Objective moral facts

As my Ethics class approaches the end of the semester, there is now an ongoing conversation with my students about whether morality is based upon objective facts or not.  I defend that it is, as virtue theory understands that.  

So, today I enjoyed reading this good essay on Philippa Foot and how she and other like Elizabeth Anscombe and Iris Murdoch rescued philosophy from emotivism and existentialist ethics by insisting that the virtues describe something real.

I delighted in this sentence from the essay, "To say that vice is a natural defect is not an answer to any question; it is simply a way of interpreting the question, of telling us where we should be looking."

So often students wrestle with virtue theory because they expect some set of rules to tell them how to decide ethical matters, rather than the more complex and nuanced activity of character formation.


A splendid paragraph from The Siege

Here is a splendid paragraph from Ismail Kadare's The Siege as a violently dismembered body of an engineer who cast the canon is cleaned up:

They could not take their eyes off the stretcher as the horrible mess was shovelled on to it. A few janissaries who were still standing around gazed with astonishment at the two council members. Hatred had left their eyes. They now looked only stunned, and immensely tired.  The Quartermaster General stared at them.  A few moments earlier they had been beating the caster with all the disgust and all the fear that the mystery of science, which so tortured their minds, inspired in them.  In dismembering the technician they believed they were freeing themselves from the grip of the terror of the unknown.  They would only be free of it for a while, for the same terror would soon seep back into their minds and preoccupy them once again.  For the sake of mental peace they would then set off to find another head to smash . . . 


The Siege

The SiegeThe Siege by Ismail Kadare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure about this novel as I began it. The writing of this translation was at first off-putting to me, but either it grew on me or it changed. I ended up deeply immersed in the novel--a fictional story of a fifteenth century Ottoman siege of an Albanian fortress, told mostly from the perspectives of Turkish characters ranging from the commander-in-chief to women in the harem. What soon emerges is that this is more than just a compelling story from the past, but a reflection on the present. I first noticed this in the accounts of the dysfunctional war council where traditionalists vie with modern scientific experts. Then the middle chapter--a horrifying episode I won't spoil--fully engaged me to the skill of Kadare.

The excellent afterword explains how Kadare was speaking to the contemporary situation in late 1960's Maoist Albania:


all these details make the Ottoman world, ostensibly the very image of Albania's Other, merge into an evocation of the People's Republic that Kadare could not possibly tackle directly. In a magical way that perhaps only great writers can achieve, Kadare's Turks are at one and the same time the epitome of what we are not, and a faithful representation of what we have become. The Siege is therefore not a simple transposition or blending of medieval and modern history, but a complex symbol of a divided and suffering nation besieged by itself.

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The Conservationist

The ConservationistThe Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I got into this novel, enjoying its story of a white business-man experiencing life as a hobby farmer and the stories of the characters who live on or near the farm. But I kept hoping for a payoff that didn't arrive at the end, and the next to the last chapter was so deeply unsatisfying that I struggled even giving it three stars.

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Remember

Remember

by Joy Harjo  

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life, also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
are you.
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
Remember.


What Kind of Love Is This?

What Kind of Love Is This?

2 Samuel 13:1-22

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

19 November 2017

 

 

    We may have reached a significant turning point in American culture. In recent weeks, multiple public figures have been accused of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape. Women and men of all ages have been sharing their personal stories under the hashtag #MeToo about the times they were victimized.

    I was having beers the other week with the Dean of the Episcopal cathedral and he said that Christianity needs to confess our complicity in developing a culture of misogyny. Reflecting on this conversation, I realized I needed to say something from this pulpit.

    So, I've set aside the sermon I had planned for today and am going to preach a different one. Five years ago, during a series we did on King David in the Hebrew Scriptures, I preached on the story of the Rape of Tamar. That sermon speaks to this cultural moment, so I have adapted it for reuse today.

    Hear now the story of Tamar's Rape as recorded in the book of 2 Samuel:

 

David's son Absalom had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar; and David's son Amnon fell in love with her. Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. But Amnon had a friend whose name was Jonadab, the son of David's brother Shimeah; and Jonadab was a very crafty man. He said to him, "O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?" Amnon said to him, "I love Tamar, my brother Absalom's sister." Jonadab said to him, "Lie down on your bed, and pretend to be ill; and when your father comes to see you, say to him, 'Let my sister Tamar come and give me something to eat, and prepare the food in my sight, so that I may see it and eat it from her hand.'"

 

So Amnon lay down, and pretended to be ill; and when the king came to see him, Amnon said to the king, "Please let my sister Tamar come and make a couple of cakes in my sight, so that I may eat from her hand." Then David sent home to Tamar, saying, "Go to your brother Amnon's house, and prepare food for him." So Tamar went to her brother Amnon's house, where he was lying down. She took dough, kneaded it, made cakes in his sight, and baked the cakes. Then she took the pan and set them out before him, but he refused to eat. Amnon said, "Send out everyone from me." So everyone went out from him. Then Amnon said to Tamar, "Bring the food into the chamber, so that I may eat from your hand." So Tamar took the cakes she had made, and brought them into the chamber to Amnon her brother. But when she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, "Come, lie with me, my sister."

 

She answered him, "No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do anything so vile! As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the scoundrels in Israel. Now therefore, I beg you, speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you." But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.

 

Then Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her. Amnon said to her, "Get out!" But she said to him, "No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me." But he would not listen to her. He called the young man who served him and said, "Put this woman out of my presence, and bolt the door after her." So his servant put her out, and bolted the door after her.

 

But Tamar put ashes on her head, and tore the long robe that she was wearing; she put her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went. Her brother Absalom said to her, "Has Amnon your brother been with you? Be quiet for now, my sister; he is your brother; do not take this to heart." So Tamar remained, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom's house.

 

When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn. But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad; for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had raped his sister Tamar.

 

 

    At the close of this terrifying story, we are told that despite being angry, David does not punish his son Amnon "because he loved him." Scholar Eugene Peterson asks directly, "What kind of love is this?" For the story does not tell us that David loved his daughter Tamar or that he took any compassion upon her. The Bible indicates that she lived out the rest of her life as a "desolate woman." "David's 'love'," and Eugene Peterson puts that word in quotes, "is a mask for injustice."

    The story opens with Amnon expressing his love for Tamar. And we are shocked that the word isn't lust or obsession or even the more neutral desire. The word is "love." We are told that Amnon loves Tamar, before he rapes her, hates her, and abandons her to desolation.

    Indeed, we must ask, "What kind of love is this?"

          

 

    Rape, abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence are features of our contemporary life. 1/3 of women and 1 out of every 6 men have been victims of sexual violence. 60% of women experience unwanted sexual attention or harassment in the workplace.

    Disturbingly, the perpetrators of these crimes often mask their actions with the word "love." Just like Amnon did in this story. We can say unequivocally that love should never involve violence. Love should never involve abuse. Love should never mean engaging in sex when you don't want to. Love does not objectify you or depersonalize you. Love is not about power or control for one party and obedience or submission for the other party. Love never ignores your desires, your pleasure, your health and well-being.

    Unfortunately, religion, including Christianity, has historically been guilty of fostering an environment where these abuses could occur. Christianity taught women to obey their husbands and to submit. It taught women that their pleasures and desires were secondary, maybe even sinful. It encouraged women to be silent, and more than one woman has heard a religious leader tell her that her experience of abuse or violence was "her cross to bear." Which is about as distorted and incorrect a reading of the cross of Jesus Christ as could ever be offered.

    Christianity has done much the same with children. Too often children are taught that their obedience to authority is a requirement for eternal salvation. Children are not taught to appreciate, value, and understand their own bodies. They are denied comprehensive sex education by religious leaders. They are not taught to think critically.

    People were also often victims of a theological distortion of the concept of sacrifice. Rather than focusing on Jesus' empowering life, which was supposed to invite us all into the kingdom of God to experience a new and abundant life, theology and spirituality too often focused on the sacrifice of Jesus and said that we should model that rather than Jesus' full life. If people, particularly women and children, found themselves the victims of abuse, then they were (and sometimes still are) consoled that this was their sacrifice that made them more Christ-like.

    Men too are victims of this culture. Our culture has created a distorted image of masculinity which tells men that if they admit to times when they were victims, then they are less of a man. Our culture has reinforced images of masculinity that emphasize control, domination, and sexual power. Many boys grow up in our culture thinking that a "real man" can make others perform for his sexual pleasure.

    Christianity has helped to reinforce these wider cultural notions and has contributed to them. Historically the mainstream faith did not develop a healthy approach to sex. Christianity also focused too often on obedience to a set of rules and dogmas, instead of living a whole and abundant life.

    We must quit contributing to the problem with a theology that distorts the good news of Jesus Christ. Too often what has passed for "love" is not true love. So, what is?

 

St. Irenaeus, one of the most ancient of the church fathers, wrote, "For the glory of God is a humanity fully alive." The goal of the Christian church ought to be this – helping people to be more fully alive. True love leads to fuller life. True love saves us.

Theologian Monica Coleman writes that our goals for salvation must include "survival, quality of life, and wholeness." Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima-Brock write that we must "create places of hospitality for human flourishing" and learn "how to be present, how to choose life." A saving love is committed to justice and growing relationships of care. Theologian Catherine Keller writes that we need a powerful love that "resist[s] the forces of destruction, empower[s] the powerless, and embolden[s] the meek."

True love is patient; it is kind; it is joyful and hopeful. It is fun and enjoyable. It is pleasurable, for everyone involved. It enriches our life and makes us better people. It works for justice and nurtures the hurting.

Saving love responds powerfully to the problems of rape, abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence in our society. Saving love insists that all Christian teaching and practice be life-giving and add to human flourishing. Saving love provides care and healing for those who have been victimized. Saving love is what we need and what God desires of us.

Ironically, the model for this saving love is in this very story. Tamar is, throughout the story, a model of care and compassion. She comes to her sick brother to nurse him. She prepares a meal for him. Her actions are hospitable and generous. She stands up for herself; speaks up for herself -- demands her rights and her dignity. And when she is wronged, she speaks powerfully for justice and righteousness. She proclaims her violation aloud.

Neither David nor Amnon demonstrate anything like genuine love. Tamar is caring, generous, hospitable, nourishing, justice-seeking, and life-affirming. She contributes to human flourishing. We don't need to ask of Tamar, "What kind of love is this?" Because we recognize immediately that what she models is true love -- the kind that saves us.

 

As the people of God, let us commit to resisting the forces of destruction, empowering the powerless, and emboldening the meek. Let us create places of hospitality for human flourishing. Let us set as our goals survival, quality of life, and wholeness. And let us take Tamar as our model, so that our sister will be desolate no more. Let her love become the model so that others in our time and in the future before us might be saved.

 

Let us love as Tamar taught us, and together we will bring glory to God through a humanity that is fully alive.


Frum criticizes GOP tax bill

David Frum has a good essay, defending the need for corporate tax reform, but arguing that this current effort is a total failure at achieving that goal.

A key paragraph:

Congressional Republicans well appreciate the unpopularity of what they are doing. That’s why they are short-circuiting the traditional legislative process, bypassing hearings and other opportunities for public comment. The more the public knows, the more jeopardized their plan becomes. Since the Great Recession, the GOP has grown both more extreme in its goals and more radical in its methods. Apocalyptically pessimistic in its view of America’s future, it seems determined to seize for its donors and core constituencies as much as it can, as fast as it can, as ruthlessly as it can. It will then take advantage of the U.S. political system’s notorious antimajoritarian bias in favor of the status quo to defend the grab over the coming years and decades. Repeal and replace failed. The new slogan is: Rush, grab, entrench, and defend.

The strong conclusion:

A rationally conservative party of business and enterprise could, and should, have written a corporate tax-reform bill that is compelling on the merits. The slowdown of U.S. productivity growth would be the country’s leading problem if U.S. constitutional democracy were not being attacked from the White House at the same time. The GOP submitted to Trump in 2016 very largely to reach this moment. The ironic outcome is that his success that year doomed the very prize for which his party sold its soul.


Epistemology--a good poem

 

Epistemology

Catherine Barnett  

Mostly I’d like to feel a little less, know a little more.
Knots are on the top of my list of what I want to know.
Who was it who taught me to burn the end of the cord
to keep it from fraying?
Not the man who called my life a debacle,
a word whose sound I love.
In a debacle things are unleashed.
Roots of words are like knots I think when I read the dictionary.
I read other books, sure. Recently I learned how trees communicate,
the way they send sugar through their roots to the trees that are ailing.
They don’t use words, but they can be said to love.
They might lean in one direction to leave a little extra light for another tree.
And I admire the way they grow right through fences, nothing
stops them, it’s called inosculation: to unite by openings, to connect
or join so as to become or make continuous, from osculare,
to provide with a mouth, from osculum, little mouth.
Sometimes when I’m alone I go outside with my big little mouth
and speak to the trees as if I were a birch among birches.


Annie Proulx's hopeful speech

Receiving a lifetime achievement award, author Annie Proulx delivered a speech commenting on current affairs but looking forward to a happy ending.

As an ethicist and pastor, I thrilled to these sentences:

Yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending. 

The speech concluded:

Hence the indispensable silver lining, the lovers reunited, the families reconciled, the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded, fortunes regained, treasures uncovered, stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways, good names restored, greed daunted, old maids married off to worthy parsons, troublemakers banished to other hemispheres, forgers of documents tossed down the stairs, seducers scurried to the altar, orphans sheltered, widows comforted, pride humbled, wounds healed, prodigal sons summoned home, cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean, hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation, general merriment and celebration, and the dog Fido, gone astray in the first chapter, turns up barking gladly in the last. Thank you.