Month: October 2016

Critical Empathy and the 95 Theses

60 Minutes was better than usual today (avoiding, it seems, the usual lazy repeat of past stories), with the first story about a young African American man from Minnesota who had begun exploring Islam as a teenager, and because preaching at the local mosque was mostly in Somali, he turned online for sermons and found the sermons of the American Al Qaeda preacher al Awlaki whose videos are notoriously effective at recruiting young men. This young man and a group of friends began making plans to go to Syria, and in fact several went and died there. The subject of the 60 minutes piece and a few others were arrested before they went, and then they helped gather evidence for the FBI before their trial. A conspiratorial side of me might make the case that this young man never was Muslim and that the whole thing was just an undercover job, now turned into a propaganda piece. Funny how thoroughly conspiracy theories inhabit one’s whole experience of life. Let alone all the conspiratorial political talk etc, this is driven in part by the constant task of filtering online information, so much of which is driven by motives (usually profit) ancillary to the actual material. So much of it is just mass-produced (sometimes bot-produced) "content" that is totally untrustworthy, or just the din of speculative voices, with the political propaganda mixed in. So we are conspiratorial. Nonetheless it was a sympathetic portrait of this young man who now regretted his involvement and the deaths of his friends, for which he held himself partly responsible.

The next piece was about some of the issues arising from the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado: crassly capitalist factory farms supplying cheery shops who now have to follow labeling guidelines about the potency and content of their products to help reduce overdoses; organized crime house production for illegal sale out of state; the particular health consequences of marijuana, etc. The governor commenting on his concern but saying there is no going back to the dysfunctional situation prior to legalization.

The final piece was about a guy recording the music of Malawian prisoners, and what was so striking, despite the de rigeur highlighting of the awful conditions, was the way that culture shapes our experiences. in this case the informality and non-confrontational aspects of day-to-day social relations in East Africa. Some of these prisoners were certainly violent people, many of them jailed for many other reasons. But what was notable was the way that cooperative choir/band singing helped pass the time in such a strikingly wholesome way; and then the way that prison guards were involved with the bands, erasing the lines between prisoner and guard. Nothing is that simple of course, but it was a recognizable portrayal of an East Africa that I know. And the guy doing the recording noted that his work humanizes, but does glorify, criminals, and that this humanization is a favor to the audience, not the prisoners. And this is clearly the outlook of the gentle prison guard who started the prison music program and still participates with his quiet competence on the guitar.

Watching it I came to a little more clarity about a concept I’m developing about how to exist amidst the polarized outrage of American social (particularly online) discourse today. The concept is going to be called "critical empathy". I’ll probably have to think it through more in a future post. But the general idea is that right now we are in a phase of intense critical thinking that turns into a sort of competitive game, not simply one-upsmanship, although that’s there, but rather a self-generating intellectual cycle where, in order to establish credibility, one must establish their critical outlook, and in order to establish that one must be ever more demonstrative of their ability and willingness to critique. It is a necessary skill in the (above-referenced) mileu of never-fully-trustworthy online information. This critical attitude, of course, predates the internet age, because it is the critical discourse of scholarly thought, and is certainly applicable to all communication, including pre-internet mass media….wow…see what I’m saying, there is no way to explain this in a succinct way….

Anyway, the general idea is to retain the critical ability (and critical in this sense is not about "criticism" in the general connotation of criticizing what is bad about something, but rather "critical" in that scholarly sense of asking questions and exploring a concept from all sides)….Retain the critical ability and link it to a subsequent and more fundamental empathy. Empathy is prominent in American discourse today, but it is overwhelmed by the bullying attitudes which appear in higher relief because of the empathy. I refer here mainly to the sort of empathy that is popularly portrayed in a TV show like "Glee" with its blandly diverse characters, but also deeper empathies found in those seeking to understand experiences of, for example, African American encounters with the police and things like that. So we want to cultivate that empathy tied in conjunction with a critical habit. But the empathy should be fundamental.

The critical part refers most plainly to social analysis and other aspects of external worlds, but should also be applicable to interior worlds, that is to say self-critical. And we should be critical of our own empathy, which can become patronizing sympathy or so total that it becomes paralyzing as all conflict becomes an opportunity for empathy rather than a dispute in need of compromise and resolution. And the empathy side has these two levels as well. It asks primarily that we seek to be empathetic towards others, and the most challenging aspect of this is being empathetic towards our opponents and enemies (this is what Jesus meant by love your enemy). But we also have to exercise some internal empathy, allowing our superego to take a gentle attitude towards the needs of ego.

So that’s the general concept that I’ll be trying to develop….but my purpose today was actually to write about Reformation Sunday in the Lutheran Church and Luther’s 95 Theses. Although there is an empathetic aspect to Lutheran theology, Luther’s combative personality doesn’t seem to contain much empathy.

