Friday, August 26, 2005

A Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank

I've enjoyed being a part of a new venture launched by Stephen Bush called "Generous Orthodoxy: Think Tank." This creates the space for some excellent conversation between evangelicals scholars, graduate students, and practitioners who want to both push the envelope but also remain faithful to the tradition. It includes some of the sharpest young voices in evangelical theology such as John Franke and LeRon Shults. That it has been taking up far too much of my time is testament to how valuable this site will be.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Oh, well, if it's biblical...

I was glad, or at least relieved, to see evangelical leaders--including even Al Mohler--roundly denounced Pat Robertson's remarks about assassinating Hugo Chavez. And Christian charity also requires me to acknowledge that, after some curious backpedalling (in which Robertson seemed to become a deconstructionist as he waxed eloquent about the dissemination of meaning around the phrase "take out," as if the meaning of the word "assassination" was determined by reader-response!), Roberts has now apologized for his comment (though not to Chavez).

However, there's another gem in this news cycle. Marvin Olansky, editor of World magazine (favored periodical of evangelicals devoted to America's civil religion), while criticizing Robertson, also suggested that "Biblically, assassination may be used in times of war, last time I looked we were not at war with Venezuela."

I have not the least doubt that Olansky has "chapter-and-verse" to support this notion, but I'm honestly trying to imagine the hermeneutical framework and biblical theology that could make such a claim possible.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Benedict XVI at World Youth Day

World Youth Day in Cologne looked like a stunning event--a richly international gathering of Catholic youth from around the globe. While they displayed some of the exuberant features of North American youth culture (I saw "the wave" making its rounds at one point), one must also be struck at how radically different this Catholic youth movement is from dominant strains of evangelical youth culture, which seems captive to an entertainment model and mimicks a kind of MTV-ized version of the faith. The 11th commandment for evangelical youth pastors seems to be, "Thou shalt not be un-cool" (playing right into the hands of the "Merchants of Cool").

But World Youth Day is eminently successful precisely because in many ways, they reject cool. Here's an elderly man (not even as charismatic as his predecessor), dressed in anything but hip clothes (no GAP or baggy jeans in his vestments), who refuses to talk down to them. I was able to watch some of the beautiful Marienfeld Vigil on the Saturday night. Benedict XVI's address at this vigil was inspiring: inviting them to tread the way of the Magi, he noted that the wise men were seeking "true justice that can only come from God." He noted that the king they found was quite different from their expectations, forcing them to rethink their entire paradigm of "power." The baby king "contrasts the the noisy and ostentatious power of this world with the defenceless power of love, which succumbs to death on the Cross." He went on to admonish these young people that "only form the saints, only from God, does true revolution come, the definitive way to change to the world." Unlike most youth events I've experienced in evangelical subculture which usually just invite kids to stop having sex, Benedict XVI was inviting these young people to a mode of political discipleship intimately tied to the Church (this is not about a "private Jesus" he said) and the sacraments.

Admittedly, I'm still bothered by a deep tension in Benedict XVI's vision: on the one hand, he argues that true justice and true revolution are tied to the Cross and the Church; on the other hand, he speaks in more generally theistic, natural-law-like terms because he wants to invoke God's justice as something to which Europe (as such) should be subject. So there is a lingering nostalgia for Christendom. Or, if I could put it otherwise, there is a deep tension, I think, between his Christological/crucicentric emphasis and his natural law desires. What would correct this, or at least humble the natural-law side of the tension, is a more robust account of sin coupled with a more specific pneumatology. Why should we think that "Europe" would embrace the foolishness of the cross?

Who Would Jesus Assassinate?

I'm not one to caricature the Religious Right by taking Pat Robertson as the norm. However, that Robertson could--on air on the 700 Club--openly call for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (one of several leftist leaders in South America), and that this wouldn't cause an uproar amongst religious convervatives--such a scenario surely is some kind of indicator of the degree to which the conservative religious imagination in America has become captive to forces that have less to do with following Jesus and more about protecting the American way.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Wanted: Tickets to NYC

While I will have just landed from Spain, I find myself wishing for some mode of ominpresence as I've just seen that Christopher Hitchens is going to be debating George Galloway in New York on Sept. 14! Readers of Fors Clavigera will have found (qualified) praise of both in previous posts.

Donations for airfare to NYC would be happily accepted! :-) But in lieu of such patronage, if anyone can make it and take notes, please contribute to my envy by passing them along. (For the record, I expect Hitchens to carry the day.)

