“By Their Fruits” and the Public Political Debate

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Hereby begins a long rambling post by someone with too much time on her hands. Having no standing in the political or religious arena, I feel free to think aloud about what’s running through my head lately.

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve settled down to married life without a spouse in the household, which makes it more difficult than I anticipated. My husband of two weeks had to return to the UK and get to work and before we could spend Christmas together. But the future bodes well with my moving there early next spring and transporting most of my worldly goods as well. In the meantime, I need to keep busy at work and keep my mind off missing him.

As I said before, the wedding ceremony was beautiful. We chose a scripture text because a) we were married in a church and b) it seemed a very practical passage. We used Matthew’s passage about salt and light. Salt should keep its flavor and light should not be hid. It probably seems a strange pick for a wedding scripture but it fit with both of our convictions that actions speak louder than words. For both of us, action is more important than all the talk in the world. Action proves one’s intent more than a thousand declarations. My husband is a newly minted Quaker and The Religious Society of Friends values action more than speech. Even the quiet waiting of the Lord in meeting is an action of surrender, far more powerful than a liturgy or mumbling of words in a ritual. Willingness, reception, humility… far more important than stubbornly proclaiming and correcting. I, on the other hand, take the bible with a huge grain of salt (pun intended). 😀

I was reading many blog posts on the internet this morning. It’s Christmas after all and I was looking for inspiration of some kind. Any kind really. I always tell myself I will go to church or do this or that. And I never do it. I think my IDEA of Christianity is a fond nostalgic moment in my mind, but one which never lives up to that nostalgia in practice. My idea of Christianity is just that; ideal. From my readings I sensed a theme though. Some Christians like to use particular passages to prove  what they consider to be wrong in God’s eyes. This provides the basis for most evangelical sermons heard round the world on most Sundays.  I kept coming to articles quoting another section from Matthew; one that some use as a moral compass:

15″Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves.  16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit.  19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit. (Mt. 7:15-20)

It’s a great passage because it describes the predicament of men very well.  It’s a wonderful metaphor for a principle that probably precedes any biblical inclusion. Let’s assume for a moment that the bible contains an absolute set of ethics which is prescriptive of our behavior.  How is this passage prescriptive? Well in the churches in which I was a member, I heard from the pulpit that you could pretty easily recognize the wrongness of a thing by what it produced. Romans 1:24-32 was often used as a companion text to illustrate this point. Never mind the fact that sometimes “fruit” is not instant. Sometimes we cannot see the good or evil of an action until many years down the road.

But some Christians would like us to believe that this can be a test of some kind, right now.  They tell us that certain acts will automatically produce a certain consequence.  It is true that one can generally tell the worth of a thing by the fruits produced. The problem comes when Christians use this passage as a prescription to tell others what is “good” or “bad” in particular, according to their interpretation of the scriptures. They also get to decide which consequences are good or evil.  For them sexuality is the chief illustration of a tree and its fruits. AIDS is a consequence of homosexuality therefore it is bad. Abortion is a consequence of  preventable choices therefore it is bad. Depression is a consequence of abortions therefore it is preventable and bad. Failed third marriages are the consequence of divorce therefore divorce is bad. Laziness and freeloading is a consequence of welfare therefore welfare is bad.  Communism is a consequence of basic health care for all therefore not only is communism bad, basic health care for free is bad. For these kinds of folk, B is always a result of A, no matter what.

But, let’s continue the metaphor and take it further. But what if a tree produces good fruit one year and bad fruit the next? What if part of it’s fruit is bad but the rest is good? What happens if the fruit looks really good and healthy but tastes bitter? What if the fruit that ripens and “rots” the most is the juiciest and the best? Isn’t this parable more a generalization rather than a sure fire way of telling what’s good and bad? You’ll know an action is generally unworthy if it generally and consistently produces bad things. Conversely, and more importantly, you’ll know an action is generally worthy if it generally and consistently produces good things.  Generally then, we can look at the bible as another set of ethics that needs to be scrutinized alongside all systems of ethics, using the same criteria: Does it work? Unfortunately some Christians do not ask that question often enough mainly because they don’t care if it works. God said it, that settles it.

This brings me to philosophy as it relates to the public debate about politics and whose politics are “better,” (as most of what I read always does). Setting aside biblical philosophy, I am always interested in John Stuart Mill and his theory of utilitarianism, which seems important right now in the public debate over whose politics are true, especially in this country. Utilitarianism posits that the “moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.”  This seems to be exactly what Matthew is saying.  You cannot really judge anything as an idea. Ideas have no worth in and of themselves. An idea of a perfect society has no worth if its not enacted in the culture and proven in the public arena. Politics is merely one group arguing for their idea of a society over another group’s idea. Each tries to prevent the other from enacting the principles behind their idea.

Political utilitarianism in general terms is the idea that the most good to the most number of people is helpful to society as a whole. To work for the good of society is a morally worthy goal. The problem is when groups of individuals disagree about what’s good for society.  But that jumps the gun. Mill wrote that

To do the right thing…we do not need to be constantly motivated by concern for the general happiness. The large majority of actions intend the good of individuals (including ourselves) rather than the good of the world. Yet the world’s good is made up of the good of the individuals that constitute it and unless we are in the position of, say, a legislator, we act properly by looking to private rather than to public good. Our attention to the public well-being usually needs to extend only so far as is required to know that we aren’t violating the rights of others.

