, "Prologue Intended for a Dramatic Piece of King Edward the Fourth," William Blake

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, William Blake, 1805

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I've written a little on the subject of torture recently, in the wake of the report made by the SSCI. My previous post was more concerned to explain my own pacifism; my blood then curdled to see people -- nearly all of them professing and practicing Christians -- positively coming out of the woodwork to defend the use of torture, as a drastic necessity or even as a work of positive justice.

For the purposes of this post, I'll ignore the more obvious blasphemies of creatures like Sarah Palin. D. C. McAllister at The Federalist is one author who has come forward in defense of torture.* She writes:
... 79 percent of evangelicals in America and 78 percent of Catholics (along with 68 percent of all Americans, according to a recent poll) ... say torture can be justified. ... Torture in some forms and in some circumstances -- conducted by the police and military officials -- can be morally justified because (1) torture is not necessarily morally worse than killing (i.e., the death penalty); (2) the terrorist has forfeited his right to life and his dignity by his own evil actions; and (3) the innocent lives that can be saved are of higher value than any moral claims by the terrorist who has committed atrocities.
Now, in strict fairness, I must say that I was predisposed to disagree with (and indeed be pretty horrified by) McAllister's essay; having read it, as objectively as I can, I do find it objectively horrifying. I also think that its argument is rationally sloppy. However, since it seems to be fairly representative of Christian defenders of torture, and also better written than many -- for instance, she has the great good sense to define her terms -- I've chosen it as my point of departure.

McAllister defines torture as "the infliction of severe pain on a defenseless person for the purpose of breaking his or her will," which seems as good a definition as any.** This, from the start, places torture decidedly outside the traditionally Christian view of violence.

Have a kitten. You're, uh, going to need it.

The abhorrence of Jesus for violence hardly needs to be explained; though He seems to have been angry, or at least exasperated, often enough, we have only two instances on record of His being by any description violent, neither one against human beings. And when things came to the point, He made quite explicit His refusal to employ any kind of force, and indeed, openly begged His Father to forgive His crucifiers. Yet all that being said -- and even apart from the subsequent history of Christendom, with its wars and rumors of wars -- it is difficult, even so, to take the view that, say, the mother who knocks a man on the head with a lamp to keep him from raping her daughter has really sinned by doing so. To argue, as some pacifists do, that even defending the life of a defenseless innocent is wrong, is far too demanding a doctrine for most people to even consider.

The Catholic (and mainstream Christian) solution to this paradox has been that violence in defense of one's own life or the life of another is morally permissible -- and may even, when it comes to those who depend on us, be a duty -- but that this is qualified in three important ways. First, it's precisely defending the innocent that is allowed here, not a general license to harm or cause pain to an attacker. Second, coming from this first concern about motive, the defensive means must go only as far as it takes to effectively restrain an attacker from hurting someone, no further. And third, at any rate in the case of self-defense, it is also permitted to forsake this right, rather in the way that forsaking the right of marriage in favor of celibacy is not required of Christians yet is still a good work. These notions about violence -- which, I think, first began to be formulated by St Augustine, after Constantine's quasi-conversion had improved and complicated the relationship between the Church and the Empire -- finds expression both in the idea of self-defense, and in the tradition of Just War Theory.

In any case, one of the essential threads in the tapestry is that only an aggressor may be responded to through violent means; another is that only those means which effectively prevent an aggressor from causing harm, and no more, may be used. St Thomas, whom McAllister refers to a number of times in her essay, is quoted in the Catechism on this point.
Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with its Creator ... God alone is the Lord of life ... The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent ... "If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful ..." Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and to human dignity.***
How does all this this exclude torture? Well, look back at the definition: torture is the infliction of severe pain on a defenseless person. Defenseless people are in no position to be aggressors; they have already been restrained. The moment an aggressor's power to harm is neutralized, according to the Christian tradition, our right to use violence disappears -- because it ceases thereby to be self-defensive violence. And this holds in the formulation of Just War Theory, whose exponents have long maintained that not only civilians but even prisoners of war have a right to humane treatment, precisely because they no longer qualify as aggressors.

But what about terrorism? Terrorists are already breaking all the rules of justly conducted warfare -- they deserve to have those rules broken right back on them!
Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many live that deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.****

Gandalf the Grey, wearing what may be the finest "bitchplease" face in pretend-history.

And if we speak of just deserts, I think we must be prepared to meet the ghosts of the Cherokee, the Chickasaw and the Choctaw, the Muscogee and the Seminole, the Sioux and the Dakota, the dead of Tippecanoe and Wounded Knee; the ghosts of African and Caribbean slaves, the "strange fruit" that hung from Southern trees, the victims of depraved Tuskegee; the ghosts of Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki; the palatably-termed "collateral damage" of Afghanistan and Iraq.

