Friday, May 02, 2003

Rendering unto Caesar

Pen has been in an interesting debate about the death penalty over at Josh Claybourn's blog, which he continues on his own blog. Pen argues that as a Christian, he simply cannot be complicit in killing someone:
It isn't about me and what I would do -- it is about Jesus' words - turn the other cheek, forgive seventy times seven, walk the second mile, love your enemies.

You can wish it away, call it liberalism, or just renounce the Gospels. But in the end Jesus has more to say about forgiveness/reconciliation than he does about punishment/revenge.

If someone abused/killed my children ... I would first mourn their death, second cry out to God, and third seek Christian Counseling. Notice seeking revenge is not part of the picture.

I have come to the realization that I am not against the death penalty -- rather I have decided that I will never be the one who has to answer for an execution.

There are some jobs a Christian should not do. An executioner would be one of those.

What makes the Christian case tough here, I think, is that not only do Jesus' words not support the death penalty, they don't support any kind of punishment at all. The only punishments I ever remember Jesus referring to were those delivered by God himself. For those on earth, it's forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness.

This raises a problem I mentioned a while ago: Jesus laid out a philosophy of individual righteousness, not of structuring a good society. His commands were impractical, even suicidal. Who can structure society around that? It's not surprising that those who later tried to build societies on "Christian" principles kept turning to the Old Testament.

Back in this huge post I described the contrast between All Saints' attempts to turn Christian pacifist beliefs into political action and Telford's "anti-Constantinian" view that such attempts are counterproductive and impossible. As I said, I felt a powerful attraction to Telford's viewpoint, but he did not completely convince me. (That kind of sums up my whole relationship with Telford, actually.) The hands-off attitude could work back when Paul was writing and Christians were living under an emperor, but when you live in a representative democracy, you are implicated in your government's actions. If you're a Christian who, say, voted for George W. Bush, and you knew he supports both the death penalty and military action in certain circumstances, I can't see how you can wash your hands completely of those deaths. You'd have to bifurcate yourself into a citizen half and a Christian half, which really seems un-Christian.

Actually, in the case of the death penalty I don't see a conflict here. We can see by the example of many other countries (and some states in our own) that executions aren't necessary to keep social order. Indeed, the supporters at Josh's blog argue entirely on the level of abstract justice. Conspicuously, however, they fail to cite any scriptural support for this concept of justice; they rely on "what I know is right." I think Pen is right -- there isn't any real reason for a Christian to support the death penalty. The main Biblical justification -- an eye for an eye -- was very explicitly overruled.

But when it comes to larger threats than crime, it gets more troublesome. If your country has been attacked by terrorists, or if you're in a small country threatened with invasion by its neighbors, electing a pacifist government seems, essentially, to be voting to martyr the whole country to the cause of nonviolence. If a lot of your fellow citizens aren't willing to do that, it isn't right to create a government that will. The decision to die rather than kill is a choice that I don't think anybody can make for anybody else.

So I can see why certain Christian sects have left off voting and government entirely and treated themselves as a separate kingdom. Not that that's an ideal solution either.

The other holiday season

So yesterday was May Day (or the National Day of Prayer, if that's too pagan for you). Today is my father's birthday. Monday is Cinco de Mayo. Thursday is my birthday, and the birthday of a friend at the office (we usually throw a joint birthday lunch). Friday is the birthday of my stepmother, as well as (I learned recently) Telford's wife and his second son. Saturday is Bono's birthday, and Sunday is Mother's Day. I think that I should just give up now and have a weeklong party that will cover everything. Who's with me?

Well, today would have been my seventh "anniversary" of meeting John. I didn't remember the exact date myself, but he did, and he started sending me "happy anniversary" emails a few years ago. Sigh.

Lately a couple of people I've talked to have alluded to the "stages of grief." I wasn't sure what this was about -- I didn't remember hearing about it in psych classes, though that was a long time ago. So I did what any creature of the modern age would do -- I Googled for it.

Turns out this is a variation on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This has been generalized into a theory of grief over losing a loved one or even the end of a relationship. As this page amusingly points out, you can see the stages in practically anything:
As an example, apply the 5 stages to a traumatic event most all of us have experienced: The Dead Battery! You're going to be late to work so you rush out to your car, place the key in the ignition and turn it on. You hear nothing but a grind; the battery is dead.

