Thursday, April 30, 2009

Thus Do All (Women)

Tuesday night I went to see Opera Colorado's production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte. It was superb. The music was great, the singing was better, and the blocking and stage direction were original and hilarious. I laughed the whole way through.

This isn't a review though. The show spurred some reflections on gender and fidelity I want to share.

The plot of Cosi Fan Tutte is very simple. Two young soldiers, Guglielmo and Ferrando, are in love and believe their ladies are loyal. Don Alfonso, an older gentlemen and a friend of theirs, believes all women are fickle in their affections and so he bets them that he can prove, by means of a deception, that the ladies are not trustworthy. The soldiers accept the bet and they lay out a plot where the soldiers will pretend to be called away to war, then return disguised as Albanian strangers and swap places to woo each other's lady, in order to test their fidelity. The ladies prove to be very resistant, but in the end they both fall for the Albanians, in time for Don Alfonso to reveal that it was all a ruse and win the bet. The moral of the story is - women are just like that and men should be tolerant, but go into a marriage with eyes open.

With a straight reading, according to a period understanding of the opera, it is wildly sexist - even mysoginist. However, perhaps accidentally, or perhaps because it is rich enough in its original libretto, it is capable of transcending its original meaning and conveying quite a different, even opposite meaning to a modern audience.

The reason is that the men are cardboard caricatures who never once question the morality of lying to their fiancees and proceeding even to seduce one another's girl. At the end of the opera they are just as guilty of infidelity as their women, but they never even realize it. In fact, they are worse than the women because they did it knowingly and even betrayed each other whereas the women were unaware they were being seduced by their sister's fiancee. The men demonstrate no moral volition at all. They are like children, asleep. The women on the other hand struggle mightily and movingly with their emotions and temptations. They are never under the illusion that their infidelity is anything but wrong. They face consequences and accept their responsibility. They are moral adults. The end result is that we end up identifying with the women and thinking of the men as capricious and cruel.

The reason this is interesting is it seems to point toward a shift in gender perceptions between 1790 and 2009 - and in both era's we are wrong. In a classic anthropology men are the embodiment of the intellect, while women are the embodiment of the libido. Don Alfonso wants the soldiers to be "enlightened" and go into marriage in a sober and rational way, aware that women are subject to fickle affections. To some degree these old gender roles still persist, but in some ways our modern thinking actually reverses this line of thought. Men are often thought of in our culture as driven purely by libido, unable to control their lusts and thus not responsible for their infidelities or sexual transgressions. Women by contrast are often held responsible for controlling not only their own libido, but the libido of the men around them.

The point is, watching Cosi Fan Tutte, we easily dismiss the gender roles it presents as wrong, but we miss the irony that we are just as wrong today. It's about time that Guglielmo and Ferrando learned to keep their penises in their pants and stopped blaming their women either for having fickle affections, or for failing to control every man's rampaging libido. When are the men going to grow up and become moral adults, themselves?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Not a Sin: Virtue

Homosexuality itself is neither a virtue nor a vice; it is a condition or an identity. How then do virtue and vice relate to homosexuality?

The first question is whether homosexuality leads to vice - and my answer is "not of necessity."

For example, promiscuity. It is often alleged that homosexuals are more promiscuous than heterosexuals. This allegation contains several problems:
  1. Promiscuity is in the eye of the beholder and is usually just a code word for "that person has more sex than me."
  2. It generally only refers to male homosexuals based on the sexist idea that men are naturally more promiscuous than women thus two men would be incapable of monogamy.
  3. In most places marriage is still illegal for homosexuals which, I dunno, might have something to do with there being fewer lifelong committed relationships among homosexuals.
  4. Prove it. As with my previous article on talking about medical consequences, there have been no large random sample peer-reviewed studies done with a high response rate and an adequate control group, to actually measure normal sexual behavior among homosexuals in comparison with heterosexuals.
But let's face it - there are aspects of gay culture among certain sub-groups of homosexuals that encourage behavior most people would regard as promiscuous. How, though, is that any different than the drug and sex fueled culture around Rock & Roll? Or Hollywood? Or your average High School? Does the fact that promiscuity is common among rock stars indicate that innate musical talent leads to the vice of promiscuity? Hardly. We are dealing with cultural issues here, not anything to do with the condition of homosexuality itself.

All we need to prove that homosexuality doesn't lead of necessity to vice is examples of homosexuals who are not vicious. I personally know homosexual couples (both male and female) that are healthy, mature, and committed to monogamy. I know several couples that have been faithful for multiple decades - far outlasting the majority of heterosexual marriages.

What about virtue? Is it possible that homosexuality actually encourages certain virtues?

Consider this: to be openly homosexual in our society entails serious personal risk and sacrifice. Admitting your homosexuality to friends, family and strangers will almost certainly cost you a few of those relationships. It will damage your reputation and ensure that you are unwelcome in certain circles. It can make you subject to danger of violence, and will certainly make you subject to insults and subtler forms of cruelty. Facing this reality requires both courage and a remarkable dedication to honesty. Both are admirable virtues.

Of course, a quick reader will point out to me that these virtues, like the example of promiscuity used above, are consequences of the culture, not of homosexuality itself. Reader, you are correct. In an ideal world it will take no courage or honesty at all to admit to one's homosexuality because there will be no fear of recrimination.

Homosexuality by itself is neutral, leading to neither virtue nor vice "of necessity." It is our present cultural climate that causes certain vices to appear to be related to the condition of homosexuality - but it is this same culture that makes homosexuality a potential path to virtue.

A final comment on the relation of virtue and vice to homosexuality.

