April 29, 2014

Pound Sterling

Only having heard select portions of Donald Sterling's private conversations, I would suggest he deserves the opprobrium one usually attaches to those who make insulting remarks about others behind their backs.

But I am troubled by the extent of the reaction to what amounts to personal views, however reprehensible or repugnant, expressed in private to an intimate. I am not only troubled as a firm believer in freedom of thought and speech, but also as one who believes in a right to privacy. In this case, it seems to me that even had Sterling's words been made in public they would be classified as bigotry, but hardly "hate speech." With all of the concern about the NSA, internet privacy, and so on, it seems counter to the trend towards recognition of freedom of thought and private expression to react so very harshly.

More troubling to me than that is the thought that this response itself represents a kind of quasi-Girardian scapegoating; as if the wrath poured out on Sterling somehow shows just how righteous and unbiased the judges are. Society can feel itself cleansed by its righteous ire at the miscreant, as if that feeling somehow rendered the society itself innocent.

Because it isn't. Racism still runs deep in our society, however much we like to pretend it is a thing of the past. The simultaneous dismantling of the Voting Rights Act and the construction of mechanisms of voter suppression is just a case in point.

So the Sterlings of this world do us all a service, reminding us just how closely beneath the mask the old hatreds fester. I have no interest in making windows into people's souls -- the mobile phone apps will do that for us; and when they do, I think the proper response is not a fine and an exile, but the cold shoulder reserved for nasty people, followed by forgiveness and help to reform, together with the recognition that if all private thoughts were shouted from the rooftop few of us if any would be able to face each other in the street.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 27, 2014

A different slope

Last week I was drawn into a Facebook conversation with an English Evangelical. As always, I found it helpful and informative, not the least for confirming my sense that the general trend of my thinking is in the right direction.

The conversation arose in response to a recently publicized instance of polyamory — a trio of women whom the press said had “married.” This led to some “I told you so” fulfillment of the slippery slope: the promise that permission for same-sex marriage would open the floodgates to all sorts of other sexual variations. I’ve addressed this argument, and the logical fallacy of which it is an instance, elsewhere, and won’t repeat my comments here beyond the simple evidence that polyamory made its first appearance in the seventh generation from Adam, so blaming the gays seems an effort to close a barn door opened by someone else.

However, this was not the thesis that engendered the discussion. It was the more nuanced suggestion, “The arguments used in support of same-sex marriage can also be used to support polyamory.” This is a slope of a different slip, a logical fallacy so far as concerns addressing the validity of the arguments in question. That does not mean the phenomenon does not happen — a logical fallacy may still describe a true situation; but it remains a fallacy because it does not address the underlying argument.

As I noted on Facebook,

The thesis takes the form: Argument X in favor of Y is wrong because it can also be used in favor of Z. In the present instance, the claim is that arguments advanced in favor of same-sex marriage fail because those same arguments can be used to support, in this case, polygamy.
There are a number of problems with this thesis. Most importantly, it does not in fact disprove the validity of Argument X, but merely observes that the same argument may be employed in another case. Mere antipathy to that other case (which may reflect antipathy towards the first case) is in itself irrelevant. In reality, arguments that support things one holds to be good can also be used to support conclusions one feels are bad.

Let me raise a case where I think the thesis is true, even if fallacious. The libertarian argument in favor of same-sex marriage (or anything else, as it is less an argument than an ideology) takes the form, “People should be allowed to marry if they love each other and are doing no harm to others.” The same argument can be applied to polygamy, and very likely has been. But even though that is the case, it doesn’t actually prove the argument to be wrong, in either case. A whole separate debate on the virtues of libertarianism would need to be entered; and I think most people are neither fierce absolute libertarians nor equivalently doctrinaire authoritarians. In practical terms most people would, I think, given the popularity of another ideology, utilitarianism, home in on whatever alleged “harm to others” might result from any given action. (And however popular and common, a debate on the virtues of utilitarianism would also need take place!) So I concur that a libertarian argument may in fact have wider application than intended — but it may still apply in relation to the action and the harm that are the real subject of debate. If one wishes to debate the principle of liberty or utility themselves, that will have to be a separate discussion.

