Can You Be a Pacifist Without Religion? (Maybe.)

Rebecca:

Great post. You’ve touched on an area where my agnostic side and my Mennonite side clash in a fairly thorough way.

While I was still (for lack of a better word) churched, I found Mennonite pacifism relatively easy to adopt. My logic went something like this.

  • God is the God of eternity.
  • Any losses you suffer in this life are thus short-term in nature.
  • Ultimately, through faith in God, Good wins out over Evil.
  • Taking up arms, then, would have a couple of effects: It would hurt our witness — hard to convert the mind and soul of somebody you are killing — and it betrayed a lack of faith in God to win the ultimate victory.

Now? I really don’t know if there is God, or if it’s in the nature of God to win out over evil as I define and perceive it. Which leads me to wonder if it’s not the right thing now and again to pick up a gun and kill a bad guy — for the greater good.

But that withdrawal from total pacifism is kind of theoretical. In practice — and as in many other things — you can take the boy out of the church, but it’s not easy to take the church out of the buy. In practice, I’m pretty dovish.

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Some of that’s a result of being American, I guess, where we tend to exalt violence as a solution to many of our problems. Our popular entertainment is soaked in blood, our president wants to gut the State Department while putting even more money into a cash-rich defense department, and we no longer talk about the use of nuclear weapons as an event to be ardently avoided. Any small pacifism is an important counterweight in a society where violence seems to be the only hammer and every problem — no matter its nature — looks like a nail.

I’m also dovish because as a practical matter, war doesn’t seem to work that often. I thought we were justified, for example, going to war against the Taliban back after 9/11. But we’re still in Afghanistan. I’m not certain the country isn’t worse for it, or that we’re safer from terrorism as a result.

Really, there aren’t many wars — the ones fought in my lifetime — that didn’t seem to cause as much trouble as they mitigated. Afghanistan is a tar pit. Iraq is beset with terrorists. Libya, where we “led from behind” still ended up a mess. War rarely fixes problems and often expands the suffering that was already present.

So even though I’m not strictly pacifist these days, pacifism still informs my outlook.

Violence is easier than pacifism, because pacifism requires patience. Violence provides immediate feedback: Pull a trigger, watch a body drop. Push a button, watch the explosion. But those bodies, those explosions, aren’t necessarily solutions — though they’re often mistaken for such. Pacifism doesn’t provide that kind of immediate gratification, and never will, which is one reason it’s doomed to forever be a minority position.

In our private talk, you said you thought there was an atheist defense of pacifism. I think that’s right. If you’re an atheist and you snuff out a life — even if there’s a good reason — that’s a life forever ended: No chance to change, no chance at redemption. Even the least spiritual among us recognize an elemental difference between “alive” and “not.” There are few good reasons for erasing that distinction.

On the other hand, I can’t swear that there are no good reasons for it, either.

Back to your initial question though: Is self-defense a “sacred” right for Christians?

I keep coming back to this:

51At this, one of Jesus’ companions drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52“Put your sword back in its place, Jesus said to him. “For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.53Are you not aware that I can call on My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?…

If Jesus is God, and we’re not allowed to use violence to defend God — nevermind the fact that we actually do — then what excuse do we have? It’s the Mennonite in me speaking, but gun-toting Christians confuse me.

— Joel

What Thomas Jefferson Had in Common With Hillary Clinton

Rebecca:

When you get discouraged about politics — and it’s easy to do that these days — it’s always good to remind yourself that we’ve been through this (bleep) before.

I’m reading “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon” by Stephen Prothero, an excellent overview of how Americans have viewed Christianity’s central figure — sometimes by untangling him from a religious context — and how those views of have shaped America. Early in the book, he delves into the now well-known story of how Thomas Jefferson created his own “gospel” by taking the King James Bible and cutting out all the parts referencing Jesus’ divinity and miracles, leaving only the parts that made him sound like a wise sage.

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Thomas Jefferson took scissors to the Bible — in the name of a purer Christianity.

Jefferson, of course, only dabbled as a theologian — we remember him as a politician. (And we remember him as embodying some of the contradictions built into our country’s founding.) But his theological work created some political backlash:

A “Christian Federalist,” no less alarmed, viewed the prospect of Jefferson’s election as the beginning of the end of his Christian nation. “han serious and reflecting men look about them and doubt,” he wrote, “that if Jefferson is elected, and Jacobins get into authority, that those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin—which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence—defend our property from plunder and devastation and shield our religion from contempt and profanation, will not be trampled and exploded.” Such vituperations did not prevent Jefferson from winning the White House, but they did send Federalists into a postelection frenzy. After a rumor circulated that President Jefferson had decreed a bonfire of the biblical vanities, housewives in New England reportedly squirreled away their scriptures in wells, to prevent them from being burned by the flames of Jeffersonian free thought.”

