Monday, February 25, 2019

A Great Hill to Die On

Now for unChristian's chapter on Homosexuality.

This passage encapsulates Kinnaman and Lyons's approach, not just to homosexuality but to Christian/"outsider" interaction and perception in general.
In our research, the perception that Christians are “against” gays and lesbians—not only objecting to their lifestyles but also harboring irrational fear and unmerited scorn toward them—has reached critical mass. The gay issue has become the “big one,” the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimension that most clearly demonstrates the unChristian faith to young people today, surfacing a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say our hostility toward gays—not just opposition to homosexual politics and behaviors but disdain for gay individuals—has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.
Let me begin by assuring the reader that unlike more extreme atheists, I do not hate Christians; I object to their lifestyles but do not harbor irrational fear and unmerited scorn toward them.  I know and love many Christians, some of whom I assume are good people.  I don't disdain them, I only oppose Christian politics and behaviors, and would like to help them, if I can.  That includes David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, whose painful struggle with Christianity is evident on every page of unChristian.  David and Gabe, it's not you, it's your lifestyle.  You can change.

Of course I don't believe that Kinnaman and Lyons would feel warmed by my welcoming words, though I mean them sincerely.  I imagine they'd feel patronized, and recognize that my insistence on my love and concern for them is only meant to distract attention from my principled rejection of Christianity.  My acceptance of them doesn't mean I accept their faith.  In the same way, it's not their surface conduct toward gay people that I, and I presume the young Christians and ex-Christians they surveyed, reject: it's their teachings about homosexuality.  (And about many other issues as well, but they're not my subject here.)

I'm not surprised that many of the young Christians Kinnaman interviewed put their objections to conservative evangelical Christianity in terms of hate and hostility, or in terms of opposition to gays and lesbians.  As Kinnaman admits, hatred and hostility have been hard to miss in Christian antigay campaigns.
Here is an example: one seventeen-year-old churchgoer described her experience bringing a gay friend to church. “The youth pastor knew I was going to bring him, and even though his talk really had nothing to do with homosexuality, he still found a way to insert ‘God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’ into his comments. I was sitting there, just dying. This happened more than once. My friend was at a point where he was interested in seeing what Jesus might offer, and the door was just slammed shut” [102].
It will be an uphill struggle for Christians like Kinnaman who profess goodwill toward us to convince us that they really do mean well.  I suggest that merely professing their good intentions and biting back the "Adam and Steve" jokes is not going to be enough; at the very least they're going to have to put more pressure on their leaders and peers to change their attitudes.  Lots of luck with that.

People do have a tendency to confuse opposition to someone's actions with opposition to the person him or herself, which presumably is why so many people told Kinnaman that Christians are "against" gay men and lesbians.  Kinnaman himself slips up on page 103: "Because of our opposition to homosexuals, outsiders cannot picture the church as the loving community of believers Jesus envisioned."  Much if not most of the time, the distinction is made dishonestly, because in practice the distinction doesn't matter.  I suppose there are a few heterosexual "unChristians" with LGBT friends or relatives who'd be reassured by Kinnaman's moderate tone, for a while at least, in some cases long enough to drift back into the churches they'd previously rejected.  I doubt that many gay people or many straight friends and relatives will fall for it.

It's difficult to figure out exactly what Kinnaman and Lyons think the place of LGBT people in their church should be.  For one thing, they and the commentators to whom they give space in unChristian tend to focus less on us than on themselves.  For example, the writer Sarah Raymond Cunningham, who informs us that "I have braved a few real-life conversations with homosexual friends" (113):
There were dozens of tangible traits I cherished about my friend, and I told him so. But—in a voice trembling with nervousness and compassion—I confessed I was afraid my friendship might seem insincere if I couldn’t affirm what he held to be a central part of his identity: his sexuality.

“As far as I can tell,” I gulped, “the Bible only introduces one kind of sexual union, and that is between a man and a woman. So, I have to believe this is the course that leads to the fullest life—the life the Creator intended for us.”

When I spit out these defining sentences, I worried all my friend could hear was Blah-Blah-Christian-Blah-Blah.  But he stared back at me kindly, so I continued...

I think the conversation changed me more than my friend, because it forced me to acknowledge parts of God’s will I sometimes overlooked. To accept that God doesn’t want me to do things even he does not choose to do—to control or hijack someone else’s freedom [113, 114].
It's as if what matters most is her, not her friend.  Given that "he stared back at me kindly," it sounds as if he was counseling her, not the other way around.  Perhaps that's how it was, and should have been.