Getting back to arguments that I have actually encountered in the same-sex marriage debate, one of the principle arguments against it revolves around procreation. Again, I’ve dealt with the merits of that argument elsewhere at considerable length and won’t repeat it here except to note that the overlap between procreation and marriage is incomplete, on both sides.

But the proffered example of procreation can serve as a case in point in the larger question of arguments in favor of things one likes being used to support things one does not. For while procreation is cited as one of the “causes” for marriage, it can also be used as an argument in favor of polygamy.

This is not an abstract thought experiment, but a reality. Jewish law holds the command to “be fruitful and multiply” as binding on all men and women. This leads directly to polygamy in the case where a man’s wife cannot conceive (or has not conceived); Scripture provides case studies as with Elkanah, Peninnah and Hannah, and also that of Abraham (although Hagar remains a concubine rather than a formal wife). The necessity to procreate also leads to the Levirate law in which a childless widow is to be impregnated by her brother-in-law. This law figures in salvation history in the person of Ruth and Boaz; and when the question of the Levirate law is raised to Jesus by the Sadducees, he does not speak against it, in principle, though he does aver that marriage is a thing of this world. Closer to the Anglican homestead, observe the extent to which Henry Rex’s concern for the succession led him to employ, and then reject, the Levirate law; and even briefly, so it is said, to contemplate plural marriage — precisely what the pope accused him of undertaking when he married “Anne of a thousand days.”

On the other side, a negative argument involving procreation is often advanced against same-sex marriage, as a kind of Kantian categorical imperative: that if everyone practiced it the human race would cease to exist. However, the same argument can be advanced against celibacy. Again, this is not merely theoretical, but (in keeping with the understanding of the "first commandment" to multiplication of the human species) forms part of the groundwork for the opprobrium attached to celibacy in mainstream rabbinic Judaism.

Ultimately we owe to the scholastic church the fine argument that the command to procreation is addressed to the species as a whole, not to all individual members of it. This let the celibates off the hook, but the application to family planning has run aground on the shoals of natural law — another example of the fact that arguments can be applied to different concerns with very different results.

In summary, then, it would appear that arguments ought to be weighed on their own merits, not on ancillary or subsidiary possible circumstances. Those represent slopes down which it is not at all necessary to slip.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 18, 2014

Adam Found the Tree of Life

For many years I searched to find this place. The way
was watched by angels armed with swords;
and yet in seeking it I felt the Lord’s
love guiding me. With hope and fear, by grace
I made my way — I’m sure it was God’s will.
It was the Tree of Knowledge God forbade.
Its bitter fruit our innocence unmade;
had we kept faith we’d be in Eden still.
But this, the Tree of Life, was only lost
because we fell. In Paradise once more,
I looked upon the Tree, and what it bore.
The Tree had brought forth fruit, but at what cost!
I saw a wonder hanging from that Tree;
a man was nailed to it; he looked like me.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 16, 2014

Familiar Values

One of the welcome side-effects of the increasing acceptance of marriage equality is an increasing likelihood that people will become familiar with people who are gay or lesbian. There is a synergy at work here, and the effect is undeniable. There was a time when the accepted image of gay men was licentious, surreptitious and promiscuous; and that of lesbians pointless and tragic on one hand, or brutal and cruel on the other — and on both sides pathological. Beginning with the removal of legal restrictions and psychiatric categories, people began to see that these old stereotypes were just that: no more expressive of the family members and friends they had finally come to know than were minstrel coon caricatures actually reflective of real African Americans.

This growing familiarity has robbed the homophobic of the effectiveness of some of their favorite tropes. This has not stopped the continued trumpeting of these pet libels, though the mistaken trumpet is not rousing many in its call to arms. The recent Position Statement from the self-styled Anglican Mainstream is a case in point. Even though the discussion has moved on to marriage equality, the bigots (in the strict sense of those who seem unable to change in spite of evidence) continue to hammer away on gays and lesbians as licentious hedonists, disturbed and troubled souls stricken with a pathology from which they can be delivered if only they seek the right aid, but otherwise doomed to lives that will be short, nasty and brutish. They marshal discredited or misrepresented studies in support of claims that most people now know to be utterly irrelevant to their own experience of the gay and lesbian people they know and love.