I don’t have much to add to this at the moment. But the hysteria — the belief that one’s opponents will rob you of your right to practice religion, the baseless rumors, the assertion that violence against our women is just a hair’s breadth away — all are prominent parts of our modern discourse. It sucks. But we have survived and lived to see better days.

That’s not to say we should get complacent. But if you get discouraged, well, we Americans have been down this road before. If we persist in upholding our values, there’s reason to hope for a light at the end of the tunnel.

—Joel

Why Should Mexico Pay for Trump’s Wall?

Hi Rebecca:

Looks like we’re on the verge of an extraordinary moment: The Republicans control the White House and both branches of government, yet the government might still shut down this weekend.

Why? Because President Trump doesn’t want to sign a spending bill that doesn’t include funding for his “big beautiful wall” on the border with Mexico. And it doesn’t look like such a bill can pass Congress at the moment. Thus: A standoff.

Some folks have pointed out Trump’s request for funding means he’s violating his campaign pledge to make Mexico pay for the wall. (Trump and his allies say those payments will come, eventually, just you wait.) And that’s fine. But nobody seems to have asked a basic question: Why should Mexico pay for Trump’s wall?

This isn’t the same as asking if Mexico will pay for the wall, which is a dubious premise on its own. No, the question is why they should.

Say you and I live next door to each other. I put up a fence to keep our properties separate. Would there be any world we can dream of in which I’d legitimately expect you to pay for my decision to defend my property?

No?

I’ve asked this question a few times and never received a satisfactory answer. Best I can tell, there’s some alpha maleism going on here — a sort of “Why are you hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!” of international relations. There’s no reason for Mexico to pay for the wall … except as a show of submission to the U.S.

And submission is what President Trump seeks, it seems to me.

Makes sense. The building of a wall is an act of fear. A ridiculous one, when you think about it. The same people who want the wall are often the ones who go on and on about the superiority of American culture. Yet this supposedly superior culture is threatened by the presence of people speaking Spanish in public places.

When bullies act out of fear, they often do it by acting extra alpha-maley — in essence, like bigger bullies.

Maybe there’s some other, good explanation. But as it stands, making Mexico pay for a while just a way of making sure that people know that we might be afraid of the outside world, but America still commands hegemonic power.

Yours in tough guyness,

Joel

What Do Harry Styles and Ted Nugent Have in Common?

Rebecca:

I was going to let you have the last word on Harry Styles, class and gender.

But this happened.

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Yes. That’s Ted Nugent, Sarah Palin and Kid Rock flanking President Trump.

And the reaction was about what you’d expect.

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Now. I’m no fan of Nugent, who’s a racist, or Sarah Palin, who’s a dimwit. Kid Rock? Not really, though I’ve grooved to “I’m a Cowboy, Baby” once or twice in my time.

But man, the reactions went there in a hurry, didn’t they?

You wrote:

What constitutes “good taste”—which is definitely not boybands!—is defined by those with the most cultural capital, those who have not just the money but the education, leisure time, and access to difficult-to-access content. “Poor taste” isn’t just bad taste; it’s the taste of those with lower levels of cultural capital. This doesn’t align perfectly with economic class—Donald Trump eats his steaks well-done, with ketchup, proving that money can’t always buy good taste—but economic class opens up opportunities for cultural capital.

So here’s the thing about Donald Trump, as well as the Establishment that seems to disdain him so: I’m convinced that (with some exceptions) the Establishment disdains him not because of the godawful things he (seems to) believe and advocate, but because he’s a reality TV-starring, WWE-wrasslin’, KFC-eatin’ yokel.

He’s Jed Clampett. He’s Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack.” He’s nouveu riche even though his riches aren’t all that nouveau.

This isn’t to discount all the ways Trump is genuinely awful. But his genius is seizing on the snobbery the Establishment has for the Stuff That Belongs to the Commoners and embracing it wholeheartedly, and not in a “who’s he kidding with his love of pork rinds?” attempts to appear in touch.

If Trump watched less TV — or simply the right kind of TV — and talked about books more, a lot of the powerful people who profess to oppose him would roll over like puppy dogs for him.

This makes the task of defeating Trump more difficult. Democratic policies may help the poor more than Trump’s proposals to massively cut taxes on the rich, but all it takes is Keith Olbermann screaming “white trash” and you’ve lost the war. Our snobbery, ultimately, is going to kill us.

