The US Turn to Go Home
Monday, August 16, we awoke to the news that the Taliban had taken over Kabul and the leader of Afghanistan had fled to Uzbekistan. There was panic in the streets as countless thousands tried to get to the airport to leave the city. There was chaos at the airport as US troops tried to evacuate US citizens and their Afghan supporters, translators and staff. The US Embassy was burning all the sensitive documents and equipment they could. The iconic picture was of a huge US military aircraft taking off with Afghans still clinging to it.
The Taliban leaders began to try to assure the press that the panic was unwarranted, and that human rights would be respected including the rights of women. But on the streets pickup trucks of Taliban fighters patrolled and reports began of women being harassed and taken prisoner for such infractions as wearing slippers. Reporters told of streets being deserted with no women appearing anywhere. The one road to the airport was blocked by Taliban troops with foreigners allowed through but not Afghans.
Blame began to be hurled, with the media declaring the US had been caught completely by surprise at the speed with which the Taliban had regained control of the country.
President Joe Biden responded to a storm of criticism that the USA was perpetrating an atrocity, undoing and profaning the sacrifices of generations of US troops, and failing to insure any sort of orderly end to US presence in Afghanistan. He insisted that the USA had served its purpose in securing the operations of the civilian government of Afghanistan and training a generation of military security forces, equipping them, and preparing them to lead. After 4 Presidents, 2 Republicans and 2 Democrats, had sent US troops in response to a UN resolution in 2001, he was unwilling to back-off from the negotiated arrangement his predecessor, Donald Trump, had made for US troops to leave. What had happened, he said, was that when it came to the point that the Afghan government and military needed to forcefully resist the rise of the Taliban they refused to do so. It is irrelevant to say that US military in Afghanistan knew the Afghan military would not fight without the Americans fighting with them. It is irrelevant to say the US mission, costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, is a failure. It is simply time, Biden said, to end US attempts to build Afghan democracy.
Even a cursory reading of history shows that Afghanistan is an area where peace and order have always been in short supply. Moreover, the Afghans have constantly resisted foreign intervention, even when it was invited to come in (as in the case of the USSR in 1979). It has always been the lack of internal stability that has plagued the country.
The present unrest cannot be understood without careful study of the way Wahhabist Islamic sectarianism has arisen. Not all Islam is the same, and neither is all Wahhabism (reformist conservative Islam that adherents prefer to call Salafi.) The Taliban arose as this type of movement, determined to install radical monotheism through force if necessary. Their reform called for purification of heretical references and influences, restoration of patriarchy and subjugation of women, and installation of theocracy. The ruthless way in which the Taliban operated, assisted by conservative Pakistani military along the extensive border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, created international concern. The issues were human rights and also the obliteration of Afghan and regional cultural history, including destruction of vast collections in museums and libraries, and the dynamiting of the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan.
After the destruction of the NY World Trade Center on 9/11 2001, President Bush demanded that Afghanistan (with Taliban in control of the area near Pakistan where bin Laden was believed to be) turn over Osama bin Laden, and that was refused. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom and in December the UN authorized the International Security Assistance Force. This was to back up the administration of Hamid Karzai who was made head of an Afghan Transitional Administration in July 2002. For 20 years this UN force, composed of some 33,000 US troops of a total of 150,000 international military (on average per year; with a high of 110,000 US troops there in 2011 to a low of about 4000 last year). The US “mission” evolved from making Afghanistan secure enough to develop and “getting bin Laden” (accomplished in 2011 during the presidency of Barack Obama) to preparing and equipping the Afghan military to do the job of internal security.
Public opinion has immediately decided the US failed to accomplish anything in Afghanistan. History will either concur or disagree that as with Great Britain in the 19th century and the USSR in the 20th century, the USA in the 21st century failed in its basic tasks.
Still, it is a country with a dazzling history and potential.
I, for one, hope that this generation of Taliban has improved in its ability to value people, respect differences of opinion, and build the country.
A friend sent me a video clip of a family doctor in Indiana who told his school board that COVID vaccinations are never going to work. My friend admitted he “didn’t know who to believe?”