I've run into my share of people like Cunningham, and I try to reassure them that I don't mind much if they can't "affirm" my homosexuality.  It's not really their business anyway.  But if they keep trying to negate it, if they can't let it fade into the background and attend to other traits or interests that we do have in common, we can't be friends.  That's only a problem if they see me not as a person, but as a notch on their missionary bedposts.  But if they do, and if they can accept that I don't affirm what they hold to be a central part of their identity -- their Christianity -- friendship is possible. 

Or consider Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei Church in Portland:
Recently, I spent a year with a guy who thought he was born gay. We spent time working through what I believed to be God’s design for him. I believe God’s design is clearly male/female union or heterosexuality, however, he concluded that God made him that way (homosexual) and wanted to embrace this lifestyle fully. Therefore, he left the church, but it was a healthy parting. I am not sure how you avoid this kind of messiness when building relationships and loving people who are struggling with sexual identification issues [116].
Here too the gay man fades into the background.  It's all about the "healthy parting" and the kinds of "messiness" a pastor has to deal with.

Third one's the charm.  Chris Seay, of Ecclesia in Montrose, Houston:
As I walked closer to the place where our church was positioned, I realized there were three transvestite prostitutes working on the street corner. I decided to strike up a conversation with them, which led to me going inside and bringing them water. They were thirsty, so I gave them something to drink [114].
That's the whole story.  I suppose I should be glad he didn't tell us that the three transvestite prostitutes were so moved by Seay's Christian charity that they joined his church and in a few short months had become linebackers for the Houston Texans; but as it is, they are just props in a story about himself, his compassion, his courage in going near three homosexuals, braving the peril of homosexual cooties. Just like Jesus. 

Throughout unChristian the writers and commentators give the impression that homosexuals are something Out There, a kind of person they've never met before.  (The chapter following "Homosexuality" is "Sheltered," but I think that's the wrong word; "Closed Off" or "Hermetically Sealed" would be more like it.) You'd think the book had been written in the early 1970s, not the first decade of the twenty-first century.  "Despite widespread mobilization over the last decade, most Christians have become even more isolated from homosexuals," Kinnaman declares on page 106.  It may be true of the circles Kinnaman and Lyons and their commentators move in, but as Kinnaman admits,
Our research shows that one-third of gays and lesbians attend church regularly, going to churches across a wide spectrum of denominations and backgrounds, including Catholic, mainline, nonmainline, and nondenominational churches. Most gays and lesbians in America align themselves with Christianity, and one-sixth have beliefs that qualify them as born-again Christians. Most have been active in a church at one time, such as this gay man: “Sometimes it’s hard for me to reconcile the ‘Christian movement’ I see in politics today with the kind, generous people I knew from my own days in the church. I remember the Christians I knew (and once considered myself) to be students of God, who wanted to serve him and spread his good news and message of hope to a needy world.” The bottom line: some gays are antagonistic to Christianity, but many are not [97].
It appears to me that Kinnaman is being disingenuous here, equivocating in a typically conservative-evangelical way.  He'd like the reader to suppose that the gays and lesbians in America [who] align themselves with Christianity" agree that homosexual behavior is sinful, and so do the "wide spectrum of denominations and backgrounds."  No doubt many do, but not those churches that offer union or even marriage ceremonies to same-sex couples, nor the couples who exchange their vows in those churches.

Going by the gay Christians I've known, it's a safe bet that not even all those whose beliefs "qualify them as born-again Christians" agree that they are sinning when they have sex, in marriage or out of it.  UnChristian was published several years before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex civil marriage in the US, but American churches had been examining and revising their positions for decades by then.  Those gay people who still want to join churches have other options available to them than the brand represented by the writers of unChristian.

Because of the increased numbers of more or less openly gay people around, it takes strong determination for conservative Christians to avoid knowing us, or to pretend that they don't know us.  The rise of fundamentalist-run businesses and spaces since the 1980s might have made it easier for evangelicals to avoid dealing with outsiders, but since gay people are already Christians, we are already inside those spaces.  We are already in their families and workplaces and churches.  Even if we are immediately expelled upon discovery, they still have known us.  Perhaps they repress the unpleasant knowledge.