McAllister's argument is (in my judgment) founded on deeply un-Christian premises. She asserts that it's worse to kill someone than to torture them, because "When someone is dead, they have no autonomy, no hope of life, and no dignity. They're dead." This line of thinking is materialistic: it makes life the highest good, and declares that those who lack life lack humanity. But some of the most basic Christian doctrines are the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. If the soul continues to exist, then they do still have autonomy and dignity; and if we will be raised again to life at the Last Day, then hope of life is a given as well. No thoroughly Christian defense can be made for the claims McAllister here makes as part of the basis of her argument.

She goes on to point out that death by torture (namely stoning) was the standard form of capital punishment prescribed in the Torah; she also states that
If killing were not morally justifiable on the basis of human dignity, God would be a monster. But he isn't. Why? Because of human guilt. Even though the Bible says "Thou Shalt Not Kill," God orders Joshua to "go in and clean house, and don't leave anything breathing! Don't leave a donkey, child, woman, old man or old woman breathing. Wipe out Jericho!" He can order this because these people had violated God's law and in so doing had forfeited their rights and lost all sense of dignity.
I decline to speculate -- still less (for once), to pontificate -- on why God did this or that in the Old Testament. Most of that part of the Bible is very mysterious to me; though I will point out that, in Job, God sternly rebukes those who deduce from human suffering that the person who suffers deserves to do so.

That question aside, I don't think that appeals to the Old Testament work for us, for two reasons. First, the Torah and the rest of the Old Testament record God dealing directly with a nation with whom He had made a covenant. He has made no such covenant with America. It isn't to be expected that a one-for-one correlation between the Torah and political justice as such should exist.

And second, to be blunt, I'm deeply disturbed by a lot of things in the Old Testament. Slavery, racism, and infanticide all make more or less regular appearances, and they aren't always being practiced by Gentiles, nor even by apostate Jews. I don't know what the explanation for that is; I am quite certain that if someone deduces from their presence in Scripture that these things are morally acceptable, that person creeps me the fuck out, and frankly I don't want them anywhere near me or my nephews. If the story of the averted sacrifice of Isaac would have made just as much sense to you if Abraham had murdered his son and God had accepted it as worship, like Moloch, your theology is Satanic.

"Tash! Tash! The great god Tash! Inexorable Tash!" (There was no nonsense about "Tashlan" now.)
-- C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, Cap. XII: Through the Stable Door

But, one might point out, Isaac was innocent, and McAllister's argument was that these people forfeited their human dignity by violating God's law. What, the babies? The farm animals? They got what was coming to them?

Besides, how do we measure this? -- how bad does a person have to be before they forfeit their rights as a human being, made in the image and likeness of God? Do they have to be a war criminal like Adolf Eichmann or Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein? What if they're only a war criminal like Harry Truman or George W. Bush or Barack Obama? Or is it perhaps a question of whether they fly the Stars and Stripes over their killings?

She asserts, too, that the use of the death penalty in the Bible plainly shows that human dignity is mutable, and that the doctrine of hell shows this even more so. I don't think either of those things follows. Of the first, the Catholic Church (and most Christian thought on this subject with her) admits that defending yourself against unjust aggression entitles you to use such force as will restrain the attacker -- even lethal force. But that is justified only if lethal force is the only kind that will suffice, and is permitted not because the criminal deserves it, but because you aren't obligated to surrender your own life. To use more force than is strictly necessary, or to desire a criminal's death for its own sake, rather than (in the logical sense) accidentally, is wrong.

As for hell, the Catholic tradition -- while not excluding the language that God sends people to hell -- has laid more emphasis on the fact that the damned choose hell. "Without that self-choice there could be no hell," as C. S. Lewis states in The Great Divorce. If God respects that choice, it is because of human dignity and autonomy, not in spite of them: He will force everlasting bliss upon none who refuse it.

William Blake, The Lovers Whirlwind, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, 1827

McAllister treats it as a truism throughout that it is worse to kill than to torture, and that therefore, if war can be accepted, so can torture. I dispute this also. Everyone is eventually going to die, so that killing is morally important for slightly different reasons than our usual modern, scientistic, materialist habits of thought would imply: important because God, not man, is the Lord and giver of life, and because man is made in the image of God. Conversely, not everyone will be subjected to torture; it is an avoidable evil, unlike death, which can at best be postponed.

I do maintain that it is worse to torture a man than to kill him. For -- going back to that important definition -- a victim of torture is defenseless (whatever his past conduct), and the only kind of killing I admit to be just is the killing of an aggressor, and even then I admit the justice of killing only when nothing else will suffice.

