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Friday, January 31, 2003


The Boston Globe cuts to the chase on the U.S. quarrel with France and Germany:

It is all too easy for Americans to sneer at Chirac's sophistry. He is known to disdainful Iraqi exiles as the godfather of France's special relationship with Saddam's police state. Some sardonic spirits refer to Osirak, the nuclear breeder reactor that France built for Saddam and that Israel bombed in 1981, as ''Ochirac.'' So amicable was the relationship between Saddam and Chirac that the Iraqi tyrant told his French confidant that he was going to invade Iran in 1980.

More recently, the French oil company TotalFinaElf has been negotiating an exclusive contract to explore the Majnoon oil field in Iraq, which has estimated reserves of 20 billion to 30 billion barrels. As a reward for the congenial positions it has taken in the Security Council, France has been the number one or two beneficiary each year of commercial contracts that Saddam's government has conferred abroad under the UN's oil-for-food program.

Germany, meanwhile, "was the leading foreign supplier to Saddam of material for weapons and dual-use technology," according to the 12,000-page document the Iraqi government gave to the U.N. Security Council in December.

But the Globe also points out that Bush's father also helped Saddam's government — until Iraq invaded Kuwait. And:

Moreover, the current Bush administration perceives a need to depose Saddam in part because the earlier Bush administration betrayed millions of courageous Iraqis during their uprising against the dictator in March 1991.

That left me feeling queasy at the time, too. But the Globe sees a way for both sides of the faltering alliance to succeed. France's real aim, the paper argues, is insuring multilateral solutions with U.N. authorization:

As a sign that this shaping of a multilateral world order — and not the preserving of Saddam's regime — is the true aim of its conduct, France is also preparing for combat in Iraq 15,000 troops, 50 aircraft, and the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.

That's news — but good news — to me. The U.S. must do everything it can to secure U.N. approval. The difference between a "coalition of the willing" and U.N.-authorized force is nothing less than the credibility of international law.

Posted by Philocrites, January 31, 2003, at 08:43 AM | 0 comments

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

'Europeans are from Venus...'

Timothy Garton Ash explores the phenomenon of "anti-Europeanism" in America: "The emotional leitmotifs of anti-Americanism are resentment mingled with envy; those of anti-Europeanism are irritation mixed with contempt." One reason for the widening gulf between Europe and the U.S.: Americans no longer feel culturally inferior to Europeans. Highly recommended reading.

...but only Bush is from Mars.

Eric Alterman goes to Europe to find out what all the anti-American hullaballoo is about. Bruce Springsteen still packs Parisian stadiums with fans who triumphantly sing, "Born in the U.S.A.," but Bruce and Bush mean completely different things to Europeans:

You can't be anti-American if you love Bruce Springsteen. You can criticize America. You can march against America's actions in the world. You can take issue with the policies of its unelected, unusually aggressive and unthinking Administration, and you can even get annoyed with its ubiquitous cultural and commercial presence in your life. But you can't be anti-American.

That's helpful — but why throw "unelected" in there? The Supreme Court really did muddy up the waters and Al Gore really did get more votes overall, Bush was elected by the Electoral College. I didn't vote for him and I don't like him, but come on. Let's stop fighting the last election and figure out the next one.

Posted by Philocrites, January 29, 2003, at 06:07 PM | 0 comments


The New Yorker's David Remnick buys Kenneth M. Pollack's liberal case for war. (Pollack's book, The Threatening Storm, is the most comprehensive on the subject. The author was President Clinton's director of Gulf affairs at the National Security Council.) So does Joshua Micah Marshall in the Washington Monthly. Brian Urquhart puts lots of qualifications around his agreement with Pollack in the New York Review of Books, but essentially concedes that Pollack is right: Saddam is a problem for which we have no good solution, but which we must address.

The problem is that President Bush's case for war is different than the one that "reluctant hawks" like the liberals listed here have endorsed. A multilateral campaign would strengthen international law and minimize the outrage a U.S. attack will inspire. But a unilateral campaign will alienate our friends and incite our enemies. (After all, Iraq isn't primarily a threat to the U.S.; Saddam threatens a region that the world's economy depends on. He should be Europe's concern, too.) Bush's failure to bring more of our allies along makes war and its aftermath even more dangerous than it needs to be.

George Packer writes in Mother Jones that "the wrong people are doing the right things for the wrong reasons." But because Bush keeps emphasizing the wrong reasons, doing the right thing may actually make matters worse. It is impossible to look toward the future with anything but foreboding. Once again, I wish the Democrats had been cultivating a liberal foreign policy in the last decade — we could use one right about now.

Posted by Philocrites, January 29, 2003, at 05:56 PM | 0 comments

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Dissent from the center.

Many Americans who distrust the President's war plans undoubtedly wish they had another option. Those who oppose a war either have or think they have an alternative. But, as one Unitarian Universalist wrote in a recent e-mail, many antiwar folks feel that they are being tarred with the "unpatriotic" brush simply for expressing their doubts. He asks:

How do we re-frame the argument so that a dissenting view can be heard without automatically being dismissed as unAmerican?

Liberal leaders and groups should make this a primary goal, but it would mean that they would have to focus their arguments even more than they are already doing. They should, for one thing, expressly repudiate the language of the radical left, making it clear that liberal proposals are the best way to defend and cultivate American values in the world.

Liberals should describe how right-wing policies threaten things that most Americans value, and they should do so in a way that doesn't borrow an ounce of rhetoric from the radical left. For some of us, this is because we disagree with the radical left; for some of you, this may mean adopting a pragmatic discretion.

Skip, for instance, lurid catch-phrases like "No blood for oil" or "U.S. out of the Middle East." Don't mock American institutions or leaders. Keep the American flag; it belongs to the liberal tradition, not to jingoists and blowhards who forget what it stands for. Talk about what makes you proud of your country, and how those are the things worth defending. Show how the policies you oppose violate the ideals and best interests of your country.

Here's a simple example. David Cortright, founder of the "Win Without War" campaign, launched his group because he was appalled at the extremist language at the October 26 rallies sponsored by the Stalinist cover group International A.N.S.W.E.R. Cortright was worried that the antiwar movement could not reach middle America if its primary public events were being sponsored by fringe political movements. (He also opposed their weird political smorgasbord.) That's why the Win Without War group is a coalition instead of unions, mainstream liberal political action groups (NAACP, NOW), and religious groups like the National Council of Churches and the UUA. Its statements and proposals are explicitly, deliberately mainstream.

Dissent from the center. That's what the civil right movement did. It's the only way to make a meaningful difference.

And please note: I'm not suggesting that anyone adjust their own political ideology to the right. I'm suggesting that liberal goals have deep roots in American traditions, and the best way to get more people to share those goals is to get more people to tap into those roots.