I know two paths which are perhaps the most potent in the entire world for the development of virtue, the first is marriage, the second is ministry (particularly of the ordained variety). Marriage was called "a school of virtue" by Luther and has been the single biggest factor in my ongoing development toward humanity since... ever. Ministry is the best way we have in the church of making the discipleship journey concrete and intentional. Certainly it is not the only way, but it is unquestionably a good way toward deepening virtue and growing in the love of Christ.

What does it say about our concern for the well-being of our homosexual brothers and sisters that we exclude them from these two crucial routes to virtue?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Absolute Disaster

I feel like I've been punched in the gut. My favorite team in sports, the San Jose Sharks, had their best season ever. The best season of any team in the league. And then they were eliminated in 6 games by the 8th seed in the 1st round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. WTF?

Excuse me while I go nurse my wounds.

I'm sure Nick is laughing himself silly, since the Blackhawks beat Calgary to advance to the 2nd round. Bastard.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Not a Sin: Teleology III

No harm can be attributed to homosexuality that is not equally attributable to heterosexuality.

However, there is clear and egregious harm done to homosexuals on a continuous basis both by outright bigotry, as well as the milder prohibitive stance taken by some conservative Christians. I differentiate between these two because I have made such a point through this series of taking moral discernment seriously. Just as a lynch mob and a racial slur made in a comedy club are on different planes morally, it is true that those attempting to exclude homosexuals from ordained ministry and the boys who murdered Matthew Shepard are not committing equal crimes. Intense conflict tends to push our rhetoric into hyperbole which is not helpful.

Bigotry against homosexuals is real in our society. Attend any middle-school in our country. Pay attention to which insults bear the most weight. Observe what behaviors get young boys ostracized and beat up. Our children are acting out what they see in their parents. I guarantee you that kids aren't getting mocked with such biting slurs as "mainline Christian," or "disciple of Jesus." Certainly no kid cried himself to sleep at night because his peers had called his mother a "Presbyterian".

I shouldn't make it a joke. Violent crimes are frequently targeted against homosexuals in this country. It isn't a laughing matter.

Against violence I suppose misplaced religious intolerance is preferable. Don't get the idea that a gentle "love the sinner, hate the sin" approach is anything but disingenuous, though. By coating hatred in sugary rhetoric, the anti-gay side of the church applies a respectable veneer to discrimination and legitimizes an immoral status quo. They are, despite their protestations to the contrary, guilty of enabling the violence of cruder members of society against homosexuals by perpetuating lies. They are false witnesses, a type of sinner about whom the Bible has much to say.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Deluge of Torture

It has been a positive deluge of news about torture lately. In case you've been living under a rock, I have collected some salient points for you to consider.

Firstly, the United States government has tortured people. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross it was systematic and widespread.

The use of torture was supposedly justified by legal opinions issued by the Justice Department in 2003.

But the legal opinions were both wrong, and too late. Because according to the Senate Armed Services Committee torture was being planned and implemented in early 2002.

Which means that the memos weren't a carefully considered response to an early inquiry from eager intelligence officials, but an attempt to silence dissent from within the CIA when interrogators questioned the legality (and morality) of torture.

Torture had always been the plan. In fact, the Bush administration, starting from the very top, was preparing to use torture from just a few months after 9/11/2001, and were urging its implementation to attempt to find an Iraq-Al Qaeda link.

Of course the link never materialized and the early CIA uses of torture bled into the military and were widely practiced in Iraq and Afghanistan which means that Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Bush lied and the Abu Ghraib incident was not just a few bad apples.

Can there be any doubt that prosecutions must follow? Let's hope the senate wises up and follows Patrick Leahy's plan.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Keep Your Friends Close

By Ken Silverstein

When reading this:

A video tape smuggled out of the United Arab Emirates shows a member of the country’s royal family mercilessly torturing a man with whips, electric cattle prods and wooden planks with protruding nails. A man in a UAE police uniform is seen on the tape tying the victim’s arms and legs, and later holding him down as the Sheikh pours salt on the man’s wounds and then drives over him with his Mercedes SUV.

In a statement to ABC News, the UAE Ministry of the Interior said it had reviewed the tape and acknowledged the involvement of Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, brother of the country’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed. “The incidents depicted in the video tapes were not part of a pattern of behavior,” the Interior Ministry’s statement declared…The government statement said its review found “all rules, policies and procedures were followed correctly by the Police Department.” ABC News

It’s worth remembering this:

“UAE is a committed ally in the war on terror. They are a key partner for our military in a critical region…“They’re sharing intelligence so we can hunt down the terrorists.” — President Bush, March 10, 2006.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Not a Sin: Teleology II

What harm does homosexuality cause?

This question is one which generates way more heat than light. Those who want to persuade society that homosexuality is a sin know that they have to prove that homosexuality is harmful. At present they are failing.

The first kind of harm I will consider is the most straightforward - physical or medical harm. There is a paucity of reliable data available on the subject. So instead of incisive answers we get ideologically driven hate-tracts cobbled together with shoddy scholarship and methodologically flawed "scientific studies".

Exhibit A: Paul Cameron's famous pamphlet about the "Medical Consequences of What Homosexuals Do."

Now go read this thorough 12 part analysis of the pamphlet and all 34 references cited. Or this scholarly treatment of the same pamphlet. Read how Dr. Cameron uses studies without any scientific credibility, or extrapolates from sample data taken exclusively from STD clinics and voluntary respondents to surveys published in pornographic magazines to make generalizations about all homosexuals. Observe the highly selective use of data - even from his own studies. Then go and learn how Dr. Cameron has been thoroughly discredited by his peers, ejected from the American Psychological Association for repeatedly misconstruing the results of other people's research, and pays a non-peer-reviewed journal to publish his work in order to maintain a semblance of academic credibility.

