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May 2017

June 2017

Let's not get carried away

David Brooks reminds us to not get carried away about the Russia investigation, that there are many more and more important reasons that Trump is a danger.  

There’s just something worrisome every time we find ourselves replacing politics of democracy with the politics of scandal. In democracy, the issues count, and you try to win by persuasion. You recognize that your opponents are legitimate, that they will always be there and that some form of compromise is inevitable.

In the politics of scandal, at least since Watergate, you don’t have to engage in persuasion or even talk about issues. Political victories are won when you destroy your political opponents by catching them in some wrongdoing. You get seduced by the delightful possibility that your opponent will be eliminated. Politics is simply about moral superiority and personal destruction.

Devil on the Cross

Devil on the CrossDevil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This novel was written on toilet paper while the author was in prison and is the first modern novel written in Gikuyu. Ngũgĩ is often mentioned as a likely Nobel winner plus I had read about this novel in a work of postcolonial theology. So I was looking forward to it and was disappointed.

The story critiques capitalism and colonialist exploitation but it does so in a heavy handed way that reminded me of The Man Who Was Thursday or The Great Divorce--novels that get too heavy handed and preachy in making their points.

There were engaging moments and the final chapter was searingly powerful.

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The New Abolition

The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social GospelThe New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel by Gary Dorrien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After emancipation leaders in the Black church had to cope with new realities--segregation and lynching. This is the story of the generation that developed the Black Social Gospel and laid the groundwork for the liberation efforts of the Civil Rights generation of the middle twentieth century. Besides DuBois, many of the people covered in this volume are mostly unknown. And the stories of political struggles and personal relationships equal the stories of the early centuries of Christianity as the difficult but good work is done to create a theology relevant to the people.

The Black church may have saved Christianity by focusing our attention on the liberation of Jesus and expunging our modern theology of its inherent white supremacy. This is part of the story of how that happened.

I have only two complaints with the book. I did not like the organization. Chapters might cover 100 pages with chapter sections running to 30 pages. Better to break into more chapters. And the book was neither a linear chronology nor a series of foci on major figures but a strange blending of the two which was at times confusing to me.

The very final section includes a very good theological analysis of the cross in this tradition (borrowing heavily from James Cone). I wish the author had included more theological reflection like this throughout the volume.

Overall, a magisterial work and well worth the months of effort I put into it.

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Deadline Artists

Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper ColumnsDeadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns by John P. Avlon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Off and on for the last three years this has been my downstairs-bathroom-reading. A delightful and informative collection of great newspaper columns that illustrates the artistry of this genre. Two I have remembered most. One by Charles McDowell in which he wrote about the day that Nixon resigned and how normal it was for most people. That column is a powerful statement of the strength of our Republic. And the other is Jimmy Breslin's column about Parkland Hospital on the day that JFK was assassinated. Both columns tell the story of major events by looking at minor characters.

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11 Dimensions in the Brain!

Well, this is cool news. Scientists have discovered that the brain works by creating multi-dimensional structures. Read the article in Newsweek here (though I puzzled by a few places where their nouns and verbs don't agree.  Come on Newsweek). I loved this description--"The progression of activity through the brain resembles a multi-dimensional sandcastle that materializes out of the sand and then disintegrates."

Questions for Sessions

I was puzzled by the Jeff Sessions hearing yesterday, primarily at a number of questions that weren't asked, questions that seemed obvious to me.  Instead a lot of time was spent circling around some topics that I didn't think were all that interesting.  No, I don't think Jeff Sessions openly colluded with the Russian government to steal the election, but he may have been unwittingly played by them.  But here were the questions I wanted answers to and while some Senators got close to these, none of them asked these:

  1. What was the purpose of your meetings with Ambassador Kislyak?  Why did you schedule the meetings?  Were you meeting as a Senator or as a member of the Trump campaign?  See this article for why these distinctions matter.
  2. What did you discuss with Mr. Kislyak?  [John McCain asked if they talked about various things, but he never asked this open-ended question.  Note that McCain is skeptical that Sessions held this meeting in his role as a member of the Armed Services Committee.]
  3. When Director Comey asked you to intercede with the president to prevent any future breaches of protocol, did you address this concern with the President?  If not, why not?  If so, what was his response?
  4. Do you believe that the president's conversations with Director Comey were inappropriate?
  5. Do you believe that the president asking Mr. Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn is an attempt at obstruction of justice?
  6. You have said that your reasons for supporting Mr. Comey's firing were those detailed in Mr. Rosenstein's memo, but the President has said he fired Mr. Comey because of the Russian investigation.  Do you believe the president's reason is  legitimate?  Do you think differently about the firing after learning that was the president's reason?  [Senator Collins came close to this, but didn't go precisely to this point.]  Do you believe that firing Mr. Comey because of the Russian investigation is an attempt to obstruct the investigation?  Did the president obstruct justice?

One thing Sessions revealed in the hearing was that he had no information on the Russian investigation that wasn't public information.  One of the Senators, I now forget which, asked him, with some surprise and incredulity, about the confidential report the intelligence services had released last fall when Sessions was a Senator.  Hadn't he read the report?  Hadn't he, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, attended the briefings for Senators?  Sessions said he hadn't.  The Senator seemed puzzled that Sessions had not been alarmed by the fact of Russian interference and hadn't wanted to learn about it.  I felt that this should have been followed up on more seriously.  

The Bible is with the Poor

George Washington Woodbey
George Washington Woodbey,
 was  a black minister who ran for lieutenant governor of Nebraska in 1896. He later became a Socialist speaker and according to Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition, "He got a movement going in Omaha, speaking every night in the streets and parks. A Nebraska comrade later told Socialist organizer A. W. Ricker, 'Omaha had never had the crowds that attended Woodbey's meetings.'" I'm intrigued to learn more about this chapter of Omaha history.

The Bible is loaded with normative ethical statements bearing on politics, Woodbey stressed.  More precisely, the Bible is loaded with Socialism.  Woodbey marshaled biblical texts opposing rent, interest, profits, love of money, and the exploitation of the poor.  Rent is a violation of the fundamental biblical principle that the earth was given to all of humankind as a home.  To violate the law of common ownership is to commit sin.  Socialism, Woodbey argued, was a modern political expression of the biblical right to cooperative ownership and control of the land.  In the Bible, the land belonged to God and the Israelites were tenants upon it.  In modern capitalism, a handful of "cunning" types stole possession of the earth to live off the labor of others. Woodbey contended that only Socialism came close to the biblical law suspending agricultural work in the seventh year and canceling all debts in the Jubilee fiftieth year. . . In biblical times, the aim of the Jubilee was to prevent huge debts from accumulating "for parasites to live upon from age to age, as they do today."

He even understood the connections between economics and environmentalism:

Isaiah 24 was another staple of Woodbey's street preaching.  Verse 5 pictured the earth lying polluted from the ravages of its inhabitants, who broke God's laws, violated the statutes, and broke the everlasting covenant.  To Woodbey, this text was mostly about economic injustice--the defilement of creation by economic greed.

Woodbey believed in open borders: "I am in favor of throwing the entire world open to the inhabitants of the world.  There are no foreigners, and cannot be, unless some person came down from Mars, or Jupiter, or some place."

Dorrien describes:

Woodbey spoke the same language about "new abolition" and "new emancipation" that the NAACP liberals used, but he insisted that emancipation had to cut deeper and wider, liberating the vast masses of the poor from poverty. America was supposed to be a democracy, but Congress and the courts defended the right of individual capitalists to own what the public needed. To Woodbey, there was little difference between the capitalist and slaveholder uses of government.  Both relied on government to protect their ostensible rights to dominate people lacking effective rights.

Dorrien writes that Woodbey grew frustrated with atheist Socialists and anti-Socialist Christians.  Woodbey proclaimed, "The Bible, in every line of it, is with the poor as against their oppressors."