What, then, do Kinnaman and Lyons and their commentators have to offer to Christian LGBT people?  They are carefully vague.  Even the gay man given space at the end of the chapter, one Levi Walker, who reports that he returned to church four years earlier after "twenty years of depression, twelve years of drug addiction and dealing, and several suicide attempts" (117), says nothing about the kind of church he's in now, how it treats him, his place in it.  Walker's the kind of homosexual Christians like Kinnaman love: the drugs, the suicide attempts, the depression -- only AIDS is missing, but nobody's perfect.  The heterosexual commentators, as I noted, mainly talk about themselves and their spirituality, how bad they feel when they're stereotyped as "gay-hating bigots" (110), how they bravely had "real life" (as opposed to imaginary?)  conversations with homosexuals.

To their limited credit, no one in this book touts ex-gay ministries, at least not explicitly.  Maybe they're aware of what ineffective and scandal-ridden scams they are.  But it's fair to find in their ramblings a belief that change will occur once a homosexual joins a welcoming community, and if not that ...
As a church [writes Rick McKinley of Imago Dei], we have to hold to what Scripture says is true about the practice of homosexuality—the acting out of same sex relationships is a sin. However, we are wondering if it is possible to experience same-sex attraction but give yourself to living a celibate lifestyle. What if we could provide intimate Christ-centered community and accountability for him or her in that pursuit? We believe that community is the answer to everyone feeling loved and human [116-17].
Celibacy may be "possible" for a few, just as it's possible for a few to run a mile in under four minutes or scale Mount Everest, but it is not a realistic option for most human beings. Offering it as a solution -- to gay people, not to straights of course -- is not a good-faith approach.  (It's also Albert Mohler's bad-faith recommendation.)  As for experiencing same-sex attraction without acting on it, Kinnaman points out that "Jesus raised the bar beyond skin-on-skin contact and said even a simple thing like sexual thoughts can defile us [Matthew 5:28].  Our approach should embrace this high standard of sexuality" (104).  So Kinnaman's church, at any rate, can't even offer membership to gays on condition of overt sexual abstinence.

"It is necessary and appropriate for Christians to affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman," Kinnaman declares (105).  Appropriate perhaps, but hardly necessary, since the Biblical model was one man and numerous women, whether wives, concubines, or the odd harlot by the side of the road.  That's the original Biblical standard; the New Testament standard is that marriage is for weaklings who can't cut the mustard, either by self-mutilation (Matthew 19:12) or gritting one's teeth and abstaining from sexual life altogether (1 Corinthians 7).  Monogamy became the Christian standard not because of biblical teaching but because gentile Christians adopted Roman customs.

One would think it necessary and appropriate for Christians to affirm that divorce is not acceptable except under very narrowly defined conditions, but although Kinnaman and his commentators occasionally mention divorce as a problem because of our broken sexuality and our decadent society, they don't discuss its acceptance by evangelicals, both for themselves and their chosen politicians.  Ronald Reagan's divorced and remarried status didn't bother them at all, nor does Donald Trump's evangelical base mind his multiple marriages and divorces.  If they can overlook a lifestyle that was specifically prohibited by Jesus, perhaps they can (and probably will) learn to overlook the conflict between the Bible (though not Jesus, at least not explicitly) and same-sex sexual expression.

The olive branch Kinnaman and his commentators hold out to potential gay converts is that everybody's sexuality is "broken."  "But there is not a special judgment for homosexuals, and there is not a a special righteousness for heterosexuals," writes Shayne Wheeler of All Souls Fellowship in Georgia (page 111).  Rev. Alfred Ells of Leaders Last Ministries chimes in:
And I would add this caution: I have counseled many more straight Christians than homosexuals. Many believers are dealing with significant sexual issues, from marital unfaithfulness to pornographic addictions and other things you would not believe. Don’t underestimate the power of sexual problems—gay or straight—to devastate even the best families and the best churches [118].
That, like the recommendation of celibacy, is not going to win many homosexuals for Jesus.  Heterosexuals are granted presumably unbroken sexual expression in marriage, but homosexuals are a "sexual problem" in ourselves, like "pornographic addictions or other things you would not believe," with no loophole.  Fewer and fewer people, gay or straight, will go along with this anymore, and since there is no real moral argument against homosexuality except a biblical prohibition -- which evangelicals are as ready as other Christians to ignore when it's convenient for them -- conservative evangelicals had better expect to see their numbers continue to dwindle.

