Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Should Roy Moore Withdraw?

Should Roy Moore withdraw from the Senate race in favor of another Republican candidate?

There are different ways to approach this question. You could approach it as a moral question. Or you could approach it as purely a question of political expediency.

I think the question of political expediency is easily answered but far less important. If you're a Republican, then even if you care only about retaining the Republican majority in the Senate and nothing about the moral character of office-holders (hopefully that isn't true of my Republican friends), the answer would seem to be this: you should hope that Moore withdraws and try to convince him to do so. Democrats who care nothing about moral integrity (hopefully not the case for my Democratic friends) would likewise hope that he stays in the race.

The reason for this is pretty clear. In Alabama, the Republican nominee for a Senate seat would ordinarily be a lock to win. But now we have this growing body of allegations from both women and people in Moore's home town, all painting Moore as someone with a history (while he was an adult professional in his 30s) of sexual pursuit of teenager girls as young as 14. One allegation, if true, would be a clear case of sexual assault. This situation means that if Moore does not withdraw, a seat that is usually reliably Republican has become vulnerable. And so Republicans who care only about party victory should call for Moore to withdraw, and Democrats who care only about party victory should sit back and hope he stays in the race while the scandal grows.

But what should people who care about basic decency, regardless of politics, recommend? Here, there are two questions that seem relevant. First, how bad is it for a man in his 30s to chase after girls as young as 14, and what does it say about that person more broadly? I'm not going to explore this question because I find the answer obvious: it's very bad and says nothing good. This is why I've stopped watching Kevin Spacey, whatever his acting skills. 14 year olds are children.

The second question has to do with when we should believe a charge of this magnitude when it is leveled against someone. More precisely, when can I legitimately act on such a belief? Here, it matters what kind of action we're talking about. There's a big difference between locking someone away based on a belief, and withdrawing political support or urging someone to withdraw from a political race.

The question of whether to support a political candidate is a different question than that of whether to convict someone of a crime. We don't want to lock away innocent people, and so in a courtroom we should presume innocence until guilt is proved. But we don't want to risk having seriously morally compromised people wielding enormous political power, which is why "innocent until proven guilty" is surely too high a standard of evidence for decisions about who to support for political office.

Accusations are of course easy to make, and so uncorroborated accusations may be insufficient reason to withdraw support from a candidate. But when there are enough allegations whose verifiable details have been confirmed, all mutually reinforcing each other, to make a claim of this sort *credible*, that strikes me as enough to warrant withdrawing political support.

Of course, so much hinges on our trust in the journalistic integrity of those who report these allegations and the investigation into them. Here, it makes a difference to me that the story was broken by a venerable newspaper that, whatever its political biases, is known for having the highest standards in terms of gathering evidence and assessing the credibility of sources before going to print. The Washington Post (like every news outlet) may be influenced by political bias when it comes to choosing which stories to focus on, but when they report on a story their reputation for following journalistic standards is high.

Are there skeletons in other political closets that haven't been exposed and are just as bad? Probably. But we cannot ignore a skeleton that has fallen out of a closet because of hypothetical skeletons that might be hiding in other closets.

So: I think Moore is now a vulnerable candidate whose continued candidacy might actually give a Democrat an unprecedented chance of a win in Alabama. But I think Democrats should ignore this and join calls for Moore to step aside in favor of another Republican candidate even though this means closing a political "opportunity." And I think Republicans should call for him to step aside for a reason far more important than politics: because it's the right thing to do.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

New Interview about THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE--and some thoughts on the audience for my book

A few weeks back, Candace Chellew-Hodge interviewed me about my new book, The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. That interview, "Reconsidering 'Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin': An Interview with Ethicist Eric Reitan," is now posted over at Religion Dispatches.

On reading what I said in the interview, there's one thing especially that stands out to me: When asked about who I hoped would read the book, there's a category of people I didn't mention--a category that, as I've been reflecting on this question since that interview, has emerged as the one I most want to reach with the arguments in the book.

The problem is I don't know how. The problem is that I think on some deep level I was talking to a particular group of people as I was writing much of this book, but that the conversation was not merely hypothetical as I was writing, but will be largely hypothetical in reality.

The category I have in mind is this one: closeted LGBT people who are still part of very conservative Christian communities, who have internalized the idea that they are in some fundamental way broken, and who have not had any kind of meaningful or sustained exposure to the idea--expressed in my book and elsewhere--that Christian ethics doesn't have to be understood in the way that is causing them such anguish.

I'm talking about those who have come to see self-repression and mandatory lifelong celibacy as their only path forward consistent with being a faithful Christ-follower, and who have appropriated the language of "costly discipleship" to understand their own struggle and life story--so much so that the liberatory message of those LGBT Christians who have already found joy and meaning in a different vision just strikes them as "too easy."