Paul Cameron is not the subject of this post, but he is the most widely distributed writer on the supposed harm caused by homosexuality, and he is an example of the really poor quality of these arguments. When it comes to medical consequences there has never been a large, random, scientifically credible study done which compares the effects of homosexual sex with heterosexual sex. All the studies currently out there share a variety of flaws. They have too small of a sample size to be representative. They are non-random; most of the participants have come from STD clinics or voluntary respondents to surveys published in suspect areas like pornographic magazines. They are almost exclusively concerned with male homosexual behavior - there are no good studies of lesbian sex that I am aware of. They utterly lack a heterosexual "control" group, meaning there is no basis for comparison.

But even without accurate scientific data there is something we can say, which immediately discredits any suggestion that homosexuality is harmful (in a medical sense).

There is no sexual behavior homosexuals engage in which is not practiced in far greater numbers by heterosexuals. Anal sex, fellatio, cunnilingus, you name it there are far more heterosexual couples doing it than homosexuals every day of the week. Therefore any medical consequence which could be attributed to a particular sexual behavior when practiced by homosexuals would also be true of heterosexuals.

There are other kinds of harm, though, besides the physical. What about emotional or psychological damage? Does homosexuality cause mental harm?

Immediately, we are confronted with a problem. How can we demonstrate that homosexuality is a primary cause of mental distress? How do we separate damage done to a person by a society which rejects and despises them, from damage caused by the sexual orientation itself? There is no clear cut method. The mind is still in many ways a mystery, and we will probably never know all of the complex interactions which make a human personality. It is possible, as most neurologists are increasingly persuaded, that the human brain does evidence both sexual dimorphism (different brain structures based on gender) as well as sexual-orientation dimorphism. If this is the case, how will we measure mental health in people who are neurologically different?

One thing is certain: we won't measure it via psychological profiling. The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the DSM in 1973 because study after study had failed to prove the long-established clinical bias that homosexuality is pathological. Hundreds of psychologists working for over a hundred years with the active assumption that homosexuality is a disease failed in even a single case to demonstrate that homosexuality is mentally harmful. Indeed, when given anonymous psychological profiles psychiatrists have been totally unable to distinguish homosexuals from heterosexuals.

There is no mental health issue homosexuals suffer from which heterosexuals do not suffer from in equal or greater proportion. Thus we cannot say that homosexuality is mentally harmful any more than heterosexuality is.

If homosexuality isn't physically harmful or mentally harmful, perhaps it is socially harmful. Doesn't homosexuality ruin marriages, corrupt children, destroy the family unit, and lead to the dissolution and devastation of society?

If mental harm was a nebulous and subjective criteria to measure, social harm is even more so. What objective method can we possibly use to determine whether homosexuality is damaging to society? Ultimately, there is none. Anyone can allege anything is damaging to society and it would be very difficult to prove or disprove. Popcorn is bad for society. Prove me wrong.

The burden of proof, though, lies on those who allege harm, and fortunately, in attempting to prove their thesis that homosexuality is harmful to society they have said some outlandish things which undermine the credibility of the argument.

For example, conservatives routinely insist that marriage has ALWAYS consisted of one man and one woman in every culture and every religion for over 5000 years. Thus, permitting homosexual relationships (and even worse officially approving of them through legalized marriage) destroys an enduring and universal institution. The absurdity of this statement is unbelievable. Polygymy and its partner Polygyny are practiced and socially approved in a variety of cultures around the world right now. Consent, which is a HUGE factor in any marriage in this country, has no role whatsoever in an arranged marriage, which is common in many places and was the norm prior to the 20th century even in our culture. Marriage has more often been about kinship arrangements and the uniting of two families than about the uniting of two people - even in western culture. And same gender marriages have been normal in various cultures through Southeast Asia. Cultural Anthropology 101 easily debunks this ridiculous argument.

Indeed, could homosexual relationships possibly damage marriage any more than the soaring divorce rate, an epidemic of domestic violence, and good old-fashioned infidelity have already?

As for corrupting children - is a child with two dads or two mothers really worse off than a child with a single mother? Or two sets of remarried parents? Is there something specific about a parent's predilections in the bedroom that you can demonstrate has more effect on the child's well-being than, say, attention, or discipline, or affection?

There is absolutely no proof that homosexuality is any more harmful to society than heterosexuality. From where I stand heterosexuals are doing a bang-up job destroying society all on their own.

But there is another side to this whole question of harm. That is - aren't we doing measurable harm to our homosexual sons and daughters through discrimination? I'll take that up in the next post.

Friday, April 17, 2009

PODcast Episode #2


Episode 2 - Watch us Suffer

Enjoy the second installation of Two Friars and a Fool. This topic is hosted by Nick and deals with the ever present topic of God and Human Suffering. How does God relate the vast suffering present in the world? What does it mean to deal with this theodicy question? How do we actually deal with suffering in our ministries and lives?

*for real this time, I swear*

Not a Sin: Teleology I

The predominant modes of moral reasoning used by those who declare homosexuality a sin are both deontological: divine command ethics, and natural law. Deontology has numerous limitations, which I've yammered on about already, but among these limitations is that it focuses solely on actions. There is no room for consideration of intentions, circumstances and consequences, let alone more complicated moral concepts like identity and virtue. But these things are crucial to moral judgment.

For example, there is a moral difference between a qualified surgeon who takes a knife and cuts someone in order to remove a tumor, but ends up killing the patient, and the exact same surgeon using the same knife with murderous intent. Or what if an unqualified person picks up the knife with the same noble intent as the surgeon to remove a tumor? Or what if the consequence of the action does not result in the patient's death, but only severe injury? What about secondary moral actors in this scenario like nurses? Does a nurse become accomplice to murder by handing an unqualified surgeon a scalpel?