Kinnaman doesn't advocate secular laws against homosexual activity, though he's not clear as to why. He does claim that "laws provide significant parameters that determine Americans' behaviors, so lawyers and legislators should work diligently to pursue a biblical perspective that achieves appropriate goals" (105).  This is followed by his remark, quoted above, about one-man / one-woman marriage.  Apparently he hasn't heard of the First Amendment.  He concludes that "You change a country not merely by bolstering its laws but by transforming the hearts of its people" (106), but he and his ilk have failed, thankfully, to do even that much -- they have not, on the evidence of this book, even managed to transform their own.
Christians point out the importance of a father and a mother in child development and reject the claims that gay couples should be able to adopt. And, of course, I recognize that it’s offensive to homosexuals to say that a child needs both a father and a mother; it’s a difficult part of what Christians believe. However, though this is an important conviction, Christians have to avoid rhetoric that dehumanizes people, especially in interpersonal interactions. Our most important concern must be the response of young people to Christ, not merely what type of home they grew up in ... If the people of Christ attack, mock, and criticize a child's parents, the chances that the child will ever commit his or her life to Christ are diminished [106].
There's plenty wrong here, starting with the invalid assumption that gay people only become parents through adoption, and moving on to the assumption that if you can't offer an ideal (by Kinnaman's standards) set of parents you should not be allowed to have or raise children at all.  Children have been successfully raised by widowed parents, for example.  I've known children who grew up in households headed by two women, both widowed or abandoned by husbands, who turned out okay.  Children will also have an easier time if their parents aren't poor, or members of other despised minorities; but I doubt Kinnaman would want to take them away from their parents or tell them they should never have been born, no offense kids but your parents fail to meet our high Christian standards of Family.  Same-sex couples, as far as we can tell, do as well by their children as mixed ones; the absence of both male and female in the parent couple doesn't mean the kids won't have meaningful interaction with other adults.  But Kinnaman has evidently ignored all the research and discussion on this matter; if you have Scripture and Christian-Right publications, what more do you need?

I find myself wondering, though, just how he envisions Christians of his sort coming into contact with children of gay parents.  Surely not because the parents attend his church?  Maybe he just visualizes such kids wandering into his youth coffeehouse or being brought to his church by friends.  (It's a trap, kids! Don't go in!)  He even seems to be aware of the harm done by bullying. But in the end, he sees them purely as targets for conversion, though it's not impossible or unlikely that they will already be Christians, attending with their parents a church that Kinnaman doesn't approve of.

It's easy to see, on the evidence of unChristian and other handwringing writings on the declining influence of fundamentalist Christianity, why young people are staying away from their faction in droves.  (It shouldn't be forgotten that all denominations, including liberal ones, have the same problem, if it is a problem for anyone but them.)  I'm not talking only about their reactionary and harmful politics, but about their lack of engagement with actual human beings.  Despite their talk about being confident and fearless in the Lord, they come across in this book as terrified of just about everyone, to the point that having a "real life" conversation with an outsider (or even another Christian with differing views) feels risky and brave to them.  They recommend listening to others, but there's little indication in their own accounts that they do so.  They have to force themselves to make outreach, which is their right but incompatible with their own missionary platform.  As a queer atheist who's worked and talked with a wide range of people who don't agree with me over the years, I had trouble at first realizing how disengaged Kinnaman and his collaborators are.

Whatever they're selling, there's a dwindling market for it.  (I noticed that one of the more successful ministries touted by the commentators is a coffeehouse in Washington, DC, which is still around a dozen years after unChristian was published.  The commercial front, not the evangelism, probably accounts for its longevity.)  That's no ground for complacency, because even small groups of fanatics can do a lot of damage to a society.

I kept thinking of the prominent evangelical Carl F. H. Henry's remark* that "A redemptive totalitarianism is far preferable to an unredemptive democracy; a redemptive Communism far more advantageous than an unredemptive Capitalism, and vice versa."  This implies what should be obvious from much other evidence: Christianity is about purity (doctrinal and moral) and salvation, not about social justice or ordinary human decency.  Sure, you can import a concern with social justice into your implementation of Christianity (many have done it), but it's not the core of Christian concern.  According to the Gospel, helping others is not an end in itself but a means to getting oneself into Heaven.  (Besides, Christianity is about the Kingdom of God, not the Democracy of God.  Its worldview is hierarchical, not egalitarian.)

As I've said before, I don't advocate the a priori exclusion of Christians (or members of other religions) from public discourse.  But their Christianity is independent of whatever of value they have to contribute.  (I feel the same way about many atheists, who are apt to inject their fantasies about "the visions of Bronze Age goatherds" and other village-atheist bullshit to derail serious discussions.)  As unChristian shows once again, even on their own turf conservative evangelicals have very little to contribute; at best they distract from the serious thought and work that needs to be done.