Posted by Philocrites, January 28, 2003, at 03:49 PM | 0 comments

Monday, January 27, 2003

Marching as to war.

President Bush better have an amazing speech prepared for tomorrow night. His administration says time is running out for Saddam Hussein, but he hasn't convinced most people that all the hurry is justified. Bill Keller says Bush has "mostly done the right things," but with "a disheartening lack of finesse." That's an understatement.

Thomas L. Friedman says that Bush has picked the right goal, but hasn't been honest about what it means. Fixing what we break won't be easy, quick, or cheap. "[T]he president must level with the American people that we may indeed be buying the Arab Yugoslavia" — "an artificial country congenitally divided among Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Nasserites, leftists and a host of tribes and clans that can only be held together with a Saddam-like iron fist." Friedman believes war may be inevitable — and could bring about some positive outcomes — but only if the rest of the world is willing to pitch in. Otherwise, the U.S. could end up playing Saddam's role, which no one wants. Bush could still bring the international community on-board, but his disdain for multilateralism won't help.

After listening to administration officials make the case for war this weekend, Fred Kaplan expresses grave doubts about the case against Saddam. "Do we have the goods on Saddam?" he asks. If so, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz, and others didn't really say. Even the hawkish New Republic expressed amazement at chief-of-staff Andrew Card's weekend presentation:

"The case is compelling that Saddam has had weapons of mass destruction, probably has them today, and is anxious to build a stockpile so he can use them." The case is compelling. Saddam probably has weapons of mass destruction. That's the White House's new argument for invading Iraq?

Bush could have made quite a case against Saddam, if he had been willing to build a coalition against him slowly and intelligently. I can't wait to hear how we'll embark on nation-building through tax cuts.

Posted by Philocrites, January 27, 2003, at 05:22 PM | 0 comments

Regime change: past successes and failures.

The Christian Science Monitor reviews past military interventions by the U.S. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein would be the most ambitious regime change the U.S. has tried to force by far. The Monitor also asks, Is it too late for a popular uprising in Iraq? One expert says it is: "People know the price of joining any open defiance. Getting together to try to overthrow the regime would be seen as suicide."

Also: ingredients for successful popular revolutions and the Western contribution to toppling Slobodan Milosevic.

Posted by Philocrites, January 27, 2003, at 04:50 PM | 0 comments

The varieties of religious war.

William James's most famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, was published a century ago. Bernard Avishai calls it "perhaps our most poignant tribute to religious tolerance." But now, he adds, we're living through another era of religious war.

I think [James] would have concluded that there is a battle to be joined here, which he would not likely have avoided, but it is not about the superiority or threat of any religion. Rather, it is about the very definition of religion, or at least religion acceptable to democratic life. And the dividing line is not between one sacred book and another but between people who believe in sacred books and people who believe that it is the right to interpret books that is sacred.

In other words, asking religious questions is the genuinely spiritual — and democratically necessary — task. Insisting on answers, however, is profoundly dangerous. And, if demanding fidelity to one set of answers is the threat posed by religious extremism, there is another threat posed by the zealots of secularism:

Nevertheless, intelligent people in the West have allowed the word "religious" to be hijacked by precisely those rather hapless souls who believe they have answers. Worse, we have debased the word "secular" so that instead of it meaning a principled refusal to privilege particular religious forms, it seems to mean contempt for sublime questions themselves. Is it any wonder, then, that cults and sects thrive, merely on the strength of their willingness to ask them?

Avishai's column is the best statement of genuine religious humanism I've read in a long time.

Posted by Philocrites, January 27, 2003, at 12:22 PM | 0 comments

Friday, January 24, 2003

About those weapons...

The most detailed allegation President Bush made against Iraq in his address to the United Nations last year was the charge that Iraq had imported aluminum tubes that could only be used to enrich uranium — clear evidence of a nuclear weapons program. But U.N. weapons inspectors have concluded that the aluminum tubes couldn't have been used for this purpose without a lot of retooling; in fact, they are essentially conventional weapons casings.

What to make of this? If Saddam had "weapons of mass destruction" that made it impossible for Iraq's neighbors to challenge his belligerence, we would all have a big problem. Keeping nuclear weapons out of Iraq's hands is essential. (North Korea's atomic weapons, for example, now make it almost impossible for South Korea, Japan, or the U.S. to do anything but negotiate. Kim Jong-Il holds a trump card, and the important thing now is finding ways to keep him from making more or selling his new toys to anyone else.) But chemical and biological weapons aren't really that kind of weapon.

Gregg Easterbrook made the crucial distinction last year in The New Republic: chemical and biological weapons are dangerous and alarming, to be sure, but nuclear weapons are the real threat. Iraq would still be deterrable and containable even if Saddam did have anthrax, VX, sarin, ricin, and all kinds of other chemical and biological weapons. An intrusive inspections program could make these programs unendurably difficult for Saddam to keep active.

If it turns out that Iraq hasn't had a real nuclear weapons program in place in the last five years, the real issue seems to shift substantially toward Iraq's humanitarian crisis and the long-term question of regional power centers. On these points, Thomas L. Friedman sees regime change as the only real reason to attack Iraq — not weapons of mass destruction. Unsettling the status quo in the Arab world constitutes the best reason to invade.

But without evidence of weapons of mass destruction — especially nuclear weapons — what does Bush's public case rest on? Doesn't his case weaken significantly?

Posted by Philocrites, January 24, 2003, at 09:15 AM | 0 comments

Thursday, January 23, 2003


"Can you imagine if a massive gay rights rally has been organized by NAMBLA, the pedophile group? But NAMBLA is to gay rights what ANSWER is to legitimate anti-war sentiment. And no-one in the liberal establishment seems to care." Andrew Sullivan is right about the reasons liberal groups should have paid closer attention to the sponsor of last weekend's antiwar rallies in Washington and San Francisco.

But some liberals have been raising the alarm for months. The Nation's David Corn condemned ANSWER back in November. Todd Gitlin of Mother Jones drew the important distinction over a year ago: "But in the wake of September 11 there erupted something more primal and reflexive than criticism: a kind of left-wing fundamentalism, a negative faith in America the ugly."

In the United States, adherents of this kind of reflexive anti-Americanism are a minority (isolated, usually, on campuses and in coastal cities, in circles where reality checks are scarce), but they are vocal and quick to action. Observing flags flying everywhere, they feel embattled and draw on their embattlement for moral credit, thus roping themselves into tight little circles of the pure and the saved.

It is deeply counterproductive for liberal or religious groups to endorse (even implicitly) the agenda of a group like ANSWER. Make it clear how your alternative vision differs from President Bush's — and how it differs from ANSWER's. There is too much important work to do to march off under the banner of the Puritans of the left or the right.