So, I sympathized:
“Yes, it’s hard to know whom to believe. On the one hand you have this family physician in Indiana who has scientific knowledge that is superior to the US Department of Health, the United Nations, and the governments of more than a hundred countries around the world. He argues that vaccines don’t work and are actually harmful. He learned as he was preparing to be a doctor, that vaccine worked for smallpox but will not for these types of viruses such as the common cold. Masks also don’t work and are a deception in some way causing the virus to get worse. The doctor, however, bless him, has treated 15 COVID patients with 100% success using herbs that he told his audience about. Golly! It’s so confusing!”
Meanwhile, I have been monitoring the mood of my many friends in the USA and here in Thailand, and I can see a down-turn in mental welfare. I am pretty sure it comes from a combination of circumstances, including the waves of COVID. First the virus came but would be controlled, and then it got out of control but vaccines would take care of it, and then it turned out new strains were spreading despite vaccination, and then there was a need to start over with social restrictions and new rules. People hoped we’d return to normal. But that has been postponed and a “lot” of people are rebelling. Their rebellion is most dangerous when it is obstructing the vaccination movement. That is what has pushed many of my friends and family toward the brink. I am not exaggerating when I say I’m worried about how they’re doing emotionally. They don’t sound well at the moment.
This prolonged pandemic and swirling storm of bad news is getting us down.
WHAT SHOULD EDUCATION DO?
The short answer is
EDUCATION SHOULD DEVELOP PEOPLE HOLISTICALLY.
A person is made up of 4 aspects. A person is:
People are also individuals, with differing natures and different talents.
One educational model does not fit everyone.
The goal of education cannot be the same for everyone
But formal education is practical. It must be designed to do what it can do
1. Education studies COGNITIVE REALITY
The practical purpose of education is to help us acquire accurate data and develop understanding.
Education begins before we are born. Pre-natal education is important.
Then comes discovery through having needs met.
We begin cognition by acquiring bits of information and compiling them into patterns.
Then we proceed to figure out what to do with our understanding.
Education is an on-going lifelong undertaking.
Some types of education are better done at specific stages of life.
But we learn and keep learning from before we are born until we die and beyond.
· Cognitive knowledge is the main type of information that education tries to provide.
· A large part of knowledge is genetic, intuitive or imparted through socialization.
· But there comes a point at which curiosity and necessity require more intellectual input.
· Formal education starts with training about how to access knowledge and how to hold onto it (reading, recitation, writing, counting, and remembering social rules).
· Formal education gradually becomes more refined with goals about what we ought to KNOW and SUBJECT AREAS which describe and impart essential content of that knowledge.
2. Tools and skills that are educational
As human beings we are “educated” by our genetics, intuition, and perceptions. For the most part it is only our perceptions that can be developed intentionally. So education has identified traditional areas to work on.
Necessary skill areas:
A. Language and communication
B. Math and science
C. Art and music
D. Literature and culture
These skills are inter-disciplinary. That is they are useful and sometimes essential for all sorts of activities.
MUSIC: learning to play a musical instrument involves every one of those skill areas.
SPORTS: athletics are impossible without physical, mental, emotional and cognitive practice.
COOKING: all cooking is a cultural, scientific, and highly artistic endeavor.
3. Education’s basic goals are about self-actualization
Basic formal education involves knowing one’s self, one’s society, one’s world, and one’s meaning.
TO KNOW ONESELF
Two subjects that are important for knowing one’s self are:
TO KNOW ONE’S SOCIETY
Three subjects that one must study in order to know how one fits into the wider world are:
SOCIOLOGY (including cultural anthropology)
ETHICS (including law)
HISTORY (including literature)
TO KNOW ONE’S WORLD
Two areas that are often overlooked but we now know are important are:
(environment, physical geography)
TO KNOW ONE’S MEANING
1. With regard to THE SACRED
2. With regard to THE FUTURE (what we are here for, what our legacy might be)
3. With regard to THE ETERNAL
Every educated person at the bachelor’s level should know the “essentials” about self, society, the world, and religion. A master of a field can teach others what they need to know about one of those subjects and how to acquire more knowledge about it. A doctor is one who can design, conduct and supervise research into unexplored aspects of that subject.