*In The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, originally published in 1947.  Quoted here.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Boot Hill

It was fun to see Ilhan Omar smack down Elliott Abrams, longtime war criminal and perjurer.  It has also been somewhat entertaining to watch Abrams's personal friends and colleagues rush to his defense by remembering what a nice guy he was at college.  So Max Boot, a NeverTrump Republican with a long history of uninformed, ahistorical defenses of American Empire, had to stick his oar in.

"I know Elliott," Boot told an interviewer for The New Yorker. "He has been a colleague of mine at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I think that he is a very smart person.  I think he is basically a good person and he is somebody who I don’t see as being terribly ideological."  The interviewer pressed Boot fairly hard, and elicited this revealing tidbit among others:
You know, there’s no question that the Reagan Administration wasn’t some unique offense on Elliot’s part. I think the Reagan Administration did call into question the veracity of the reporting on the massacre, which was borne out by subsequent investigation, but you have to ask: What is the proper response to human-rights abuses by an allied regime, which in this case is battling a communist insurgency? 
I think that first sentence is some version of "But all the cool kids in the Reagan Administration were enabling massacres and torture!  It wasn't just Elliott!"  As if that were somehow an exculpation.  It's probably not fair to plug some other names in there, but I'll do it anyway: There's no question that the Third Reich wasn't some unique offense on Eichmann's part!  He is a good person, just doing his job, and not terribly ideological. That runs afoul of Godwin's Law, perhaps, but moderate Republican apologetics call for extreme measures.

You could plug in other names with equal effect: Stalin's or Pol Pot's measures battling insurgencies by petty-bourgeois counter-revolutionaries, say.  Not only Hitler but Marshall Petain and Emperor Hirohito, among so many others, were battling communist insurgencies; which is why the United States chose fascist collaborators to run Europe and Asia after defeating the Axis.  The suppression of Trotsky and his followers by Lenin and Stalin was also a battle against a communist insurgency.

"Communism", like "socialism," is generally used as a meaningless epithet when argument fails or is simply too much work.  Every government that the US helped to overthrow in the twentieth century was smeared as communist, even when it was obviously no such thing.

Boot, like his peers, just keeps digging himself in deeper, as he tries vainly to explain why his critics just don't understand what he was trying to get at in his defenses of endless war, torture, and massacre.  He's not like Trump! he cries plaintively.  Few are convinced, but the corporate media will continue giving him space to keep on bloviating and whining.  It's social welfare for right-wing hacks.  If you want a picture of the future, imagine a Boot stamping on a human face ... forever.

(I don't know about the title of this post, maybe it's a bit much, maybe it's too easy.  But the alternatives were worse; you have to look at the context.)

Monday, February 11, 2019

The unFaith - Never Had It, Never Will!

I still haven't read Southern Baptist divine R. Albert Mohler Jr.'s We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong (Thomas Nelson, 2015), but I promise you solemnly, this generation shall not pass away before I do so and write about it here.

Meanwhile, I happened on unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity ... and Why It Matters (Baker, 2007) by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.  The authors worked for years for the Barna Group, an evangelical polling organization, and Kinnaman is currently its president.  Early in his career, Kinnaman set out to explore why younger Americans don't find conservative Christianity appealing; unChristian is his first book based on the research he conducted.  As you can see, it's somewhat dated by now: it was published during the second Bush administration, before Obama became President, before the Supreme Court struck down laws against same-sex marriage, before conservative evangelicals sold their souls to So-called Donald J. Trump, and as younger people have continued to defect from Christianity in most of its denominations.  Since 2007 Kinnaman and Lyons have published two more books on the same issue, most recently in 2016.  It'll be interesting to see how the spiel has developed, but I'm not in a great hurry to find out.

The reasons their informants gave Kinnaman and Lyons for rejecting born-again Christianity were pretty predictable.  Anyone who's listened to people talking about religion will have heard them: Christians are judgmental, hypocritical, too "political," they only pretend to like you so they can try to convert you.  The authors fret about these complaints, acknowledge that they are not unfounded, and urge lay Christians and clergy to adjust their approach.  They fill out the book with contributions by numerous evangelical writers, ranging from Charles Colson to Jim Wallis, mainly infomercials for their various ministries. These are very upbeat, but if they're doing so well, why do the numbers of churched Christians continue to dwindle?  There's nothing radical here, Kinnaman and Lyons are just rearranging the deck chairs in hopes that the right configuration will make the Titanic float again.