DENIAL --- What's the first thing you do? You try to start it again! And again. You may check to make sure the radio, heater, lights, etc. are off and then..., try again.

ANGER --- "%$@^##& car!", "I should have junked you years ago." Did you slam your hand on the steering wheel? I have. "I should just leave you out in the rain and let you rust."

BARGAINING --- (realizing that you're going to be late for work)..., "Oh please car, if you will just start one more time I promise I'll buy you a brand new battery, get a tune up, new tires, belts and hoses, and keep you in perfect working condition.

DEPRESSION --- "Oh God, what am I going to do. I'm going to be late for work. I give up. My job is at risk and I don't really care any more. What's the use".

ACCEPTANCE --- "Ok. It's dead. Guess I had better call the Auto Club or find another way to work. Time to get on with my day; I'll deal with this later."

I don't know much about Kubler-Ross, but my main association with her is with a scathing 1982 piece by Ron Rosenbaum in a book that, coincidentally, my recently deceased friend gave me, Travels with Dr. Death. Rosenbaum recounts how, after making her fortune with her work on helping the dying, Kubler-Ross fell headfirst into spiritism, communicating with afterlife entities through mediums and so on. She eventually joined forces with a group called the Chruch of the Facet of Divinity, whose leader, John Barham, soon got into a sex scandal. Rosenbaum explains:
Although accounts differ as to who actually did what to whom, allegations of seductions by entities did not arise until the merger with Barham's church. According to one report "Barham regularly conducted seances in which he acted as a medium to communicate with what he called 'afterlife entities.' At many of these sessions, the former female members of the group asserted, they were instructed to enter a side room where they were joined a few minutes later in the dark by an unclothed man who talked convincingly of being an 'afterlife entity' [who] ... then proceeded to convince the women that they should engage in sex with him ..."

According to another report, the seductive entity mispronounced certain words in a manner remarkably similar to that of Barham. Some of the women began to suspect that the aroused afterlife entity had earthbound limitations when five of them came down with the same vaginal infection after being closeted with him. And then there was the woman who actually turned on the light in the entity-visiting chamber and claimed to see Barham, naked except for a turban.

Barham had a wonderful explanation for his resemblance to the turbaned apparition. He denied engaging in sexual activities with any of the women but said that in order to materialize, certain entities might have cloned themselves from Barham's cells, which would explain how they might resemble him in materialized form.

As the CA pastor said, no church is exempt from clerical abuse. But this one certainly wins the award for creative ass-covering.

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

In the family

In the blogospheric discussions about Rick Santorum's infamous remarks, some have agreed with part of what he said -- if homosexuality is OK on the grounds that whatever goes on between consenting adults isn't the state's business, why not incest? Some bloggers, including Eugene Volokh and Matthew Yglesias, have made that very argument, but from the libertarian perspective that therefore consenting-adult incest should be legal. William Saletan also made the case in Slate.

Andrew Sullivan, meanwhile, argued that the crucial difference is that homosexuality is an orientation, while incest is a choice. Therefore there is in fact a crucial distinction between the two.

Our knowledge of what motivates both homosexuality and incest is exceedingly poor. I've known enough gay people to believe them when they say they didn't choose it, but there isn't really hard evidence for that. Incest is also little understood, and consenting-adult incest is so rare I doubt it's been studied. Nonetheless, I think the distinction stands. For me, the defining characteristic of homosexuality is not the desires that gays have but the desires they don't have -- for the opposite sex. After all, we all have desires that we don't and shouldn't act on. The fact that you can't help having them isn't reason enough. But if you're incapable of having a romantic relationship through the approved route -- i.e. heterosexual marriage -- it does seem cruel to deny you the means by which you can have one.

There is reason to believe that humans are naturally oriented against incest. For one thing, every culture ever known has an incest taboo, although they differ somewhat on the exact definition of it, and they sometimes exempt certain people (such as ancient Egyptian royalty). There were also a couple of interesting studies done some years back suggesting that, since our instincts can't sniff out DNA, we sexually exclude people who feel like family. One study interviewed people who had grown up in Israeli kibbutzim together, where they had essentially lived like siblings. Only one person was found to have ever gotten romantically involved with a fellow kibbutznik, and that person hadn't joined until age 11 or so. Another study looked at marriages in China that had come about through "daughter exchange." This practice was basically a way to avoid the expensive bride-price in traditional China by trading baby girls with another family with the intention of marrying them to the respective sons in those families when they got old enough. The researchers found these marriages often failed, precisely because they felt incestuous to the couple.