— Joel

 

Our Authoritarian America: A Dreamer is Deported

Rebecca:

My heart is heavy tonight. I am angry and I am sad and I am trying to address the ensuing issue in a civil way. But I’m finding it difficult.

Let USA Today explain:

Federal agents ignored President Trump’s pledge to protect from deportation undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children by sending a young man back to his native Mexico, the first such documented case, a USA TODAY examination of the new administration’s immigration policies shows.

After spending an evening with his girlfriend in Calexico, Calif., on Feb. 17, Juan Manuel Montes, 23, who has lived in the U.S. since age 9, grabbed a bite and was waiting for a ride when a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer approached and started asking questions.

Montes was twice granted deportation protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by President Barack Obama and left intact by President Trump.

Montes had left his wallet in a friend’s car, so he couldn’t produce his ID or proof of his DACA status and was told by agents he couldn’t retrieve them. Within three hours, he was back in Mexico, becoming the first undocumented immigrant with active DACA status deported by the Trump administration’s stepped-up deportation policy.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things: This event proves that the Trump Administration is both racist and authoritarian.

Why racist?

First, we don’t know why the Border Protection officer approached Montes in the first place, but on the face of it — and this could change with more information being made public — it appears that he was simply brown at the wrong place at the wrong time. If you’re a Latino citizen of America and you live in Calexico, your citizenship probably won’t prevent you from being approached, with suspicion, by federal agents. It is a layer of oppression only brown people will have to experience.

Second: Advocates of the “deport ’em all” stripe maintain, often, that race isn’t the reason they favor restrictive immigration, but culture. This was expressed most forthrightly in the now-infamous “The Flight 93 Election” essay by Michael Anton, now a Trump Administration official. He wrote:

“The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.”

The “ceaseless importation” is a disturbing phrase in and of itself, reducing immigrants to subhuman widgets meant to be packed into a cargo hold for use later by Walmart shoppers. And let’s just forget that Anton believes “more Democratic” is equivalent with “less American.” (Note to Anton: (Bleep) you.)  But fine: The idea is that a free nation can only be preserved by people who have learned, love, and will work to preserve liberty.

So why deport Dreamers then? Yes, they came to the United States against our rules, but they did so when young and malleable — they’ve been immersed in our culture, in our schools, and consider themselves, for all intents and purposes, American.  If there’s a group of immigrants who can be considered to have a “tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty,” it’s the Dreamers.

Deporting them doesn’t get rid of people who share American values. It does reduce the number of brown people in America. Draw your own conclusions.

As for “authoritarian”: We now live in a country where, if you left your ID in the car, you can be swept off on the street — and deposited in another country three hours later. I’ve been around bureaucracies; you can barely get a driver’s license in three hours. The feds were able to establish Montes’ citizenship in that time? Or was his failure to prove himself immediately the fault line?

Note to Latino citizens of America: Keep ALL your papers and IDs handy at all times.

What this tells me: Manuel Montes probably has more of a “taste for liberty” than all the self-styled patriots who find his deportation a reason to cheer. “Liberty for me, but not for thee” isn’t liberty at all — it’s a caste system. It’s ugly and — I would’ve thought until now — un-American.

I guess I was wrong. A great evil is being done in our names.

Repenting.

— Joel

Is It Manly to Like Harry Styles?

Rebecca:

How about a change of pace? Harry Styles — the former One Direction standout — gave a solo performance on SNL this weekend, and it was kind of great.

I feel like I shouldn’t mention this, except today I caught this excerpt from Styles’ interview with Rolling Stone:

“Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music – short for popular, right? – have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say. Music is something that’s always changing. There’s no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.

Which made me wonder: How much of my music tastes have been shaped by a desire to avoid pop music? And how much of the whole rockist hipster aesthetic is shaped by, well, sexism?

Am I a Radiohead listener for really bad reasons?

Contemplating.

— Joel

On the Usefulness of (Heather Mac Donald’s) Bad Ideas

Rebecca:

I went to a conservative Mennonite Brethren college where the dominant theology was — and officially remains — that homosexual activity is a sin. Despite the official view, a Bible professor of mine brought to campus a pair of gay men, Christians if I recall correctly, to talk about how they squared their lives with scripture.

It was an interesting hour, and in retrospect I admire those two men for braving what they knew would be a deeply hostile audience. (Particularly at the time, in the early 1990s, when the fear of AIDS added an additional layer of anger and terror to the topic.) I don’t remember specifics of the discussion that day, though I’m sure I can guess what the arguments were. I do remember, though, that it was a highly emotional day.