There's even an entire chapter devoted to Christians' treatment of LGBTQ people, and it too is what I expected.  I'll discuss it in more detail later this week -- surely that post is coming quickly -- but basically it warns against having "God Hates Fags" on the walls of your church or youth ministry's coffeehouse.  Daring, that, but almost willfully irrelevant. Very few American Christians, even the most reactionary, regard Westboro Baptist Church as a role model; they mainly use WBC as a bogeyman to show how much nicer they are. (That, I think, is what Kinnaman and Lyons are doing.) I don't blame them, since the alternative would be to rethink Christian teaching on sexuality altogether.  More on that soon; I think this issue deserves a post of its own.

While gender and sexuality are indeed hot issues for young people, it's noteworthy that Kinnaman and Lyons barely touch on race.  There's one anecdote, on page 190, about a pastor who excluded (presumably) black teens from a church youth concert in California, and a concession that "Unfortunately, stemming from our common sin nature, Christians continue to harbor prejudices regarding race, age, gender, and intelligence."  They encourage Christians to be "willing to talk with Christians of different racial and ethnic backgrounds about their political persuasions" (169), but that's about it.  From this I infer that they imagine their readers to be white, of Western European descent, which bespeaks a serious lack of imagination on their part, especially since most born-again Christians in the US are African-American males.  Nor do they show any awareness of the role white evangelicals have played in the promotion and defense of white supremacy in this country.  Once again I thought of the scholar James Barr's judgment that "the conservative evangelical view of sex and marriage, far from being haunted by sin and guilt, is light and superficial."*  I'd say that such superficiality extends to conservative evangelical views of race and other social issues, and there's nothing in UnChristian to indicate otherwise.

Kinnaman and Lyons also insist on the intellectual cred of evangelicals today.  One of their commentators, D. Michael Lindsay, leads the charge:
The percentage of evangelicals earning at least a college degree has increased by 133 percent, which is much more than any other religious tradition. Indeed, the rise of evangelicals on America’s elite campuses is one of the most notable developments in higher education over the last thirty years. As highly selective universities have sought to diversify their student bodies by race, gender, and ethnicity, they have also unintentionally diversified their campuses’ religious makeup. As Gomes said, “A lot of Midwestern white-bread Protestant Christian evangelicals at whom Harvard would never have looked in the past, and who would have never looked at Harvard, suddenly became members of the university [149f].
I wonder if that increase in the numbers of evangelicals getting degrees is due to their numbers being much lower in the past; the comparison to other religious traditions suggests to me that it is, just as women greatly increased their college participation as various (mostly external) barriers that had previously discouraged or excluded them were removed.  The quotation from Peter Gomes (1942-2011), longtime chaplain and professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University, is amusing in the context of this book, because Gomes was black, gay, and (though celibate himself) a solid advocate of "marriage equality."  I doubt Lindsay was unaware of this, but I wonder if Kinnaman and Lyons were.

Lindsay also pointed out that "Practically every university in the Ivy League was founded to serve the church, and for most of their history, these institutions have been places where faith and knowledge support one another" (148).  True enough, but this is hardly specific to Christianity: Islam and other world religions have founded universities and other institutions of learning where "faith and knowledge support one another."  There's also a strong tradition of anti-intellectualism in American Christianity, which goes back to the New Testament.  It's good to avoid stereotyping, but in all directions.  (For that matter, atheists and agnostics are not all intellectual heavyweights either.)

UnChristian held few surprises for me; it supported what I already knew about conservative Christians' efforts to make sense of and counter their dwindling presence and influence in American society.  "Young adults," the authors lament, "are less likely to support a 'Christianized' country ...   [They] are less likely than their predecessors to support keeping the motto 'In God We Trust' on our currency, the phrase 'one nation under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance, or the Ten Commandments posted in government buildings.  They are also less likely than Boomers and Elders ... to favor a federal marriage amendment defining marriage as possible only between one man and one woman" (164).  Not only that: "Young adults are less likely than preceding generations to start their political explorations as Republicans" (165) -- Oh noes!  Which I welcome, of course, though I'm also concerned about what young people will replace Christianity (or the GOP) with, be it alternative religions or atheism.  As an atheist myself, atheism is the option I favor, but I also know atheism is no guarantee of thoughtfulness or wisdom.