The branch of moral reasoning that grapples with the ends of our behavior is called teleology, or consequentialism. It certainly can be distorted and abused as any ethical approach can. You are probably familiar with the phrase "the ends do not justify the means." It is true that when taken to extremes certain forms of teleology are repugnant. It is a crass and flawed form of utilitarianism, for example, that is usually employed to justify torture. On the other hand, a person would be criminally insane who never considered the consequences of their actions.

Teleology is biblically supportable. The New Testament, especially, emphasizes the principle of "fruits" - meaning consequences. The phrase "by their fruits you shall know them" is a teleological principal. Indeed, the New Testament is highly critical of deontological ethics. Jesus in his sermons, actions and parables routinely criticizes the scribes and pharisees for following the letter of the law, but failing to be good people based on the consequences of their actions, or their self-aggrandizing intent. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a sharp indictment of deontological ethics, when the Priest and the Levite follow all the rules, but fail to be compassionate.

When we look at the morality of homosexuality through a teleological lens we realize first of all that we can't make sweeping statements. The difference in circumstances and intent between male temple prostitution, pedophilia, prison rape, and a consensual adult monogamous homosexual relationship are vast, as are the consequences. These things are not morally equivalent at all. Furthermore, human relationships are complex and it is difficult to generalize about a group or type of relationships even when they bear substantial superficial similarities. Not all heterosexual consensual adult monogamous marriages are morally equivalent. Why would we assume we could generalize about homosexual relationships?

Unfortunately, these generalizations do get made. Some conservatives have realized that their deontological arguments hold no water and have attempted to wade into the teleological realm alleging all sorts of harm that homosexuality causes. In the next post I will briefly address the question "what harm does homosexuality cause"?

Truth and Justice Not the American Way

I am extremely disappointed in the way Obama and his Justice Dept. are evading responsibility for upholding the law when it comes to concrete evidence of torture being planned and committed by our government. I want to retain hope. It is early in his term yet. He is a smart man. Maybe he is biding his time, building an ironclad case... I want to believe he couldn't possibly justify to himself a refusal to hold criminals accountable. But I fear that he is susceptible to the corrupting influence of power.

Andrew Sullivan had a great article on this subject today. Referring to some of the memos released yesterday he says:

The core point of this, one infers from the memos, is to create a sense among the prisoners that their assumptions about the West, the US, and countries constructed on the rule of law are without any basis whatever. The torture techniques were all the more brutal in order to push back against the reputation of the US even in the minds of Qaeda or alleged Qaeda members. What Mukasey and Hayden are arguing for today is a scheme whereby, in secret, the US government credibly allows captives to believe they are in an endless, bottomless pit of extra-legal terror. This is the state of mind they are trying to construct by torture. That's the point of the sensory deprivation, the disappearances, the sequestering from the Red Cross, the endless solitary confinement, the IRFing, the hoods, the nudity, and all the other sadism. It is precisely to persuade the barbarians that we are as bad as they are and have no limits and no qualms in doing to them whatever we want.

Looked at from a distance, the Bush administration wanted to do two things at once: to declare to the world that freedom is on the march, and human rights are coming to the world with American help, while simultaneously declaring to captives that the US has no interest in the law, human rights, accountability, transparency or humanity. They wanted to give hope to all the oppressed of the planet, while surgically banishing all hope from the prisoners they captured and tortured. And the only way they could pull this off is by the total secrecy they constructed and defended. So we had a public government respectful of the rule of law, and a secret government whose main goal was persuading terror suspects that there was no rule of law at all. It is hard to convey just how dangerous this was and is.

The height of hypocrisy. We are white-washed sepulchres. Nothing but rot and decay wrapped in a veneer of truth and justice.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Curmudgeon

This clip has been popping up all over the blogosphere.



Now there is a voice in my head saying "shut up, Aric!" and usually when that voice gets going I ignore it and then I regret ignoring it in short order. So I will issue a couple disclaimers before going on to ignore that voice...

The basic storyline most people are taking from this televised incident, that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover etc... etc... is a good one. If people are uplifted and challenged to be more compassionate, less judgmental people, then that is an unqualified good thing. I don't want to rain on anyone's parade.

But...

To paraphrase the Princess Bride, "I don't think this clip means what you think it means." I mean, it's not particularly subtle is it? Is no one else out there cynical enough to suspect that this was staged? It's not even necessary to assume that it was a conspiracy that Ms. Boyle was in on, but merely to point out that this show (just like American Idol) is way over-produced. The cameras, judges, audience, etc... it is all coordinated and conducted like a symphony orchestra. How much do the judges have to ham it up, and how selective does the editing of crowd shots have to be before you begin to suspect that it wasn't quite the feel-good story you suppose?

There is a deeper problem as well, besides the slick marketing and presentation at work - which is that the show, far from subverting our stereotypes, actually reinforces them and plays upon them. I mean, why should we be surprised about her vocal skill at all? What is the elephant in the room here? What aren't people saying out loud about Ms. Boyle that would lead basically everyone to assume that she was going to humiliate herself? Could it be that she is stereotypically unattractive, even sort of Downs Syndrome-y looking, and dressed auspiciously frumpy?

Please understand - this is not at all a criticism of Ms. Boyle, but rather of the exploitative platform which intentionally used her to get ratings by knowingly playing on our crass aesthetic judgments and then expertly triggering our sympathies. It is a feel good story written at the expense of her humanity, because we have to first stereotype her before, predictably, having our stereotype upset.

I really do hope that she rides this to achieve what she desires and that she goes as far as she can with the vocal talent and discipline she can muster. Even more so I hope that she doesn't ever feel she has to sacrifice a part of herself in order to live up to the role that has been thrust upon her, of everyone's favorite talented ugly woman.

