Saturday, July 25, 2015

A few good rules does not a just moral system make

To many fundamentalist Christians (and believers of other stripes), morality is not a reasoned set of rules we've established for man's well-being, but rather a set of dictates from on high, presumably for man's well-being. Thus we see that, no matter how odious the outcome (robbing women of reproductive rights; robbing gay people of civil rights; etc.) and how devastating its impact on people, if you can convince believers that God wants it done, it is assumed right and just and pursued with a vengeance. You might be destroying and in some cases ending someone's life, but as long as God dictates it, somehow, perversely, it's the best thing for that person.

Believers will sometimes try to justify these monstrous acts, often with specious or downright monstrous reasoning of their own. Often enough, the reason comes down, in part or in whole, to the authority of God's moral code (as the believer defines it, at least). A rule is just because the believer assumes God supports it. Even if we cannot understand why, even if it appears harmful and monstrous, even if it is literally ruining people's lives, we just have to trust that it's for the best. Because God wouldn't give us a rule that wasn't good for us; and if we start to question the laws God has given, well, what basis for morality is there? As Ken Ham has charmingly wondered, if you don't believe in God's rules, what's stopping you from eating babies and raping animals? Sure, you may have secular moral codes; but without an authority figure handing down unimpeachable dictates, is anything ever really wrong? You might not like persecuting gay people, but if you won't obey God on that, why should we also stop murder?

Now, this kind of morality is less morality and more rule-following. In this worldview, humans aren't actually expected to exercise moral judgment, but rather to follow the rules given them; and, like a well-trained attack dog praised for his obedience, the believer is congratulated for following the rules closely, regardless of whose life he ruins in the process. The more closely he follows, the more moral he is (good boy!).

But not only is robotic obedience not demonstrative of deep moral thought, it's duplicitous to imply that because a code demands some morally justifiable behaviors all demanded behaviors are by extension morally justifiable. Furthermore, while observing a given rule may be morally justifiable in many cases, that does not in and of itself validate the reasons that led that to implementing that rule.

Perhaps the simplest way to explain my point is by way of demonstration. Let's suppose someone – a god, if you like – appeared, and offered up a set of rules. These were the Way of Convenience, and they go something like so:

1. Wasteful noise and inconvenience are loathsome in the sight of the Lord thy God. Thus sayeth the Lord:
2. Thou shalt not kill thine brother, nor shalt thou kill thine sister, or thine friend, or thine enemy. For killing is noisesome business, and the Lord finds it tiring.
3. Thou shalt not rob thine neighbor, for this creates unnecessary paperwork.
4. Thou shalt not commit adultery, for family drama vexes the Lord.

Now, these seem like pretty good end goals – something most people (and most moral or religious teachings, for that matter) can agree upon: don't kill, don't rob, don't cheat on your spouse.

But while we can agree that those are good goals, we also recognize that the reasons why are stupid. In other words, we implicitly acknowledge that decent ends are not validation of means. So the fact that, buried with a lot of odious and downright silly commandments, there are some solid principles in the Bible (or any religious text) is not validation of the Bible's moral authority, anymore than it is validation of the Way of Convenience. You have to actually demonstrate that there is a good reason to observe your set of rules, outside of the fact that there are a few agreeable dictates among there.

Now let's take this analogy further. Let's suppose, following all the nice-rules-for-silly-reasons, we get to a passage like this in the Way of Convenience:

843 And the Lord thy God spake, saying, People who sing in the shower are an abomination in the sight of the Lord thy God.
844 Forsaking the natural uses of bath time, they pursue musical endeavors which are neither fitting nor pleasing in the sight of God.
845 Let the shower singers be forever cut off from my people, and let their blood be upon them.

Even if all 842 prior verses were rosy and wonderful, and so it hadn't occurred to us to view them with a skeptical eye, this would be a really good time to start applying some of that skepticism.

