What’s The Matter With Democrats?

Thomas Frank, the author of What’s The Matter With Kansas? (and the new book, Pity the Billionaire, on the Tea Party and populism) suggests an interesting answer when talking about populist anger at inequality and decline of the middle class in the U.S.:

I’m speaking here of the liberal culture in Washington, D.C. There was no Occupy Wall Street movement [at that time] and there was only people like me on the fringes talking about it. The liberals had their leader in Barack Obama … they had their various people in Congress. But these people are completely unfamiliar with populist anger. It’s an alien thing to them. They don’t trust it, and they have trouble speaking to it. I like Barack Obama, but at the end of the day he’s a very professorial kind of guy. The liberals totally missed the opportunity, and the right was able to grab it. 

… 

One of the problems with liberalism in this country is that it’s headquartered in Washington and its leaders are a very comfortable class of people. Washington is one of the richest cities in the country, maybe the richest. It’s not a place that feels the crisis, that feels the economic downturn. By and large, the real estate market stayed OK. The city continued to boom. The contracts continued to flow. What we’re talking about here is the failure of modern liberalism. At one time it was a movement of working-class people. The idea that liberals wouldn’t feel economic pain was ridiculous. That’s who liberals were. No more.

… 

It is true that the Democrats completely imagine themselves as being the party of the professional class, and that is an elite. It’s not the elite, but it is an elite. The Democrats very definitely identify with academia. That’s the home of the professions, where they come from.

Frank does note, and correctly, that the Tea Party’s assertion (shared by many non-Tea Party people on the right) “that the free market is an act of rebellion against [this elite] seems pretty fanciful. I can say it stronger than that. It is absolutely preposterous.”

Democrats have essentially become a bloodless party, one in which passion is intellectually and emotionally suspect. (UPDATE: And yet, Democrats are also not a terribly intellectual party either. They haven’t jettisoned thought in quite the same way, or with the same fervor, that the GOP has, but they have generally substituted sentimentality and “professionalism” as substitutes for actual ideas.) Technocratic professionals don’t get angry, andy they expect all others to be technocratic professionals. (Barack Obama, as an African American man, would never have had a political career had he ever showed any kind of anger publicly, or been rumored to even have a temper. It would have been the kiss of death. So technocratic “competence” [sic] works well with his personality. But it also means, in the post-Bill Clinton Democratic Party, he trusts and believes bankers and other assorted “experts” far too much.) It is as if the Midwest clerisy, which is phlegmatic and reasonable to its moist and sentimental core, has come to dominate the Democratic Party and its elites.

The problem is, most people aren’t professionals. Most people don’t have careers. They work at jobs, and they do so not for personal fulfillment or to save the world, but to care for the people they love. (And can there be any better reason to do anything?) They see the core of the Democratic Party, grounded as it is in academia, for the elite it truly is. One that is not open to many people, dismissive of the way they live and work, and terribly disconnected from the realities of their lives. (And this is the reason I believe identity politics to be a distraction, because it’s a way to keep the clerisy amused with something that is more or less trivial, or at least tertiary to the real exercise of state and social power.) If Occupy Wall Street gained any traction, it has largely been because the ranks of the clerisy — where so many young liberals feel entitled to encamp — are increasingly closed and increasingly insecure. Now professionals are feeling the pinch that mere workers felt in the 1980s and 1990s when factories closed and their jobs made obsolete. THAT wasn’t supposed to happen to the do-gooder administrators of society, who were always supposed snuggle down securely in tenured positions making sure we all think good thoughts about each other (always punishing us when we don’t) and hoping those good thoughts alone will make the world a better place.

Ahh, but I’ve just let some of my resentments show.

Like Frank, I’m not sure where things go. Neither American political party is capable of dealing effectively with the world we inhabit. And I’m not sure I’d have anything good to say even if they did.

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More on Violence, Scripture and Humanity’s Relationship With God

I just finished reading Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld’s book Killing Enmity: Violence and the New Testament. It’s one of a couple of new books that sparked my attention, and that I’m reading over the break. (The other is Amos Young’s Yong’s The Bible, Disability and The Church: A New Vision of the People of God.) Mostly because I’m intrigued by what others have to say about scripture, violence and how we who  are God’s people understand God in, with and through violence.

Neufeld deals with what is for many good bourgeois Christians a difficult subject — the violence in scripture. Particularly, what appears to be God’s role in the violence of scripture. I qualify the term Christian with bourgeois because I have come to believe in bourgeois life there is an expectation that violence should not be normative*. And if ideals of progress are embraced, there is a notion that violence is neither becoming less normative or should (or could) become less normative. Regardless, for the bourgeois, violence is not a normal part of human existence, and it is not normative or ideal. It is an aberration. So, violence in scripture seems to be a moral puzzle — how could a loving and compassionate God do this or allow this? (A question I have heard over and over, including from my father.) How could God’s faithful people do these things and still be faithful or still be God’s people?