Conversely, torturing a man is specifically designed -- as McAllister says -- to break his will. That is, to reduce him from the status of a rational soul to that of a shambling mess, by terrifying him and treating him like filth. Her assertion that "Interrogative torture is not prolonged, maximal, pleasurable, vengeful, or punitive, and it does not have long-term debilitating consequences that completely disrupt a person's ability to function normally" reads like a tasteless joke. Yeah, I'm sure the prisoners who had pureed food rammed into their rectums will just get over it; that the ones who were waterboarded literally hundreds of times weren't traumatized at all; that the torturers who had admitted to prior anger management issues and freaking sexual assault didn't experience any sensations of pleasure, vengeance, or punishment while they were subjecting the victims to mock burials or threatening to rape their mothers; that the victims who were wrongly imprisoned in the first place (which lasted for months after the CIA had determined there was no reason to keep them there), and the one who died because of the way he was treated --

Did you miss that part before, Ms. McAllister? When you were talking about innocent lives being worth more than the lives of terrorists (for each one of whom Christ died), did you miss the fact that innocent people were detained and tormented along with the guilty? When you were saying that it's worse to kill someone than to torture him, did you miss that we did exactly that, and in the most degrading and hideous way possible?

I haven't even brought up the question of the horrific effects of torture upon the perpetrator -- since, in order to torture someone, you have to make yourself (however temporarily) the sort of person who will torture someone. Some CIA operatives felt the same way, objecting to what their employers nonetheless ordered them to do; some of them were disturbed to the point of weeping. But I can barely stand to write any more about this. 

Still, it may be worth noting, for anyone who can still stand to read about it, that torture has also been conclusively shown to not work. At all. Even those who gave information under torture often gave false or misleading information -- because why the fuck wouldn't they? -- and literally all of the useful information we obtained was gotten without torture. I am not kidding or exaggerating, and I'm not pulling it out of my ass, either; it was one of the things the SSCI found in their investigation.

I take that back; it did work for one purpose. It made the psychologists who developed the torture techniques the CIA used over $81 million. But I'm sure that's a coincidence, and not one of the most despicable examples of war profiteering in Western history.

Ms. McAllister, if you should happen to read this, I implore you to look squarely at what you have been defending and acknowledge that it is evil, and to repent.

To anyone reading this: I have been fasting and praying today for the healing of victims of torture, and I solicit your help in doing so, as I solicited the same thing for torturers this past Wednesday. Tomorrow, I plan to do the same thing, on behalf of those who did or do advise or approve of torture. The torturer, the tortured, and the one who counsels torture are all my brethren -- I will dissociate myself from none of them, but confess and practice the coinherence, reciting with the great John Donne:
The Church is Catholike, universall, so are all her Actions; All that she does, belongs to all. ... And when she buries a Man, that action concernes me: All mankinde is of one Author, and is one volume ... The Bell doth toll for him that thinkes it doth; and though it intermit againe, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, hee is united to God. ... [A]ny mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde ... The Bell rings out, and tells me in him, that I am dead
-- Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII

Pilate took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person;
see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. -- Matthew 27.24-25

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Torture victim at Abu Ghraib, four of whom have since been sued by a US defense contractor.

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine --
Lord God of hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;

The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!

If drunk, with sight of power, we loose

Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law --
Lord God of hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust

In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word --
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!

-- Recessional, Rudyard Kipling (composed for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee

*I have assumed (based on her argument and background) that McAllister is a professing Christian. If I'm mistaken about this, and she is simply conducting a hypothetical argument on Christian premises, then I apologize, as in that case much of my own argument is merely irrelevant to her. (I have done my best in the course of my argument to avoid assuming that she is a Protestant or a Catholic, since she has attended and written for Protestant institutions but also very largely cites Catholic sources in her essay.)

**We need not be detained by the philosophically important, but only orthogonal, possibility of torture whose primary purpose is not to break the victim, but to satisfy some appetite of the torturer, such as lust for revenge or perverted sexual appetite (which latter, as in BDSM, need not be a violation of the victim's will at all).

***Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 2258, 2263-2264, 2297; italics are original. The section in quotation marks is taken from Aquinas' Summa Theologica, Part II, Second Part, Question 64, Article 7.

****The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 69. This may be the more significant in that neither Tolkien personally nor the character of Gandalf can be regarded as pacifists, nor cowards, nor intellectual slouches.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Peace Which Passeth Understanding

Warning: this post deals frankly with torture, which is some fucked-up shit; it is not recommended for people who are easily disturbed by things that are completely horrible.

I was more than a little irked when I was sent a link to the article "Our Partial Pacifism" on First Things, which lays the blame for our government's acceptance of torture, partly at least, at the feet of pacifists. Author Matthew Schmitz says the following:
Traditionally, Christians have argued that there is something called "just war." Leaders and their nations are bound to prosecute war justly without resorting to immoral tactics. Some things are in bounds, some out. 
In reply, pacifism insists that all war is evil -- that it is hell, so we must stay the hell out of it. This position is much derided, but more for the conclusions it reaches than the argument it makes. Many people believe along with the pacifists that war does indeed necessarily involve evil actions and so any attempt to impose a moral standard on our conduct is doomed from the start. 
Elizabeth Anscombe noted this in reviewing the justifications offered for the use of the atom bomb. Those who argued for it did not argue that it was in fact justified, they argued that war always and everywhere demanded the unjustifiable ...