I have read pieces of the 95 Theses from time to time, and today they were posted on the church door and I read through a portion of them, getting a sense of their flow. The pastor referenced them in his sermon saying that what Luther nailed to the church door was an invitation to a scholarly debate about these topics and that he may not have expected them to become such an outrage. That is a nice way to get us to think a little differently about what Luther was actually doing that day, as, I suppose, in a basic way that is probably an accurate description. But Luther also must have known full well that he was publicly posting (in that pre-Twitter age) a direct challenge to the authority of the pope and the Roman Church. He was being deliberately inflammatory, and he relished such combat. That they were then printed and circulated in German translation was not mere happenstance.

He was protesting what he saw as a fraud being perpetrated by the church, which was that they were selling these "indulgences" with the idea that by contributing to the church (very literally in the sense that the main drive of the fund-raising was the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome), you could then receive a papal indulgence which erased the penalties due for your sins, and that this whole idea could be extended to the dead in purgatory whereby you could buy off their time in purgatory by back-paying for past sins of deceased loved ones. In arguing that this whole system was fraudulent he was directly confronting church authority and denying basic aspects of the doctrine that maintained papal authority. He still stands as a model of what it means to "speak truth to power" or to act as a watchdog, as he made the critique from within the institution.

Lutherans now celebrate Reformation Sunday as a kind of launching of the new church year, ironically this often then entails the beginning of a "stewardship drive" (a phrasing that I actually really like, as I like the expansive concept of stewardship, but which generally is used merely as a euphemism for fund-raising). But it is also a replacement of the Catholic All Saints Day, which I guess (not really sure) Lutherans and protestants generally do not celebrate because we don’t really believe in saints per se (even though we still talk about and pray for saints from time to time…and as much as we revere Luther, the whole tradition, not to speak of his vulgar personality, resists the label of saint for him. This is after all, the guy that said something to the effect of "when the Devil comes at night and enumerates my sins, I just roll over and fart at him."

So, the 95 Theses: they develop a line of thought taking aim at the indulgence practice, but that line of thought is premised on an as-yet not fully developed theology that comes to be called Lutheran in honor of Luther’s entire body of theological writing, which emphasizes at its core the idea of salvation through grace, which is to say that an omnipotent God chooses to forgive without any human (including papal) intervention. Forgiveness comes as a result of faith. Although this is often portrayed as just another "deal" we make with God, we give faith in exchange for forgiveness. But rather, as I understand it, faith is an essential part of the process of forgiveness in that, although it is initiated by an omnipotent God, it does entail the participation of the sinner who has to believe that forgiveness is actually possible. And this belief is then dependent upon the general set of doctrines relating to Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah and son of God, etc.

The 95 Theses, then, appear without this theological sub-structure, and so sound all the more combative as un-called-for attacks upon the church, a set of attacks which resulted in his banishment from the Church and his spending the rest of his life developing a body of theological work to define the line of thought that led him to that fateful day.

Luther was certainly critical of his society, in both the everyday connotation of "criticizing things that are wrong" but also in the more scholarly sense of questioning and exploring its premises. The theses build up an argument against the indulgences by questioning their theological justifications. At the same time, his inquiries were guided by empathy for the common people who were being fleeced by the indulgence sellers, who were selling what Luther argued were false promises. After all, he pointed out, if the pope had the power to release souls from purgatory, wouldn’t he just release them all out of love, without demanding money?

"Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep."

In this statement he expresses empathy for the people being guilt-tripped into buying indulgences, but also he leaves room for saving face (if not showing actual empathy) towards the pope, who is the object of his critique, by granting him deniability. Perhaps the pope simply did not know the abuses? The thrust of the bigger argument is that the entire premise of indulgences is wrong, so this face saving gesture towards the pope is a false one, as it is the theology that is condemned and not the mere practice.

Anyway, I suppose it is a bit facile to make the argument for Luther as critically empathetic. But I would say he is, and in that is the source of his success, and also his guilt in being associated with retrospectively grotesque aspects of 16th century rhetoric and practice. That is the price of empathy, it means you share in the sins of your times. And I would argue that is inevitable, even if you are critical. Because you can’t escape all the injustices of your times. Being critical of them is important. But more important is to be empathetic towards everyone caught up in the social structure. Be critical yes, but finally empathize.

Zacheus, Naaman, and Sundry Lepers

Well I didn’t go to church today, as I didn’t go the week before, unlike other weeks when I’ve been away. These two weeks I just played hooky. In both cases I was showered and dressed and ready, I just decided to stay home. And I’m fully aware of the “where two or three are gathered” dictum, and one just doesn’t cut it. We need social interaction, and we create moments of interaction: in churches, at bars, sporting events, clubs, political parties, etc in order to revive our spirits and sense that we belong somewhere. We are social animals, and if we try to ignore that fact, we generally wind up slowly losing our minds, and my mind currently has no idea where it is or where it is going. As limited as the socializing is at church, I suppose it would have been good to go, and just be part of community, even if not so much for myself, as for others. It is a church of mostly elderly people, it is a church that in many ways is dying, or is at least stuck (in both cases, like me), so the question is how do we break out of this?