I think that audience may actually have been the one I had in the back of my mind when I wrote my book--a book which engages seriously with the conservative ideas and arguments that this audience has been immersed in, ideas and arguments that feel not only like a cage, but like an inescapable one.

The thing is this: I have friends who used to live in such cages. And they were told that the bars of the cage were solid steel, that it had no doors, no way out, no escape that didn't lead to their own ruin. Some of them discovered that the cage wasn't inescapable after all, and they ran as far and fast as they could--rejecting the Christianity that had caged them along with everything that went with it. Others languished for too long before they discovered that the cage door was made of tissue, and that beyond it was a road that didn't lead to damnation but to something else: a vital integration of their Christian faith with who they are, a deeper and more joyful connection with God, the possibility of discipleship in communion with a beloved life partner--rather than a requirement of costly discipleship whose demands of self-repression serve as a constant and sometimes debilitating distraction from discipleship itself.

Sometimes I fantasize about what I might say to these friends if I could go back in time, back when they still felt trapped. What could I say, a straight Christian LGBT ally who hasn't been in a cage myself, that might be helpful--that might help them find that escape and that promising road sooner rather than later?

Dismissing the cage--refusing to take seriously the ideas and arguments that seem to bind them--wouldn't be enough. Many LGBT Christians who have escaped their own cages have little patience with the conservative arguments: taking them seriously enough to engage with them, even critically, is like stepping back into the cage in their imaginations. By taking the cage seriously they're giving it some power, some shadow of the kind of power that was once, for them, all-consuming. The refusal to give it that kind of power is not only understandable but essential.

But for those who are still in the cage, any approach that doesn't take it seriously feels like a denial of their lived reality. As a straight ally, I can take it seriously enough to show where the bars are tissue-thin, where there are wide-open spaces and no bars at all, where to look to see that the entire cage is really just a debilitating illusion. And I can do that without finding myself caught once more, even a little, in an illusion that once trapped me. I can do that because, as an ally, I was never a prisoner.

And as a straight cis Christian man, my message can't be dismissed as self-serving, as just an attempt to escape the costly discipleship to which I've been called. And so at least one of the conservative messages that helps to keep the illusion of the cage in place doesn't affect my voice.

Of course, there are so many things that LGBT persons have to say--about their experience, about the traditional Christian condemnations, about their journeys along the more promising road--that are so much more important than anything a straight ally can say or do. But that doesn't mean I'm not called to ask, "What am I uniquely positioned to say and do?", and then do it.

The Triumph of Love is part of my answer to that question. And when I think about the deepest motive for writing it, I picture myself speaking to a friend who's in a cage of teachings and arguments that seem so solid from within. I picture myself in that hypothetical place, saying what I wish I could say.

My hope is that it's not just hypothetical.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Reformations

Because yesterday was the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation--marked by the publication of Martin Luther's 95 Theses--I've been thinking about the idea of reformation, and what significance that idea has for us today.

As a Lutheran, I belong to a church that was born through the efforts of Luther and Philip Melanchthon and others to reform the church. In taking that monumental step, not only did they stand against certain abuses of the church at the time while standing up for specific theological ideas, they also stood for the idea of reform itself.

Reform is not revolt or rejection. Reform begins with a spirit of allegiance. It begins with the idea that there is something here of value, but something that has become, we might say, deformed. We don't repair what we don't value. Instead, we throw it away. If a ship sets sail for a destination we don't want to arrive at, we may not be especially bothered if it has drifted off course.

The desire for reform is like the desire to heal the sick--something we wouldn't do if we didn't value them and their health.

In other words, there's something conservative about reform. When we heal the sick, we may try to cut out tumors or kill bacteria, but it's for the sake of the conserving the life of the patient.

But reformation is also about criticism and change. It is about identifying sickness and seeking a world where that sickness no longer distorts, no longer impedes, no longer puts us off course. It's about saying, "The way things are is imperfect. And these imperfections are not something we should just be content to live with. Even if perfection is beyond us, we can and must strive to move in its direction by identifying flaws and failures and correcting what we can."

Reform, in other words, is progressive. It is about valuing our inheritance enough to progressively identify and correct its flaws. To be a reformer is to criticize and correct.

And I don't think we can truly embrace the Reformation if all we do is embrace the specific criticisms and corrections of Luther and other reformers of that age.

Let me explore this point a little more deeply. Luther persistently declared that we are all in bondage to sin, and as my pastor reminded the congregation on Sunday, in the first of his 95 Theses Luther stressed that Christ "willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."