Posted by Philocrites, January 23, 2003, at 12:55 PM | 0 comments

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Buehrens direct.

On Saturday I criticized the report John Buehrens, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, made about his recent trip to Iraq. Now the UUA has posted a January 10 interview with Buehrens that confirms my unease with parts of his argument.

I share Buehrens's opposition to the Bush administration's stated policy of pre-emptive war. He says the delegation "came back convinced that this policy will not make us more secure but less; foment terrorism; radicalize people throughout the middle east; and expose us as a heavy-footed imperial power. We should tread more lightly than this." Those are good reasons to oppose Bush's foreign policy. But finding things to admire about Saddam's regime hurts Buehrens's pragmatic argument.

As I said before, the opposite of war, in this case, is not peace. It's a brutal dictatorship. Liberals still need a foreign policy to rally around.

Posted by Philocrites, January 22, 2003, at 04:08 PM | 0 comments

Interfaith dialogue in Jerusalem.

James Carroll provides the titles of some timely presentations at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a place I first learned about in Thomas L. Friedman's indispensable book, From Beirut to Jerusalem. It would be amazing to sit among Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars talking about "Blasphemy, Idolatry, and the Limits of Biblical Religion":

That title points to the difficult question that challenges every belief system today: What are the limits of absolute claims? Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are absolute religions, and as such they have generated much of the intolerance and violence — the ''holy wars'' — that have bloodied history. Yet the title of every session at this conference carries an equally undermining implication. Two Muslim considerations, for example, are entitled ''Searching for Criteria: The Debate Concerning 'Boundary Conditions' in Early Islam'' and ''Orthodox Islamic Responses to Contemporary Critics of Islamic Boundaries.'' Christian sessions take up ''Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity'' and ''Getting In, Staying In: Catholic Cultures of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy.'' A Second Jewish consideration is called ''Tolerable and Intolerable Deviance.''

Carroll hopes that "If religiously grounded hatred can yield here to shared humility in the presence of the holy one, however defined — then equally profound transformations can happen anywhere." How can one not share such a hope, however meekly? For a glimpse of how hard but real those transformations can be, pick up Yossi Klein Halevi's book, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden. My review is here.

Deep ambivalence.

Also in today's Globe, a great report from Mark Jurkowitz on the growing American unease about Iraq. "Kathy Frankovic, director of surveys for CBS News, said that the roughly two-thirds of Americans who support the concept of removing Hussein by force is 'a number that hasn't changed in 10 years.''" But polls also show that rough two-thirds breaks down quickly without UN approval or real evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

Posted by Philocrites, January 22, 2003, at 08:40 AM | 0 comments

How to justify an exit.

The Boston Globe walks a tight rope in endorsing attempts by Iraq's neighbors to encourage Saddam Hussein's exile: "Iraq's neighbors deserve support in their efforts to avoid a war next door by offering Saddam Hussein and his top accomplices asylum or by seeking to have the dictator deposed in a coup," the Globe says. The editors acknowledge, though, that the motivation — especially of the Saudi government — may be self-protective much more than humanitarian:

But the same suspicions that Iraqi partisans of democracy and human rights harbor about Saudi motives might also apply to some sectors of the Bush administration. In the Saudi case, it is no secret that the ruling princes do not look kindly on the prospect of a constitutional government in Iraq that would not be dominated by Sunni autocrats and would establish full human rights for women, Kurds, Christians, and other minorities. It would be a shame — and a tragic blunder — if the United States once again fell for the Saudi fallacy of strongman rule in Iraq.

But where in this editorial is there a proposal for "peaceful" regime change that doesn't a) protect Saddam from prosecution and b) preserve a military dictatorship in Iraq? It seems the Globe is really saying that the Saudi-led efforts are justified not so much for "striving to prevent the loss of life" as they are for giving some moral cover ultimately for war. Christopher Hitchens makes the case against the Saudi plan in Slate.

Posted by Philocrites, January 22, 2003, at 08:18 AM | 0 comments

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Citizen soldiers.

Who told ABC's "This Week" program: "The homeland security issue isn't an issue for the 82nd Airborne Division or First Marine Division. Every citizen in America is now a citizen soldier"? Gary Hart, who is considering another try for the Democratic nomination. He has excellent ideas on homeland security, national service, and defense — but would voters forgive his campaign-ending infidelity in 1987?

Posted by Philocrites, January 21, 2003, at 06:13 PM | 0 comments

Getting away with it.

Christopher Hitchens writes:

The concept of Saddam removing to some sort of exile . . . is not despicable on its face. It would avert the possibility of even the smartest bombs going astray and hitting orphanages, and it would mean that Iraqi soldiers would not be ordered pointlessly to their deaths by a deranged Caligula. It would also remove the chance of some final apocalyptic lunge on Caligula's part.

But who would benefit if, like Gilgamesh, Saddam Hussein simply "gave up his helm"? Certainly not the Iraqi dissidents, who hope to bring radical changes like democracy, constitutional pluralism, and an end to Ba'athism. And this more peaceful kind of regime change doesn't bode well for Defense Department visionaries, either, who want to upend the status quo in the region. "The suspicion emerges that there is some covert diplomacy at work," Hitchens writes, "designed to accommodate the local and regional oligarchies and the waverers at the U.N."

But Donald Rumsfeld's hint this weekend that Saddam could step down in exchange for immunity from war crimes charges doesn't represent much of an advance for advocates of international law:

If the regime is changed, as it obviously will be soon, one way or another, then life should change abruptly for [Saddam and his gang], too. The point of the change is to instate some standard, however tenuous and hypocritical, of international law. One can not easily achieve that by exempting its chief violators to begin with.

So here's the hard question: How does the international community hold Saddam Hussein to account while seeking a humanitarian solution?

Posted by Philocrites, January 21, 2003, at 05:50 PM | 0 comments

Monday, January 20, 2003

'Democracy' in Iraq.

Now here's something amazing, from the English-language edition of the Iraq Daily:

President Hussein hinted at four thousands years of democracy in Iraq when king of Iredu, Gilgamish went to fetch eternality as he gave up helm and left his senate leading the country till his coming back.

Does this have anything to do with Arab diplomatic efforts to encourage Saddam Hussein to step down? And can we get some advanced ESL training for the translator?

Posted by Philocrites, January 20, 2003, at 11:34 AM | 0 comments

Sunday, January 19, 2003

The mind in chains.

Planning a visit to Iraq? If you're lucky, you might get a few moments to talk to an Iraqi without your government "minder" overhearing your conversation. You might ask a professor how he views the U.N. weapons inspections. He might answer like this:

"We love Saddam Hussein, not only love him, we adore him, he is the symbol of our unity. Without Saddam Hussein we will die, believe me."

Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times offers a disturbing portrayal of life in Orwellian Iraq:

Since most interviews between Iraqis and the Western press are organized and monitored by minders from the Ministry of Information, many Iraqis take the prudent step of garnishing their remarks with some praise for their president. This is an old-school totalitarian regime, after all, where criticizing the president is illegal, and parents have been known to disappear after their children parroted anti-Hussein remarks heard at home.

Foreigners with long experience here believe this is a matter of conditioning, of fear and self-censorship that have become innate. Iraqis are raised from childhood to sing — often literally — the president's praises.

They are also taught to mistrust foreigners. So when they find themselves talking to a foreigner, they respond as if by rote, often with safe, stock phrases.

There is nothing new about this aspect of totalitarian states. Czeszlaw Milosz described the psychological dynamics of totalitarianism brilliantly in his book about the Stalinist transformation of Eastern Europe in The Captive Mind (1951):

Of course, all human behavior contains a significant amount of acting. A man reacts to his environment and is molded by it even in his gestures. Nevertheless, what we find in the people's democracies is a conscious mass play rather than automatic imitation. Conscious acting, if one practices it long enough, develops those traits which one uses most in one's role, just as a man who became a runner because he had good legs develops his legs even more in training. After long acquaintance with his role, a man grows into it so closely that he can no longer differentiate his true self from the self he simulates, so that even the most intimate of individuals speak to each other in Party slogans. To identify one's self with the role one is obliged to play brings relief and permits a relaxation of one's vigilance. . . .

A constant and universal masquerade creates an aura that is hard to bear, yet it grants the performers certain not inconsiderable satisfactions. To say something is white when one thinks it black, to smile inwardly when one is outwardly solemn, to hate when one manifests love, to know when one pretends not to know, and thus to play one's adversary for a fool (even as he is playing you for one) — these actions lead one to prize one's own cunning above all else. . . .

Milosz offers a philosophical and psychological examination of the allure of totalitarianism. If you want to understand the mind of a tyrant, though, you might want to read Mario Vargas Llosa's newly translated novel The Feast of the Goat, about the dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. It is not a pretty picture. It is also not, unfortunately, an obsolete one.

Posted by Philocrites, January 19, 2003, at 03:58 PM | 0 comments

Apology for a tyrant.

I regard John Buehrens, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, as highly as just about anyone in the UUA. I also think of him as a friend. But his report on his visit to Iraq last month, which he gave at the King's Chapel Parish House in Boston on Thursday, struck me as disingenuous on a crucial point: The opposite of war, in this case, is not peace. Life under a tyrannical regime is incompatible with a liberal vision of human dignity and freedom. The status quo is not peace. It is not freedom. It is not justice.

War is evil. I grant that. But Saddam Hussein's regime — like a number of other tyrannical governments — should find no defenders among religious or secular liberals. You can oppose Bush's war as dangerous, inadequately justified, contrary to international law, or — from pacifist or just-war perspectives — incompatible with the gospel. But a liberal cannot treat Iraq's government as anything but despotic, cruel, and flagrantly opposed to human freedom. War is evil, but in this case, so is peace.

So how is it that Buehrens expressed so little incredulity about Tariq Aziz, the "Christian" deputy prime minister who met and prayed with the American delegation? When the delegation asked about human rights violations in Iraq — a government that, mind you, employs professional rapists among its staff of torturers, executes political opponents, and crushes every form of dissent and criticism it can — Aziz referred to the prisoners released by Saddam Hussein in a widely-publicized amnesty, and said that the U.S. imprisons many more of its citizens than Iraq does. Buehrens called Aziz an adroit diplomat, and did not otherwise comment on what struck me as beside the point.

After all, when Saddam emptied the prisons, angry women surrounded the ministry for public information demanding to know where their sons, husbands, and brothers were — because so many people did not emerge from the prisons. Why? The government had killed them. It's easy to keep the number of political prisoners low when you execute so many of them.

Buehrens also seemed impressed by the religious freedom in Iraq, where Christian congregations meet openly — though he didn't mention it, many receive money from the government — and where Muslim fundamentalists are excluded from the mosques. What does this really show? That a secular dictator understands how to manipulate religious groups. A variety of religious institutions doesn't mean much when a nation allows no real freedom of conscience or expression. Christians in Iraq render almost everything to Caesar because they have no choice. In exchange, they can worship God as Christians. But they are not free.

He also commented favorably about the discipline and organization of Ba'ath Party-run social service agencies. This is an old lacuna in Western liberal perspectives on totalitarian efficiency: Iraq's service infrastructure works well because fear is marvelously motivational. But Iraq's top-down service delivery system works well for two simple reasons: Party members get services that nonmembers don't. If you want food, you don't utter a peep about Saddam except in praise because thugs with guns control the food rations. That's efficient, but it's barbaric.

The real point is this: Religious liberals should continue to work for genuinely free and genuinely democratic reforms throughout the world. Nothing will ever justify abandoning these goals, not even opposing a war. And because human freedom is our ultimate goal, we should not pretend that the status quo — the "peace" that avoiding war with Iraq represents — is even remotely close to true peace or true justice.

Iraq is a brutal and tyrannical state. Antiwar activists turn into apologists for dictators when they forget this. You can oppose President Bush, but doing so should not mean defending Saddam Hussein.

Posted by Philocrites, January 19, 2003, at 01:10 PM | 0 comments

Friday, January 17, 2003

Three faces of the antiwar movement.

As thousands converge on Washington for tomorrow's antiwar rally, the media starts looking at the goals — and factions — of the antiwar movement.

The Chicago Tribune notes that there are three major antiwar organizations in the U.S.:

As the situation unfolds, one challenge may be in simply holding together disparate organizations with widely varying, and sometimes opposing, political aims that so far have created not one cohesive coalition but at least three—Win Without War, International Act Now to Stop War & Racism (ANSWER), and United for Peace.

Win Without War's founder, David Cortwright, tells the Tribune, "We want to convey the message that the concern about a war against Iraq is very broad and reaches out to mainstream organizations." The paper doesn't mention, however, that Cortwright launched his media-focused group, which is affiliated with, after seeing the rabid left dominate the October 26 mass protests sponsored by International ANSWER.

Religious organizations in particular might help prepare their members for the way-out causes they are likely to encounter at an ANSWER event, because many mainstream Americans are likely to be horrified by much of it. (The left-liberal Nation's Washington editor, David Corn, condemns ANSWER's agenda in an article for LA Weekly.)