This is, apparently, the only ELCA church remaining in Lubbock, and for that reason alone I feel I should support it. I wish I was “found” enough, confident enough, spiritual enough, holy enough, to lead it towards a revival of some kind. The church needs a bit of charisma (that awful and mostly comical word), youth, energy, drive, vision, fun. It needs someone playing guitar in worship, inspiring 20-year olds with joy and optimism about life…and now I get word in an (annoying) notification on my phone, about another mall shooting in America…one dead, eight injured at the Clearance Outlet Mall in Grand Rapids Michigan…it doesn’t get any more American than that, a tragedy amidst that always inspiring group of strivers, the youthful (often immigrant) shoppers at an outlet mall. Meanwhile, one thousand are dead in Haiti as a result of another natural disaster, a category 5 hurricane. Haiti just seems to be positioned in the way of natural disasters, and its horseshoe form means that much of the population is near a coast perhaps. But it would seem that other countries in the area, Cuba in particular, have made a much greater effort to educate the population and prepare them for emergencies, so that when faced with much the same circumstances, Cuba seems to always handle it better and faces less deaths…at least since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution. Before Castro, Cuba faced deaths from natural disasters on almost the same scale as Haiti, but Hurricane Flora in 1963 took the lives of over a thousand people in Cuba, and the government reacted with dedicated disaster training, which went hand in hand with general education, so that a literate population (especially literate women) could react and read government instructions allowing for better disaster preparedness. Currently nearly 80% of Cuban women have a secondary education (presumably even a higher proportion have primary education), while only 25% of Haitian women have a secondary education, with the Dominican Republic falling somewhere in between at around 50%. As a result, children get disaster preparedness training in school, and know where they can go (to relatives, to a government center, to a school) in the case of a natural disaster, and then they can follow government announcements and move before the disaster hits. One Cuban boy told a researcher in 2011 that he knew that as soon as they get information about a hurricane, they seal the house doors and windows with tape, and he would be relocated to his grandmother’s house. He says that he lost a lot of things in the last hurricane including, heartbreakingly, his (ancient) Atari. (Pichler 2013)

So, institution building, government infrastructure, education, and preparedness all help protect people and build a stable society. These are the fruits of sociability. I suppose the KKK is a type of sociability as well, sadly, in the sense that it gathers people to interact with each other through rituals and friendships for a purpose. But, it’s purpose being division, hate, and violence, I guess that makes a sort of anti-social sociability. The general trend of people brought up in this sort of sociability is to create societies of divisions, societies of private interests, societies that don’t invest in institution building, government infrastructure, education, and preparedness. Which, I suppose, also brings us to Haiti. Why Haiti has failed so thoroughly to create a responsible government that can provide these sorts of basic services is a question for deeper historical and sociological research: histories of slavery and punishments for revolution and dictatorships and tonton macoutes. In some ways it is a vicious circle: a poor, uneducated population tends to be captured by narrow special interests who dominate the society for their own benefit, and the lack of infrastructure, education, institutions makes it difficult for people to react or even ascertain the nature of their predicament. Sounds a lot like where Donald Trump and the Republicans more generally (who so wish to avoid acknowledging him as their own monster) wants to lead America.

Sociability requires contributions, compromise, and, to be honest, faith–faith in each other at minimum, and faith in some bigger idea that unites and motivates us to work with others, make efforts on behalf of others, to invite others. All sociability is a type of missionary work in this sense, even the mere invitation to someone to join us for a drink. Our political parties, at their best are vehicles for mere sociability at the grass roots, small scale secular missionary work on behalf of some half-baked ideas and ideology and, at best, the genuine desire to improve people’s lives and create those ingredients for a stable and prosperous society.

And so churches. Lots of different opinions about them of course, and their pharisaical tendencies towards judgment, and religious invocation as a means of power rather than as a means to community… of course we have to realize that the exercise of power is often a means towards community of a certain kind. All communities are also vehicles of power, people power, at their very basic level of functioning, and all communities draw boundaries of membership and rejection. Some strive to be more open and inviting, and limit their membership largely by being boring more than anything else.