Repentance, like reform, is an act of change. It is a change of direction--the Hebrew word for it means "return," and is about turning back to God; the Greek term is about changing one's mind, or perhaps rising above one's mind (something that can only be done with the help of what is greater than oneself). To repent is to correct one's course or even rise above one's limits. When Luther claimed that the Christian life is one of repentance, he seemed to be envisioning an ongoing process of turning ever back to the only thing that can lift us above our limits, turning ever back because so long as our limits remain we will drift off course.

To become what we are meant to be--children of God who consistently reflect in our lives and our souls the loving essence of our creator--we must continually turn away from the pettiness and jealousy and bigotry and egotism that our broken natures incline towards. We must turn instead towards the God who is love, the God who loves us and calls us to love one another, the God who fills us with the power to love when we turn to God in love.

Or perhaps, in the spirit of Luther, I should put the point a bit differently: we must stop turning away from God, stop choosing the pettiness and jealousy and bigotry and egotism, stop hugging these things close to our hearts as if they were our god. We should, instead, let God turn us toward the divine love; and whenever we notice ourselves rejecting that love, as we will, we should again just stop.

To suppose that this is the proper life for the Christian but not the proper life for the church is to suppose that a community of people is somehow immune to the limits of individuals. And while it is true that communities can stand firm against things that individuals fall before, it is also true--as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his book, Moral Man in Immoral Society, that humanity in its collective life can fall prey to evils of a magnitude that no individual could ever dream of.

Human flaws play out differently in collective life than in private, but they play out with as much inevitability. Within a group, members can encourage and support mutual care in a way that makes us better towards one another than we might otherwise be. But often, as Niebuhr pointed out, the effect is to inspire us to channel our moral impulses so fully towards other members of the group that we direct none of those impulses towards the "other," towards people at the margins and members of other tribes not our own. Our tribal origins can lead us to restrict our moral sentiments so that we are moral only within our group. We fall prey to us/them ideologies that pit our group against others and that represent salvation as found in the defeat--the destruction or humiliation or oppression--of rival groups and communities.

Human communities are organized around institutions and ideas, social structures and systems of belief. And because human communities are made up of finite human beings with tribal impulses that create us/them divisions and limit our moral sentiments to "us", we are always in danger of shaping our communal social structures and belief systems to serve these tribal instincts. The way to overcome that is to never stop criticizing and correcting our own social structures and belief systems. And this includes the ones that are precious to us. In fact, it especially applies to the most important, the most valuable, the most meaning-enriching systems for organizing our social lives.

If there is a communal aspect to Christian life (and there is), it is the church. And so, just as repentance is a never-ending need of the individual, reformation of the church is the never-ending call of the Christian community.

It didn't stop with Luther and his allies. Luther was well-positioned by his life circumstances and unique talents to discern and speak out against a distinct set of abuses within the church. But like all of us, he was in bondage to sin, as is evidenced by his tendency towards rhetorical excesses that strayed out of the domain of passion into that of verbal abuse. More importantly, it is evidenced by the virulent anti-Jewish diatribes of his later life--diatribes that were used and exploited by the Nazis in largely-Lutheran Germany to fuel one of the most horrific genocidal evils of human history: the Holocaust that systematically organized the murder of millions of Jews (as well as gypsies, gays, and others).

I am gratified that my denomination, the ELCA, along with the Lutheran World Federation, in 1994 clearly and unequivocally repudiated the evil of Luther's anti-Jewish hatred and the deeper evils that it helped to breed. This reforming act was late in coming, and one might wonder how history would have gone differently if this act of reformation had happened sooner. But this very question speaks to the urgency of the reforming project. We are blind to so much, and we trivialize or put off what is far more important than we know. It becomes especially easy for our churches to capitulate to evils when those evils have seeped into and found expression within the church itself, and we have failed to take seriously enough the duty of reformation.

If we honor only the specific reforms that Luther called out for but do not embrace the spirit of reformation that Luther embodied, then we become mired in the limitations of Luther's vision. Worse, without ongoing reformation, those limitations are compounded by the distinctive limitations of each subsequent generation. Without ongoing reformation, each generation of the church has an opportunity to let its own collective expression of human sinfulness twist and distort and corrupt what it has inherited. Rather that progressively working to improve an inheritance that is inevitably flawed by human sin, we cement the flaws with our lack of critical reflection, and we layer onto them our own generation's unique ways of going wrong.