Somehow, though, in our day and age people still look to a book that justifies owning people as slaves, regulates how a rapist can get away with his crime, prescribes the death penalty for disrespectful children; and a God who floods the entire world killing children, babies and fetuses along with everyone else (but is pro-life!); a God who metes out collective punishment for the actions of individuals; a God who punishes thought crimes while forgiving actual crimes (if the sinner repents!); a God who would allow the devil to torment a loyal follower just to prove his point; somehow, people insist that we must not only look to this book and this god without the least bit of skepticism, but actually derive our moral principles from a literal reading of it.

This isn't morality. This is just following orders, and assuming that you're not actually responsible for exercising moral judgment – because your particular orders came from the top man himself, the General in the Sky. You don't have to prove it, because you feel it's true. And, what's more, the rest of us have to follow those same orders too.

Because, my God, what's to stop us from eating babies and fucking animals if we don't rely on order-taking?!

Monday, July 13, 2015

It isn't “love” when you're hurting people...

Love is kind, love is patient...
love wants to take your rights?
After the SCOTUS decided that gay Americans are protected under the constitution too – and so deserve the same marriage rights as straight Americans – there's been a noticeable shift in the winds from some corners of the anti-LGBT Christian community. Not that minds have changed, of course, but rather that the tone being promoted by many has softened: it's a lot less “Westboro Baptist” and a lot more “concerned friend.”

There's always been the “hate the sin, love the sinner” nonsense, of course. But that's tended to focus a lot more on the hate, with the love being the caveat that (supposedly) makes it all better: hey, don't call me a bigot, man; I hate that you're gay, because that's disgusting, evil, and totally icky...but I totally love you!

After the initial impotent, sputtering indignation following the ruling, some thunderstruck conservative Christians seem to be trying to figure out a different approach. Unfortunately, they're attempting to figure out a new way to say exactly the same thing, in support of exactly the same positions: in short, a more palatable excuse for fighting to deprive gay Americans of equal protection under the Constitution.

And while some of the results have been so absurd as to border on self-parody, the tone softening deserves a closer look. Following the ruling, Ed Stetzer at Christianity Today, for instance, offered this exhortation to Christians bemoaning this “re-definition” of marriage:
As we live in a culture that has just defined marriage in a way contrary to what evangelicals and others believe, we must understand that, as Christians, we aren't the only ones who care about marriage. As a result, we must keep in mind that discussions surrounding the definition of marriage carry a lot of emotions and must be handled with care.

As evangelicals contend for the definition of marriage in spheres outside the law (that is settled now), we must keep in mind truth is often not heard if it's not communicated in love. If we want to be heard, we should communicate in a way worth hearing.

Mark Galli (also at Christianity Today) hoped Christians would take this defeat as an opportunity to re-engage LGBT people. The National Association of Evangelicals' statement mourned that “the legal definition of now at variance with orthodox biblical faith as it has been affirmed across the centuries and as it is embraced today by nearly two billion Christians in every nation on earth” … but they encouraged

...Evangelicals and other followers of the Bible have a heightened opportunity to demonstrate the attractiveness of loving Christian marriages and families. Evangelicals should renew their commitment to the sacrificial love and covenantal faithfulness to which Jesus calls all husbands and wives.
As witnesses to the truth, evangelicals should be gracious and compassionate to those who do not share their views on marriage.
Bob Lepine at Family Life spent a good deal of space calling out the angry, hateful approach Christians have embraced toward homosexuality, and calls instead for Christians to “reach out with compassion” following the ruling. But, again, at no point are we talking bridge building and acceptance. As Lepine writes,
I believe in the months and years to come, there will be people who have either sampled or participated actively in homosexual activities who are going to be looking for a way to deal with their shame and their guilt. They are going to be looking for a way out of the lifestyle. Would these people even think to look to the church for help? Would they think of us as "kind people who really care about me" or as angry, hate-filled men and women who will only make them feel more ashamed of where they have been? Are we preparing ourselves as the church to be ready to provide help and hope to those who will be seeking a way out?
So the tone is definitely, in some quarters, shifting -- or, at least, we're seeing the gloves-on approach promoted more often. There are still the presidential candidates who are vocally advocating means of reviving marriage inequality (including Wisconsin's own Sarah Palin Scott Walker). There is still ample rage and hateful commentary to be found. But there's also a kinder, gentler face emerging. 