There is a double effect here: the more extreme and irrelevant (and false) the claims of the homophobe, the stronger the reaction against it. The “moveable middle” instinctively moves away from what they perceive more and more actually to be nasty, mean, and wrong. And as they do so, friends and family who have kept their identity closeted begin to feel more comfortable opening the doors.

As the Gospel has it, the truth will make you free. Lies and fear will bind you. It is easy to see what one should choose.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 9, 2014

Sabbatical Leave: How Jesus Dealt with the Law

Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one thing; Is it lawful on the sabbath days to do good, or to do evil? to save life, or to destroy it?” And they were filled with madness; and communed one with another what they might do to Jesus. (Luke 6:9,11)

One of the major conflicts between Jesus and some of the religious leaders of his time concerned the nature of Sabbath observance. It is good, first of all, to acknowledge that this dispute is not, as sometimes portrayed, a conflict between Jesus and Jews. This is a dispute among Jews on a Jewish question, concerning a law which they all would have agreed was a Jewish law. That is, although the principle of the Sabbath went back to creation itself, the ordinance to do no work — to stop, for that is the root meaning of the verb from which Sabbath likely derives — was part of the Law given to Moses on Sinai.

Where Jesus differs from his interlocutors in this conflict is in his moving outside the formal definition of the Sabbath as a time to cease all activity. Jesus recasts it as a time in which to perform acts which he holds to be virtuous in themselves: not mere work but actions that are “good” in that the works represent, in themselves, a thing that is undeniably good: release from bondage — a central theme in the Jewish story. In short, Jesus does not see the Sabbath as an end in itself, or a restriction to be maintained apart from a larger context.

In various of the encounters Jesus has over the Sabbath, he offers differing explanations, and engages in classic rabbinic debate. For example, in Matthew 12 there are two successive arguments about the Sabbath. In the first, his disciples are eating grain they pluck as they walk along (technically not a violation of the Sabbath as it does not constitute harvesting; but Jesus does not engage that quibble). Jesus offers two responses to those who object to this action: he cites David’s violation of the temple-bread taboo, and the present day violation of the Sabbath by the temple priests who go about their work within the sacred precincts. Jesus responds that “here is something greater than the Temple,” making use of a standard rabbinical exegetical tool, qal wa-homer (light to heavy, “then how much more,” identical to the classical rhetorical device a fortiori). Jesus raises the bar with a biblical citation, that God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6), and asserts that the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (Mark’s version [2:27] of this controversy includes the important transitional teaching based on the sequence of events in Genesis 1, that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” as the reason, again all the more, that the Son of Man should be its Lord.) This "greater than the Temple" theme may be seen as a part of a general anti-Temple trend in the Jesus tradition (one shared with some contemporary sectarian movement such as the Yachad at Qumran), but it also begins to establish a context: that things are good and virtuous as they serve the furtherance of God’s will for human well-being, not simply in and of themselves. Even the Temple is good only in so far as it is not misused, but remains available as a "house of prayer" rather than a "den of robbers."

The point is emphasized in the following scene. Here (in Matthew) it is the opponents who pose the question about whether it is right to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus responds with another qal wa-homer comparison of the rescue of a sheep from a pit with the healing of a human being. The pericope of the woman in Luke 13 (16-17) is treated in a similar way: if you are kind to your domestic animals, releasing them to be led to water, how much more ought you to rejoice in the liberation of a woman from bondage to illness — noting once again the theme of delivery from captivity so central to the People of God.

In all of this it is possible to see how Jesus contexualizes and even relativizes the commandment to cease work on the Sabbath, by holding that acts — particularly acts of deliverance, restoration, and human flourishing — that are good are still good even when done on the Sabbath. That is, they do not become bad because they are done on the Sabbath, and it is not the Sabbath that makes them good, but the good acts which give honor to the Sabbath. Perhaps in giving honor to the Sabbath the works become even more virtuous. His opponents have come to see the Sabbath as an end in itself, not as a context for doing good, but only about "not doing" or ceasing from doing, regardless of how good the action.