The Reformation isn't something that happened five hundred years ago; it's something that needs to happen over and over again. The Reformation was a reminder of a responsibility that all of us have at all times--something that the church did in fits and starts before Luther's 95 Theses were nailed to the Wittenberg Cathedral door, and something that we are called to do today. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Fear-Mongering Dilemma

This morning, I read an article: "The Allure of the Far Right Demands Immediate Action." It was about the recent Values Voters summit, especially focusing on Steve Bannon's fiery address at that event. The author, Adele M. Stan, describes Bannon's speech as "a dark, apocalyptic address" featuring a "burn-it-all-down litany of grievances" that "set the house on fire." She went on to speak in frightening terms about the overall atmosphere of the summit:
A menacing undercurrent flowed throughout the Values Voter conference, not only in hyperbolic descriptions of the supposed threats to Western civilization posed by Islam and the American left, but in veiled threats, couched in the language of violence, directed at opponents of the Trump agenda.
What we are left with is a portrait of fear-mongers skillfully fueling the anxieties of a group of people, inspiring them to see themselves as under siege, as facing such dire threats to their existence or way of life that they need to take decisive action to defeat these threats.

The article left me feeling more frightened than I'd been before, less optimistic about the prospect of a peaceful future for this country and the world, and more worried about threats to civil discourse and civil society. The message of the article was that these fear-mongers and their followers pose a serious threat to our safety and way of life, and we need to take action.

Here is the dilemma. Fear-mongering is dangerous. It puts people in a defensive posture where they see others as a threat, a posture from which they are more likely to strike out violently. The more that fear is stoked, the more serious our conflicts become and the less likely we are to find peaceful, integrative solutions that meet everyone's needs.

And there are people today--and I an convinced that Steve Bannon is among them--who have elevated fear-mongering to an art form and are stoking the human capacity for fear by convincing those who listen that their lives or ways of life are in dire peril. They are fueling divisions and inspiring fear of those on the other side of the fabricated divides, and their rhetoric is laced with violent imagery and the notion that a violent confrontation is inevitable.

And then there are those who warn us about these masters of fear-mongering and the crowds sucked in by them. And their warnings put us in danger of a second-order fear-mongering, one that fuels fear of the fear-mongers and their followers.

And I can only imagine that this isn't the solution. Urging us to fear those who peddle fear, it seems to me, can only inspire feedback loops of escalating fear and defensiveness, bringing us closer to the brink.

In fact, I suspect that the fear-mongers are counting on this response. "If we sow seeds of suspicion and fear among those who are prone to follow us, there will be those who will become more afraid of us and our followers, afraid of the growing potential for violence that we represent, and will begin raising the alarms among those who weren't sucked in by our fear-mongering. This will start a cycle that will help our efforts to sow fear, as our followers feel the defensive anger of these others in a way that we can play on to magnify the defensive hostility of those we've seduced."

But what can we do? Fear mongering is dangerous. It is a threat to civil society. So how do we get people to take it seriously and stand against it without issuing warnings that become a kind of second-order fear-mongering that only fuels the fire of fear? How do we mobilize the forces required to de-fang the fear-mongers without stoking fear?

There is a difference, of course, between legitimate warnings and fear-mongering--but my worry is that once fear-mongers have gotten a sufficiently strong foothold in our polity, this line of distinction begins to matter less, and even carefully circumscribed warnings can become fuel for feedback loops of escalating fear. We can't avoid calling attention to dangers, so what do we do?

My answers--sowing seeds of hope, becoming love-mongers, building wherever we can bridges of understanding that ease fears--make sense in theory. But how do we implement them at the scale that is required?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Some Thoughts on Freedom of Speech in Our Polarized Society

If we care about the founding principles of this country and the values that many have fought and died for, we will stand up (or take a knee?) for the legal right of all citizens to make nonviolent political statements through words and gesture, especially if those statements criticize the government (since the freedom of speech means nothing if not the freedom to criticize the government), and even if we personally think the criticism is misguided. If the statement offends us, we have the freedom to explain why; gratitude for that freedom should inspire us to affirm the right of others to say what offended us without fear of legal punishment.

None of this means any of us has a duty to provide a platform for speech that we think is misguided or wrong. None of it means we are obligated to cut short our time at the microphone to make room for ideas we think are harmful. Part of freedom of speech lies precisely in this right to decide whose voices we use our power to amplify. Another part of freedom of speech lies in the right to vocally denounce and protest the speech of others. This can mean refusing to clear the stage for someone else--refusing, in other words, to cede to them a space to speak without competing voices to distract attention.

We have the right to be a competing or distracting voice.

But the question of rights is distinct from the question of what is the morally best and wisest way to exercise those rights. There are things I have a right to do that I shouldn't do. While my freedom of speech gives me the right to denounce what someone else says based entirely on an unfair misconstrual of their views, that doesn't mean I should.

I should probably try to understand what another person means to say before I denounce it. If another person isn't preaching hate, I might want to hear them out. If good will and human understanding and the cause of justice can be advanced by giving an opposing viewpoint a seat at my table or an hour on my platform, then perhaps I should do that even if I have a right not to.