The San Jose Mercury-News also highlights ANSWER's hard-left associations:

Many of A.N.S.W.E.R.'s lead organizers have close ties to the International Action Center, formed by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and to the Workers World Party (WWP), a socialist sect whose politics often are criticized as too left, too doctrinaire, even for Bay Area liberals. Some of the WWP's more controversial positions are its support for the governments of Iraq and North Korea; its backing of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic; its claims that reports of Serbian atrocities against Muslims and Croats were overblown; and its defense as recently as 2000 of the Chinese government's deadly crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Every antiwar activist must confront this fact: Most Americans recognize Saddam, Milosevic, and Jong-Il as brutal dictators. Americans may not want to go to war, but they're definitely not going to sign up for the pro-despot radicalism of ANSWER.

(United for Peace, by the way, is doing its own thing, too. The Washington-based coalition plans a candlelight vigil at the Lincoln Memorial after Saturday's ANSWER protest and plans acts of civil disobedience for Sunday.)

So, if you're going to Washington or San Francisco this weekend, identify your key issue and look for ways to reach normal Americans with it. ANSWER is not the answer to your questions about the war. (Click here, here, and here for my proposals.)

Posted by Philocrites, January 17, 2003, at 05:32 PM | 0 comments

The decline of liberal seminaries.

"The mainline schools get the money, but the evangelical schools get the people," says Christianity Today. The six largest seminaries in the U.S. are now conservative Evangelical — with enrollments approaching 7,455 students. The six largest mainline seminaries — there are only six in the top twenty — have only 3,200 students. Mainline schools used to lead the way in theological education. No longer.

The trend is actually even worse than it appears: The mainline schools depend on their endowments because tuition is lagging far behind costs. Union Theological Seminary in New York, a leading liberal school, is in dire financial straits. But the conservative schools depend on tuition — and their students are willing to pay. Liberals depend on income from the past; conservatives are paying in the present.

Posted by Philocrites, January 17, 2003, at 12:06 PM | 0 comments

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

What is our message?

Kevin M. asks a great question:

Don't we, as Unitarian Universalists, have an obligation to bring our liberal ministry to a world that badly needs it?

At the General Assembly last year, the Commission on Appraisal launched a new study, asking "Where is the unity in our diversity?" As I've watched the last two days of UU conversation unfold, I've thought maybe the Commission was asking a question that we could formulate even better:

What do we want to share with the world?

When we get caught up in the turmoil of our diverse identities within Unitarian Universalism, we can get hypersensitive about our group's supposed loss of clout within the UUA. But I cannot think of a constituency within the UUA that does not have at least a few extremely vocal proponents of the idea that they are being harried out of the movement. The UU Christians have felt this way, Humanists have felt this way, atheists have felt this way — it runs the gamut.

But defensiveness and anxiety about losing pride of place in a small movement are signs of uncertainty, not confidence. Yet wonderful things are happening in our congregations; they inspire us; most of us would love to welcome new people to our congregations, not in order to meet some p.r. goal but because we find that liberal religion changes lives for the better.

So what do we want to share with the world? What do you want to share with your neighbors and the people in your community?

I just became a Coming of Age mentor at my church. I'm excited and daunted by the role — but it is helping me focus my own religious questions on essentials. Bill Sinkford has been clarifying what he wants to share with the world. We don't need to pick up his language if it doesn't reflect our deepest commitments and experiences — but what do we want to share with the world?

(Originally posted to UU-Community)

Posted by Philocrites, January 15, 2003, at 08:01 PM | 0 comments

On message.

UUA President Bill Sinkford disputes the Fort Worth Star-Telegram article Monday that reported his goal of "adding God" to the Unitarian Universalist Association's Principles. The closest thing to a transcript of the sermon he gave in Fort Worth is this column, from the upcoming issue of UU World, to which the UUA is referring people concerned about the article. In Sinkford's letter this afternoon, he wrote:

Let me be very clear: I spoke of the need to periodically revisit — that is, to read and reflect upon — our foundational language. I did not call for the Principles to be rewritten. I spoke of the need for individuals to consider supplementing the language of the Principles with religious language in describing their own faith. I did not call for the inclusion of the word "God" in either the Principles or in anyone's individual descriptions of their personal faith.

So an interview with a reporter in Fort Worth, Texas, wasn't the ideal way to start the dialogue, but a conversation has just been launched about what kind of religious presence Unitarian Universalists want in our society. Let's have at it!

Posted by Philocrites, January 15, 2003, at 07:56 PM | 0 comments

First steps toward Saudi reform.

The Christian Science Monitor reports on internal efforts to bring democratic reforms to Saudi Arabia. May there be second and third steps, too.

Posted by Philocrites, January 15, 2003, at 10:11 AM | 0 comments


Everyone's doing it! Cullen Murphy writes that, in America, you can put the toothpaste back in the tube. "Secondary virginity" even has religious sponsors — though not everyone makes it as easy as the Universal Life Church's "click-and-repent" Web option. Is it repentance — or nostalgia?

Posted by Philocrites, January 15, 2003, at 08:14 AM | 0 comments

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Arts & Letters Daily.

My second suggestion to the fine people at Arts & Letters Daily appears in tomorrow's edition: An article from Ha'aretz about the utopianism in apocalyptic American films. A suggestion I made last year, about Jack Miles's essay on "theology and the clash of civilizations" in the religious journal CrossCurrents, also made the cut. (They didn't like a Washington Monthly article about learning Spanish, but you might.)

Posted by Philocrites, January 14, 2003, at 10:12 PM | 0 comments

Adding God to the UUA's Principles?

Yesterday's Fort Worth Star-Telegram says that the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, announced plans to push for a revision of the UUA's Principles during a speech at the First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. The newspaper reports that Sinkford believes the absence of the word "God" from the Association's covenant statement "reduces the document's effectiveness in comforting people and also puts the denomination out on the fringe of religious life in America."

Sinkford says he believes that adding "God" to the denomination's principles would help attract members and would also increase the denomination's influence in world affairs.

Aside from the questionable assumption that God would improve the UUA's public relations, just how explicit was Sinkford's call for a revision, or for specific changes to the language? The article is short on direct quotes. (The two above are the reporter's summaries.) The most substantive statement directly attributed to Sinkford is this:

"We need to be able to say Unitarian Universalists believe there is one God, and that God is a loving God who would condemn no one out of hand."

Sinkford's affirmation is clearly consonant with the Unitarian and Universalist theological traditions, but he knows that Humanism provides the common theology of contemporary liberal religion. Spiritual openness characterizes most UU religious humanists today — but theism does not. Amending a statement won't change the common theology, unless it drives a whole lot of people away.