This is the question I believe Neufeld is dealing with as he examines New Testament parables, the crucifixion and atonement, hierarchy and subordination, and the images of divine warfare used in the some of the epistles and in John of Patmos’ Revelation. I don’t share these bourgeois concerns, mostly because I do see violence as a normative part of human existence — and an inevitable one. I do believe scripture is the product of a relationship with God in which God promises that God will act to save God’s people, and will do so in miracles rather than through human efforts (“The Lord helps those who help themselves” is definitely not a biblical principle, and is not part of our ongoing relationship with God). But God is present with human beings in all human actions — including our violence — and God saves human being through and in acts of violence (the crucifixion being the biggest example). So, Neufeld is right in his conclusion when he writes:

We will not often find violence-free rhetoric in the New Testament with which to express this wondrous mystery [the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the victory over violence, not the victory of violence], most especially when ‘violence’ is conceived of in broad terms … . Might that be because grace is encountered, received and enacted within a world marked by violence? The words of scripture participate in the incarnation, an enfleshment that takes place in a violent world. The Word always speaks to us in the Scriptures from within this world. Our wrestling with the issue of violence happens in a world in which violence resides not only in our social and political relationships but also in our minds and imaginations. Might that be why suffering, vulnerability and sacrifice are always both evidence of the reality of violence and, in the light of the cross, the scandalous means by which the violence that produces them is subverted and finally overcome?

In the end it is the ingenuity of God’s love, the compassion at the heart of grace and the persistent drive towards reconciliation and restoration that the writers of the New Testament wish to narrate. They do so with the consciousness that both they and their readers are participants in that story that is still unfolding. And they do so with words and images that are at hand. It would be tragic to be preoccupied with and dismissive of their means and to miss the story they are telling, the news they are announcing. With all its twists and turns and surprises, that story is always much bigger and mysterious than any ethical, theological or ideological distillations. It is in the nature of the ‘gospel’ — ‘news’ — that all such distillations are at their very best transitory. Scripture will, thankfully, always slip out of our firmest grasp. (p. 150-151)

We wrestle with violence in a violent world. We wrestle with God, and God wrestles with us, in a violent world. And even if God is not violent in God’s-self, human beings cannot help but understand or perceive the encounter with God in ways and shapes and forms that are violent or can only be understood as or in violence. Neufeld’s last metaphor is that of Jacob wrestling with the mysterious stranger at the ford of the Jabbock in Genesis 32, and he writes:

[W]hen struggling with question of violence in the New Testament we wrestle with the full humanity present in the pages of the New Testament, and the full humanity of the community of listeners and wrestlers. But in the morning, even if limping badly, we call the place ‘Peniel’. [“For I have seen God face to face, and I have been delivered,” ESV, Genesis 32:30.]

I do believe, I confess and I preach and I teach, that human violence is a reality. A reality in which God is present, and not absent. Scripture even tells us that God commands our murderous violence (Deuteronomy 7), but perhaps the lesson to draw from that is there are some things God commands us to that we should not do (as Israel does not). My great ethical concern is the morality of social violence, and state violence in particular, and I see no writ in scripture that God’s people are called to govern, rule or have any stake in the outcome of state or social violence. It is not a means to the end we seek, and I believe quite firmly that no understanding of “love of neighbor” can ever be grounded in violence.

At this point, I was going to have a snarky aside, but thought better of it.

—————-

* The essence of my snarky aside was going to focus on the nature of violence in bourgeois life. It has been impersonalized and exported. That is, made the result of bureaucratic and administrative processes, and then forced upon others. So the good bourgeois never has to deal with the reality that the world they depend upon — the order of state and state-managed markets — is inherently violent because they never see the actual violence or those upon whom the violence is done. This is not inherently snarky, accept that I was going to focus on the womanist, feminist and liberationist theologians Nuefeld cites throughout his book as being deeply opposed to the violence of hierarchy, patriarchy, oppression and domination. It has been my experience that most such theologians are also self-professed socialists (and very bourgeois, making them clerisy through and through!) and thus deeply committed to state violence to order the world.

Isaac, Jesus and the Place of God in Human Violence

I’m an unrepentant reader of the ugliness and messiness in scripture. I am attracted to it, I gravitate toward it, and I don’t have ethical or logical problems with it. “Why would a good God do that? Why would a good God let that happen?” Not my questions.

In fact, I believe the ugliness and messiness speak specifically to human existence. And God’s presence in our lives.