I should probably make decisions about who to allow onto my platform in ways that enable me to listen to people outside my echo chamber, even though I have a right to shut them out. I should probably also protect myself and others from speech that is just about attacking or degrading me or others--protect myself by refusing to give it a platform. And I should probably make a sincere effort to tell the difference between speech that challenges my beliefs and speech that is just verbal abuse.

The flip side of the freedom of speech is the freedom to listen. The most basic and fundamental way I can amplify another's voice is to turn my attention to it. The freedom of speech is thus inextricably bound up with the freedom to decide who we listen to and why.

And just as with the freedom of speech, we should use this freedom to listen wisely. Cultivating that wisdom is a personal responsibility. One of my most basic convictions about wise listening is this: if people are honestly sharing something of themselves--their values, their experiences, their feelings, their stories, their perspectives and ideas--that calls for more attentive listening than when people are simply repeating party-line talking points as a display of group allegiance or are simply making judgments about others.

When people are simply repeating others' talking points or putting others down, asking honest questions can sometimes inspired them to share of themselves. And this can move us beyond speech that functions as little more than displaying allegiance to "us" while denouncing "them," and towards speech that advances human understanding and community.

What would it look like if we all made the commitment both to protect the freedom of speech and to use that freedom--and the paired freedom to listen--as wisely as we know how? (Such a commitment, by the way, is not a commitment to judging other people for being bad at exercising these freedoms well; it is, rather, a commitment to endeavoring in our own lives to use these freedoms wisely.)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Human Solidarity and LGBT Issues

I've been following some (not all) of the discussion inspired by my response to the Nashville Statement that appeared on Religion Dispatches a couple of days ago. A couple of the comments motivated me to reply--including one that I've decided to post here, along with my response, since I think the issue raised--solidarity in the face of sin--is important to think about in connection with LGBT issues. (Also, Disqus marked my reply as spam for some reason, and while I hope that is corrected I want to make sure the remark is preserved here if nowhere else.)

Here is the comment:

OK, I'm struggling with this whole issue. I would probably, at least nominally, place myself in the same camp as the Nashville Statement signers. I have not signed it though. I have read it, and had issues with articles 10 & 13.

So while I share the beliefs of the statement's signers (insofar as I agree with their interpretation of scripture regarding this issue), I'm not settled on whether something like the statement is the proper approach.

I agree with this article's author that Christians ought to listen more, and do a better job of imitating the kind of love represented by the good Samaritan (and I would add the kind of love Jesus showed to the adulteress and the woman at the well). However, like many other things with God, truth and love exist on a sliding scale. We give people false comfort when we offer love without truth; and we tempt people to despair when we present the truth without love. The right place is in the balanced middle.

That said, I don't know where that middle is with this issue. This subject has grown to touch on all the social taboos (e.g. sex, politics, and religion). So, figuring out how to talk about it is difficult. When asked, I feel like I have to first give a history lesson to explain how the Church as a whole erred in the latter half of the 20th century; the Church expressed a preference for legislating people instead of loving them. In doing so, they screwed up and became the bad guy in the eyes of the world.

So, today Christians probably owe the LGBT community an apology while agreeing to disagree on whether or not homosexual sex is OK in God's eyes -- with a huge caveat that many other "respectable sins" (pre-marital sex and divorce being high on the list) are equally not OK in God's eyes. This was a huge missed opportunity to say that we are all in this together, and that the Church is where anyone can come to find help and relief from the painful consequences of our collective struggle with sin.

I think that is my version of the balanced middle. So, it is really hard for me to agree with opinions that are too heavily on the far-end of either side of the scale. I can agree with the truth in the Nashville Statement while rejecting the statement as a silly way to express that truth.

And here is my response:

You are clearly sincere in your commitment to loving your LGBT neighbors, and as such you and I are on the same side with respect to the question that matters the most. But on the question of whether same-sex sex is or is not "OK in God's eyes" (specifically when it occurs in a monogamous and loving context similar to the one that we think renders heterosexual sex "OK"), I want to challenge you just a little in connection with a remark you make.

The challenge has to do with the following remark: "This was a huge missed opportunity to say that we are all in this together, and that the Church is where anyone can come to find help and relief from the painful consequences of our collective struggle with sin." This notion of solidarity before God is important, but I believe that careful attention to the lives of our LGBT neighbors shows that the capacity for cis heterosexuals to extend such solidarity to their LGBT neighbors is compromised by traditional teachings, by imposing on the latter burdensome and often life-strangling constraints that those fortunate enough to be cis heterosexuals have no need to bear.