In the same way, some see marriage as an end in itself, rather than as a context for the flourishing of loving human relationships, and a sanctified means (though not the only means) for liberation from the primal situation of isolation. Observe that according to the account in Genesis 2 (taking Jesus' lead in noting the sequence in Genesis 1) that people are not made for marriage, but marriage is made for them: that is, the human comes first, and marriage is instituted as a solution to the problem of human isolation, and that only after the first attempt to find a mate for Adam among the animals.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 8, 2014

The Foundations of Violence

The reason anyone would attack anyone else over homosexuality is homophobia. So the answer to lessening violence lies in disabling its foundations: to combat homophobia. This means homophobia even in its genteel forms, which give aid and support to its more violent forms.

For instance, the notion that homosexuality is contagious — giving rise to fears that it will spread and infect heterosexuals and make them do things they do not want to do —stems from the notion that it is a disease to be cured, a pathology to be repaired. The homophobic basis of "reparative therapy" is not an innocent bystander, nor is the refuge, "But it is in Scripture" sufficient to warrant a claim of innocence. In case no one noticed, racism is in Scripture, deeply so, and it remains in place, systematized and supported even by the church, in spite of the Gospel and the Apostolic urgings against it, even to this day. It is in within living memory that the Dutch Reformed Church apologized for apartheid.

But back to homophobia: The idea that "if everyone were homosexual it would be the end of humanity" is indeed a frightening thought, so frightening I wonder why otherwise calm folks will make such an observation. They too should be reminded that the same is true of celibacy. Yet "moderates" will still make this or related observations about homosexuality and its alleged threat to society (often in the milder form of parroting the unproven thesis that it is best for a child to be raised by a mixed-sex couple). This is nothing more than a perverse application of a Kantian categorical imperative, and even if true would really say nothing than that it is an ideal that is often unrealized.

Moral: African violence against homosexual persons is empowered and encouraged even by those for whom the violence it engenders is repugnant.
I rather think, QED.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

April 5, 2014

Connecting the Dots for Canterbury

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has garnered a good deal of well-deserved flack for his radio interview that ungraciously "links gay marriage with African killings" as the Church Times puts it.

I think the secondary problem I have with Archbishop Welby's off-the-cuff and off-the-rails comments (the primary being the implicit emotional blackmail and ethical obtuseness) is that while citing forms of violence allegedly caused by reaction to American actions, as well as mentioning homophobic assaults and indignities, he does not appear to see that it is fear of homosexuality — homophobia — that is at the root of both. The purported violence against the African Christians for being co-religionists with gay-friendly Americans or Canadians is just an expansion of the violence against Africans who are gay or lesbian, and stems from the same fears as the homophobia and violence that occurs in England and America, too. And he does not appear to be aware of the extent to which the African antipathy towards gay and lesbian persons has been nourished by American preachers — a tragic new form of neo-colonialism, an export industry whose primary product is hatred, fear, and loathing.

But rather than connecting the dots, Welby simply places two things side by side, saying there is a need to "listen carefully" while apparently not hearing the painfully obvious connection in his own words. He seems to describe these as two separate problems instead of one; he is like a doctor who lists two symptoms without realizing there is an underlying disease at work — and the answer or treatment (which he doesn't find himself able to approve) is the continued movement towards normalizing same-sex relationships, including marriage. Only the deconstruction of fear can root out the causes of violence.

King's Letter from Birmingham Jail has been cited in all of this. Sometimes the only way to end violence is to pass through it. We do not turn back from Calvary, but go forward, bearing the suffering, and in the knowledge that others are suffering too, in solidarity with us.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

UPDATE: I'm reminded by a friend, Jay Johnson, of the link between homophobia and the male fear of feminization. Gender issues are very much tied up with homophobic feelings. Ire directed towards a man "acting like a woman" or -- heaven forbid -- of a man being treated like a woman go all the way back to Leviticus 18! Heaven forbid indeed, as the male fear of the female gets projected onto God.


additional thoughts here.