First Torture Indictments

Six members of the Bush administration are on the hook today. The same Spanish court which managed the case against Augusto Pinochet, former dictator of Chile, is seeking the indictments arising out of an investigation into allegations that Spanish citizens held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were tortured. The six officials to be charged are former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Federal Appeals Court Judge and former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, University of California law professor and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, former Defense Department general counsel and current Chevron lawyer William J. Haynes II, Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff David Addington, and former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith.

The accusations being made are that these men not only gave the official approval for the techniques used in Gitmo, but that they actually conspired to establish a series of faulty legal justifications and exceptions to both domestic and international law in the process. These are the men that crafted the memos which Cheney and Bush used to declare their actions legal and moral. If they are found to be guilty of legal malpractice it will open the floodgates to prosecution of all those who acted on their flimsy justifications.

It is going to be interesting, politically, to see how this unfolds. Since the Spanish court is acting purely on evidence that their own citizens were tortured the people who will shout that this is an outside intrusion into American domestic politics have no footing. Furthermore, the Spanish prosecutors have repeatedly offered to suspend the investigation if American courts would initiate an investigation of their own - begging the question of why we have not yet begun ANY kind of serious examination of human rights abuses by our government. Allegations and evidence continue to pour in from unimpeachable sources, like the International Committee of the Red Cross. The longer we let this go, the more pressure mounts, and the more we look like either cowards or villains for not making amends.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The First Evangelist

John 20:1-18

She runs and her footsteps roll down the dark roads of Jerusalem like distant thunder. Her leather sandals, smacking dusty ground, shout retorts off the walls of white-washed sepulchres along the slope of the Mount of Olives, telegraphing her hasty retreat to sleeping citizens who stir momentarily, but roll over in their beds unaware of the momentous discovery she has made. For a heartbeat she nearly loses her balance while taking a corner too recklessly. She grabs the wall to right herself and keep on course.

Her race is born of shock and confusion. She runs to outpace the raging torrent of her emotions, which if they catch her will bear her haplessly down a merciless channel to dash her soul apart. Every breath she takes is a desperate gasp against the stabbing pain in her lungs, but it is hard to notice new wounds when you are nursing a freshly broken heart.

Only an hour before, she had set out, alone, in the quiet black before dawn, to carry her grief to her master’s tomb. She took with her a small satchel of fragrant herbs to spread over the body of the man who, until Friday afternoon, had been to her the shocking proof of God’s love. He was like a sudden bolt of lightning across a cloudless night sky. Impossible. Unpredictable. He was like the waves of a roaring sea against an earthen dam. He tore holes in your defenses until nothing could stop the spring of hope from flowing into your heart. She had dared to imagine, because of him, a world void of cruelty.

It was especially cruel, therefore, that the latest act of this rebellious world had been to tear his life to shreds on a Roman cross.

And so, as she climbed the hill near Golgotha, to the tomb where Joseph of Arimathea had laid His corpse, she was too desolate even to weep. She had trudged that lonely path till at last she came to the garden before the entrance and was suddenly jolted out of her misery. The stone was rolled aside. The tomb had been disturbed.

The satchel of fragrant herbs tumbled to the ground unheeded she was already running back the way she had come.

Running, as the sun rose over the city of David. Running over the threshold and up the stairs to an upper room. Shouting in a hoarse and breathless voice…

“Gone! … Peter!”

Collapsing onto a divan in a coughing fit, she struggles to master her throat and share her tale. Her dearest friends gather around her. Peter, John, Martha, Thomas… she has come to think of them as family. Brothers and sisters. They share her grief. In these past days especially, they have found the only solace possible in one another’s company. Lazarus, Matthew, James… It will devastate them to hear of this latest insult. They hurry to her sides and help her sit up. Someone gives her a bowl of new wine, which she drinks to quench the burning in her chest.

They look at her expectantly, and at once she begins to weep.

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she tells them. “They have taken him… the stone was moved… they…”

She can hardly bear it. Martha is slowly backing away and starting to wail – a high pitched ululation, the song of mourning. John’s face is turning red. Peter, however, leans closer and sets his ear near her mouth.

“Are you sure,” he asks.

She nods, “They have taken him, and we don’t know where they have put him.”

Peter shares a meaningful look with another man there, one of the master’s most beloved disciples, and kissing her on the cheek, the two of them depart immediately. James and Thomas press her for more information, others are prostrate on the floor of the room praying “Adonai, Adonai, Adonai” (lord, lord, lord) and the piercing sound of Martha’s wailing drifts out the windows and over the streets.

Repeated, the story of her horrible discovery seems paltry. So much is unknown. Some speculate that the thieves were Centurions. Others suggest that it was servants of the Sanhedrin who violated the tomb, but as the initial agony fades she grows impatient with speculation. She longs to see for herself, to know for certain that her teacher is gone, and perhaps to beg anyone, everyone, for information. Someone must know where they dragged his body. Someone must know what they have done with him.

While the others are still debating who may be guilty of this offense, she quietly slips out of the room and down the stairs. She pulls her headscarf tight over her hair and steps into the street once more.

The journey back up the mountain is different this time. A hook of uncertainty has caught in the tapestry of her emotions. Her cheeks still wet with tears she feels herself pulled up the slope by her unraveling worries. Could it be that she was somehow mistaken?

In the distance she hears the shofar blowing. It is the first day of the week and men are going to the temple for morning prayers. The sun has risen over the Jordan as she walks into the garden at the top of the hill. Rays of light through the branches of an olive tree make it seem on fire.

Beside the tree she sees the opening of the tomb, unsealed, and within she hears people moving. Her breath catches as two men come walking out, but it is only her brothers. Both have the look of shattered glass on their faces – Peter is especially perplexed. He shakes his head at her unspoken question. They all stand in total silence as the minutes pass, lacking the courage to say their fears aloud, before the men turn away and walk down the road.