Efficiency! Also genocide!

There are of course pacifists who believe that it is always wrong to use any form of violence, even in defense of the lives of innocents; not I. I accept self-defensive violence and indeed Just War Theory. Mind you, that still leaves approximately all wars open to criticism, since most are fought for unjust reasons, by unjust means, or both; but if the question is whether it is in principle morally acceptable to defend one's country by violence, then my answer is yes.

The reason I still describe myself as a pacifist is that I personally reject violence, because I feel called to do so. I think that the renunciation of the right of self-defense is not strictly necessary, yet a good thing, as renouncing the right to marry in favor of celibacy or the right to property in favor of poverty are good things. I think that pursuing one's ends through consistently non-violent means is a more excellent way, and that not making use of one's rights in order to imitate Christ, who emptied Himself of His rights as the Deity, more closely, is one legitimate path to holiness, and one for which we have a great deal of Scriptural, historical, and saintly precedent. Saint Joan herself, it may be noted, urged her opponents to withdraw rather than be killed, and carried no weapon but only a banner.

I hasten to add that my conviction of a pacifist vocation has been little tested. I don't know what I would do in the heat of anger or, still more, fear. I've participated in one anarchist anti-Nazi protest that included (but was not stopped by) a few protesters being arrested, and at the time I felt no impulse even to run, let alone to fight; that is as close as I have come. So I don't propose to make myself a poster-boy in all this.

Reminder: I'm this guy.

Turning to the question of torture, I don't know that I accept the charge that pacifism -- whether of the vocational sort that I espouse, or of the absolutist sort that would condemn a man for defending the lives of his children (such as seems to be implied by Shane Claiborne and others) -- has contributed to our acceptance of torture. It's true, certainly, that the same oversimplifications about justice and violence are present in both systems; but I don't see, based on my knowledge of the history of philosophy, that absolutist pacifism has had anything like enough range or influence to indirectly cause a corruption of Just War Theory into the pragmatic, patriotic theology that justifies torture, whether espoused with the honesty and reluctance of a Charles Krauthammer or the twisted, diseased sacrilege of a Sarah Palin. Torture has been a recurring problem, practical and philosophical, throughout Western history, and nearly all our institutions both political and ecclesiastical are stained with it; I do not think it is pacifism that has made it appealing as a solution to the minds of a frightened and unreflective generation.

I was heartbroken, and horrified, when, as a high schooler listening to discussions at my school over the then-current interrogations and invasions connected with the pursuit of al Qaeda and the Taliban, I realized that some of my Christian brethren were seriously proposing that torture could be countenanced. Mark Shea's ire is, in my opinion, completely justified. Torture is a hideous and fundamental assault upon the dignity of man as the image of God; no Christian may ever approve of its use, and the fact that Christians have done so in the past and do so in the present is one of the blackest marks on our history.

So what am I saying? That the lives of terrorists are more valuable than the lives of infants? Well, do let's keep in mind that there is no exchange center where you can trade one life for another, or weigh them in scales. Let's remember, too, that every human being -- including, as Scripture so often reminds us, our enemies -- is precisely a human being, an icon of the uncreated God; not a cost-benefit ratio. Or, to be more exact, there is an exchange center, and it looks like this:

Neither the U.S. government nor any other has access to that medium of exchange; nor is such a way of trading lives how the coinherence functions, whatever necromancers say.

But after all, torture works, right? It gets intel we wouldn't get otherwise, doesn't it? Well, no, there's actually no reason to think that at all. People regularly hold out under torture, or give false or misleading information -- whether out of cunning or to make the pain stop. Why wouldn't they? Besides which, whether it works is really beside the point. If something is always wrong, it's still wrong if it works. And torture is always wrong. It degrades not only the victim but the torturer; in order to ram food into a man's rectum or threaten to slit his mother's throat as a means of forcing him to talk, you have to become the sort of person who is willing to do that ramming and that threatening, and that kind of person is horrible.

It is peculiarly tragic, and stupid, that pro-life Catholics should apparently be disproportionately likely to advocate such measures. We, of all people, ought to know better. Not only because of the clear voice of the Church on such matters; not only because the dignity of all human life is, literally, the point of being pro-life; but because we have a special reason to recollect that everyone does eventually face the Four Last Things: death -- judgment -- heaven -- hell. What will you gain by saving your own skin, or someone else's, at the expense of your soul's corruption? It is, all but literally, making a deal with the devil: obtaining an expanse of earthly life, at the cost of damnation.

Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these, My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.

Not that that penalty cannot be avoided, if you do approve of torture or have done so in the past, or have even participated in it. But the sole way out is repentance.