How this dovetails with scripture depends on how one views scripture. For me, having once taken it so literally, I can say that the bible exists for me now only as a record of other peoples’ experiences of their ideas about God. There is nothing systematic about it. There is no consistent ethic. It provides no absolute foundation for anything. It is literature of the past that contains myth. Like most myth, it it meant to explain after the fact rather than be a presentation of fact. Myth is written by men for other men to try and explain how the world works for them (see my Master’s thesis introduction). The fact that no woman wrote scripture, or if she did, no woman was allowed a presence in its collection, convinces me that the bible is not meant for a woman’s consumption and indeed probably has nothing of any value to say to modern women. There are some worthy statements in the bible, just as there are in another philosphers’ writings, but to stand the test of time a philosophy has to be workable and representative of most people; women included! If it does not stand that test, then it can be discarded as an idea; a pretty idea perhaps, but not workable in any real sense.

All this is a long treatise on the simple idea of mine that we will never get anywhere in political debate until we are allowed to test the theories posited. This is what makes the United States unique in that there are individual states making legislation amid the larger idea of a cohesive Federal government. The states are little microcosms whereby the people can enact what they believe are good ideas and see if they work. If they do work then legislators and the public should try to convince other states and eventually the Federal government to enact them. But progress is extremely slow and we have to realize that. We cannot assume that something doesn’t work even after many years. But we can assume that something works if it’s proven to have worked. Who will say that Brown vs. the Board of Education didn’t accomplish much? Yet it was vociferously protested at the time. We’ve already seen how theocracy works in part by looking at history (the Crusades, Salem Witch trials, etc.) and by looking at how individual churches run themselves. We know that we trample on individual rights when we keep out all the undesirable people these churches cannot stand. No one wants a government that exhibits such exclusivity and punishment espoused by such doctrines. A society based on such exclusivity does not work. We have seen that slavery doesn’t work by watching our Southern states and realizing the devastating path that racism takes. Our western states have shown us in the past that women’s rights were successful long before the Eastern part of the country got wind of it or realized that women were intelligent beings.

I guess all of this is my way of realizing that action and the consequences of it is the only proof of a good idea. People and mere existence comes first, not institutions or foundations. We aren’t born into rules. Rules are born from us and the good of society as a whole is a direct result of the happiness and freedom of individuals IN COOPERATION with the happiness and freedom of our neighbor. There are some “trees” that deserve to be cut down. Al Qaida is a bad tree. Theocracy is a bad tree. Slavery is a bad tree. The subjugation of women is a bad tree. Unregulated capitalism is a bad tree. War that is not just is a bad tree. People dying because they cannot afford health care is a bad tree. Sexual stereotyping is a bad tree. What else is a bad tree? You get the picture.


“The Habit of Face to Face Encounters”

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I love Roger Scruton. He always puts his finger precisely on the problems with social media.

In human relations, risk avoidance means the avoidance of account­ability, the refusal to stand judged in another’s eyes, the refusal to come face to face with another person, to give oneself in whatever measure to him or her, and so to run the risk of rejection. Accountability is not something we should avoid; it is something we need to learn. Without it we can never acquire either the capacity to love or the virtue of justice. Other people will remain for us merely complex devices, to be negotiated in the way that animals are negotiated, for our own advantage and without opening the possibility of mutual judgment. Justice is the ability to see the other as having a claim on you, as being a free subject just as you are, and as demanding your accountability. To acquire this virtue you must learn the habit of face-to-face encounters, in which you solicit the other’s consent and cooperation rather than imposing your will. The retreat behind the screen is a way of retaining control over the encounter, while minimizing the need to acknowledge the other’s point of view. It involves setting your will outside yourself, as a feature of virtual reality, while not risking it as it must be risked, if others are truly to be encountered. To encounter another person in his freedom is to acknowledge his sovereignty and his right: it is to recognize that the developing situation is no longer within your exclusive control, but that you are caught up by it, made real and accountable in the other’s eyes by the same considerations that make him real and accountable in yours.

Now, I love this quote precisely because it serves to explain the dynamics of real relationships and not necessarily explanatory of the social media we hide behind through our computers. But since Scruton brings it up, there is a sense where we can say safe in our homes and “engage” virtually and remain safe. I think it’s a result of over-information in every area of our lives. We suffer from a decided lack of innocence and faith in our fellow beings because we are now completely aware of what people can do to each other, all in vivid colorful and gory detail. I think it’s even more prominent after events like 9/11.

We don’t like the vulnerability of face to face encounters because it can always go quickly very wrong. People can very easily hide themselves in virtual space, quite unlike meeting someone at the corner pub. Remember meeting someone in person for the first time and the sense you just get if this person is trustworthy or not or suspicious or not? That can’t happen in the virtual world because we only have what words are emotionless as they are typed from the other end of cyberspace. I find that it is very much easier for me to communicate with someone through a computer screen or through an email than it is in person. And perhaps half of it is the visual prejudices we have for people. On the internet you cannot be seen and judged immediately as stupid because your fat, or ugly because you aren’t symmetrically beautiful according to movie standards. For once, we can be taken on our ideas alone and it’s revolutionary, but like anything, we can take it too far and use it exclusively to withdraw from society. Not a good idea. What think you?