But is it really? Certainly, the rhetoric is being toned down. But is rhetoric the problem?

I don't think so. Language is important, but the fight over marriage equality wasn't a fight over how we talked about it. Conservatives' vitriol might have contributed to the change in public opinion by alienating people, but the problem wasn't that gay people were denied their rights in a hostile manner; the problem was that people were denied rights based on their sexual orientation. And that's the sort of thing a smile can't fix.

This gets really interesting when it's all put forth in a “we're doing it for your own good” framework. Bolstered by witnesses like these (the market for a “gay de-conversion” story is as strong as it ever was, I guess), I've seen this line more frequently these days. Like Bob Lepine argues, the Church has to be there to “help” gay people overcome their “lifestyle”.

It would be bad enough if the “help” conservative Christians had in mind was inflicting self-hate and shame on people – all for the sake of redeeming them, naturally! But as we've already seen, and as the Republican front-runners are keen to remind us, they're not just intent on inflicting emotional anguish. The rash of “religious freedom” bills we saw when conservatives began to realize they might lose on the marriage front is a good indicator that even if they accept, of necessity, that marriage equality is here to stay (a position that even now is disputed by many GOP presidential candidates), conservatives are going to fight tooth and nail to continue discriminating as long as possible.

Which brings me to the point of my title. Conservative Christians have been, are, and will likely continue for some time, fighting to make gay Americans' lives hell. Conservatives may tell themselves that it's all for a good cause, that they're just trying to save gay people from an eternity in hell, that this is just a brand of tough love, that they have to be cruel to be kind...but at the end of the day, if you work to ostracize, isolate, shame and persecute someone; if you try to legalize discrimination against a subset of your fellow Americans, and try to deprive them of equal protection and rights under the law; if you throw a tantrum when you can no longer legally control the behavior of other people; if you think you should be able to deprive someone of a consenting relationship, of a family, of legal benefits and general dignity; if you think you should be free to imply that a person's love for another consenting adult makes him or her a monster and a threat; that's not a manifestation of love. And insisting that you're only doing it because you love the person so very much is not just duplicitous, it's creepy as hell. It's the kind of rationalization an abuser offers, and with the same justification: none.

Because you don't hurt the people you love. And if you do, it's not love. No matter how many times that you insist it is, or how wide your smile as you say it...

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sorry, it is a gun problem: "Cain killed Abel with a rock"

Inevitably, every time there's a(nother) prominent shooting, every time there's another senseless mass slaughter, the anti-gun control crowd predictably contributes to the conversation by screaming about how keeping guns out of the hands of killers isn't a viable solution to stopping killings.

There is one particularly stupid meme I've seen shared, in one form or another, after every mass shooting in the past few years (and, yes, the fact that I even have to write those words, the fact that we've become so acclimated to a world where mass killings are another facet of life -- and that the primary concern of so many is defending unlimited gun ownership rather than, I don't know, people --  makes me sick).

I don't know where this originated, but you can find it in lots of places.

Predictably, after the Charleston shooting, I've seen it showing up in my feed. The image, which reads, "Cain killed Abel with a rock. It's a HEART problem, not a gun problem" references Jeremiah 17:9.
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
At which point, you're supposed to, apparently, throw your hands up in defeat. People have been killing each other since the days of myth, my friend; it's all part of God's mysterious plan, so don't be hating on the guns. It's all a byproduct of our fallen natures, so if you want to do something really productive, you won't waste your time preventing would-be killers from acquiring weapons that enable them to commit mass murder; you'll do something really useful, like push religion on people to address that "heart problem." (What religion? Well, damn it, your church's of course! After all, who knows the mind of God better than you and everyone who agrees with you?!)