And all this is part of why I have, to the best of my ability and with little confidence in myself, renounced even just violence. It may be a hard path, one with its own spiritual perils, and one not strictly necessary nor suitable for every person; but it has the advantage of being a simple one. I believe that accepting violence even when it is just to do so carries with it the dangerous tug toward accepting violence when it is not just to do so, and I do not propose to open myself to that risk.

Moreover, such a vocation is eschatological. As celibacy prefigures the kingdom in which they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of heaven, as poverty prefigures the kingdom in which they kept all things in common and none of them called anything his own, so pacifism prefigures the kingdom in which there will be no more pain, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. And it has this eschatological or prophetic character because it imitates our Lord, who, as He said, could at the moment of His arrest have called upon twelve legions of angels to halt the injustice, sparing the Apostles their lapses into cowardice and apostasy and perhaps converting both the Sanhedrin and the soldiers; but He would not force them. He represented in His person a new way of being, a peace which passeth understanding, and to Greeks foolishness. His victory was the victory of love, which is more powerful than power. He received into Himself the totality of human hatred and violence, together with the uttermost consequences, and showed Himself the conqueror.

The third week in Advent is an Ember week, one of the four traditional weeks in which Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday are observed as days to fast (wholly or partially) and to abstain from meat. This year, that means the 17th, 19th, and 20th of December. I encourage you, readers, to join me in observing this fast, not only in preparation for Christmas, but in penitence and humble supplication to God for forgiveness and healing in this country.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Immaculate Mary

December 8th is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a major feast in the Roman Catholic calendar* -- it ranks with the commemorations like that of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, the Ascension of Christ into heaven, and the Annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary. Only Christmas and Easter itself are of decisively greater magnitude.

A lot of Christians, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox alike, don't have a clear understanding of the Immaculate Conception as a piece of theology, or of why it is important to the Catholic faith. I'd like to do a quick run-down of the doctrine.

Bartolome Murillo, The Most Pure Immaculate Conception, 1678

A lot of people think that the Immaculate Conception is the same thing as the Virgin Birth, but this is a mix-up. The Virgin Birth is a doctrine about how Jesus came to be born; the Immaculate Conception is a doctrine that deals with Mary's conception. Unlike Jesus, Mary was conceived in the normal way, with a mother and a father (known traditionally as St Anne and St Joachim). Also unlike Jesus, Mary was simply a human being: she had no divine nature, she was a human woman and nothing else.

But she was also (Catholics believe) unlike most human beings. Normally, when we are conceived, we are conceived in a state of what the Church calls original sin: i.e., not that we are wicked little demoniacs from the crib (or the, uh, twinkle in our father's eye, as it were), but that our souls are basically self-focused, turned inward, instead of towards God and our neighbor. Along with this, we believe that original sin deprives us of gifts that were bestowed on the human race before our fall into sin: immortality, complete internal harmony, and communion with God. All this doesn't mean that God hates us, but it is a problem that needs fixing. That is what we believe Baptism does -- it washes away the stain of original sin, and restores us to the state of communion with God that would have been ours, had we not inherited a bad moral outfit from our forefather Adam.**

Since Christianity didn't exist yet, Baptism as Christians understand it didn't exist either when the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived. Nor can you baptize a child in the womb anyway, because ... you know what, we don't need to explain that one. Man. This is coming out terribly. I need an editor.

Or something.


The Catholic Church teaches that, as He applies this grace of washing away original sin in Baptism, so He freely chose to apply this grace to Mary, not through the sacrament, but by a pure miracle, from the very moment of her conception. Thus she was conceived immaculately; the word coming from a Latin term that means "without stain." Note that this doesn't mean she didn't need a savior; she did need one, and had the same one we all do: He just worked differently and more impressively with her. As a human being, Mary, like everyone else, would have been conceived with sin -- she didn't earn this as some sort of right -- but God chose out of His free goodness to apply the effects of Christ's victory to her in advance. (Which, if you think of it, gets you into some cool sci-fi time-travel paradox stuff. Sadly, most academic theologians are not willing to sound quite that kickass.)

Why would He do this? Isn't it sort of, you know, made-up-sounding? I mean, it's not like Catholics don't clearly have a thing about the Mother of God.

It's not like I wasn't going to spend a long time in Purgatory anyway ...

Well, let's not be hasty. Consider the fact that Catholic Mariology pales in comparison to Eastern Orthodox devotion to the Mother of God, yet the Orthodox, on the whole, dismiss the idea of the Immaculate Conception. So this isn't simply an inevitable manifestation of preoccupation with the Virgin.

One explanation is that this was a signal honor for a woman who was, after all, the Mother of God.*** Only one Man was the Word Made Flesh, the Creator who became His own creature; likewise, the woman selected to be His Mother was set apart from the mass of humanity, preserved spotless for her exalted destiny. And, when once you accept Christian beliefs about who Jesus was, it is pretty hard to see a role in the created universe (aside from His own) that is or could be higher than that of being the Mother of God.