But the really interesting news comes at the end: "Sinkford said the statement of principles adopted in 1984 was supposed to be reconsidered after 15 years. He will ask trustees to reassess the statement during a national convention in June."

It's true. See the UUA Bylaws, XIV.C-14.1(c), paragraph 4:

If no review and study process of Article II [yup, the "Principles and Purposes"] has occurred for a period of fifteen years, the Board of Trustees shall appoint a commission to review and study Article II and to recommend appropriate revisions, if any, thereto to the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees shall review the recommendations of the study commission and, in its discretion, may submit the recommendations of the study commission to the Planning Committee for inclusion on the agenda of the next regular General Assembly.

The last revision of Article II was in 1984, so considering a revision is now in order. Any revision would require congregational review and at least two General Assemblies, so no one needs to panic. Sinkford may just have boosted the Commission on Appraisal's current study topic to even greater significance: "Where is the unity in our diversity?"

Posted by Philocrites, January 14, 2003, at 02:13 PM | 0 comments

Monday, January 13, 2003

Afghanistan's new suicide bombers?

Al Qaeda and the Taliban are finding new recruits among relatives of Aghans killed by U.S. bombs, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Some mullahs — including one who used to be anti-Taliban — are recruiting survivors and relatives of victims of inadvertant U.S. strikes for revenge missions. The primary advocate of the revenge missions announced an alliance with al Qaeda and the Taliban last month.

"The only solution is cultural," says a deputy governor about the tribal code of revenge. "If a tribal council came with US forces to a family of a victim, and they apologized and said we are sorry for your loss, and we ask for your pardon, the family will not reject that. But if you don't do that, these families can be the most dangerous, because they are the ones who will do suicide attacks."

Posted by Philocrites, January 13, 2003, at 01:02 PM | 0 comments

Resentment and Democratic priorities.

David Brooks, the best writer at the conservative Weekly Standard, offers a helpful guide to Americans' weird but unshakable opposition to "soak the rich" politics. Democratic success in 2004 will depend on steering clear of appeals to class resentment. Why? Because Americans vote their aspirations, not their short-term self-interest. His assessment hits the mark: "You can run against rich people, but only those who have betrayed the ideal of fair competition. You have to be more hopeful and growth-oriented than your opponent, and you cannot imply that we are a nation tragically and permanently divided by income." Paul Glastris offers similar advice in the liberal Washington Monthly.

[Update 1.14.03: The New Republic pulls Brooks's analysis apart here and here. On this, though, Brooks is still right: Direct appeals to class are unlikely to take Democrats very far. An appeal to fair play, however, is more than adequate to make the case for tossing Bush out in 2004.]

Posted by Philocrites, January 13, 2003, at 08:30 AM | 0 comments

Instant ministers!

When I first told co-workers that I was heading off to divinity school to study for the Unitarian Universalist ministry, two friends thought they'd prove that I was wasting my time and money. Within half an hour, both were fully ordained ministers in the Universal Life Church, empowered to forgive sins and — more lucratively — perform weddings. They didn't need a three-year master's degree; they just needed a Web browser.

New York's fashionable set — the people whose wedding announcements appear in the New York Times — have turned more and more to Universal Life Church-ordained friends, skipping the Catholic and Episcopal priests, rabbis, or justices of the peace who more traditionally perform their ceremonies. Now the Times examines the phenomenon.

"If you have no church, then you create your own authority figure," one groom explains. "You choose the person who has the most authority in your relationship." He and his fiance chose her ex — the guy who introduced them! Another groom said, "It's not like we're anti-authority. It's just that we didn't want a fake authority."

It's hard to quarrel with that if, like me, you have performed wedding ceremonies without being ordained. Here in Massachusetts, where I have performed two weddings through the state's "one day special designation" procedure, you don't need to be a minister. (The certificate signed by the governor looks great, but it ends up going right back to the government with the newlyweds' marriage license.)

But there is a difference between the "fake authority" of trained, accountable, and authorized clergy and the "fake authority" of Web-ordained pseudo-ministers. A friend, with his e-mail ordination, may be deep enough to say, "I'm not sure the bonds of marriage are relevant anymore, but I understand the concept of having a partner who in theory is your partner for life. I tried to convey that." A real minister ought to be able to help a couple understand that marriage takes more than good intentions.

My wedding, this coming July, will feature an actual Episcopal priest. No "in theory" stuff for me! Once again, the Times' Style section provides the best grist for theological reflection in the news.

Posted by Philocrites, January 13, 2003, at 08:15 AM | 0 comments

Saturday, January 11, 2003

When Buddhists go to war.

Many religious seekers in the West, horrified by Christianity's record of violence, have turned to the East looking for a less bloody faith. Many, like Brian Victoria, a former Methodist missionary, embraced Buddhism as the peaceful alternative. But Victoria, who converted to Buddhism in 1961, discovered that his chosen faith — Zen — has a sordid history, too.

Allan Jolan writes in today's New York Times that Victoria, an Australian Zen priest and historian, has researched Zen's role in Japanese militarism during World War II. "Zen was a large part of the spiritual training not only of the Japanese military but eventually of the whole Japanese people," Victoria told Jolan. "It would have led them to commit national suicide if there had been an American invasion."

Victoria's books, Zen at War (1997) and Zen War Stories (2002), inspired several sects in Japan to issue formal apologies for their role in World War II. One "apologized for helping to lend a religious purpose to invasions, colonization and the former empire's destruction of '20 million precious lives,'" Jalon writes.

The complicit sects and leaders weren't marginal by any means: D.T. Suzuki, the primary advocate of Zen in the West, "used his prestige as a scholar in Japan to assert that Zen's 'ascetic tendency' teaches the Japanese soldier 'that to go straight forward and crush the enemy is all that is necessary for him'" in 1938. The founder of one sect, Hakuun Yasutani, "was an outspoken militarist and anti-Semite during the war years" and "was one of the most significant figures in advancing the popularity of Zen Buddhism in the United States in the 1960s."

There are two lessons in all of this. First, as Marc Juergensmeyer points out in Terror in the Mind of God, every religion has a potential for violence. Practitioners of every religious tradition have unleashed that potential at various times in history. No religious tradition is immune.

But the second lesson is just as important: Victoria's careful scholarship and the distress it provoked in Buddhists around the world led today's Zen leaders to confront their past, own up to their complicity, and repent. "I want my work to provide a model that it is possible to take an unflinching look at what is really happening with a religion while remaining essentially committed to it," Victoria says. Every religion needs people like him.

Posted by Philocrites, January 11, 2003, at 12:53 PM | 0 comments

Thursday, January 9, 2003

But can art save?

In response to my musings on Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Phil B. wrote:

Bach's passion notwithstanding, evoking intense emotional feeling at the sound or sight of crucifixion scenes does not translate to Jesus' bodily resurrection to save us from our sins.