Friday, August 19, 2005

Africa, Poverty, and America's Empty Promises: or Why Bono's Wrong

The Council on Foreign Relations has provided the transcript of a fascinating and enlightening discussion with Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs on the question, "Can We End Global Poverty?" Sachs is particularly forthright on how out of step the American position on African aid really is:

SACHS: Most of us that have looked at this in recent years--and I've been looking at this intensively for about a decade now--believe that if we're going to help the impoverished regions get out of a trap of disease, hunger, environmental degradation, excessive population growth, and the whole spiral of disasters, we must provide serious financing. And there now is pretty much a worldwide consensus on this, except in the United States, which stands aloof from that consensus. And we have a pretty deeply ingrained feeling in this country that we should not do more. That's a feeling that has many different roots. But when George Bush said to Tony Blair last week, "We won't do more," he was expressing what is a commonly held belief in American politics.
He also documents the way in which even the aid that is promised translates into almost no real significant contribution toward development. Here Sachs tries to demythologize the impressions we have about aid that is promised:

The biggest myth--if I could just filibuster for one more minute on this--the biggest myth in our country is how much aid we give and how much has gone down the drain. This is what I confront every day, many times a day from hate mail, to questions, and so forth. Let me just run through, if I could, what we actually do for Africa.

The U.S. aid to Africa is $3 billion this year. That $3 billion is roughly divided into three parts: The first is emergency food shipments. Of the billion or so in emergency food shipments, half of that, roughly $500 million, is just transport costs. So the commodities are maybe half a billion dollars. That's not development assistance, that's emergency relief. The second billion is the AIDS program, now standing at about $1 billion. That, on the whole, is a good thing. I would call it a real program. It's providing commodities; it's providing relief. It started late and it's too small, but it's there. The third billion is everything else we do for child survival, maternal survival, family planning, roads, power, water and sanitation, malaria; everything is the third $1 billion. Most of that, approaching 80 percent, is actually American consultant salaries. There's almost no delivery of commodities, for example. There's essentially zero financing to help a country build a school or build a clinic or dig a well.

When you get down to it, the actual financing we provide to help Africans invest in their future is well under $1 per African per year. Then, the politicians say--as George Bush did yesterday--we give so much money and it's misused; we won't let that happen. The fact is we put in almost no funding, and it accomplishes almost nothing. And then we bemoan the waste. I don't know how to break through that misunderstanding. That's what I've been trying to do for many years, but it's very, very powerful in this country.
And so he explicitly notes that Bono's modus operandi, which is to never criticize the Bush administration (but rather kiss their butt because they hold the biggest purse strings) is, when it comes down to it, a futile endeavor:
Bono's belief has been that being nice is going to be the way to bring everyone along. And everything that's been announced has been championed. We get good headlines for the Millennium Challenge Corporation. We say it's wonderful. The Bush administration claims it's tripled aid to Africa, which, aside from the fact that you can multiply three times an insignificant number and still get an insignificant number, it's also not even true in terms of the numbers.

But this is an administration that people don't like to take on head-on. You get slammed when you do it. They work very closely with the White House, Bono and his group, because they think that that's what's going to bring--that's what's going to bring everything along. I mean, Bono's not only well-meaning, he's heartfelt and earnest, and incredibly hardworking, and I admire him enormously for it. But my job is to know the arithmetic, and we're not solving the problems. We're just talking about them.
I would highly recommend reading the Sachs interview in tandem with Bill McKibben's Harper's article on "The Christian Paradox," where he very simply but clearly documents the disconnect between all the Christian rhetoric that fills political airwaves in this country and the actual practices of a developed nation with a disastrous infant mortality rate, a singular and really astonishing commitment to the death penalty, and a trigger-happy tendency to militarism.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

When Even "Realism" Starts to Look Good...

I am no fan of "realism" as a doctrine--either in foreign policy, or in terms of the Nieburhrian project for public theology. However, I must say that in wake of neocon idealism, a little dose of even realism is a welcome relief! This is clearly articulated in an excellent NYT editorial today from Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs. Rose provides a fascinating account of the dialectic of American foreign policy in which a nagging idealism (the legacy, I might suggest, of our Puritan founding) keeps rearing its head, only to run up against the "reality" of what even Rose calls "a fallen world." This dialectic plays itself out through the election cycle, with idealists being chastised and replaced by realists. Quite a convincing history.

The hook for this piece is Rose's suggestion that Bush Jr.'s idealism (newly adopted after 9/11) is now being de-fanged by Rice's realism. But the problem with this picture is something that Rose himself notes: Rice and the realists in the State department "still believe in American power and the global spread of liberal democratic capitalism." Well, then, they're not really realists, are they? This continued commitment to an idealist democratic peace theory and export of American democracy pursued with missionary zeal would suggest that Rose's obituary for the administration's idealism is a bit premature.

Monday, August 01, 2005