Another is that, in forging a new human race, a new Adam was necessary, and that we had in Christ; but a new Eve was also necessary, and that we had in the Virgin. To forge between them, in their distinct ways and degrees (Jesus as Redeemer, Mary as the greatest of those who helped Him in His work, mostly by getting Him born and all), a new mankind that was free of the stain of original sin, they both had to be free of it themselves -- and hey presto. This may sound like a startlingly extreme example of how far Catholics are willing to push their view of Mary, in contrast to the age of the Apostles and their immediate successors; but in fact, St Irenaeus of Lyons, a pupil of one of St John the Apostle's own disciples, speaks of Mary as the new Eve as early as the second century.

It's quite clear in all the whatever is going on here.

I also have a sort of pet theory, although frankly it's so unsupportable that even calling it a "theory" is a little strong. It's more like an imaginative idea. I find curiously attractive the possibility that, among the elect, someone has been redeemed from every possible moment in the human life cycle, from the first moment of conception to the last moment on the brink of death. Obviously, the Catholic Church posits the former of the Virgin Mary; and the thief on the cross (traditionally called "St Dismas") seems like an instance of the latter. It seems to me extremely poetic to suppose that, at the scene of the Crucifixion, where the redemption was actually accomplished, the human representatives of the whole realm of human life over which that redemption may take effect -- the one freed from sin at the very first moment of her earthly life, the other at the very last moment of his -- were both present. Like I said, there is no proof for any part of that whatsoever, but I can't help liking the idea.

You'll notice, though, that in all of the reasons set forth, they all finally lead back to one person, and it isn't Mary. It's Jesus. He is what makes her so special; it is to honor Him that this was done for her, on any showing. Her highest glory -- like that of every human being -- is found precisely in the special way in which she has been put into relationship with God, in every sense of that phrase.

But even with all that being said, it isn't laid out unambiguously in Scripture; you can be a Christian without the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Why accept it? Well, it does seem, based on my study of history, to be the clear logical outworking of what the Church has always maintained about the Mother of God and her freedom from sin. But that in itself really shifts the grounds of the discussion: in that case, it isn't so much about whether this or that doctrine about Mary is true, but about how much we trust the tradition of the Church, and what with, and why. All important questions, which cannot detain us here.

In the meantime, don't forget to go to Mass tomorrow, papists.

And no, buying one of those gaudy Safeway candles and humming a verse of "Immaculate Mary" does not count.

*So major, in fact, that it is one of the days other than Sunday on which Catholics are obliged to attend Mass if they're able to. For some holy days, this duty is dispensed with if they fall on a Saturday or a Monday, so that you don't have to make sure to attend two days in a row; the Immaculate Conception, however, is a holy day of obligation no matter what -- partly, I think, because the Catholic Church in the United States took Mary Immaculate as its patroness. If you are in the Baltimore area and looking for a liturgy, my own parish of Mount Calvary (816 North Eutaw Street) will be having a Low Mass, according to the rubrics of the Anglican Use, at 7 pm.

**Whether Adam is here understood as a concrete historical figure, or as a mythic-literary representation of humanity in some other way, is for our present purpose a question of no importance.

***This title bothers some Protestant Christians. Its origins lie in the fifth century and earlier. When exactly popular devotion had begun referring to Mary as the Mother of God is probably indeterminable; but two councils, in opposition to certain religious leaders who were defining Christ's nature such that He was merely in close intimacy with God, rather than actually being God Incarnate, specifically defined the title as a dogma of the universal Church. The reasoning is straightforward enough: Mary is the Mother of Jesus; Jesus is God; therefore, Mary is the Mother of God. Some Protestants fear that the title is misleading, creating the impression that she in some fashioned produced the Deity, or that It in some way depends on her. I feel these worries to be groundless, since the problem can be laid to rest by the very simplest explanations of basic Christian truths.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Five Quick Takes


Tomorrow is the last day of liturgical year 2014. The First Sunday in Advent is the 30th, and that begins the new cycle of sacred time: the celebration of the Incarnation through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany; the celebration of the redemptive work and glorification of Christ through Lent and Easter; and the celebration of the ongoing operation of Divine grace in the Church and her mysteries through Pentecost and Trinity.

The reconciliation of eternity with time -- which is closely related to the philosophical problems of free will, predestination, and Divine omniscience -- is a theme in many English Catholic and Anglican authors of whom I'm fond. T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets is a cycle of poems essentially about the interrelations of time, eternity, and redemption, opening with the problem stated from a human perspective: namely, that if all things are present to the mind of God, as He is outside of time, then how can past sins be forgiven? How can they even, in a solid sense, be called "past"?

A difficulty depicted here, obviously.