* Barr, Fundamentalism (Westminster, 1977), 331.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

In Whose Service Is Perfect Freedom

While I was in Chicago over the New Year, I found a book of fiction from North Korea, the first I've encountered and evidently the first that has appeared in the West.  (By coincidence, I found it in the same used bookstore where in 1995 I found the first South Korean novel I ever read, A Gray Man by Choi In-hun.)

The book, a collection of stories, is called The Accusation; the author uses the pseudonym Bandi.  The English translation, by Deborah Smith, was published in 2017 by House of Anansi in Canada and by Grove Press in the US.

There are some strange things about it.  According to a rather novelistic afterword, Bandi's manuscripts were smuggled into South Korea in the late 1990s; they weren't published even in Korean for another couple of decades.  There may be good reasons for the delay -- maybe publication waited until Bandi died, for his own safety? -- but there's no explanation.  Also the account of the process by which the material was smuggled seems unnecessarily complicated, even contradictory; again, that could be to protect the smugglers and the author.

I'm not sure what I expected from the stories.  They're about the oppressiveness of life in a harsh totalitarian regime, where people can lose their homes and jobs for infinitesimal ideological deviations, or even for being anonymously accused of them.  The cover blurb, reproduced on Amazon, calls The Accusation "eye-opening" and a "vivid depiction of life in a closed-off one-party state."
The Accusation is a deeply moving and eye-opening work of fiction that paints a powerful portrait of life under the North Korean regime. Set during the period of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il's leadership, the seven stories that make up The Accusation give voice to people living under this most bizarre and horrifying of dictatorships. The characters of these compelling stories come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from a young mother living among the elite in Pyongyang whose son misbehaves during a political rally, to a former Communist war hero who is deeply disillusioned with the intrusion of the Party into everything he holds dear, to a husband and father who is denied a travel permit and sneaks onto a train in order to visit his critically ill mother. Written with deep emotion and writing talent, The Accusation is a vivid depiction of life in a closed-off one-party state, and also a hopeful testament to the humanity and rich internal life that persists even in such inhumane conditions.
The publication and translation of The Accusation is surely an event, but is it really "eye-opening"?  As an official enemy of the US, North Korea has been very effectively demonized in South Korean and Western media; much of the half-century-long flood of propaganda is even true.  I doubt any reader of Bandi's stories will find any fundamental surprises in his account of life in a highly repressive society.  Quite a number of books by Western visitors and North Korean defectors have appeared in the past few years, so we don't lack for first-hand accounts of life there.  The Accusation would have been more of a revelation if it had been published sooner.

What struck me most about The Accusation was how familiar it felt.  I've read a fair amount of fiction from Korea, some of it written under the Japanese occupation of 1910 to 1945, some of it written in the postwar period, during and after the South Korean dictatorships imposed and supported by the US.  Much of the claustrophobic feel of Bandi's fiction was reminiscent of the stories of those earlier periods.  During the postwar dictatorships, people suffered discrimination and repression because they had family or other ties to the North; being accused even of socialism, let alone communism, could have uncomfortable consequences much like those suffered by Northerners with family in the South.  For many years after the Korean war, there was a curfew in the South, and woe betide anyone caught abroad between midnight and 4 a.m.  The Kwangju uprising in the Southwest of South Korea of 1980 was put down with extreme brutality by Park Chung Hee's successor.  People were jailed, tortured, and executed for often flimsy political reasons; they might spend many years in camps in the countryside.

Or consider this anecdote, from the opening pages of  Korea's Grievous War by Su-kyoung Hwang (Pennsylvania, 2016):
In 1960, a crowd of mourners dressed in white formed a long funeral procession in a provincial district in South Korea. Young men and widows holding portraits of the dead led the grieving throng to a graveyard where their deceased family members were to be buried together. The collective casket contained the remains of over seven hundred people who had been massacred at the beginning of the Korean War. Their families had disinterred the bodies from a mass grave and were giving them a decent reburial. An inscription placed at the graveside read, “To the traveler passing by: historians of the future generation will tell the story of this grave.” One year later, under a newly established dictatorship, both the inscription and the burial site had disappeared without a trace. The families who had organized the mass funeral were arrested, imprisoned, and silenced. Their stories disappeared from public consciousness for decades.
Both North and South plotted to infiltrate and subvert each other.  In the 1960s a little group of convicts was sequestered and trained as commandos to cross the DMZ and assassinate then-DPRK dictator Kim Il Sung, as payback for an earlier attempt by Kim to assassinate then-ROK dictator Park Chung Hee. The operation was shelved when Park decided to make friends with Kim instead; it remained a deep secret until it was commemorated in a blockbuster 2003 South Korean film, Silmido.  South Korea, though nominally more open than the North, still had a reputation as the Hermit Kingdom until the 1988 Olympics were held there.  But the old rulers of the Republic of Korea were never really happy about the increase in freedom south of the 38th parallel, and there has been more or less constant pressure to turn back the clock.