Mary looks at the unguarded opening. A gust of wind ripples over the rooftops of the city, carrying the smells of dust, and clay, and baking bread past her nose. The shofar blows again.

And then she decides. She could turn away, fly this place, and shriek her righteous anger at the heavens until the fissure in her soul dries up and closes over, but she chooses instead to plunge into the darkness of the grave, to know for herself.

The light is gone and her nostrils are full of the scent of death. She rushes to the back of the enclosed space where she knows already, he is not. On the bier the cloths lay, folded. The shroud is separate and all of it caked with blood. She is alone, but she is not. Two men, with voices like crashing cymbals, are next to her, or on the bier, or all around, or not there at all. She turns away from them and they are there facing her. They smile and it is like clouds parting.

“Why are you crying?” they ask in unison.

It is too terrible, or too wonderful, or simply too much for her too look at them. She mumbles something about finding her Lord and stumbles for the entrance. She is stopped abruptly, running headlong into a tall man who was not there before. She crumbles to her knees, overcome. Her chest heaving, she tries to croak out an apology between sobs.

He takes pity on her.

“Who is it you are looking for?” he asks brushing a tear from her cheek. His hands are coarse from callouses and they smell of earth.

“Please,” she begs him and she bestows her very self with the word, “Please, if you have carried my teacher away, tell me where you have put him. Please.”

And she knows as she says this that it was not just her teacher they buried in this grave, but her life also, and if he has been taken from here, then her life has also been stolen away. She knows this like a stone knows the quarry it was cut from, and forever bears the marks of that memory on its skin. She knows that she must find him to find herself and thus she cannot think of giving up her search. She says this to the stranger with her pleading. He must hear her and have mercy on her.

As the shofar blows a third time he places his hand on her head, and says one word, “Mary.”

That one word, spoken from his mouth, is for her more than all the words on all the scrolls of all the prophets. For it contains a love so amazing, so divine, that if every continent were made of parchment, and every sea a well full of ink, and every person dedicated every minute of every day to writing the story of that love we could never finish the tale.

“Rabboni!” she cries, which means ‘teacher’, but in this case also ‘I love you’.

As her tears of sorrow are transformed into rivers of joy, he lifts her to her feet, and they embrace, and it is a moment that transcends time and space, but it is still only a moment, for he tells her that she must let go and return to the others, her brothers and sisters.

“Go,” he says to her, “and tell them.” He makes of her his first messenger, his first evangelist. “Tell them that I am returning to my God and your God, to my Father who is now also your Father.”

Though part of her wants to stay there with him, she goes without hesitation because she knows now that he cannot possibly be taken from her. She knows that not even the grave can hold him and thus all of her fear evaporates like the morning dew.

She runs, and her footsteps roll down the streets of Jerusalem like distant thunder. Her leather sandals, smacking dusty ground, shout reports off the walls of white-washed sepulchres along the slope of the Mount of Olives, telegraphing her joyous flight to the citizens at their morning prayers. Barely touching the ground she flies, for she brings good news of great joy for all people. For this day, in the city of David, a new world is born to us.

He is Risen! Jesus Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

And that is the news that the first evangelist had to share.

And that is the news that I have to share with you.

And that is the news that you have now, to share with others.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor be unto them, Amen.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

Today I go back to the hospital, and one of the things I feel that I need to do is to have another conversation with a patient who has given up. I don't want to go into details, so as to maintain his anonymity, but essentially he is facing a difficult and debilitating treatment of what amounts to the slow rotting of parts of his body. If he lets the treatment occur, no clinicians have told me he's likely to die just yet. He'll lose mobility, have to endure pain, but will be able to return to his life.

Yesterday I decided I wasn't giving up until he talked to me. He hadn't talked to nurses except to refuse even basic care (blood sugar checks, wound care, etc.) and hadn't talked to doctors at all. He was just in the fetal position on the bed staring out the window. I pulled a couple chaplain tricks, and got him to talk to me - barely.

It isn't often that you see someone that desolate. Its haunting just to think about and remember even in my living room.

And it turns out that he is Christian, and today is Good Friday.

Normally we don't really do anything for Good Friday as such in the hospital except work to facilitate patients and staff who want to observe in some way. But I was thinking about this guy, and of some way I could reach him. Good Friday seems like the day to face a guy who is choosing to die.

As I thought about it, I came to a slightly deeper understanding of Good Friday. It wasn't so much that Jesus was deciding to die - is a temporary death even a death at all? Rather, I think that Jesus was choosing to suffer for the sake of resurrection. To suffer torture and the grave, but not to succumb to it.

So this is what I'm going to bring to this guy tomorrow. Its going to be really hard, and I'm way past the point where I think my words will be magic and have some huge impact on him. But maybe this guy sees death looming over him (Hell, given his situation, I'd feel it) and can't let himself see past it...because of the pain, or the humiliation that comes with losing mobility you once had, or the frankly icky nature of what he's suffering from.

I see one hope for this guy, really, and it has to lie past the pain and the death and the mess. It has to be some kind of resurrection, some kind of return to life that is healthier than it was before. I think he has that chance, and I don't see much else he has to hope for.

It doesn't make him Jesus for making the choice to live despite death any more than I'm Jesus for talking to him. It's my job, and my reasons for putting this much time in are selfish. I feel awful that this guy has given up. I don't want to watch him deteriorate, and watch the nurses get upset and take it personally because they care so much, and the doctors throw up their hands because he can't heal if they can't cut, and they can't cut if he doesn't let them.

So this guy has a choice either way - choose death, or choose life beyond a kind of death. I know I can't choose for him, or be in his head, but I want to clearly say what I see.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Not a Sin: Biology

Contrary to the assertion of conservatives that homosexuality is unnatural, an overwhelming body of evidence is growing which says that homosexuality is naturally occurring, even congenital. The science to support this conclusion is coming from psychiatry, neurobiology, endocrinology and a host of relevant animal studies. Already back in 1997 the Atlantic published an excellent article summarizing the variety of research which pointed toward the conclusion that homosexuality is biologically conditioned.