Eliot seems to have answered this question, though I am not poetic enough or not smart enough (or both) to be sure I have grasped his answer. However, in the following, I take him to be saying that the Incarnation united not only man with God in the person of Jesus, but also the actual (including sin) with the possible (including sinlessness); so that, through the Incarnation, the intrinsic possibility of, say, St Peter remaining steadfast to confess Christ on Good Friday instead of denying Him has a kind of actuality in the mind of God -- but as I said, I'm not sure I've read Eliot correctly here.
These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled,
Where action were otherwise movement
Of that which is only moved
And has in it no source of movement ... 
-- T. S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages V.29-39
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I must sincerely apologize to my Patreon sponsors; I promised you rewards of some unspecified kind, and I've barely started on the one I owe you all for October. Mleeaah. I am sorry. I will keep working, and hopefully have something for you soon -- thank you all so, so much for your support.

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I have written a review of Wendy VanderWal-Gritter's recent book, Generous Spaciousness. I have a couple of reservations about it, but overall, I thought it was pretty good. The review can be found here at PRISM Magazine.

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Chesterton writes about Christmas in The Everlasting Man in a way that I truly love. Though an anarchist in philosophy, I'm more of a monarchist in sentiment -- I'm extremely fond of Tolkien's remarks on the subject -- and Christmas contains what I find the most romantic strains of both loyalty and rebellion.
It is a familiar fact that the Bethlehem scene has been represented in every possible setting of time and country, of landscape and architecture; and it is a wholly happy and admirable fact that men have conceived it as quite different according to their different individual traditions and tastes. But while all have realized that it was a stable, not so many have realized that it was a cave. ... But the savor is still unmistakeable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace. ... It is not only that the very horse-hoofs of Herod might in that sense have passed like thunder over the sunken head of Christ. It is also that there is in that image a true idea of an outpost, of a piercing through the rock and an entrance into an enemy territory. There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world; of shaking the towers and palaces from below; even as Herod the great king felt that earthquake under him and swayed with his swaying palace. ... [Afterward, the Church] was resented because, in its own still and almost secret way, it had declared war. It had risen out of the ground to wreck the heaven and earth of heathenism. It did not try to destroy all that creation of gold and marble; but it contemplated a world without it. It dared to look right through it as though the gold and marble had been glass. 
-- G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, pp. 172, 181-182
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Occasionally, I'll discover a new band through the XM radio playlists that are on at Starbucks; it's how I first happened to encounter Adele, Rogue Wave, and Broken Bells, for instance. (It's less common around this time of year, when it's mostly the lamer kinds of Christmas music -- not that I dislike Christmas music in itself, quite the contrary, but that they choose the lousiest stuff for some reason, including three or four different versions of "Baby It's Cold Outside," which would be annoying even if I didn't find that song kind of rapey.) Some time in October, they were playing a song called "Shells of Silver," a hypnotizing, cryptic, beautiful track, which I liked so much I looked it up, and I'm glad I did. It was by a band named the Japanese Popstars, who obviously hail from Northern Ireland. Their style is a really fascinating blend of electronica, indie, house, and ambient influences: I've never heard anything quite like it, and I actually wound up buying the whole album Controlling Your Allegiance, buying whole albums being something I rarely do. "Fight the Night" is probably my favorite track on it; "Let Go," below, is the opening track, which has more of a club-synthpop feel.

Warning: video appears to have been made by huge Guillermo del Toro fan after doing all of the acid. May be bad for soul.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


If you saw the grand jury decision on the Michael Brown shooting, and immediately shook your head over its racism, you are part of the problem.

I'll say it again: if you found out about the grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Wilson, and immediately declared that it was a racist decision, you are part of the problem.

Why? Well, let's begin at the beginning.

The beginning, for us, is not the event. The beginning is the event hitting the news. For those of us who weren't there, which is nearly everybody talking about it, that is how we first encountered this tragedy, and that is the only kind of encounter we have had with it: a media distillation. That doesn't invalidate our thoughts by itself; nor, if we make a point of listening to both CNN and Fox, does it necessarily mean our facts will be slanted beyond power of recovery. It does mean that there are limits to how much we can know what we're talking about, and if we value due process, we would do well to recollect those limits. And if you're inclined to say that the cop should have been tried, just because racism is a problem or because it's likely that he was a racist -- as opposed to, because of actual evidence that he did something criminal -- that is shabby scapegoating.

The grand jury decided that, given what the officer knew at the time -- which is not at all the same thing as what we know now, in hindsight -- his action was a reasonable act of self-defense. More precisely, they determined that there was so little concrete evidence of wrongdoing that there was, legally, no case to be brought into court. I can't be sure whether that's a fair evaluation, because I wasn't there. I wasn't even on the grand jury, listening to witness testimonies. And I'd be willing to bet cash money that you weren't either.

Some people seem prepared to declare that the grand jury came to this conclusion based on a racist bias. This light has been withheld from me. If they have a window into other men's consciences, may they make a good use of it; I have none.