This is a point I spend considerable time defending in my book, especially in terms of reporting on LGBT experiences (well, not so much trans experience, since the book was focused on same-sex relationships and marriage and in that context I could not do justice to the distinct set of issues that my trans neighbors wrestle with). I can't reproduce all of that here, obviously, but there is one short passage from the book that I want to quote, since I think it sums up the difficulty of promoting solidarity in the face of sin when same-sex intimacy is condemned as sinful.:

"When it comes to the condemnation of adultery, all of us can stand in solidarity with one another, supporting each other in living up to a shared constraint--because all of us have the potential to be attracted to someone who isn't our spouse. But a social norm condemning homosexual sex does not generate solidarity. It creates us/them divisions. When a community condemns homosexuality, the heterosexual majority is imposing a constraint on a minority group, demanding sacrifices that the majority doesn't need to make." (The Triumph of Love, pp. 85-86)

There are, of course, things that can be said in response here. Someone could point out that not everyone experiences the same desires and temptations, and the same problem with solidarity noted above might arise in cases where all of us would agree that a desire some people have is for something wrong, and we wouldn't want to address the problem of solidarity by pretending that the wrong thing isn't wrong.

But we also don't want to magnify problems of human solidarity by imposing moral condemnations where they aren't called for. And in the case of homosexuality, the kind of sacrifice that the privileged majority imposes on the sexual minority cuts to things generally viewed as valuable for psychological health if not central to it: an integrated identity, a loving and stable life partnership with a suitable mate, etc. For a majority to require of a minority that they give up the hope of these things in their lives imposes unique burdens to human solidarity. Given your sincere desire to promote a Christianity in which we all can stand in solidarity in our human struggle against sin, I invite you to wrestle a bit more with this difficulty--first and foremost by seeking out and listening to the stories of Christian and formerly-Christian LGBT neighbors who have become deeply alienated from communities of faith that teach the categorical condemnation of homosexuality.

Monday, September 11, 2017

My Response to the Nashville Statement on RD

Religion Dispatches has just published my response to the Nashville Statement, "A 14-Point Rebuttal to The Nashville Statement from a Straight Cis Christian Man."

The accompanying image of Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle church was not my idea, but it did make me smile.

Those who have read my book will be familiar with some of the main themes in the article--although, of course, I could only gesture to them. And many issues I cover in the book I couldn't even gesture towards. So if anything bears some shadow of resemblance to Luther's 95 Theses, it would be the book, not this article.

But, you know, it's hard to nail books to a door.

Selling People Their Own Need: Hurricane Irma, Price Gouging, and Martin Luther

There were numerous complaints of  "price gouging" in connection with Hurricane Irma putting Florida in its sights. Although some of these complaints were unfair, the basic pattern of dramatically raising prices for essential goods in a crisis situation is basic economics in a free market system, absent government regulations to prevent it: As demand increases for a fairly fixed supply of some staple, people with the means to do so are willing to pay more for it if it means access. It becomes a kind of bidding situation. The seller of the staple can therefore ask more for it--and, barring other considerations (such as concern about maintaining long-term goodwill among consumers), they will ask more.

If we're talking about a long-term increase in demand and a situation where it is possible to increase supply by re-directing production resources, this feature of the free market works magic: others see how much the seller of the product is making and wants a share in the profits, so they begin making it, too. Supply rises to meet demand, and prices begin to go down again until they hit their "natural price"--the price that represents their real value to society.

But in a case like Irma, there is no such magic. Skyrocketing demand for airline tickets, for example, was a short-term reality, existing in that short time between the emergence of Irma as a significant threat and its landfall. It does not appear that airlines were engaged in predatory price-gouging, by the way. Rather, airlines build supply-and-demand considerations into their price-scheme from the start: they have a set of cheap seats and more expensive seats, and as the cheap seats sell out only the expensive seats are left, meaning only those with more urgent need, or for whom the higher price isn't a big deal, will buy them. As demand for flights out of Florida rose in the face of Irma's impending landfall, all the cheaper fares were quickly sold and only the high-price seats remained.

But even if this isn't opportunistic price-gouging, it has something in common with such price-gouging. The reformer, Martin Luther, captured this common theme in a distinctively powerful turn of phrase, when he bemoaned the tendency of markets to "sell people their own need." (Thanks to John Kronen for pointing out to me this remarkable rhetorical flourish from Luther.)

Here's the idea. When an emergency situation arises and the need for some product increases, the price shoots up. But in many such cases (if not all) the cost of production hasn't gone up. The labor costs haven't gone up. The distribution costs haven't gone up. The quality of the product hasn't gone up. Nothing has changed from the standpoint of the seller, who was happily selling the product at a lower cost yesterday. So why are people suddenly required to pay more? Because their need has gone up.