Earlier, I called this a particularly stupid argument. Aside from the absurdity of trying to divine some sort of solution to a complex contemporary issue from a literary murder that was supposed to happen thousands of years ago, this is just a poor argument.

No one is suggesting that guns are the One Ring, that will corrupt the mind and turn a "Good Guy with a Gun" into a deranged killer. No one is suggesting that guns are the only tool with which someone intent on murder can go about realizing his ambitions. On the contrary, it's not that guns create killers, or that guns are the only tools killers have or could ever use, but that guns enable killers to do significantly more damage than they could do without guns. This isn't a difficult concept, but the image bypasses the actual issue at hand by implying a few strawmen arguments.

Like Don Quixote's windmills, the points this image addresses aren't real arguments. But those who share it seem to be convinced that they are, and that simply noting that people kill with other weapons too is enough to shut down a conversation on gun control.

Sorry, folks, it's not. We all get that some people snap, some people are evil, and some people are going to attempt -- and succeed at -- killing people. We get it. That's the reason we're having this conversation. And we get that guns are not inherently good or evil. They're just objects. We've got the concept.

But those inanimate objects, in the hands of people with "heart problems," are capable of inflicting a hell of a lot more damage than a rock would be. Which is, you know, why we're talking about keeping those tools of killing out of the hands of people who mean to misuse them.

It's really not that difficult of a concept. We recognize that the more damage a weapon is capable of inflicting, the more regulated it should be. No one in their right mind would argue that we should just let countries pursue nuclear programs, because, what the's a heart problem, dude, not a nuke problem! We're not crazy enough to advocate for civilian ownership of military weaponry because, hey, Cain killed Abel with a rock,'s not about Neighbor Bob's tank! We realize that when something empowers people to commit mass murder, it might be in our interests to regulate who has access, or at least keep them out of the hands of violent, crazy people.

Until we get to guns. Then, all of a sudden, our reasoning capabilities seem to go out the window, and we resort to, "But, dude, Cain used a rock!"

Sorry, people, it's a gun problem. It's a gun problem because we're making it incredibly easy for killers, those who suffer from "problems of the heart," to get guns, and those guns enable them to commit mass murder. That's the gun problem.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Vesterheim museum, in Decorah Iowa

This past weekend I joined a group of folks from a rosemaling class I was taking for a field trip to the Vesterheim museum in Decorah Iowa. Wow.

So much history -- and beauty. Here are a few highlights from different sections of the museum.

Perhaps one of the most moving exhibits was this one, the translation of a poem written on a barn board by Halvor Langslet before leaving for America:
Here have I roamed many a day
in this wood, so green and fair,
but alas, my time is up,
ad I must bid this place adieu,
for I am off to America.
Farewell, ye birds, ye thousands
who for me have sung.
I fancy I'll here ne'er again come.
Farewell. Farewell.

- Halvor Langslet

 There was also a fascinating selection of items that accompanied Norwegians to the United States. Some of them were expected -- like spinning wheels, plates, etc. And then there were things like the following, which is a beautifully carved butter mold:

There were a number of fascinating pieces of furniture, including this one, that combined some impressive painting and carving.

The rosemaling was incredible, too.

Obviously, this doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of everything that we saw...but hopefully it gives you an idea of the kinds of stuff there. If you're interested in rosemaling, or acanthus or chip carving, or immigrant history, etc., this is definitely a place to go!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Reminder: you are a broken, miserable person. Now praise the one who made you that way

Like God's Not Dead, Do You Believe? is pretty active with its "we love Jesus -- now see our movie" meme offerings. 

Like this one: a reminder that you, human, are a worthless, broken entity. By God's design (and Eve's snacking). And the only thing that can save you? Why, the thing that broke you in the first place! (Oh, and see our movie!)

You know what they say about imaginary cures for made up ailments...