You're right. I don't believe that Jesus' personal experience of crucifixion or his bodily resurrection saved us from sin. I don't even think that Christian scripture or tradition actually requires that one believe these things. But in the liturgical or aesthetic experience of the crucifixion and resurrection — say, during Holy Week — where one feels almost inside the story, I do think something happens. I think that there is something "true" in the experience.

Aristotle thought that dramatic tragedy effects a catharsis in the audience, a change that he believed helped us work through violent feelings (and a host of other complex emotions) without actually doing violence. In some sense, I think this is what religious art — including worship — does for us. It helps us confront and find meaning in aspects of experience that are not in themselves confrontable or meaningful.

(A funeral or memorial service doesn't do a thing for the dead person, but it can help "redeem" the experiences of the people who have lost someone close to them. The redemption in this case may not even be related to the explicit interpretation offered by the officiant; I've been to meaningful funerals led by misguided and theologically objectionable speakers, for example.)

I don't believe that God intended the historical crucifixion. I don't believe it was part of some divine plan. I don't think the crucifixion as an event in the past does anything for our sense of estrangement from God. It doesn't fix anything. The crucifixion that killed Jesus was nothing but barbaric and cruel. It destroyed a human being and was an act of deliberate terrorism against his community. That's all true.

But here's the central paradox for me: in the church's very existence — in our experience of God's recreative power in our communities, in our experience of the ongoing resurrection, you might say — something transformative is happening. It happens to the community that is drawn to God through Jesus' life and even through his death. God does offer redemption in the "risen body" that is the church.

I have come to interpret most "atonement theology" — including Romans, Hebrews, and Revelation — as post-resurrection attempts to understand what God was doing for Jesus' followers. They are partial explanations, drawing on the Bible and on other ideas of the times, to get at what God seemed to be doing in their midst, even after Jesus had been killed. They are creative, even inspired ways to redeem his murder.

By trying to approach these interpretations as art more than as philosophy or history, I'm trying to experience Christianity as a bit of a drama, I suppose, but for now it's helping me. I am not saying that a powerful emotional or aesthetic experience constitutes a test for the truth of a doctrine in historical or philosophical terms. That's why I said I don't agree with Bach's libretto. But in spite of that, I find that the experience of the music helps me understand and feel things that I would not otherwise know.

(Originally posted to UUCF-L)

Posted by Philocrites, January 9, 2003, at 05:16 PM | 0 comments

Symbolic Palestinians.

Michael Scott Doran carefully unpacks the symbolism of Palestine in Arab politics in Foreign Affairs, although you'll have to pick up a copy to read his article ("Palestine, Iraq, and American Strategy," January/February 2003). His main point — which Western pro-Palestian activists often seem to forget — is that "although Palestine is central to the symbolism of Arab politics, it is actually marginal to its substance."

There are many reasons why Washington should distance itself from misguided Israeli policies such as the building of settlements in the occupied territories, but among them should not be the hope that such a move would greatly affect the broader sources of resentment and despair that Palestine-as-symbol encompasses.

If that strikes you as counter-intuitive, consider this:

Since the foundation of the Arab League in 1945, the states of the region have been split into two camps: one supportive of the status quo and aligned with Western powers, and one hostile to it and them. The anti-status quo states have inevitably played the Palestinian card in order to deny the Western powers loyal allies in the region. In the Middle East today, three major actors (Iraq, Iran, and Syria) and two minor ones (Hizbollah and al Qaeda) are all doing something similar. Their primary goal is to drive a wedge between the United States and Saudi Arabia. They fear the imposition of a Pax Americana in the region and regard Israeli-Palestinian violence as a tool for keeping the United States at bay. For them, in fact, the revolt in Palestine is, among other things, a proxy war against the United States.

This is the reason that Islamist groups — and anti-American but secular regimes like Saddam Hussein's — actually pour fuel onto the fire in Palestine, sending suicide bombers when the Palestinian Authority calls for a cease-fire (in the case of Hamas and Islamic Jihad) or sending cash to families of suicide bombers (Saddam's method). The upshot, as Doran sees it, is this:

The sad fact is that with the possible exception of Jordan, alleviating the suffering of the Palestinian people is not a primary policy objective of any Middle Eastern state. For Washington to mistake symbol for substance and tie itself into knots trying to resolve the Palestinian problem before tackling other matters would thus be a sucker's move, providing its enemies with even greater incentives to incite violence there while avoiding other arenas where it has greater freedom of action and chances for success.

Could Bush's dangerous gamble — that upsetting the cart in Iraq is in the long-term interests of not only the West but also the Middle East — actually help resolve the Palestinians' real plight? Doran thinks it might.

Posted by Philocrites, January 9, 2003, at 08:57 AM | 0 comments

Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Encountering Islam.

My review of The Place of Tolerance in Islam by Khaled Abou El Fadl and At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land by Yossi Klein Halevi is in the January/February issue of UU World magazine. Highly recommended.

Posted by Philocrites, January 8, 2003, at 05:07 PM | 0 comments

More on Bach.

In an earlier post, I wrote:

There is one solo in which the soprano sings that she wants to "engrave" the crucified Jesus in her heart; the German pun is amazing in itself...

The aria isn't always sung by a soprano, so if you have a recording, watch for the aria that begins, "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein, ich will Jesum selbst begraben."

Most English translations give "entomb" for "begraben," but I've been struck by the way the English word "engrave" includes the same root. (So I suppose the pun isn't really German.) To inter Jesus is one's heart is a remarkable metaphor. Listen to somebody sing it. Wow.

Posted by Philocrites, January 8, 2003, at 05:03 PM | 0 comments

On the crucifixion.

I must confess that I'm more susceptible to art than to philosophy. The crucifixion, about which I have no adequate theological interpretation, has always moved and troubled me. I may rarely have held a clear idea of who Jesus really was or is, but I have consistently been moved by art inspired by his death. (And there is, for me, a theological lesson in this, which I'll get to in the end.)

Bach's St. Matthew Passion is perhaps the most powerful reflection on the crucifixion I know, and while I wouldn't say that I "agree with" Bach's theology, the experience of the music puts me right in the middle of a rich encounter with the biblical texts, with Bach's own faith and genius, and — in many ways — with Jesus. The music has pushed me to try to understand theology; in many ways, the art has made me want to understand the story. For me, Bach truly is the "fifth evangelist."

There is one solo in which the soprano sings that she wants to "engrave" the crucified Jesus in her heart; the German pun is amazing in itself, but the music is so ravishing that I find myself caught up in its imaginative reality: it arouses feelings of tenderness and grief and devotion that I can't say I want to reject. Intellectually, I might not endorse the libretto, but as art it is transcendent and spiritually gripping.