And so, as Luther puts it, they are paying for their own need. And this makes sense when you think about it: If price goes up when the only changing variable is the consumer's increasing need, that increase in price is paid simply because of greater need--as if the business owner were selling them their own need. The practice, a staple of modern capitalism, horrified Luther. And when it shows up in moments of predatory price gouging, it horrifies most people today.

But the relationship between free market capitalism and human need is more complex than just the risk of price gouging, even if we simply focus on crisis situations. Because let's be clear about something. The very wealthy have more resources for weathering a natural disaster than do the poor. If they're stuck in the path of a hurricane and are injured, they're more likely to be able to afford medical care. They're more likely to own a home that is sturdy and able to weather the storm. If they live right where the worst effects are likely to strike, they are more likely to be able to afford a hotel room in a secure building where they can ride out the storm in comfort.

And when it comes to evacuation by plane, for the wealthy this might be just a luxury, since they have a reliable, fuel-efficient car that's got a full tank of gas, while the poor might have no car or an unreliable clunker that is always riding on nothing but fumes, since they never have enough to fill the tank.

The rich can't buy resurrection if killed, of course; and they might have bought a home right on the beach that the poor couldn't afford, but you get my point: the poor may need a seat on a plane more urgently than the rich; but it's the rich who can afford the seat, and so they're the ones who get it. Especially when prices go up, the market tends to distribute essential goods to those who need it less, rather than to those who need it more.

Put another way, as general need increases, the rich are willing to spend more because of their increased need, and sellers are happy to "sell them their own need." But the poor are left with more need and less ability than ever to satisfy it. The tendency for businesses to sell people their own need means that those with limited ability to buy will be priced out of the market altogether as soon as the rich start needing the same things with enough urgency.

What this shows is one final truth about free markets that we all must wrestle with seriously. Markets are not actually responsive to need as such. What they are responsive to is marketplace demand. And while need affects marketplace demand, it only affects it if those in need can afford to buy what they need in the market. The poor can't, and so their needs get ignored. At the same time, the mere whims of the rich get satisfied, because they have the resources to satisfy those whims in the marketplace.

This is why we live in a world where limited natural resources are directed towards making luxuries while masses of human beings don't have enough to eat. And if you think this is a tragic misallocation of resources (as I do), then we can't look to free market capitalism to correct for it. It is a great tool for correcting misallocations of resources when farms are growing more potatoes than people want and fewer lima beans.

But when it comes to responding to the reality of human need, free markets are often predatory (when those in need can scrape together the money to pay for their need) or indifferent (when those in need cannot). Of course, we can and should all work as we are able to meet out needs--our dignity calls for no less. But sometimes we our needs are so great they disable us. And even when that doesn't happen, desperate need is something the market exploits in another way: if there are enough needy people, the supply of people willing to work will exceed the demand, enabling businesses to exploit laborers for a pittance of what their labor is worth on the market. And so we have poor people working multiple jobs who are barely able to pay the bills--in part because their wages are depressed by the scope of human need, and in part because they are forced not only to pay for the goods of life but for their own need.

In a pure free market society, having needs is a liability--and the needier your are, the more you are prone to exploitation and marginalization. And Luther didn't just come up with a pithy phrase for capturing what is going on. He found it morally egregious.

The only viable fix for this problem that I can see is government intervention in the market in two ways: regulations that impose constraints and requirements on businesses to limit exploitation, and government programs that spend tax dollars on behalf of those in greatest need, thereby making the market responsive to those needs in a way that it wouldn't otherwise be.

This is why I think a mixed economy, that combines free markets with the right sorts of government regulations and programs, is the best solution for our human situation--and why I think that the more extreme libertarian deferrals to the free market to solve all problems is naive at best. The debate, for me, is about what sorts of government regulations and programs are the right ones. That is no easy question, but it seems to me the question we need to focus on.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Explaining "White Privilege"

Last night I posted a lengthy comment on a Facebook discussion thread sparked by the following meme:

Image may contain: 2 people, meme and text

Since my comment was appreciated and shared by a number of people (and was posted on Robin Parry's blog--thanks, Robin!), I figured it should go here as well. So here it is:

Here's how I explain the concept of white privilege in my classes: "Privilege" names an advantage that is possessed by virtue of systemic or structural features of a society, usually an advantage experienced because one happens to belong to a specific group. In this respect, it is the flip-side of oppression, which names a systemic group harm.

Those who experience privilege did not choose to be born into the class that society advantages through systemic forces, and they did not create those forces that advantage them. Furthermore, they have limited power as individuals to change society, and so are unlikely on their own to be able to divest themselves of their privilege. This means that having privilege is not something anyone should feel guilty about. You can't help it. While there are some advantages you can cast off, you can't remove the social forces that give people in your class a systemic advantage. So acknowledging privilege is not about feeling guilty or about casting blame. It is first and foremost about recognizing an inequity in the social structure, and then about making a commitment to working for change as one's life situation allows, and recognizing that having a particular kind of privilege may allow one to work for greater equity—work for a society in which one no longer experiences this privilege—in ways that those who lack this privilege can't.

