Archive for January, 2011

I missed church today after planning to go for the first time in a while. I wish I’d gone. I would have heard these words from the Lectionary for today:

Matthew 5:1-12

5When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in hear in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Today’s text readings in the Lectionary mark the beginning of the readings of the Sermon on the Mount in the liturgical year.

I wish the Sermon was the creed we’d read every week in church instead of the anachronistic Nicene Creed. The core teachings of Jesus, not the resolution of the theological disputes of the 4th century, should be the guiding lights of our practice and faith. The Sermon asks so much more of us. I guess that explains it.

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I’m really trying not to flip out every time the right wing says something this week, but Sarah Palin is not making it easy for me.

Her latest statement on the Giffords incident is, in a word, vile. Not only does Palin miss the chance to show any contrition for drawing up maps with crosshairs over the now-shot Rep. Giffords’ district (or for her and her colleagues violence-laden rhetoric), but she managed to invoke the status of a persecuted European Jew to describe the awful phenomenon of people finally holding her accountable for her words.

Just so we’re on the same page here, this is an excerpt from Palin’s statement:

If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas. But, especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

The phrase “blood libel” has a very dark history. It’s not a phrase that simply means “to falsely attribute responsibility for violence.” It has a very specific meaning, and it refers to the old European anti-Semitic slander that Jews kidnapped Christian children so they could eat their body parts during religious festivals like Passover. This slander led to the false prosecution of any number of Jews in cases where a murder of a child occurred, often of whole groups of Jews who were implicated in the hate-motivated conspiracy theory of the local Christians. Blood libel played a major role in the persecution of Jews in Europe over at least two centuries. Pogroms have been triggered by the blood libel.

Sarah Palin is drawing an analogy between people finally calling her out on her and her movement’s violence-laden rhetoric and the anti-Semitic hate slander that led to the killing of European Jews.

This persecution complex of the right wing astounds me. With the Supreme Court, Congress, and the White House under the control of majorities who identify themselves as Christians, with a de-facto religious test built into our politics for high elected office, with Christianity being by far the largest religion adhered to by religious Americans, the right wing puts out constant propaganda that “we have to turn America back to God” and that “Christianity is under attack.” While it’s true that Christianity is under attack in other places around the world, honestly and violently under attack, that is not the case in the United States.

What is the case in the U.S. is that we have a political movement jockeying to represent a clearly defined demographic group, in this case Christians, that make up a majority of the population (again, because that group has enormous political power, not because it’s “under attack”). What all these claims of persecution and of the need to “turn America back to God” amount to is a call that the majority be able trample the rights of the minority so the majority can live in a pure society untainted by the sin of the outsider. What the folks making this argument may or may not understand is where this kind of agitation leads: what Rene Girard identified as the “sacrificial crisis.”

In a sacrificial crisis, a society’s rituals for managing violence break down, the ritual observances’ ability to create unity losing their effect. The society begins to look for causes for the ineffectiveness and for the increasing pressure within the culture, for the “anger of God.” They inevitably focus on the contamination of “the Other,” the person or people in the group that are different than the majority, those that “pollute” an otherwise “pure” culture. As the idea solidifies that the Other is to blame, a herd mentality begins to form that directs the violence of the community in the Other’s direction. The community is once again united–in violence–as they sacrifice the Other. The unity created by the majority’s mob mentality gives the illusion that the rituals are working again, masking the fact that the unity is only the unity of the gang.

This is why it’s so essential that we continue to hold people like Sarah Palin responsible for their violent rhetoric: our country is ripe for a crisis. Our rituals aren’t working. The Prosperity Gospel is in the gutter. Millions of people participated in a mass movement to get the right wing out of office, and it we still find ourselves mired in war, unemployment and general malaise. Millions of other people just voted Republicans into office in Congress, but they’ll discover as they did in the Tom DeLay years that people who campaign to obtain political power don’t generally use it to reduce the power they have. (Just wait until they get the Presidency and Congress again, and watch.) In short, it seems like nothing is working, and each of us is becoming less secure. As the pressure builds, the tendency to identify an Other and make violence against that Other acceptable will increase.

The right wing is playing with fire, both with their violent rhetoric and with their language of persecution. Each pushes a society already sliding in the direction of a sacrificial crisis that much closer to the edge. That’s what makes Sarah Palin’s statement so appalling. Not only did she not retract her violent imagery and rhetoric, but she compounded it with the language of bloody persecution. If those who support people who use this kind of language don’t forcefully denounce it, we’re all going to get burned.

U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot today at a public event outside a grocery store in her home district. Many other people were hurt or killed, including a 9-year-old child. Giffords has been the target of repeated nudge-nudge-wink-wink incitements by the right wing over the past several months, including being put on a “hit list” (complete with cross-hairs over her district’s location) by Sarah Palin, and an event hosted by her electoral opponent Jesse Kelly (endorsed by Palin) where you could “Get on target for victory in November Help Remove Gabrielle Giffords from office Shoot an automatic rifle.” Shot at point-blank range with the bullet passing through her brain, Giffords survived the attack and the surgery and is in critical condition.