It is important to note that no one has identified a singular cause of homosexuality. There is, as of yet, no "gay gene," and even if a genetic link is found (which seems likely since various twin studies have determined that homosexuality is up to 70% heritable) it will only be a contributing factor, not a sole cause. No gene is sufficient to explain the diversity and complexity of human behavior. Most researchers agree that a combination of factors contribute toward homosexual attraction and behavior, ranging from genetics, to pre-natal hormone exposure, to brain structure.

Some conservatives complain that the science is politicized and inaccurate. One can never rule out politics and bias in anything, but the studies are so numerous and the results so compelling that regardless of any bias in reporting the conclusion is persuasive to anyone paying attention. The most common complaint of conservatives is that the American Psychiatric Association since removing homosexuality from the DSM in 1973 has ignored the proponents of reparative therapy. However, this is not a case of political bias, but rather the overcoming of an unreasonable bias. For over 100 years it was the completely baseless assumption of psychiatric medicine that homosexuality was a pathology. The position of the APA was only reversed after study after study had failed to prove homosexuality was either pathological or curable. Indeed, not one clinical study supports the idea that homosexuality is a disease. In anonymous survey after anonymous survey psychiatrists have failed to even identify sexual orientation based on psychological profiles. The APA correctly warns against reparative therapy because it is based on century old bad science and treats homosexuality as a disease which it is not.

The fact that homosexuality is neither a disease nor a simple choice, but a biologically conditioned identity accompanied by feelings and behaviors is relevant to the question of whether or not homosexuality is a sin because it destroys Natural Law arguments. Homosexuality is natural, therefore we cannot call it a sin on the basis of it being "unnatural." That line of argument is terminated. Good riddance.

The implications of homosexuality being natural reach also into that other demense of conservative moral reasoning - divine command, because wherever a "divine command" can be demonstrated to rely for its justification on a mistaken understanding of human nature we are right to point out the flaw. That is, all of the assumptions various authors of the Bible made about homosexuality being unnatural are revealed to be wrong, just as parts of the Bible are wrong about the sky being a metal dome or rabbits being ruminants. If the rationale for the rule is wrong the rule is also wrong.

Ironically, though, progressives often make the same mistake as conservatives in reverse. That is, if conservatives say "unnatural = bad," progressives often assume "natural = good." This is not the case. As much as biology can help us to understand how we are made, and where some of our feelings and behaviors begin, it does not have the final say about the moral nature of our actions.

It is possible, for example, that some people have a genetic predisposition toward violence, but that would not make violence acceptable. It may, however, influence our judgment of the person who committed the violence if they were genetically so predisposed. We might lean toward treatment or containment rather than punishment in our response. A biological condition cannot by itself make an action good or evil, but it does play a role in our calculation of moral responsibility.

Thus we can make a few modest conclusions on the basis of the knowledge that homosexuality is biologically conditioned. First of all, we have discredited any argument which relies on the assumption that homosexuality is unnatural. However, we cannot leap from there to the positive assertion that because homosexuality is natural it is also good. Regarding homosexuality as natural does influence our calculation of moral responsibility, nevertheless, to make a decision about the moral nature of homosexuality will require something more than all of this obsession with nature. Deontology is not enough. We need to examine intentions, circumstances and consequences.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Rick Warren Said What?

Rick Warren, who was the subject of our first podcast, recently went on CNN's Larry King Live. While on the show he made the following comments:
In the first place, I am not an anti-gay or anti-gay marriage activist. I never have been, never will be." Warren also says, “During the whole Proposition 8 thing, I never once went to a meeting, never once issued a statement, never—never once even gave an endorsement in the two years Prop 8 was going.”

That's really interesting because I could have sworn this was an endorsement:



Am I missing something?

h/t Levellers.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Not a Sin: Natural Law

Penises were made to go into vaginas therefore any other use of penises or vaginas is a violation of their natural purpose and a sin. So goes one argument for the sinfulness of homosexuality. This line of argumentation is an appeal to Natural Law.

Natural Law is another form of deontological ethics. Natural Law assumes that true, abiding moral principles are immanent in nature. Natural Law is discovered, not created, thus it is purer than human laws. In Christian ethics Natural Law is assumed to participate in and accord with the Eternal Law which is God's intentions for creation. Natural Law is often supplemented with (but never contradicted by) Divine Law, which is the revealed set of laws given in scripture and by the Church.

Being a form of deontological ethics it has the same limitations as Divine Command ethics I described earlier. It necessarily restricts itself to universal principles which are extremely rare. It cannot say much about specific human behaviors, because rules which govern human behavior nearly always require exceptions. It has no room for consideration of consequences, intentions, or circumstances. It is a blunt instrument.

The same Natural Law argument which would declare homosexuality a sin, for example, must, to be consistent, also label as sin any form of sexual behavior which does not serve the supposed final cause of sex, which is reproduction. That means that oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, intercourse during menstruation or after menopause, or when either of the parties are known to be infertile, or when any form of contraception is used must also be ruled out. To temper the obvious ridiculousness of this standard apologists will say that the sex act must only be "open" to reproduction, which they interpret to mean vaginal sex without use of contraception. They will say that sex with a post-menopausal woman, for example, is still "open" to procreation based on the example of Sara and other Biblical stories where God works a miracle in a woman of advanced age. But if we're including miracles in our rationale then any kind of sex must be "open" to procreation because nothing is impossible with God. In fact, I can think of one notable example in which there was no sex at all and a pregnancy still resulted.