But the fact that incest still happens, and therefore the taboos have to exist, suggests that this instinct doesn't always work, just as the instinct most of us have toward heterosexuality doesn't always work. Still, it's hard to imagine anybody has an "orientation" towards incest in the sense that they can't be attracted to anyone they're not related to.

One problem with this discussion is that few people have brought up actual examples of this theoretical consenting-adult intimacy. Saletan mentions a case in which an uncle and neice were prosecuted, but mentions that the neice was underage when the relationship started. He charges, "If you want to justify incest laws, don't tell me why Ami Smith's uncle belongs in jail. Tell me why she belongs there, too." It's a good point, but it brings up the fact that all these libertarian concepts of autonomy and consent get murky when you're talking about family. When you're a child, you have a strong, involuntary attachment to your parents, which is exactly why abusive parents are so horrible. When you grow up, this doesn't completely go away. Certainly abusers have been able to manipulate their victims to the point where they remain dependent and no longer require any coercion. It gets even murkier when you're talking about things that start when both parties are underage, as sometimes happens with siblings. Who, then, is culpable?

What about people who actually start these relationships as adults? Such cases are so rare that nobody raises one, at least that I've seen. I can only recall a couple examples that I've ever heard of. One was the famous book a few years ago by a woman who had an affair with her father at age 20. Her parents divorced when she was a baby, and she did not grow up around him. Another was a bizarre case I dimly remember from the '80s, where a couple met, fell in love, and discovered they were brother and sister who had been put up for adoption at birth. Oddly, they didn't break up but argued that they should be allowed to marry.

In both those cases, I think, what was basically happening was that the legal definition of family by genetics clashed with our emotional definition of family. The researchers of the above studies pointed out that what probably desexualizes relatives for us is, strangely enough, intimacy -- the kind of daily, unglamorous intimacy you have with siblings and parents who are always in your face. When you don't have that, there's room for sexual sparks to fly. The trouble is, you can't legislate that.

Punishment is probably too crude an instrument to deal with these psychologically complex cases. Except for the brother-sister case, which was a one-in-a-billion chance, we're talking about people who are severely screwed up here. I don't think throwing them in jail would help. But neither can I take a benign lassez-faire attitude toward this. Maybe the middle ground would simply be for the state to break up these pairs, and essentially put mutual restraining orders on them. If a statutory rape happened, prosecute that. And maybe the other party will realize there are other, better fish in the sea.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

The cruelest month... it's almost over

I've caught some cold virus. Probably from spending the weekend in a new place, hugging a lot of people and being under emotional stress. I don't have much energy to blog, but in the meantime, my sister sent me this link hoping it would make me laugh, and it did.

Monday, April 28, 2003

The sensibilities of the public

One story I missed while I was gone was the one about the journalist whose employer made him stop blogging. The fear was, apparently, bad PR:
But Toolan sees it differently. "Denis Horgan's entire professional profile is a result of his attachment to the Hartford Courant, yet he has unilaterally created for himself a parallel journalistic universe where he'll do commentary on the institutions that the paper has to cover without any editing oversight by the Courant," Toolan said. "That makes the paper vulnerable."

The editor added that allowing an employee to set up his own opinion blog was a bad precedent. "There are 325 other people here who could create similar [Web sites] for themselves," said Toolan, who called his decision "common sense."

This isn't the first time a journalist has been asked by his employer to suspend private Web writing. CNN and Time magazine each recently asked an employee to cease writing personal blogs. And the Houston Chronicle reportedly fired a reporter last summer after he anonymously penned some scathing reviews on a blog about local politicians -- who he also covered for the Chronicle.

It was basically because I foresaw this sort of thing that I chose to blog under a pseudonym. I was worried about what my paper and its readers would think about me writing extemporaneously on sensitive subjects like religion, politics, abortion, homosexuality etc. Religion, which of course has come to consume so much of this blog, is a really delicate topic for media. I haven't spoken to the higher-ups about this directly, but word has it they're afraid to touch it. Some religious folk have attributed this to and anti-religious bias on the part of media people, who tend to be more secular than the country at large. There's probably a bit of that, but I think it's more that they feel they can't win. No matter how you cover it, people are going to get pissed off. And I think a lot of editors figure, well, we've managed this far without major religious coverage, so we have more to lose than to win.