Here's the thing, though: even if the grand jury (or, for that matter, the cop in question) was right, that doesn't make racism not an issue. Systemic bias against racial minorities, especially those of African descent, is a serious problem in American culture. Part of the reason it's a problem is simply that we're used to a society that is largely segregated de facto, and so we don't think to question it -- at least, not if we're white. And when somebody does, well, we're not actively keeping anyone down, so the complaints must just be caterwauling over imaginary slights. The possibility that complacency and neglect could be as racist as active hatred does not easily occur to us.

I personally don't think Ferguson raised important questions about race, because I think the questions were already there. The fact that it took a hundred and fifty years after the demise of slavery for a black president, not to be elected, but even to be chosen as a serious presidential candidate, does not reflect well upon our nation. Neither does the fact that, in more than two hundred years, we've had only one Catholic president (despite Catholics making up nearly a quarter of the population), no female president (despite women making up something more than a quarter of the population), no Latino president (despite the fact that about a third of the US was once part of Mexico). But, of all those groups, African-Americans have had incomparably the worst deal. Plenty of groups in the US have been oppressed, shut out of office, publicly jeered, deprived of work and a just wage; only one, I think, has been subject to the slaver and the lynch mob.*

I've had to unlearn some instinctive racism, and I very much hope I've done so. Being gay certainly helped. When you're subjected to assumptions about you that are horribly unfair, or even merely bizarre, and you then take the time to think about it, you can begin to sympathize with people who are treated badly for other reasons. But even as a gay dude, I am a dude, and white, and educated -- which means I have most of the other advantages our culture offers, to say nothing of the fact that it's far easier to be gay today than it was twenty or even ten years ago. I can begin to sympathize, but I can't pretend to go further. My personal afflictions are nothing set beside the way our culture has been treating black people for centuries.

Why then did I open by saying that shaking your head over the affairs at Ferguson makes you part of the problem? Well, if you look back, you'll see that I didn't quite say that. I said that if that's your immediate reaction, you are part of the problem -- because you know what the problem is? Reacting based on assumptions instead of thinking. That's the problem that underlies racism; that's the problem that may well have motivated Officer Wilson to shoot Michael Brown, whether he was a racist or genuinely endangered or both or neither; and that is one of the chief obstacles to solving the problem of systemic racial prejudice in this country.

Why? Because racism is stupid, and so is reacting without thinking about it. And declaring on the merits of a case without having all the evidence, which we don't, is by definition not giving the matter adequate thought. And you can't fight stupid with stupid.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want to actually do something about racism, or do we want to feel like we have? Do we want to do the costly, often boring work of finding out what racial prejudice is, and what its effects are, and how to fix it? Or do we want to tweet some piece of mental sewage we found on HuffPost so we can feel like a better person and then open Netflix because, fuck it, we've done our part?

Because if we do want to actually fix the problem like we say we do, "smh" Facebook statuses and riots are each as useless and counterproductive as the other. Each one produces the illusion of accomplishment; and each contributes to the eventual backlash by its stupidity. And make no mistake, there will be a backlash, because sooner or later there's a backlash against everything. If you want to make it through that, argue and act intelligently now; if you want instant moral gratification, it will be through a moral and mental shortcut that will make not only you personally, but the fight against racism, look foolish and not worth salvaging.

So what do we do? Despite the fact that I'm kind of an asshat and don't have many black friends,** the following two things spring to mind:

1. Pray. If God is omnipotent and all-knowing, He presumably has some general idea of what might be helpful, and could perhaps do something to put it into effect. You can always ask, just in case. And prayers for the repose of Michael Brown's soul, the consolation of his family, the repentance (if necessary) of Officer Wilson, and repentance on the part of anyone who has rushed to judgment through racism or anything else, will not go amiss.

And for ourselves, it helps us to remember that we can't solve the problem alone. We can and should do our part, but there will always be more work to be done, and remembering that can help us resist the seduction of false and simplistic solutions that satisfy our egos but don't really change things.

2. If possible, actually get to know some people who are different from you. I don't mean people whose skin tone is different. I mean people who are different. If you're a devout Christian, see if you can get to know an atheist, a Buddhist, a Wiccan. If you're middle-class, see if you can get to know a homeless dude. If you're a country girl, see if you can get to know someone who's spent their whole life in the city. And, yes, if you're white, see if you can get to know someone who isn't. The point is to broaden the horizons of your experience -- to engage with someone whose mental universe differs from your own, so that you can start to empathize with others whom you find alien.

This doesn't mean using people -- building up social cred by having a heterogeneous collection of friends. That defeats the whole purpose, and anyway, it's so white. What it means is, when you encounter a person who's profoundly different from you, stopping and seeing if you can connect with them. If you can't, that's okay; they don't need you, after all, or if they do, it's probably not because you're different. But as long as you try, and keep on trying, you're molding your heart to be open to human beings, not because they're like you, but just because they're human.

That is what will bring racism to an end.

*Native Americans, of course, were killed or hounded from their lands because we wanted their stuff. But that's perfectly all right, because they're only Native Americans.

**Does that make me more racist or less?