The other work of art that transformed my way of thinking about the crucifixion is Chaim Potok's novel My Name Is Asher Lev, about a brilliant young Hasidic painter who scandalizes his family and community by painting a crucifixion. Among many other implications, the book taught me that the meaning of Jesus' death is not limited to theological orthodoxy or even to Christianity — nor is it even fully "redeemed," since the crucifixion also inspired Christian anti-Semitism — but it can express profound human ideas and feelings. The crucifixion is therefore more than a historical fact; it is one of the most potent of human symbols.

(Marc Chagall's paining of a crucified Jesus also moves me. The Jesus in Chagall's painting is clearly an observant Jew — and Chagall made the brilliant choice to include the manger scene at the base of the cross! Has anyone ever scene a Christian image that links these two events so directly?)

[Update 1.13.03: I may have been remembering White Crucifixion (1938), although it doesn't portray a manger scene. There is also a mother-with-child at the foot of Chagall's other famous crucifixion, Exodus (1952-66). Maybe I'm remembering another painting.]

Here's my theological gloss: The crucifixion happened. It's the event that can't be skipped over. What matters, though, is whether confronting that fact offers anything transformative and redemptive. Art and religion both give us ways to encounter what would otherwise be impossible and too horrifying to encounter; they redeem or at least transform death's meaning, though neither one can change what happened. In faith I celebrate God's creative redemption of us, of the world, of the crucifixion. I reject the idea that God intended the crucifixion, but I embrace the idea that God — and human beings — redeems the meaning of the crucifixion. I agree with John G.: the resurrection marks the real beginning. (My sermon on Doubting Thomas takes up this theme.)

At the moment, my approach to different theological perspectives is to treat each as a different work of music or art: I try to understand the value and impact of each on its own terms, as much as possible, and to find a place for critical thought and emotional contact in the encounter. Some make more "rational sense" than others, but even some of the more bizarre interpretations make aesthetic sense to me.

The medieval and recurrent folk view of the cross as a "tree of life" is one such image — bizarre in rational terms, but aesthetically powerful and full of biblical allusions. (Think of the early American carol, "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.") I wrote a communion hymn based partly on this image.

See my followup post: But can art save?

(Originally posted to UUCF-L.)

Posted by Philocrites, January 8, 2003, at 05:01 PM | 0 comments

Dangerous axis.

"The crisis at hand is not that Kim Jong Il has suddenly become more evil," writes Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek. "It is that North Korea will, within months, become a plutonium factory." As Josh Marshall points out, the Bush administration didn't bother to come up with a policy for Jong Il, and now the U.S. is scrambling to find a way — any way — out of a truly frightening standoff. The U.S. doesn't have many options: As Zakaria points out, "The reality is that no one has much leverage. North Korea is one of the two or three most isolated regimes in the world. Its people are eating grass for food. Economic sanctions are unlikely to force change."

Posted by Philocrites, January 8, 2003, at 04:07 PM | 0 comments

Friday, January 3, 2003

Was Channing a biblical inerrantist?

One of the participants in the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society e-mail list inaccurately characterized William Ellery Channing as a biblical inerrantist:

Channing states we do not question that which is written in the Bible (without reserve or exception).

In "Unitarian Christianity" (1819) Channing actually says something quite different: "Whatever doctrines seem to us to be clearly taught in the Scriptures, we receive without reserve or exception." Every qualification in this sentence is important. Channing is saying that it is the doctrinal content — and not necessarily the historical, legal, legendary, or even philosophical content — that matters, and as he goes on to say, it is specifically the doctrinal content expressed in Jesus' own words that matters most.

Furthermore, "seem to us" and "clearly taught" are qualifications that no fundamentalist would accept. Much of Channing's 1819 sermon is about the moral and reasonable interpretation of scripture — and one of his central claims is that reason itself is the judge of revelation, and not the other way around. Channing is saying that morally and intellectually prepared readers, using all the interpretive tools at their disposal, can discern the enduring revelation that is recorded in the scriptures — but this is not the same thing at all as saying that Channing believed in the inerrancy of scripture. He believed in the reliability of scripture, not its inerrancy.

Here's how Channing is not a inerrantist. An inerrantist accepts the entire Bible, word for word, as the direct communication of revelation to human beings. In this sense it is entirely unlike other books; God is its author. A verse from Genesis is just as true, for an inerrantist, as a verse from John. This is why "proof texting" — compiling verses out of context from anywhere in the Bible — is such a widespread form of theological argument among fundamentalists.

Channing does not treat the Bible as revelation. He treats it is as "the records of God's successive revelations to mankind." Note the plural "records." The Bible is a compilation of human accounts, written by human beings about God's revelation — which is what Channing means when he says that the Bible is written "for men, in the language of men."

The distinction that Channing is making is that revelation is something that happens in history, and that human beings record it. The Bible is not written by God, but it contains God's messages, through the voices of God's prophets and especially through Jesus Christ. And note, too, that the passages Channing emphasizes — the places where he believes God's final revelation is evident — are the New Testament accounts of Jesus' ministry: "Whatever he taught, either during his personal ministry, or by his inspired Apostles, we regard as of divine authority, and profess to make the rule of our lives." The teachings of Jesus are considered revelatory; the text itself is considered inspired literature.

The primary motivation of the inerrantist doctrine, it seems to me, is to emphasize the immediacy and simplicity of revelation: Here it is, every word direct from God to you. The Unitarians never embraced this kind of revelation. Interpretation was always necessary; scripture needed to be assessed and compared and properly read in order to convey the divine will. (That's one of Emerson's complaints, actually, about the early Unitarians.) They emphasized the importance and necessity of reason to interpret revelation.

There is one sense in which Channing does resemble contemporary Evangelical Christianity, though: He was a Christian primitivist, although of an anachronistically liberal sort, who believed that the Bible portrays "true Christianity," which the contemporary church should strive to faithfully resemble. His 1819 address shows the early influence of modern historical consciousness, but Channing still assumed that the past, properly seen, represents the model for contemporary life. Like John Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity, the early Unitarians assumed that a pared-down, rational Protestantism most closely resembled the early church. This assumption may be what is triggering some "inerrantist" bells.

P.S. Somewhat tangentially, my essay on Henry W. Bellows's view of scripture includes a cursory overview of nineteenth-century Unitarian views of scripture. One source I consulted may interest others on the topic: A Study of the Interpretation of the New Testament in New England Unitarianism, by Eugene Robert Chable (Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1955).

(Originally posted to UUHS-Chat; edited 7.9.05)

Posted by Philocrites, January 3, 2003, at 12:31 AM | 0 comments

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