Now we can talk about "all-things-considered privilege" and "specific privilege" Someone might have privilege in one respect but be oppressed in others, and end up being oppressed all-things-considered. It might sound strange to say that a black slave in the ante-bellum South experienced male privilege, but in saying this one is not saying that he was privileged. One is saying that although he was oppressed, horribly oppressed, the system did not make him a target for systemic sexual abuse by virtue of his gender in the way that it made female slaves a target. While he might still be raped by his owner, the cultural forces in play don't make him uniquely vulnerable to being raped in the way that female slaves were systemically vulnerable.

Likewise, to say that a person has white privilege is not to say that the person is privileged all-things-considered. The person may not enjoy much privilege at all, having been dealt a lousy hand with respect to an array of other social factors. In other words, it is perfectly possible for a person to truthfully say, "I'm not privileged!"—for that claim to be true about their overall condition in social life—and for it still to be true that the person is the beneficiary of white privilege.

The thesis that there exists white privilege is the thesis that there are various social forces in play (such as culturally ingrained unconscious biases and preferences, demographic facts about who is in the majority and who holds the majority of leadership positions, historical facts about who has held positions of power, implicit cultural conceptions of what is "normal," facts about which stories and films and works of art happen to be most prevalent and beloved, not to mention facts about past or present legal and economic structures that impact opportunities) that give persons who are socially recognized as "white" an advantage in one respect over those who are not (although, again, a white person may experience economic disadvantages and class disadvantages and disadvantages relating to sex and gender, etc., etc., and so not be privileged all-things-considered).

All of this is definitional. The question now is whether white privilege, so defined, exists. Well, here's one tiny thing that I noticed the other day. My kids dug out an old "How to Draw Faces" book that we'd gotten from relatives at some point. It was a few decades old. I leafed through it. Every face in the book was white. EVERY SINGLE ONE. The book was not called, "How to Draw White Faces." It was called, "How to Draw Faces." But there were nothing but faces that we'd classify as white. Of course, this book was a few decades old. Books you buy today will almost certainly exhibit more diversity. But these artifacts of history still litter our landscape—artifacts in which "face" is treated as equivalent to "white face." And the existence of these artifacts (but no comparable or comparably widespread artifacts treating "face" as equivalent to "black face") means that white kids will come across these artifacts and never have the experience that a little black kid will have: "Why aren't faces like mine represented?"

Of course, this is a small thing. But there are lots and lots of small things like that. There is the fact that 44 out of 45 US Presidents are white. There is the little fact that the majority of US Senators and Representatives are white. There is the fact that most CEOs are white. These are just demographic facts and historical facts, and I'm certainly not responsible for them and should not, as a white man, feel guilty about these facts being what they are. But they do mean that as I was growing up, I was inundated with role-models of leaders who were "like me." There was no need to seek them out, no need to set aside a special Black History Month to call attention to them. So, there is a set of realities about our society and its history that gives me an advantage, however small, over persons of color (and over women).

And these advantages hold even if we deny that there exist any implicit racial biases (unconscious, socially-ingrained biases favoring white persons over black ones). But the research shows that such bias does exist—all over the place in society. For example, there was a study in which college professors in graduate programs were contacted out of the blue with e-mails from individuals claiming a desire to study under them. The researchers varied the letters only in terms of whether the name was a common "white" name or a "black"-sounding name, Hispanic name, etc. They then tracked how likely the professor was to respond to the unsolicited email. Guess what? They responded less frequently to the emails with the non-"white" names.

And that is just one study among very many studies that all point in the very same direction over and over and over again. None of this means that a white person, by virtue of being white, is going to get white privilege checks in the mail. It doesn't mean they will experience all-things-considered privilege. And it certainly does not mean that the typical white guy minding his business and treating others with respect and decency is guilty of anything. It just means he has a kind of advantage that people of color do not have, because of a complex array of historical facts, demographic realities, legacy effects of segregation and red lining and other marginalizing practices from previous generations, self-concept affirming cultural artifacts, and persistent but unconscious culturally-ingrained biases.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book Trailer for THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE

With copious assistance from my son and photo contributions from several friends, I was able to create a book trailer for the new book. Okay, to be honest, my son was able to create a book trailer. I simply provided a bit of violin playing and talked about the book on camera, solicited photos, and then handed it all to him, saying, "Can you turn this into a book trailer?" Then he worked his magic. Here's the result: