Month: January 2017

Fear, the Macho Pose,  and the Triumph of Osama bin Laden

The Gospel Reading today was the Beatitudes, and I have only now come to realize that they are really about the overcoming of fear, the fear of being weak and poor and ineffective and scorned by society. Don’t we all everywhere fear the very real dangers that go with the loss of social status?

“Blessed are the poor (in spirit); for theirs is the kingdom of heaven Blessed are those who mourn; for they will be comforted
Blessed are the meek; for they will inherit the earth
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; for they will be filled Blessed are the merciful; for they will be shown mercy
Blessed are the pure in heart; for they will see God
Blessed are the peacemakers; for they will be called children of God
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

One thing with the whole Trump phenomenon that we have to wrap our heads around is the popularity of the macho pose. Clearly this touched a deeply passionate response in his audience.

This audience seems to respond to rhetoric that disregards what we think of as polite speech. It is simple enough to label it all as mere racism, and all his followers mere racists, and perhaps that is all true. They celebrate his rude rise because he unapologetically insults non-whites and all those who refuse to defend a racial vision of political community. The rhetoric of diversity and tolerance to them sounds like a rhetoric of capitulation that will bring and end to white domination of the national (indeed international) community. In this view, they regard the essential community as defined by a white racial identity. Regardless of how scholars will argue with the fictionality of this understanding of race, it is a meaningful category to them and all who they recognize to be members of this race. They celebrate the idea that he will pursue policies supported by this group who understand the world in racial terms and see themselves as defending a white race. Others support him because they are not necessarily racists but Christian fundamentalists (these categories have large overlap, but are not congruous). These see him as a profoundly compromised human being, but a useful instrument (in their eyes God’s instrument) to further their political goals, which build upon actual deeply held beliefs, but which also use (and abuse) those deeply held beliefs amongst their followers to pursue policies which are often peculiarly unchristian (policies which often coincide closely with the racist policies of the former group, and indeed these groups have large areas of overlap).

A major political tactic in this regard is the whole pro-life position on abortion. This is an issue of profound political appeal because it is such a stark moral issue that can trump other issues, and with it the Republican party has successfully baited huge swaths of Christian believers into supporting a whole ideological complex. In this case it is important to recognize that to the grassroots believers, abortion is the murder of innocents. For them this is a very sincere belief that is morally comparable to the abolition of slavery. In fact, part of its appeal to white-identity people (noting that many if not most of non-white people in the United States also oppose abortion on a personal moral level, and often at the political level) is that it offers a sort of moral badge of honor that abolitionism denies them because of their inability to identify with the historical abolitionists, and their civil-rights supporting heirs, because it places them in opposition not so much to slavery but to the broader effort to maintain separate racial identities, and to maintain African Americans as an inferior class of humans etc. Leaving that aspect aside, I still want to insist on the very real belief among those in pro-life position that abortion is the murder of innocents, and that for the government to allow a “pro-choice” position is analogous to allowing a “pro-choice” position on slavery. Anyone wishing to break the link between abortion and the broader Republican ideological complex needs to understand the sincerity of the pro-life position for most of its adherents (casting aside, for the moment, the more cynical reasons that many politicians wield and abuse a pro-life position in order to accomplish ancillary political goals) must understand the sincerity of this belief and seek to find ways to build bridges between a pro-choice and pro-life position…which because of the logic referenced above is almost impossible. Obama offered a useful formulation in saying that “on the issue of abortion, we can all agree that we want less of them.” I mention abortion, because it is one issue in which a macho, morally inflexible, indeed fundamentalist, position is attractively easy to maintain (no matter how insincere Trump’s position on this issue is, it is this issue, more than any other, that girds him with the sword of the Christian right, who can by this token, argue that he is their God-given weapon).

But, I want to leave aside those considerations, and consider other aspects of Trump’s appeal. His appeal comes in the time of terrorism. Clearly his rhetoric appeals because of the developments of the last 16 years or so since 9/11. His appeal is that Al Qaeda and now ISIS terrorism does successfully instill terror and fear, and these emotions are guiding people’s response to policy. We need to somehow take measure of the appeal of military action, the appeal of all sorts of policy “attacks” on Muslims in particular. Radical Islamic terrorism is terrifying. We have to acknowledge that as a first step.

The ideology represented by ISIS does derive from a Muslim belief system, and the explosion of this radical interpretation of Islam represents a major crisis in the Islamic world. There are certainly Islamic theologies that do present a sustainable vision of a political realm that does not require belief in the God and Prophet of the Koran as the basis for membership in a political community. Traditionally Islamic communities tolerated religious minorities, and were relatively generous in particular with “people of the book” (Jews and Christians), requiring them only to pay an extra tax. Modern Muslim-majority countries have generally provided legal equality to people of all religions within the nation-state, and allowed religious politics to play out at the level of public debate rather than legal sanction. Al Qaeda, and related ideologies, opposed this form of modern Islam that allowed for a nascent separation of religion and state, that allowed for a multi-religious polity on equal legal footing, that allowed for heterogenous religious practice among Muslims and among people of other faiths. Opposition to this secularist vision for a Muslim-majority society grew out of several parallel causes. One was the enduring appeal of Islamic reformism, which draws on a deep theological tradition to criticize and subvert governmental authorities by pointing out their impiousness and calling for the reinstatement of some version of a more “pure” Islam, normally derived through a conservative interpretation of early Islamic texts, namely Koran and Hadith and classical theologians. The wide recognition of the basic historical legitimacy of this tactic created the cultural space for a more specific critique of those governments that related to global conditions of the late 20th century, namely American domination of the international community and intervention in the politics of less-powerful countries, including Muslim-majority countries, and then the effects of globalization with its exacerbation of inequality within societies and homogenization of popular culture, which really meant a sort of cultural imperialism that imposed American styles of popular (consumer) culture on societies that were ambivalent about their reception (some loved it, some hated it, most were reasonably wary of it).

In response to the American domination/intervention, Islamic radicals made the case that their governments (almost all undemocratic for reasons related to the Cold War and ensuing American domination, but also for reasons arising within these societies, not the least of which is the Islamic theological opposition to democratic practice, but also many other locally relevant cultural and political habits) were impotent in this new global order, and were selling out their people etc. Basically they made the populist case in the guise of fundamentalist religion (see discussion of abortion above for parallels, in fact more discussion of the US situation with politicized Christianity would illuminate more parallels). So, one response that gained traction during the American-dominated global political and economic order at the end of the Cold War was Islamic fundamentalist critique of the secularist state (i.e. almost all the military-dominated middle eastern governments of the late 20th century, including Saddam Hussein’s Iraq). These secularist states, sensing the threat this ideology represented, attacked and suppressed organizations representing the fundamentalist critique, a basically successful tactic for the short-term, but it bred increasing theological radicalism, which finally found a benefactor in Osama bin Laden. Iran and Saudi Arabia represent two very different exceptions. Iran is exceptional because the crisis came to a head, and shockingly saw the victory of a Shi’ite fundamentalist revolution, which was the inspiration to all the Sunni critiques of their militarized states (as Iran had been prior to the revolution), and terrified all the Sunni military states who cracked down all the harder on all internal critics, most especially the fundamentalist ones. Saudi Arabia is exceptional because it wields a particular symbolic utility even to the fundamentalist critics, and its royal family has funded their ostentatious and impious lifestyle by funding the theologians of the radical critique; and to the extent that the royal family represents an anachronism that is something other than the secular/military states in the rest of the region, its survives the fundamentalist critique (I suppose because within that fundamentalist vision, the idea of the lush-living of a royal family fits within the medievalist notion, wherein that royal family serves at the pleasure of the religious elite, not unlike the Herodian dynasty of Roman Palestine). This being the case, the foolishness of the Iraq war becomes almost intolerable, in that it overthrew a secularist state without cause, opening the way for Al Qaeda and the wider radical fundamentalist movement to take over, which is where we now find ourselves. In fact, in a recent book by Hussein’s American interrogator, the wiley old dictator expressed surprise that the US demonized him and destroyed his government at the very moment he thought the US would seek his support in fighting a mutual enemy. The irony of the Iraq war, and the reason it was a catastrophically bad decision, is that in overthrowing Saddam Hussein we did Osama bin Laden a favor, and by undermining (again) the sovereign state system we opened up the space for the Islamic state and its “caliphate” that is itself a rejection of the sovereign state system. Both of these consequential mistakes were evident before the war by anyone with any knowledge of the region. The ongoing  sense of embarrassment and shame and cognitive dissonance among those who supported the Iraq war contributes much to the belligerence of the Republican party since since (as well as the sense of economic failure at the end of the Bush administration).  

There is no doubt that the Iraq war set off the powder keg that continues to blow up in the Middle East. That being said, the fundamentalist dynamic that has emerged (a militantly competitive radicalism that can emerge within any religion) produces an increasingly toxic mass psychosis that is almost beyond comprehension in its cruelty. ISIS is the moral equivalent of the KKK or the Nazis (see above discussion of white identity politics). Any discussion of an American response to ISIS and their fellow travelers has to acknowledge that (even before dwelling on American contribution to the causes of their emergence). The equivalent generational fear during the Cold War was of communism, and that created similar witch hunts and immigration restrictions (the ongoing presence of a question about belonging to the communist party in immigration procedures). There is no doubt that the radical Islamic theology represented by Al Qaeda and ISIS is a threat to democratic society, as is Nazi fascism and KKK racism, and Soviet communism. And this is what people fear.

But this fear is the real threat, and aim, of terrorism. By instilling that fear, people vote to fight. Terrorism is meant as an incitement to fight. This is what we see, and hear, coming from Trump supporters. Is that fear legitimate? What do we do with that fear? We cannot simply deny their fears. To fear ISIS in general is reasonable. What is unreasonable is the sense of proximity. ISIS remains far away, and having little impact on the US. But what of extreme vetting (whatever that means)? What of the blocking of people of certain religions from entry into the United States? What are the limits of American values? Can immigration policy be derived from the inscription on the Statue of Liberty? The inscription is deeply Christian, deriving from the Beatitudes. It is a radical statement against fear. It is a radical statement of Christ’s invocation to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. And we have to remember, we have to remember, that Christ’s open-armed attitude towards the poor, the diseased, the weak in all forms was essential to his ministry. This was mission, this was conversion, this was the act that draws people into belief. Christ was a man who lived and died by overcoming fear, and by preaching the rejection of fear.

But, we are human, and we fail to overcome our fear. What is a legitimate immigration policy? What is a reasonable response to terrorist movements? A nation exists within the nation-state system as currently constructed, and this system was constructed as a means to manage and minimize conflict. And every system is vulnerable to abuse and to extremes, and nationalism has created war as well as managed war. But within nations certain things can also be accomplished, and the nation-state system, with its restrictions allows for accomplishments within particular political communities…accomplishments that would not be possible if the nation-state could not limit participation in its community – in its restrictions and benefits. We have to acknowledge this. What can be accomplished within a country is dependent to a large extent on the culture cultivated there. Completely free borders would make the cultivation of a culture capable of supporting democracy difficult. Democracy does not just happen because it is proclaimed and voting procedures and constitutional processes enacted. People have to live it and believe it. There is no doubt that the radical Islamic theology of ISIS and Al Qaeda undermines the possibility of democracy. By the same token, there is no doubt that KKK style racism (and its propensity for terrorism) also undermines the possibility of democracy, likewise any number of other ideologies, religious and otherwise. A democratic society is certainly within its rights not only to argue vehemently against such ideologies, and to fight those who attack its citizens and allies. But is a democratic society within its rights also to block immigrants who seek to propagate such ideologies? This is a more difficult question, because it requires judging a person on the basis of the ideas in their head, rather than actions. This is, of course, impossible. But the test is whether the blocking of someone promoting an equivalent ideology would be justified. Blocking someone merely for being Muslim, one would suppose, is equivalent to blocking someone who is Buddhist. This seems to be the appropriate logic, but it leaves aside an explosive question about whether an entire religious tradition is in fact a threat to a nation’s social order. Can a country block racists from entering? Can a country block fascists? Certainly the US has blocked communists and fascists.

That all being said, we should not assume that allowing new people into a society (immigrants) necessarily undermines the cultural cultivation of democratic possibilities. We can think of endless examples of internal cultural habits that undermine and attack democracy, including almost everything about the Trump movement. And in fact sometimes it is the very habit of sealing off immigration, of fearing others, of demonizing newcomers which cultivates anti-democratic habits. And it is the welcoming of others that maintains the compassion, the systems, the active cultivation of a culture of democracy. And we should never forget, and this is one of the lessons of Jesus, that the mere act of welcoming someone may change an ideology of hate, into one of love. It is the possibility of welcoming someone that terrorism seeks to undermine through its inculcation of fear.

A few Comments for Inauguration Day: Absalom, Absalom!

This year I intend to wrap my head around what people voted for when they chose Mr. Trump for president. I have to find a way to celebrate America and its possibility to rise above its own sins. It is a task that will demand forgiveness. I tend to believe that the general gist of the Russian “dossier” on Trump. I sometimes wonder if his dogged pursuit of the “birther” question wasn’t also at the Kremlin’s prodding, just another aspect of the broader, now well-documented, attempt to undermine the credibility of the Obama administration, and weaken American responses to Russian expansion, and thereby continue to destabilize NATO.

But, internally we are faced with a tragedy, a tragedy created in large part by our own lack of a sense of proportion. The entire society has become the boy who cried wolf. We have cried so loud over so many things that when the wolf approached we could no longer hear our own cry.

The verse that comes to mind this morning is 2 Samuel 18 and 19: (in the wonderfully readable New International Reader’s Version): Two messengers arrive bringing news from the battle front, where his son Absalom was a part of the rebellion, and he had ordered his troops to go easy on him (who had earlier killed another half-brother who had raped his sister). “Then the man from Cush (Cush was a region south of ancient Egypt, in what is now the country of Sudan) arrived He said ‘You are my king and master. I’m bringing you some good news. The Lord has saved you today from all those who were trying to kill you.’ The king asked the man from Cush, ‘Is the young man Absalom safe?’ The man replied, ‘King David, may your enemies be like that young man. May all those who rise up to harm you be like him.’ The king was very upset. He went up to the room over the entrance of the gate and sobbed. As he went, he said “My son Absalom! My son Absalom! I wish I had died instead of you. Absalom, my son, my son’ Someone told Joab, ‘The king is sobbing over Absalom. He’s filled with sadness because his son Absalom has died.’ The army had won a great battle that day. But their joy turned into sadness. That’s because someone had told the troops, ‘The king is filled with sorrow because his son is dead.’ The men came quietly into the city that day. They were like fighting men who are ashamed because they’ve run away from a battle. The king covered his face. He sobbed out loud, ‘Absalom, Absalom!'”

This is, of course, also the title of William Faulkner’s most challenging novel, about the incestous rapine which lay at the root of the plantation system, and thereby southern society, a book which I read in college, and could enjoy under such circumstances of duress, I’m sure I’d have a real struggle with it today, but maybe it is in order again.

This passage is about the human inability to control the tragedies that unfold before us. We are sinful people full of passion and violence, and these urges regularly get the better of us. We seek to build morés and social orders and norms and concepts of sin and forgiveness in order to manage life together. And these attempts at grace, although they can feel like bonds that weaken us as vengeful and jealous individuals, they make us stronger as communities. They allow community. At moments when community breaks down we cry at the ensuing tragedies.

How do we rebuild community out of tragedy when everyone is blaming each other?…next time the story of Sheba “an evil man who always stirred up trouble”… suffice to say it is a long road back to community…and that is the real tragedy…. community, like trust, is hard to build and easy to destroy.

Are Christian Morés Childish?

Are Christian Morés childish? This is a fake question. All morés are childish if taken as mere rules rather attitudes about fundamental reality, commitments of faith that contribute to comity among people, beliefs that build a social order. Morés are neither theology, philosophy, nor doctrine nor even based on scripture in any immediate way. They are fundamentally cultural and they shape the way we interact in the world. They may find inception and later enforcement in theologies and scriptures, but they exist independently predominately in the psyche and are then enforced upon the self or upon others. They are, one might argue, the stuff of Foucauldian discipline.

But enough of that. Christian morés engulf all sorts of practices and beliefs and disciplines that not all Christians agree upon. I grew up in mainstream American protestantism, a soft belief system if there ever was one. But its very softness is what allowed me to believe, because I am too rational to believe in a particularly literary way in the personified transcendent God, even though I can believe quite strongly in the fundamental necessary truth that Jesus of Nazareth offers, and he told us to believe in him, and through him we achieve divinity and the Kingdom of God. I believe this. Even without any particular action in pursuit of Jesus’ commands, the mere belief that he represents divine truth is life-changing and world-changing.

And then I grew up amidst what we can take to be Christian morés in that unobtrusive Minnesotan way, in which the morés are as much Scandinavian immigrant as Christian, as much familial as theological. I grew up in a gentle family, a middle class family where modesty was the hallmark of virtuous ambition. This was not a self-conscious set of morés in the sense of East Coast aristocrats, this was just the inheritance of immigrants seeking acceptance and belonging. They dreamt of being in the same room from time to time with truly ambitious people, of talking sometime with someone who had taken risks and prevailed. And there are many morés to think about. I have come to believe that a certain level of self-aware ambition is a necessary part of an adult sensibility. To refuse all ambition and just get along is a little childish, because it does not confront the instability and injustice that lurks just behind a middle class world. Yet, I want to emphasize, that middle class world and its morés is a valuable construction and many of its internal beliefs, including its modesty, are necessary to its maintenance. It is a boring visage, but there is a reason so many people around the world make it their ambition: it presents a predictable meritocratic safe world that reproduces itself and provides a deeply (if not quite thoroughly) satisfying life. The only satisfaction that remains in life is that which comes from confronting the instability and injustice lurking beyond its boundaries, and thereby engaging all the dangers that such a venture would entail. And it must then be pointed out, that such a venture is accessible from the middle class existence, if the local morés can inculcate such values: someone like the Catholic priests assassinated in Central America, or Martin Luther King, or Ghandi for that matter, there are people who strive past the boundaries of respectable existence.

But I’m here in more of a confessional mold. In my case, this blessed middle class existence prepared me for a lifelong vocation: to research and write about modern Tanzania and the ambitions of Julius Nyerere. I have lost some heart in that task lately, because I perceive it to be all too inadequate to the task at hand, of wrestling with a western world losing its footing. Maybe my little books on Julius Nyerere are more important than I’ll ever realize. But as it is they seem unread and insignificant. There are other things I could have done to prepare for the cultural crisis that has brought us Trump as a president. I saw this coming, and as usual did not trust my own instincts, and the weight of what God was calling me to do. Right now I can’t quite bring myself to believe that God called me merely to write these books and teach these classes. It is perhaps an overweening (and in my upbringing therefore immoral) ambition, but I have to be honest. I have sold myself short before God, and as explained a couple months ago, I am the cowardly servant who buried his master’s treasure in the ground. Too afraid of his wrath to trust his love.

But back to the more confessional mold, and to express ideas I’ve been cultivating for years…for decades…about Christian sexual ethics. And here the above question is serious. Christian sexual morés are inadequate to the task of growing up in the modern world.

As I return back to the US after a month in Tanzania, a month primarily dedicated to the pursuit of a stubborn romance, an over anxious effort to find a new wife as I am now deeply (and in deep denial) into middle age. It was a vacation, time spent visiting friends, dating, resolving complex relationships, delving into a life more open and more human and more complex than the limited range of my Lubbock life, where the personal is so tightly bound to the professional as to leave little room for DRAMA.

It was a good trip, and the stubborn romance survives by a fingernail, complex relationships guided through stresses into complex friendship, other beloved friendships strengthened, and a little bit of research and professional work accomplished. A worthwhile month by any account. I feel I am on the tail end of my midlife crisis. I’ve accepted the failures, and the limitations of what remains to me of life. This is the necessary step past the regrets and anger of the midlife crisis, professionally and personally. Personally I am on the verge of accepting whatever may come. To decide without fear as to whether it is a good or right decision or not. To be honest my leanings, as ever, are towards the sacrifice of selfish interpretations, and a re-dedication to the marriage that I entered into before God and family, into the relationship with the person I tore from her home and her family and introduced into a new world to which she dedicated herself, and has no way of simply turning back, to the person who undeniably and unreservedly loves me, and for whom I feel the love of kin, to her and to her family. Ironic, but not surprising, that the flight away from the disappointing aspects of that relationship, should only lead me back to the realization that I cannot refuse the promises into which I entered now many years ago. We’ll see what happens once I land again stateside.

But for now I was single and divorced, for this whole fall I’ve been such, and to be honest I miss sex. I have slept with two women, both of whom I would be proud to call my wife if it came to that, women who have the strength to challenge me, and I am attracted by such strength. It is a little comical that I feel disappointed in myself for not having slept with more women while the opportunity avails…but of course I did not do much of that as a single man before my first marriage either. I fear sin, and it is for that exact reason that I question the maturity of the basic Christian morés surrounding sex, and the idea that all sex outside of marriage is sin, and the idea that this is a matter of rules and not faith. We are wrong to uphold those morés in that form, but I understand why we do… because sex is emotionally dangerous, and, of course physically dangerous when wide sexual networks allow for the emergence of epidemics that can even effect those who are careful.

Because of the emotional dangers, let alone the physical ones, I really cannot bring myself to initiate a sexual relationship unless I can convince myself that it is either a serious relationship or that it is somehow the right thing for both of us (which is practically never, and if I did convince myself of this there was an element of lying to myself and her). Despite what I hear about the “hook-up” generation and the portrayal of guiltless sex on TV, I remain full of guilt knowing that the emotional burden and the risks of a sexual relationship that comes to an end usually winds up more weightily upon a woman.

Thus on this trip I slept with no one, and occasionally questioned that decision…would it not be more honest to throw myself into those young crowds, that exuberant youth of Dar es Salaam? Maybe for some it would be, but I could not quite convince myself of that…even though I have come to believe that, yes, one should throw oneself into the crowd. In fact many blessings have resulted from the social relationships created by the pursuit of sexual desire…and here I won’t say lust or sin, because those only emerge as sin in the act, and I’m not all that sure that lust is a sin at all, unless it comes with plans for assault or deception, left alone it seems to be deep in the nature of what it means to be human. It is lust (and other drives, ambition, experience, etc) itself that drives us out of our rooms, out of our families, out of our comfort zones. And these are all good things. And to the extent that this trip was itself a pursuit of relationships, even with someone who has sworn off physical relationships for the time being, I consider it all a blessing…even if its end is the re-establishment of my former marriage. Most will call this indecision, and certainly it is, and certainly destructive for this reason. But one friend also called it just part of the spiritual journey, and that it is as well, and maybe that leads right back to promises made before God, family, friends, and someone who believed those promises despite evident doubts.

I won’t go into too many specifics, but lots of good times with old friends and new, a little bit of pain and confrontation, some loneliness, some lust, some love, some unrequited, some disappointment. And all of this I consider blessing and the richness of life. I have come to believe that sex outside of marriage, while physically and emotionally dangerous, and therefore possibly to be avoided, is not the worst sin in the world, and in some cases, perhaps more than I’m willing to admit, can be a positive good. It can be good when it happens under the circumstance of mutual respect, decision, and honesty. This is certainly to question traditional Christian morés, and perhaps to question scripture itself. Although I do take note that Jesus spent almost no time condemning people for sexual sins, more time forgiving them for them, and by far most of his time dealing with issues of the greater society, of healing, justice, and compassion.

Because at its best sexual attraction is simply about taking notice of the beauty it is to be human. One day I went to withdraw money from a money account kept on my phone (long story for those not familiar, but very cool and convenient). I went to a little store in the midst of about three outdoor typical Tanzanian bars just outside of my hotel. Upon turning around I was greeted by a taxi driver who has often driven me around over the course five or six years. He was sitting in the afternoon, drinking scotch and beer, with another customer who is a lecturer at a Tanzanian university. I sat down with them for a beer and just to shoot the breeze a little, exactly the purpose bars are meant to serve. In such typical Tanzanian bars there is usually a small army of generously proportioned women who serve up the beer to an almost exclusively male crowd. There is no doubt that many of these barmaids pine their customers with a little extra attention, smiles and chats, flirting banter, and perhaps the allowance of a customer’s reach for a hand, a shoulder, a thigh…Each maintains her boundaries as she sees fit, and the entire structure of the encounter is doubtlessly built upon a patriarchal culture and economic inequality. But nonetheless there we are, the barmaids flirt and tease and their customers are there day after day for that attention as much as the beer. Does this occasionally drift into mere prostitution? Perhaps, so it is said, and I’m sure it is true. What I don’t know will not hurt me in this particular case. These women are not being trafficked, they make their living selling beer and they do it well, what goes on outside of work is really their business and not mine.

I had not eaten lunch and so we called another young woman who works in the kitchen frying up french fries among other things (different staff from the barmaids). A very thin, quite young woman comes up. Her face is really very finely made, the high cheek bones and defined jawline and the rest, her skin is a little scarred by acne, but I don’t think that is reason for the sour face she puts on before these men. The frown and the narrowed eyes scream that she is not a barmaid, nor even less a prostitute. And when one of the men teases her about this, her facial expression remains fixed. When one reaches out to touch her arm she says firmly “don’t touch me.” Perhaps she is too inexperienced, perhaps she is too scarred, perhaps she has simply too much dignity. But she remains with that same Tanzanian decency (as they all do, and that is the basis for these whole interactions, which at least in public never seem to get out of hand), she hung around the table as we began to debate, the men and another barmaid, the reasons for her frown, which did not change. I proposed that the frown was a type of armor, and that what she really sought with that attitude was simply respect. We debated this for a bit, and finally the frown turned into a vulnerable smile, and I suppose dangerous for her to allow for just that reason. A few days later, in the morning I was again at the store for money, and she, arriving for work, picked up her pace as she passed me and tapped me on the shoulder, or the back, or the belly, I do not recall, and I turned to see her smile as she walked by. She had greeted me, and I was flattered. On my last day, upon returning to the hotel to pick up my luggage and await my ride to the airport, I sat down there to have a beer, hoping by chance for a smile from her. She was there, sitting with her workmates chatting, I greeted them. She came and went on her cooking duties, trying on a new chef’s hat, interacting exclusively with her co-workers, and paid no attention to me. I watched her, dressed just as she was the other day, and every day I suppose: in sandals, a suitably fitted knee-length skirt. She has the body of a fashion model, which is generally not all that attractive in Dar, where the plumper barmaids are considered to have something suitable to hold on to. The hint of a rounded behind, a narrow torso and tight belly which curves ever so slightly convex, and two perfect little breasts with her nipples outlined in her fitted uniform shirt in white. She wore no bra, seemingly out of the sheer innocence of seeing no reason to support breasts that were hardly worth the trouble. Going bra-less in Tanzania is frowned upon in polite company, but for young women with small breasts it is not so unusual, taking a purely practical view of it I suppose, and maybe a little self-awareness of how to rock a body that is not necessarily the envy of their peers. I found her utterly sexy. Watching her, finally, she looked at me and smiled and blinked twice in a manner of greeting, like Scandinavians often do. I smiled back, and finished my beer and don’t expect I’ll ever see her again. But will take that memory anytime and consider it utterly lacking in sin.

The real issue at stake here is commitment to one’s own decision, and that is where I have stumbled.

A Short Visit to Iringa

A short visit to Iringa, mainly to drop off a car. But I got to visit with a number of good friends. Julia, the uber-competent volunteer managing all the St. Paul Synod business in Iringa. She is now looking to what might come next in her life, and recognizing that it will probably be international, probably theological in some way, and probably working with people because she’s a people person (an understatement). Ken: the recipient of the car we now share, who was there, as he is yearly, with his group of engineering students from the University of Minnesota. For four years straight now he gets them all out in villages where they survey and measure and talk to the villagers about water needs. Then they design a water system, which is then adjusted and put into place by the St. Paul Partners. SPP is an outgrowth of all the companion synod work the St. Paul Lutheran churches have been doing with the Iringa Lutheran Diocese. SPP basically digs wells, and otherwise provide good water to villages. Great work by a handful of people who have funded and organized this eminently practical project.

Albastino Mbembe and Family

Then the evangelists. These were all friends working in the Ipogolo parish when I lived here 15 years ago. Evangelist in Tanzania refers to the non-ordained pastoral workers in every parish and sub-parish. They do basically all the pastoral work in their parishes, praying, counseling, leading worship, teaching children, directing choirs, visiting the sick, arranging funerals and weddings. They do everything but the sacraments, and at best are provided for by the limited means of the people of their parish. Yohanna: for years and years he has been a faithful and fearless evangelist, still a young-looking man, full of holy mischievousness in his eyes. People have been bugging him for years to get married, because after all it is a bit of a scandal for him not to be married at his age. But then again any attempt to pursue a romance for someone in his position is an invitation to scandal. On top of that these guys basically have no money. For their long service, sometimes the congregations will help them with a bit of capital to buy a small plot of land for a house, or to rent out a little storefront where they might sell some clothes. Yohanna now has a little clothing shop, which he is hoping to stock with fashionable clothes. Last year he did finally meet a young woman, she was studying in a town not far from here, not sure how they met. He really fell for her, and went down to try to propose to her. But her father said she cannot get married until she completes another 3 years of schooling of some kind. So that blew a hole in their plans, and Yohanna says he cannot wait three years. So he’s giving it two more months to see if they can come to any solution, then he’s going to move on. As with all challenges, he takes them on with such stoic humor. He, like the rest, live by faith.

Albastino is really one of my favorite people in the world. A man whose gentleness and joy reach deep into his tranquil soul. The son of a pioneering evangelist in these parts, he has lived an unendingly exemplary life. He got married some years ago to a sweet and somewhat inarticulate village girl who is nonetheless good with a needle and thread, and a treadle sewing machine. They had a girl years ago, who is now 12 and as sweet as you would expect, being raised by such loving parents. I had brought a few gifts, which they appreciated. But the girl really wanted to learn English, and maybe get an English book. So I picked up a couple student English exercise books and dropped them off the evening before I left. It seemed that she wanted a smile wider than her shy face would allow.

Since October Albastino has taken a temporary evangelist job in a rough area near the Tanzanian border with Kenya, an area populated by Kuria people. Kuria are a cattle herding people traditionally, and place a great value on youthful courage in battle. Thus Kuria men are brought up to avenge the slightest insult and knife fights between them are an everyday occurrence. This has led to some scary incidents for Albastino, but mostly from a distance. He says that they are usually very hospitable to strangers in their midst, and don’t generally drag them into their petty conflicts. Albastino plans to put in a year, but no more. It is a call he says, and certainly to put this gentle soul in the midst of that violent culture is a truly Christian mission. He and his wife also just had another baby girl. He knew the baby was coming, but took the call anyway…maybe it came with a little extra pay, it must have, but it can’t substitute for the time away from home. The baby had a bit of trouble just after birth, and stayed in the hospital for a week. But his parishioners took good care of wife and baby and both came through in good health. So Albastino was back after three months to visit his family and new baby. He is going to take it as pure rest, and try to avoid being dragged into any preaching or other work-related duties.

The last visit was with Hophman, a more boisterous character than Albastino to be sure, but also full of joy and faith. He was with me when we went up to deliver the English books, and he and Albastino spent a half hour getting caught up, and talking about life among the Kuria, where Hophman has also spent some time. Hophman actually graduated with a degree in theology but was never ordained because, as a student body president, he received some complaints about the bishop which he had the audacity to make public, and the bishop then refused to ever ordain him. He nonetheless keeps his home in Iringa, and maintains a decent relationship with the bishop…these things are complicated. He also married recently, to a young math teacher, who is quiet but every bit his equal. She’s from a different part of the country, but now lives in Iringa with him, and from the looks of it, supports the family. Hophman had spent time in his youth in the army and drinking a little too much, and there always seems to be something more to his story than meets the eye. He has traveled everywhere in the country.

I took the early bus from Iringa to Dar today….all of $10 for an 8 hour bus ride. An air conditioned bus, driven responsibly, with comfortable seats (for anyone under 6 feet tall at least). There have been sprinkles lately, suggesting that the rains are about to come. So the morning sunlight brought scenes of broad fields and little corners of housing lots under cultivation by people out hacking at the ground with a hoe. Most dramatically there would be broad field, with black up-turned soil with just a couple tiny figures in tattered work clothes, who seemingly had cleared the entire field by hand between six and seven a.m. I saw two ox-drawn ploughs this morning, and that was a pleasing sight. The first president had preached endlessly about the utility of adopting this ancient technology, but somehow people are very reluctant. There is a moral quality to work, and endless hoeing lends itself well to that. But maybe that is just not something you would want to do for your cattle, since your real goal is to breed them, not work them. But in any case it is the new market economy rather than the imposing socialist state that will probably successfully shift farmers to new technologies. Apart from that, just the endless life in all the roadside villages. Children playing, adults chatting, a pre-teen girl barely managing to ride an adult-size bicycle.

On the bus, there was the usual morning chatter, the usual music videos, produced better every year, and every year even more full of the objectified bodies of nubile young women. For part of the ride a little girl sat next to me (her mother and aunt and sister and her were all sitting in the two seats they had paid for, so as long as the seat beside me was empty I said she could sit with me). I saw her watching the videos and imitating the moves. Only one video presented a different vision, a socially conscious video by Tanzanian hip hop godfather, Professor Jay. Then the TV fare moved on the new version of the Karate Kid, which was generally gentle and enjoyable, until it (inevitably for an American movie) turned to a kiddie-version of macho violence. In this case the entire screen was filled with Chinese faces, as the movie is set in Beijing, and then two African American faces, of the Karate Kid and his mother. Jaden Smith, son of Will, plays the lead character adorably, and the predominantly female passengers watched attentively, following the plot from the point of view of the mother, the whole thing was blessedly free of the normal parade of violent white people that action movies provide. Another movie did come on that was going to be endless fighting in a Russian gulag or something…you realize how much the Karate Kid with its Rocky plotline feeds directly into the pornographic violence of low-budget action movies. Thankfully that movie was cut off by a rest stop. What followed was two Tanzanian movies, one about the tribulations of an infertile couple, told mainly from a feminine point of view. This was also received with great attention and conversation among the passenger, as was the light-hearted comedy that followed, whose plot centered on a stolen radio. I was wondering how the generally conflict-phobic Tanzanian culture managed with the bombardment of violent and sexually-objectifying fare of pop culture. What struck me about the locally made fare is how strong those local values remain, and how much the portrayal of those values in entertainment still appeals to viewers. Amidst all the fights and melodrama of the infertile screen couple (such an ancient theme, of particular potency in traditional African culture), they basically resolved all problems by getting together all the principals and talking through the issues. You come to realize how much faith (not only Christian in this multireligious country)  serves to offer a bulwark against the inundation of psychologically exploitative pop culture, preying on our weakness for sex and violence. 

I still pray for these gentle aspects of this society, may they reign, despite the bombardments of pop culture, corrupt and criminal violence, and the ever-looming, if distant, possibility of civil conflict.