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Conservative Christian persecution watch: Gay ISIS and the impending criminalization of Christianity

As you may know, there are few groups as persecuted today as right wing American Christians.
Scratch that -- no group as persecuted today as far right American Christians.
Hell, there's probably never been a group quite so persecuted.

And do you know who is doing the persecuting? Well, obviously, there's the usual suspects -- women, Muslims, liberal Christians, liberals, feminists, moderate Christians, environmentalists, the Pope, the media, abortion doctors, and, of course, Obama. But there's no group quite so insidious, quite so brutal, quite so relentless and hateful as gay Americans.

You see, gay Americans want to be able to walk into a store and purchase an offered service without being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. Gay Americans want to have the same marriage rights as straight Americans.

In other words, they're basically ISIS. And I'm not even really exaggerating here, except completely. But this is actually a concern some right-wing Christians have been expressing, as in the article The Gay Rights Movement: ISIS Without the Bullets?

It's a provocative question -- if, by provocative, one means bat-shit crazy. But, as Patheos blogger Libby Anne demonstrates rather well, bat-shit crazy is more or less a way of life for the article's author, Gary DeMar.

But the sentiments DeMar puts forth are hardly unique to the furthest fringes of the right-wing. They're rather a common refrain among the pro-discrimination crowd: it's persecution not to be allowed to discriminate against gay people. Throwing in ISIS is just the crazy-frosting on the rabid-bigot-cake.


DeMar's argument is that since breaking the law comes with consequences, sometimes financial ones, in the United States, American Christians who want to break the law are basically in the same boat as victims of ISIS, who must convert of die. Other than the dying piece. Which is kind of like saying that a paper cut is like a beheading, except you get to keep your head: still three degrees past are-you-freaking-kidding-me?

There's a lot more that could be said about it, but these points are worth making.
  • No one is demanding a conversion -- Jan (above) can be as bigoted as she likes. No one is trying to change her mind, or make her love gay people. She just can't break the law to withhold offered services from gay people. That's not what ISIS asks of its victims. By a long shot.
  • "Lose everything" is a significant overstatement (even in the cases he lists, many involve no financial repercussions, and in some cases the loss of income is voluntary -- the bigots in question would rather shutter their shops than sell to gay people). The comparison makes this particularly egregious -- because the "everything" in question on the left is literally everything, and the "everything" on the right is...well, not even close.
  • On a similar note... fines are not death. It's a far cry from slapping a fine on a shop that discriminates against customers based on sexual orientation (or race, or religion) to killing them. ISIS without bullets (and beheadings and burnings and sledge hammers, etc.) is not really ISIS. What makes ISIS so particularly loathsome are the very things the DeMar dismisses. When you strip away the killing, maiming, torturing and other violent aspects of ISIS, that's not ISIS.
But, as I alluded to earlier it isn't just one random homophobe spewing absurdities on his blog. This persecution complex is pretty inherent to the religious right these days. It's the message from celebrities like Josh Duggar (of '19 Kids and Counting'), who suggests that not being allowed to persecute people is actually an example of Christians being persecuted, to presidential hopefuls like Mike Huckabee, who thinks that...well, not being able to persecute people is evidence of Christians being persecuted.

Huckabee didn't mention ISIS, but he didn't need to invoke gay Jihadis in order to stumble through the looking glass.
I think it’s fair to say that Christian convictions are under attack as never before. Not just in our lifetime, but ever before in the history of this great nation. We are moving rapidly toward the criminalization of Christianity.
Because, you see, if gay people are allowed to wed, and religious charlatans can't force damaging pseudo-medicine on gay people, Christianity and Christians are under attack. It's not just bad, it's worse than it's ever been.

Basically, ISIS is at the gates. Demanding cake for their gay weddings.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The most delicious phone (or, cat meets technology)

I know I haven't been posting much has been taking up most of my time these days. But for now here's a video of my cat Teddi trying to eat my phone, because why not. :)