So I figured it was best to keep my own and my employer's identity secret, and not to write about what I'm working on. Though I don't mind if individuals that I trust know. Obviously, I don't mind Peter and Telford knowing. Actually, Peter remarked that sometimes he wishes he blogged anonymously, because now everybody can see what he thinks about everything. Telford recently said he works so long and hard on nearly every post, and thus doesn't post very often, because it's part of his professional website. I felt guilty when he said that because I know that when I've blogged to and about him I haven't always thought about the fact that his colleagues and students may be reading. To me, he's a friend, and I speak to him as irreverently as I do to all my friends.

Anyway, I hope he gets through exam week all right. He's already showing signs of strain...
We who are alive and remain

The weekend in San Francisco went well, all things considered. The memorial service was hard, of course, though not as bad as I was afraid it would be. In a way I'm not sure if that's a good thing. I thought I'd fall apart at it and get a lot of the grief out of my system, but I still haven't even had a good cry yet; it's just sitting inside me like a rock. I guess this is just going to take a long time.

There were a lot of good points about the weekend, though. The drive, for one. Most people assumed I flew and think I'm crazy to prefer driving that trip, but actually I like it. I don't have to deal with the logistical hassles of flying, and I find the long drive to be sort of meditative: I watch the scenery go by, listen to music, think my thoughts. I took the 101 route, along the stunning coastlines of Ventura and Santa Barbara, through the vineyards of Monterey County, with the hills all green from the recent rains. I think it was good for my soul.

I met an old friend from high school for dinner on Friday. We had a long talk about various things, including a parody of the "Left Behind" novels he'd dreamed up based on the life of single thirtysomethings such as ourselves. We watch our friends disappear -- i.e. get married -- so the rest of us are "left behind" in our increasingly dysfunctional dating universe, or something like that. I think my friend is getting a bit embittered, but hey, I came to commemorate a guy who had his first girlfriend at age 37, so I guess there's hope for all of us.

On Saturday morning I went to Berkeley to have breakfast with Peter Nixon. It was my first time meeting him in person, and he was just as sweet as he seems like on the blog. (For whatever reason I wouldn't have pegged him as a redhead, though.) I was short of sleep and not at my most eloquent, but it was really nice to visit with him, especially since I was dreading the service later that morning.

I don't think I mentioned that John liked to write, but one of the cool things about the service was that they read some of his poetry aloud. Some of it I'd heard before and some I hadn't. But what was really neat for me was hearing other people who loved him talk about him. I wasn't part of his church scene, so I knew some of his friends there in passing but didn't know much about his relationships with them. They appreciated the same things about him that I did, and described scenes that I could easily imagine (John was a sort of anti-chamaeleon -- he was the same in any environment!). There was an open-mike section where whoever wanted to could reminisce, and I gave a very condensed version of what I said in the previous post. Everyone who'd known him long enough observed the same transformation that I did.

I was also pleased to see his girlfriend was holding up well. It really hurt to think about her because I could identify with her -- I could have been her, in a way. She said she'd cried a lot in the first couple days but she'd been getting better, and she wrote a touching statement for the service about how she appreciated the time she had with him.

What was also great was that John's friends were so welcoming to me. They all said he talked about me a lot, so they felt like I was one of them even though we hadn't interacted a lot. I swapped contact info with several people, including the url of this blog (so hello to anyone who actually made it here!). After the wake I went back to his neighbor's apartment with the girlfriend and some other of his closest friends and just hung out, remembering John. It wasn't sad, really, and there was a lot of laughter -- especially after we ordered a pizza and a huge bottle of red wine, which we drank out of coffee mugs because our hostess had no wine glasses. (Peter had jokingly suggested keeping the Irish tradition of getting blasted after a funeral, and it sort of happened...)

So I'm back at work and life is technically back to normal, but I don't know when I'm going to feel normal. I'll try to return the blog to other subjects. But it's hard to go back to reading Leviticus and thinking about cosmic subjects when the cosmos has dealt you such a blow. At the wake I talked to a friend who had read aloud from one of the Corinthians letters, in which Paul urges his readers not to lose heart over their lost friends, because they will one day all be raised in Christ. He had a hard time not crying while he read it; and I remarked that I could see why that was hard, because even if you have faith in the Second Coming, it's still hard to be left here to wait. He looked like he was going to cry again when I said that. In a way I still envy the certainty of those who believe in heaven, but for no one is it easy.