“Homosexuality and The Church”

Hackman’s Musings: Homosexuality and The Church.

Quote of Note:

I have heard many times in the past week (this is a big issue here in Utah at the moment) that those opposing homosexuality are just adhering to their morals. I would like to make a distinction here. Objecting to homosexuality, I believe, cannot be a universal moral. It is a religious conviction. I think for something to be considered a universal moral, and not merely a religious position, it has to be amenable to all faiths… and those without a faith. The bible says murder is wrong (although it acts it out more as a guideline than a rule) but I could also make a non-religious arguement as to why it is good for humanity to follow that position. On the contrary, I have yet to hear a valid argument against homosexuality that did not come back to a religious point and/or that individual’s personal “ick” factor with homosexuality.

Are Religious Scriptures “Hate Speech?”

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According to Wikipedia hate speech is defined as:

In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group. The law may identify a protected individual or a protected group by race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristic.[3] In some countries, a victim of hate speech may seek redress under civil law, criminal law, or both.

Over at Anne Rice’s Facebook page there is discussion about hate speech and homosexuality. Many are claiming the christian bible as their authority to call out homosexuality as sinful behavior. They have every right to label something sinful if they want. That’s their choice. However, one person’s comment struck me however when they said that the bible itself was hate speech. Hmm. I tend to agree that bible could be construed as hate speech. So can the Koran and other scriptures that advocate killing due to behavior or ethnicity. The Hebrew god condoned killing when “he” moved the tribes of Israel around and demanded others move out to accommodate them. The Muslim god condones killing those who don’t believe in their religion. This falls under the category of inciting violence against a protected group. So I believe both of their scriptures can be construed as hate speech if they are taken literally as guides for modern life. In fact, I think anyone inciting violence using religion and their scriptures as a prop for supporting such violence should be prosecuted for hate crimes. Let’s just call it for what it is and be done with it. You can claim something as sin all you want as long as you keep it to yourself. If your religion is peaceful you have nothing to fear.

I Want to Be in This Man’s Skull

Thanks to my friend Alyce for a link to this wonderful site where I culled this gem of a paragraph from “Varioram of Classic Tracts and Pamphlets:”

At one time or another, the ills of the world have been blamed on everything from tight-fitting shoes to television. The Diggers wanted to abolish money, the Luddites wanted to destroy the machines. The majority of such sectarians has traditionally adopted the medium of printed matter to broadcast theories, positions, opinions. Social theorists have published provocative polemics about eugenics and population engineering. Crusading utopians and meliorists have generated a wealth of redemptive and rehabilitative circulars such as the memorably-titled Kill Your Television (anti-cathode tube), The Menace of Psychiatry (anti-mind modification), and Absinthe – Sapper of Souls (anti-alcohol). Feuding factions have produced pamphlets both pro and con concerning such issues as abortion, the legitimacy of monarchy, gun control, the right to privacy, methods for disposal of the dead, vegetarianism, even aesthetics. The germ and genesis of most of these is the impulse to air grievances. Gripes, beefs, cavils and carpings envenom the prose of leaflets, pamphlets, flyers, tracts and broadsides published by a panoply of political extremists, religious fanatics, eccentrics, radicals and zealots of every stripe. It is a long tradition dating to the early days of the printing press, and which persists even in the era of e-mail, facebook, and twitter and, although the pages of many of these impassioned documents have become brittle with age, many are still dripping wet with vitriol or, at least, with the perspiration of fervid conviction.

Good gosh almighty, can Gilbert Alter-Gilbert write! Sometimes a piece is so good, it almost doesn’t matter what the subject is, however in this case, the subject of tracts and pamphlets is also interesting. I’ve had a fascination with pamphlets since I picked up my first Jack Chick tract, one I’d found on the effluvia littered ground during my hometown’s July 4th carnival in the late 60s. Besides the blatant fundie drivel, anti-semitism, anti-catholicism, and other crude things about Chick’s tracts, reading it set me firmly on the path of appreciating the graphic novel, but that’s another story. Gilbert’s compendium of tracts and pamphlets is a look back at sociological/psychological warfare.

Plurality of Beliefs

This is one of the most helpful posts I’ve read on the plurality of belief systems.  My favorite bit:

In the main, I agree with what Prothero writes and the perspective that he takes. One of my early mentors who encouraged my academic investigations of Buddhism and Asian religion impressed upon me that if all religions are simply a path to the same thing that there was no reason for us to talk. That is and remains a fundamental principle of mine and is an important core around which to form an understand of pluralism as it exists in modern America.

If all paths indeed head to the same place, then no dialog is needed, right? I don’t necessarily ascribe to the “all paths..” viewpoint either and neither does Derek Olsen. Overall, it’s a fine post on where, positionally, the dialog should take place, and I don’t mean on the kitchen table either. (smile)