One more thing I remember: A sense that day that many of my classmates (and, to be honest, probably myself) regarded the encounter as a debate to be won, rather than contemplating this possibility: That beyond who could best cite and wield scriptures, there were actual, real lives to be contended with. It was one of a series of events in college that shaped me into who I am today: Quasi-agnostic, firmly liberal, and ardently gay-loving.

I don’t want to suggest that hearing gay men express the truth of their lives is the same as letting racists come to campus to spew ugly ideas. But I do want to suggest that a good education can and does occasionally include exposure to ideas that we regard as utterly incorrect. Not just because our minds will be changed, as happened in my case. There are several reasons.

Let me back up and preface those reasons with this: We agree that Heather Mac Donald is the purveyor of bad ideas that promote the glorification and empowerment of cops and often, nearly always, do so at the expense of minorities. We differ a little bit, though, in one aspect: I’m very frustrated with campus leftists who have tried to shut down her talks at colleges; you wonder why a college would invite Mac Donald to speak in the first place.

And I recognize that your objections are grounded in rigor, compassion, and a deadly low tolerance for bullshit. You ask: How many times do Black Lives Activists and their supporters have to say “Black Lives Matter… They matter here!”—as was chanted during the Q & A after MacDonald presented her thesis that the criminal justice system isn’t racist and that “America does not have an incarceration problem; it has a crime problem”—before Claremont McKenna decides that its students don’t have to put up with such stupidity on their campus?” I love the concern, the love for students, and the love of high academic standards that are all mixed up in that question.

And it’s a good question. Let me parse my answer carefully. I don’t think a good education requires a college to invite Heather Mac Donald to speak. But if a college — or a student-led club therein, which is often the case in these matters — chooses to bring her to campus, I believe it can be of some use.

Three reasons:

Even bad ideas are worthy of scrutiny. Here’s my best example of this, Rebecca: Your own career.

Your book, “God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right,” examines Westboro Baptist Church and its place in American theological traditions. Westboro’s ideas are awful and ugly and disreputable — even churches that can be honestly described as “anti-gay” want no part of the Phelps clan. You examined the ideas closely, and you spent a fair amount of time with the Phelpses to boot. That was painful, I’m guessing. But the work is valuable. It wasn’t accomplished by turning away.

So one way to respond to Heather Mac Donald is to protest. Another is to treat her as an opportunity to study. What does she believe? What are the antecedents for the belief? Put her in context. That context, I think, reveals how small and shallow her ideas are.

Because we too easily believe in our own righteousness. All of us are prone to confirmation bias, “the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.” Sometimes the best way to test our own ideas is to temper them against the hard edge of contrary belief, even beliefs that — at first blush — we might consider foolish. Where better to do such testing than in college?

Understand: I don’t think I’m suddenly going to find Heather Mac Donald persuasive. But the exercise of testing my beliefs against hers can be a valuable one. They can sharpen my ideas and arguments, or at least help me anticipate the objections to my own ideas and be ready with an answer.

The first two reasons are too light and ephemeral, admittedly. Mac Donald’s ideas have real-world consequences, cause real-world pain. Why burden our students with that pain? The real-world answer?

The spread of bad ideas doesn’t stop at campus borders. Heather Mac Donald earns a living doing what she does because A) there’s enough of an audience for it and B) a portion of that audience is willing to pay for it. And judging by the November 2016 voting results, there are plenty of Americans who believe the kinds of things she believes to shift the balance of power in this country. The ideas that count don’t always stand up to peer review, but they must be contended with nonetheless.

I’m sorry for students of color who have to put up with this bullshit. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to argue for your rights, your very being as a human. It’s unfair. And it’s easy for me, because I’m a white guy, to talk about good and bad ideas when mostly it’s theory to me — I’m unlikely to endure a stop-and-frisking anytime soon.

But the bullshit is out there. It is widespread. It is powerful. How many times do BLM supporters have to say “Black Lives Matter?” There’s no limit. There probably never will be. There will always be people who subscribe to notions we believe are mistaken, and so the work of pushing back never, ever ends. That’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. So our colleges and universities might as well equip students to do that work.

I wrote elsewhere recently: “Free speech requires forbearance from us, as well as persistence. It means we must counter bad speech with more speech, then do it again, then again and again, long after it seems to us the argument has been settled. And we do it because we want the same forbearance extended to us.”

Again, I don’t think it’s necessary that colleges and universities welcome bad ideas into their midst. But I can see the use of it. And in any case, I still think the proper response when Mac Donald ventures onto your campus is not to try and prevent her voice from being heard. Instead, make your own heard. And be ready to prove your ideas are better. Drowning out the voice of our opponents does not furnish such proof. It looks, in fact, like weakness.

I’ll let you have the last word in this thread. Thanks for hearing me out.

—Joel