I don’t think I’ve blogged much about here about the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. I think we all know the story. It begins with God “testing” Abraham. In Hebrew, נִסָּה test, with the implication that knowledge is being sought, or that the heart is being measured, and in the case of this passage, The Theological Diction of the Old Testament (vol. 9, p. 450) says, the author of the Genesis 22 passage “seeks to show how someone who fears and obeys God should relate to God.” Which is all well and good. That Abraham is the subject of this story, and his trust in the promise of God is the subject of this story, is generally accepted and general taught. Abraham’s faithfulness in regards to his son (whether that son is Ishmael or Isaac) is the model of faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Doing what God says is what it means to follow and trust God.

Well, maybe. The problem I have with this interpretation is that it reduces Isaac to an object in Abraham’s faith drama. He’s no longer really a person. And by making this a “test,” we’ve also made it clear that God  didn’t really mean for Abraham to slit his son’s throat there on the mount of the Lord. That makes this a game. That makes faith a game, God’s promise a game, it makes Abraham’s faith less than real because it’s clear, if this a “test” in the sense that many of us understand that word, that none of what is going on is real. I remember, for some reason, one afternoon in Army basic training, the afternoon we spent then putting on and “clearing” our gas masks. (As well as taking them apart, learning how they worked, and seeing a nasty little film about what chemical weapons did to rodents.) After hours of this, we were graded on how quickly we could get into chemical protective gear. I think we had to have the masks out of their pouches, on, cleared and the hoods over our heads in under 18 seconds. There were no chemicals, no clouds of poisonous gas, just men with stop watches yelling at us. It was a “test” as we understand it — timed, graded, you could pass or fail but there were no real consequences for either (since everyone was tested until they passed).

But if we stick with the implications of the Hebrew, then what we have here is a quest for knowledge, and not a graded examination. God may have been testing Abraham, but God was not administering a test. And God isn’t the only one learning something.

(Personally, I think the best version of this story is Bob Dylan’s…)

So, I think it would be better to examine what Abraham’s faith looks like from Isaac’s standpoint. Because that’s the standpoint I think that matters. It’s our standpoint. Neither Abraham nor Isaac could truly know that God did not mean it what God said: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I shall tell you.” (Gen. 22:2, ESV) Isaac has to assume that when Abraham binds him, and raises the knife, his father absolutely has to mean it and, following the command of God, God absolutely has to mean it.

And that tells me that we, as human beings viewing this from Isaac’s perspective have learned a couple of things:

  1. God is capable of commanding some human beings to do horrific things.
  2. And those human beings are capable of following through with that command.
We now know this. We cannot help but know this. And we know this about the God who called and promised things to us through this man Abraham. We know this about the very same God. Nothing is the same anymore. From this moment forward, the God who gathers and names a people, the God who promises that we shall be a blessing, that we shall father a nation, that we shall inherit a land — this is the same God who is willing to have our throats slit, to command that they be slit. We are inheritors not just of Abraham’s promise, but also of Isaac’s experience. Because of what we now know about God, learned about God that day.
And so now God becomes much more involved in human violence. But only selectively, and throughout the Exodus and Deuteronomistic narratives, God makes it clear that God alone saves God’s people in miraculous acts that drown an entire Egyptian army and its Pharaoh. Gideon gathers an army of over 30,000 to battle the Midianites, and God makes sure only 300 do the actually fighting, to make sure that Israel knows God alone delivers, and not human effort. Still, God is present in some of the worst stories in scripture (Judges 19-21 come to mind). I don’t know of an instance in which God intervenes to stop an act of violence. There are many violent acts in scripture which go unjudged and uncommented upon, which go unpunished and unanswered. Not even God comes off well much of the time, but God is always somehow present in with human violence, which is often times viewed as a judgment upon those being violated. (And make of that what you will.)
And what has this to do with Jesus? I’ve written before I’ve never been happy with Anselmian atonement narratives, mostly because they become a game God is playing with God’s-self, a game to which we are mere spectators. And we are not mere spectators. We are actively involved. Because we are doing the killing. 
I think the crucifixion story of Jesus Christ is a bookend for the Isaac story. Not in a sacrificial way (“I asked you to sacrifice your son, now I shall sacrifice mine,” God says, which is ridiculous when dealing with the Triune God), but rather how God has decided to deal with and be present in the reality of human violence. 
It is as if God, understanding by this point the awfulness and depravity that human beings are truly capable of, has become incarnate in order to be subject to it. Perhaps even to experience it. In the crucifixion, God is no longer commanding the awful things to happen, but incarnate as Christ is prophesying the awful things that will happen as the logical conclusion of a ministry that pronounces unearned forgiveness. (I owe the late Gerhard Forde this understanding.) God has learned enough about us to know how we are likely to react when God, present among us as a lone human being, seems to make promises, or is heard to make promises, that aren’t kept. God on the mountaintop in fire and thunder terrifies us. God drowning Pharaoh’s soldiers is terrifying. God as a sweaty, stinking, sometimes crabby human being with no army and not much in the way of followers is another matter entirely. That God is something a frightened, angry mob can deal with.
And so God issues no commands. Instead, God surrenders utterly to us, to the worst we are. God lifts no hand to stop the lash, to halt the procession to Golgotha, God does not come down off the cross. This is a test in the Hebrew sense — what are we learning in this moment? It is the lesson of Abraham — we are capable of the most horrific things, in this case the mob-sanctioned execution as a rebel of a man whose only crime was to offend sensibilities and forgive us our sins. 
But we learn more than that. God is still God, even dead and buried. And here, at the empty tomb, we learn God’s ultimate answer to human violence — it has no meaning. It answers nothing. From the experience of Isaac, we now know that God has shared our place on the mountain, wondered where the sacrifice would come from, watched the knife rise into the air, and then — unlike us — did not save God’s-self. We were saved. God stayed Abraham’s hand. But God did not stay ours. We slit the throat. We walked away. We said “we do not know him.” We demanded God’s death because God didn’t save us in the way we wanted. We betrayed God to the authorities and then hung ourselves in despair.
God’s answer to the violence God became a part of In Genesis 22 is to give in to that violence, to surrender to it, to show us that violence is powerless in the face of God’s promise. Christ is the answer to Isaac. 