Because of all this and more, I was taken aback by the claim at the end of the book's second afterword, that the "manuscript that had been in Bandi's possession was now going to South Korea, to a land of freedom and hope" (245).  That was much more true at the time Bandi sent his work south, than it was when he began to write it.  Outside of those few who knew something about Korean history, the change went largely unremarked in the United States.  Remember, like many other dictatorships South Korea was officially part of the Free World during the Cold War.  Little glitches like torture, massacres, and death squads were not incompatible with the US conception of "freedom" then, and not much has changed.

This is not to say that North Korea is a free society -- of course not -- or that I don't hope that the Kim dynasty will ultimately be replaced with a freer, more democratic government -- of course I do.  These days I dare to hope that such a change might happen in my lifetime, without the bloodbath dreamed of by South Korean and US hardliners alike; we've had enough of those.  I just believe that The Accusation was published a bit late to be effective propaganda.  If you haven't read much Korean literature, or even if you have and want to hear from a wider range of voices, it's worth a read.  The day may not be too far off when it will be as dated as Soviet-era dissident literature.  That's something worth hoping for.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Fierce Latina Holds Her Fire

It seems that the Trump regime's coup against the government of Venezuela isn't going as smoothly as he expected, and I take some comfort from that.

I'm not surprised that most Democratic Party politicians and fellow-travelers have supported the coup.  Even Bernie Sanders couldn't oppose it without including some US propaganda against Maduro; but then he's always been weak on foreign policy.  Representatives Ro Khanna of California, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan have condemned the coup forthrightly, but they're the exceptions.

I am surprised, I admit, that new Democratic Congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has hesitated to take a firm stand.  On January 30 the journalist Max Blumenthal reported:
I caught @AOC rushing into a committee hearing today on the Hill and asked her about Venezuela. "We're working on a statement," was all she said before entering the room. Don't think her name was on @USProgressives letter against intervention. Will have more reactions soon.
I don't like to quote the Daily Caller, but only right-wing media seem to be reporting the statement she finally, belatedly made:
“Our office is monitoring it closely. I think that, you know, the humanitarian crisis is extremely concerning but, you know, when we use non-Democratic [sic] means to determine leadership, that’s also concerning, as well,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Daily Caller on Thursday. “So, we’re figuring out our response and making sure that we center the people of Venezuela first and foremost.”
This won't do, though the capitalization of "democratic" there is amusing and presumably not Ocasio-Cortez' fault.  I see nothing here that would justify her hesitation about issuing a statement before.  It's just typical both-sides equivocation.  The "humanitarian crisis," as she must know, is largely the US' doing, thanks to its support for the anti-democratic Venezuelan opposition, and especially the sanctions that are intended to harm the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans.  If she doesn't know it, she should probably have admitted her ignorance and refused to comment.  But it doesn't take much background to oppose US support for coups.  The burden of argument lies not on opponents of US interference in other countries, but on those who support it.

Ocasio-Cortez' customary forthright readiness to snap back at Trump's malfeasance is on hold here, and I wonder why. The other frosh Representatives she calls her sisters are on record opposing the coup; why doesn't she follow their lead?  I've been wondering if perhaps significant numbers of her Latinx base support the coup, but I haven't seen any evidence one way or the other.

For me, it's pretty simple, given the US' horrific record in Latin America generally, and in Venezuela specifically.  It's difficult to distinguish lies from truth in US coverage of the situation, which has been fanatically hostile and indifferent to factual accuracy ever since Chavez was first elected.  If you want an introduction to the matter, Alan MacLeod's Bad News from Venezuela (Routledge, 2018) is a good place to begin, and will point you to other discussions.  But even if Maduro were as bad as we're told, that wouldn't justify US interference in Venezuela, which our gangster leaders are not even bothering to hide.  (A "dictator"?  "Corrupt"?  "Incompetent"?  These are all qualifications for US support of a regime.)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has some good positions and proposals, and I still approve of her more than I don't.  But I'm monitoring her closely, and I find her reluctance to speak out against the US-backed coup in Venezuela extremely worrying.