The point is, to be consistent with this line of argument you must treat a wide array of sexual behaviors as equally condemnable with homosexuality. Masturbation is just as "unnatural" by this thinking - yet it is essentially universal.

Indeed, the irony is that saying it is "Natural Law" that penises should only be inserted in vaginas (and only for the purpose of procreation) goes against one of the foundational tenets of Natural Law theory - which is that true laws are immanent in nature, and thus deducible by observation. It is easily observed that there are actually a variety of uses for penises and vaginas aside from procreation, just as we use our mouths to breathe, to eat, to talk, to sing, to smile, to kiss, to whistle, to spit, to cough, to vomit and more. If Natural Law can be deduced by observation it ought to be susceptible to the evidence of the Biological sciences (more on that in a later post), which clearly show us that masturbation is natural and purposeful, and increasingly show us the same about homosexuality.

Natural Law is such a rude and useless instrument that not only is it limited to dealing with a few supposedly universal principles, not only does it often fail to accurately teach us what is natural, but it also completely fails to adequately demonstrate the connection between what is natural and what is good. By this reading of Natural Law there is nothing to distinguish rape from consensual heterosexual marital sex for procreation. As long as "tab A" goes in "slot B" the sex is "natural", but how can it in any sense be called good? To begin to approach what makes sex good or bad we have to examine consequences, circumstances and intentions - all things which a deontological method ignores.

Conservative moral reasoning swims almost exclusively in these deontological circles. Homosexuality is sinful either because "the Bible says," or "God commands" or because "it is unnatural." It is the persistent failure of these approaches that they focus exclusively on a narrowly understood sexual act, reducing all of human sexuality to the moment of coitus. They can have nothing to say about the morality of hand-holding, kissing, flirting, foreplay, or the deep emotional bonds formed in sexual relationships. They fail to address people in their sexual being, and thus they're found by most of society to be irrelevant. There is a reason why the Roman Catholic Church's teachings on sexuality are almost totally ignored.

We can do better.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Not a Sin: Aesthetics

Most likely, long before any of us had a conscious original opinion about the morality of homosexuality we had a gut response of attraction or revulsion. This probably applies to almost everything, though some things may be so bland as to elicit no response either positive or negative.

Aesthetic value judgments are very basic. Often they come unbidden before we have any opportunity to evaluate them. They function largely beyond our control. I don't like beets. I can't give you a good reason why I don't like them, I just don't.

Just because aesthetic value judgments are often beyond our control does not mean they are necessarily hard-wired into us. Some tastes change over time. Also we are heavily influenced by our culture and environs. Western people tend to hear and respond more favorably to music written in a western style. Music written in the pentatonic scale (which is predominant in Asia) sounds alien and unpleasant to many westerners.

Most aesthetic value judgments are morally neutral. It does not matter if you prefer Picasso to Seurat. I can question your taste, but it is no reflection on your character. However, not all such judgments are morally indifferent. Consider your gut response to seeing a man in Arab dress on the airplane with you. Or have you ever crossed the street to avoid walking near someone who appeared unsavory? Aesthetics are an insidious and difficult to overcome part of racism and discrimination of all kinds.

We are all familiar with the popular proverb "don't judge a book by its cover." Yet we also know very well that "first impressions matter." Like it or not our aesthetic values influence our moral judgments, usually unduly.

Of course, not all aesthetic judgments are a bad influence on moral decisions. There is a reason why people naturally recoil at images of violence and gore. There is a reason why a psychologically normal person is moved with pity at pictures of other human beings suffering. These deep seated aesthetic values are powerful assets that give us a head start in the empathy game. They hinder us from committing acts of violence and give us a push toward acts of altruism. But they are not a replacement for moral reasoning. If an aversion to blood prevents a doctor from being good at her work it is a hindrance not a benefit. If pity for the suffering of others is condescending it will be counterproductive.

When it comes to homosexuality aesthetics are particularly relevant, of course, because part of sexual orientation is an aesthetic value judgment. I find women sexy. Some more than others, of course, but almost any woman is more sexually attractive to me than a man. This aesthetic value isn't something I chose and it comes prior to any conscious evaluation I have made about the relative qualities of men and women. Because we naturally empathize (for aesthetic reasons) with people similar to ourselves I find the sight of heterosexual couples kissing to be more attractive than images of homosexual couples kissing. Many people are in fact repulsed by the sight of something they can't relate to, thus the sight of two men kissing makes many heterosexual men uncomfortable.

It is the unfortunate truth that many people who say they regard homosexuality as a sin have no better reason than "it's icky." This kind of primitive value judgment feeds right into Natural Law arguments (which I will cover in a later post). People assume their discomfort is some kind of proof that homosexuality is unnatural when it is no such thing, anymore than a dislike of beets proves that beets are unnatural (though they really might be!).

In making moral judgments every person has the responsibility to evaluate themselves and be sure that their aesthetic biases are not influencing their opinion. If your reason for declaring homosexuality sin is at any level because it grosses you out then the only thing to say is "get over it!"

Though we may not have control over our initial aesthetic values we can train ourselves to appreciate beauty which we previously did not see. I recommend spending time with an articulate and expressive homosexual friend who can explain their attraction. Expose yourself to images of homosexual expressions of affection - even better if they are real life people. Get to know them. Hear their stories. Share jokes with them. Try to see things from their perspective. Imagine, I mean really imagine, for yourself what it would be like to kiss someone of the same gender. How can you say you wouldn't like it if you haven't tried it? Tastes can change. I once despised asparagus, but I just didn't know what I was missing.

Doubtless that sounds scandalous to some people, but consider Caravaggio's filthy swarthy saints, or Michelangelo's nude David, or our beaten and abused savior on the cross... what is scandalous to you may be a glorious work of art to another person.