Jesus certainly fought against phariseeism and narrow bounds of membership. He fought against the knee-jerk and pompous judgment, and the ease with which those seeking power draw boundaries and identify scapegoats. On numerous occasions he invited tax collectors into his favor. These tax collectors, poor schmucks who, for lack of other options, went to work for the Roman Empire and its crude means of taxing (the all the most positive and negative senses) people under its rule. They simply assigned overall assessments to entire neighborhoods or districts, and then commissioned private operators from among the subject people to collect that amount, and keep what they could above the assessment as their own pay. So tax collectors in ancient Israel were working for a foreign occupier, and collecting taxes without any prescribed basis, leaving it up to them to wheel and deal and get people to cough up what they could (not so different from the depressing duty of a church pastor to wheedle offerings out of a spendthrift congregation). They were understandably hated by the population: imperial flunkies and double-dealers with whom every interaction is an annoying give-and-take, where inevitably the taxpayer’s desire to pay nothing to a foreign occupying government and the tax-collector’s goal to collect a certain arbitrary amount (that was seen as the maximum the Roman government could reasonably expect from the district, not based wealth or production per se, but on the political circumstances facilitating collection). A dirty game, but people sometimes take dirty work to get by, especially for those in Israel who were not land-owners or skilled tradesmen, here tax-collecting lay an opportunity to get ahead a little. The dirtiest dealers could probably get rich, those who sought to be honest in their dealings might, at best, come out a little ahead, if they didn’t lose money by making themselves personally responsible for shortfalls.

Poor Zacheus was a “small man” (presumably of stature and of spirit) who was a tax collector who famously climbed up a tree in order to get a glimpse of Jesus, and then Jesus invited him down and said we are all going to your house to eat this evening. Several things strike me. Zacheus was none to proud, he allowed his enthusiasm for Jesus (an enthusiasm that reflected a recognition of holiness, despite all the ways Jesus spoke against him) to overcome his sense of pride of place, and put himself up in the tree where he could only be mocked by the masses who loved so much to hate him. People loved to hate the tax collectors (and still do of course), and Jesus told them, look, those among these tax collectors who are aware of, and think about, and try to minimize their injustice in carrying out this morally dubious task, are better than you self-satisfied, proud, judgmental people, who lord over them your moral superiority, even as you lie and cheat him, telling yourselves that you owe him nothing because he represents the hated empire, and you don’t have to pay them anything. You come to this convenient conclusion on tax-collection day, but when the rebels come asking you to sacrifice for your life to fight heroically against this hated empire, you turn them down saying that they are dreamers and they could never win. You are right of course, the rebels won’t win, they’ll be massacred. So you engage in slow-burning resentment and you make it difficult for the tax-collectors to do their work (and whether anyone ever remarked upon the aqueducts and sanitation as did the Judean Peoples’ Front in Monty Python’s Life of Brian is an unknown question).

This is all to say: sometimes I wonder if the particular vehemence towards taxation in the United States today has something to do with the way that tax collectors were demonized in Roman Israel as recorded in the Biblical accounts. As with all the other attitudes of cynicism towards government (“it’s all rigged” sorts of attitudes), it is way to justify our withdrawal from the process, and justify the non-payment of taxes. It is a convenient excuse, and it is only that: an excuse….unless it is accompanied by a full revolutionary critique of government. To the extent that something is rigged, it is a far deeper rigging of the rhetorical (discursive) infrastructure of society…which includes racism and any number of other prejudices. To the extent that this rhetorical infrastructure excludes people explains a lot about the way that people’s political choices come to reflect that sense of exclusion. Unfortunately, in the case of the angry white men, this sense of exclusion provokes a reactionary exclusionism, a prejudice against others that is a reflection of their own sense of exclusion and the sense that to act with power is to exclude…and of course that is true. They are excluded, not by a liberal media, but by a privileged educated class. This exclusion may be well-deserved, and it may be just a result of the differing discursive regimes they live in, but no matter how you slice it is a sense of exclusion based on a real exclusion of some kind.

So, thus the power and importance of Jesus’ inclusion of old Zacheus, and the lepers, and the single women of various sorts, the fishermen, Roman centurions, all of them. Jesus was, if nothing else, inclusive. I’m not sure if I can think of any real exclusiveness in Jesus’ movement, except perhaps his denunciation of Pharisees. Would he, could he have accepted a Pharisee into the movement? I have no doubt that he could…and indeed the Apostle Paul made exactly that claim. Whether Jesus really appeared to him is really not important, because what is true is that the Jesus movement accepted him in the end (no doubt in large part because of the shear force of his personality etc).

Well, I guess I’ve written too much already, but then there are Naaman in the Old Testament who gets healed of leprosy by Elisha, and Jesus repeats the feat, sending them off to see the priests (presumably Pharisees) and he heals them on the way…but only one returns (a despised Samaritan) to give thanks, and Jesus proclaims him healed again…spiritually I suppose. So outsiders, the diseased, gratitude…all these themes seem generally to point towards having hope in life. I guess that’s the long and the short of it…and I could have wrapped that up a long time ago.

Pichler, Adelheid and Erich Striessnig, (2013) “Differential Vulnerability to the Hurricanes in Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic: The Contribution of Education,” Ecology and Society 18(3).31.