On Gifts, Sacrifice and Relationship

Sometime ago — April 2009, to be exact — I wrote a post on Cain, Abel, sacrifice and exile:

Some might say that Cain’s offering was inferior — not firstfruits. Maybe. But it may also be that God was partial to Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings” as opposed to whatever grain and fruit Cain offered. … [Farming is] hard work, and perhaps he felt that God did not reward his work well enough. But maybe the sense of rejection he felt when God favored the firstling of Abel’s flock was intolerable. Tilling the land wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was, and clearly he saw that who he was simply was not good enough for God.

Not good enough. Our capricious God liked Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s through no stated fault of Cain’s. I’ve had time of late to consider this lately (some of you know why, and the rest of you will just have to ponder) , and something else about this passage early in Genesis struck me.

The entire story of Cain and Abel prefigures the history of Israel from Sinai onward — sacrifice and offer, follow the law and be blessed, or fail to offer proper sacrifices, to follow the law and Israel shall be cursed. It is almost the entire Hebrew Bible writ small.

It occurred to me today that Cain has something Abel does not — a real relationship with God. Abel just gave, and God received. (That’s fine, you may say, but we cannot know much about Abel’s relationship with God because he is dead. True enough. But work with me in regards to what we actually have in Genesis 4.) Abel’s relationship with God is a very passive relationship, perhaps even a very pagan or idolatrous relationship. Abel gives, God takes. God may be pleased, but God is not giving anything to Abel.

But Cain’s failure — which I state above is God’s doing, and not Cain’s — to deliver a sacrifice that God will accept begins a different kind of relationship, in which God gives to Cain. And receives nothing from Cain. First God gives advice (“If you do well, will you not be accepted?”, implying Cain was at fault for the failure of his offering to please God), then accusation and curse (“When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive, and a wanderer on the earth.”) and finally a promise of some kind of protection or vengeance (“If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”). It may stink as a relationship — who wouldn’t want to be happy and content giving to God and knowing that God had accepted all they’d given? Because I’d really like to be there right now… — but it is far more than what Abel had. In sinning, and in fear, Cain lived in a relationship with God that the sinless, approved and accepted Abel did not.

It prefigures Israel’s tempestuous relationship with God, in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the take-over of Canaan, in conquest, exile and regathering. It says that in sin, and the consequences of sin (wandering in the land of exile), we have a relationship with God that cannot be matched by those who are “sinless” and whose offerings are accepted. (The story itself may imply that such people don’t really exist, since Abel is killed and therefore nothing can be said of his relationship to God.) That in sinning, space for relationship with God is opened that cannot otherwise be opened — God is transformed from a mere receiver of sacrifices, a kind of fat and happy God who smiles on the one making the offering (suddenly, a bronze Buddha statue surrounded by clouds of incense and rotting oranges comes to mind), to an actual being interacting with the creation. To a God who has something meaningful to say to the creation.

Interacting with the created, who need God’s gift because our gift to God is unacceptable. Sometimes, it’s not much of gift — a mere mark to state whoever kills me gets it back seven times! — but it’s more than first fruits. Perhaps a true relationship with God can only begin in our sinfulness, because only then are we open to receiving what God has to give us, rather than lining up and dumping our offerings into the mouth of Vaal.

* * *

NOTE: The Cain and Abel story is, however, something of a sideshow. Abel dies before having progeny (an assumption based on the fact that none are listed), and all of the featured characters of Israelite history trace their lineage to Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son.