The shooter, Jared Loughner, by all indications is deeply disturbed, a fact that anger-outrage-nationalism-mongers are furiously trying to exploit to escape culpability. They won’t succeed. I’m fully confident that Americans, for all of our shortcomings, get that you can’t put cross-hairs over someone’s congressional district, sling around phrases like, “Don’t retreat…RELOAD,” and talk about “Second Amendment remedies” for months and then act shocked when someone gets shot. The local sheriff put it well when he spoke to the press about this crime earlier today:

At a news conference Saturday night, a clearly emotional [Sheriff Clarence] Dupnik, who has been close to both Giffords and Roll, repeatedly cited what he characterized as the “vitriol” that has infected political discourse. He said that his own state has become “the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

There is reason to believe, he said, that the shooting suspect “may have a mental issue,” adding that people like that “are especially susceptible to vitriol.”

“That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences,” he said.

Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said something similar when the health care reform debate started turning so violent last year:

Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “I have concerns about some of the language that is being used because I saw … I saw this myself in the late ’70s in San Francisco,” Pelosi said, choking up and with tears forming in her eyes. “This kind of rhetoric is just, is really frightening and it created a climate in which we, violence took place and … I wish that we would all, again, curb our enthusiasm in some of the statements that are made.”

Pelosi referred to the murder of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone by former San Francisco Supervisor Dan White on November 27, 1978.

Perhaps all Sarah Palin and Jesse Kelly wanted to do was act tough and appeal to the card-carrying-NRA-member demographic among their base with all the gunsights and shooting talk. But if that’s the case, the sheriff is right: they still bear responsibility for what happened if their rhetoric reached Loughlin’s disturbed mind. And even if Loughlin never even heard of Palin or Kelly, they should still be ashamed of themselves for this kind of ugly talk and behavior, since today’s crime is a reminder that people actually do, you know, really get shot with real bullets, so maybe the “don’t retreat…RELOAD” rhetoric isn’t very damn funny after all.

Confession time: I did not react in a very Christian way this morning when I woke up to the news of the shooting. (For those that missed it, my response was to post examples of Palin’s and Kelly’s ugly violence-baiting material under various iterations of “Fuck you, Sarah Palin.”) I believe Palin, Kelly and other right-wing hate-baiters bear culpability for Loughlin’s violence and for the other violence that their more unhinged hearers undertake. I hate the things Palin and Kelly have done. But I should not have reacted in a way that is a less articulate version of, “I hate you, go to hell.” However, I won’t go so far as to delete those posts because I don’t want to leave the impression that I want to fool people into thinking I never said or wrote those things. I’d note, however, that Palin’s camp is taking the opposite approach, and that speaks volumes.

Things are bad in America right now. The politics in this country are as brittle as I’ve ever seen them. We have an unemployment crisis that’s so bad that the “improvement” in our unemployment rate is largely composed of people just dropping out of the labor force altogether, giving up on ever finding a job. Meanwhile, the super-rich and their political allies have forced further concessions from the government, decreasing funds available for public-structure-building and increasing the wealth of the rich even further. These huge, destructive economic forces are at play in people’s everyday lives behind the scenes such that outcomes seem disconnected from the choices we make as individuals. Hard work does not equal a good living. The situation feels luck-based and grossly unfair, and that combined with a feeling of relative deprivation breeds intense frustration and rage. And speaking into that rage are these brimstone-laced voices, telling people not how to unite to overcome the challenge as a community, but rather who is to blame and who must be expelled.

I worry that we’ve crossed some kind of critical threshold as a country. There’s a sense of something lurking around the corner, of some stark outcome waiting for us if we make just a couple of wrong moves. The fabric of our agreement to live together seems stretched to the point of snapping, threads already plucking away as the tension on the fibers increases. The monster is under the bed. I’m reminded of D.H. Lawrence’s intuition about Germany when he visted in 1923:

“It is as if life has retreated eastwards…at night you feel strange things stirring in the darkness, strange feelings stirring out of this still unconquered Black Forest. You stiffen your backbone and you listen to the night. There is a sense of danger. It is not the people. They don’t seem dangerous. Out of the very air comes a sense of danger, a queer, bristling feeling of uncanny danger.

Something has happened. Something has happened which has not yet eventuated. The old spell of the old world has broken, and the old, bristling, savage spirit has set in…Something has happened to the human soul, beyond all help…It is a fate; nobody now can alter it…At the same time, we have brought it about ourselves…”

The savage spirit is here. At first it is the crazy people that are moved by it. But unless we start making wiser choices about our words and our characterizations of each other, pretty soon everyone will go crazy.