4. Satisfactory LEVELS OF ACHIEVEMENT
How much education is enough for now?
The idea is that if a person has initiation into these skills, the person will be able to use them to acquire knowledge independently, without direct supervision. Then the person will be functionally independent.
The decision to continue or discontinue any program of education or self-development is ultimately up to the individual. Society, however, stipulates rewards and consequences for satisfactorily acquiring various levels of achievement.
The personal issue becomes how one decides to function in society.
When we move from “basic” to “specific” education we have moved from general self-improvement to vocational training.
1. Some of us resolve to function as a member of society and contribute to the welfare of your family and/or your personal fulfillment; work is how we make this happen.
2. Others resolve to provide civic service (as military; religious, political or cultural leaders; educators or health service professionals; etc.); family and personal life fit around that.
FINALLY, PLEASE REMEMBER
No matter what role you take, you are you.
When circumstances change, you are still you.
When you make good decisions, you are you and you had help.
When you make bad decisions, you are not essentially diminished.
Your core role as a human being is to infuse every encounter in your life with
GETTING THE LOOK TO MATCH THE GENDER
Granddaughter Siree McRady took a course in Berea College that considered the boundary between gender reality and gender portrayal. Having grown up in Thailand, Siree was familiar with how Thai culture impacts social manifestations. Her challenge was to create a “presentation” that was succinct and accurate. She decided on a magazine format with articles about three individuals who have taken different routes in support of gender diversity through costumes and advocacy. I think her production is superior.
Here’s how you can see it, too:
Phase One: Ignorance
I grew up in a time when being gay was intolerable. The very idea was scandalous and frightening. No academic resource or medical advice said otherwise. Whatever interests or inclinations we might have had were dismissed as something else than expressions of essential reality. Only in retrospect were my own many little incidents understood accurately.
Phase Two: Arousal
In the summer of 1956 I had a major “religious experience” that formed the very core of my identity and direction. From that experience on, nothing else mattered as much as following the “call to ministry”. Any departure from that line for my life was to be rejected. That included, of course, all moral recourses. I did, eventually (at age 22), resolve my conflict over masturbation once I began to find medical and then religious teaching that permitted it. But the “great test” came in the summer after my 27th birthday when I was a hospital patient and a male nursing assistant gave me a sponge bath that included the bold suggestion that we could go further. It scared me out of my wits. The only thoughts I had was how much I wanted him to take over, and how I was sure it would mean discovery, disgrace and dismissal from my church position and the end of my whole life path. Fear won that day.
Phase Three: Denial
I resolved to take the cure that the experts all agreed would work, and that was to get married. Sex in marriage would overcome all other interests. Within a year I was married. For a decade that was pretty fine. Then came a second decade when I knew I was struggling and losing the battle to divert my attention. I could do OK except when I was asleep. My dreams were out of control. They spurred fantasies I knew were hopes, voyeur efforts that became suspected by others, and other adventures that were out of control but I convinced even myself were just studies. The third decade is when it all fell to pieces.
Phase Four: Collapse
By 1990 medical and even religious advice was concluding that sexual diversity is not against the design of nature as had been contended for centuries, nor was sexual activity contrary to God’s will for life. I was still convinced that there was possibly a cure for my obsessive interests and impulses. I explored all of them except aversion therapy. Finally I gave up and tried one last thing. I decided to have a go at gay sex. At the time, I was convinced that I would find it so repulsive that would be the cure. For years I had been fascinated by a former student, now graduated and living with a boyfriend. I confessed my plan to get “a gay massage” to try out gay sex. He offered to be my teacher instead. One night in June 1995 we had sex. My defenses collapsed. It was the first sex of my life that was fulfilling, and not just satisfactory. I knew instantly I had discovered the best way for me to have sex. That led to 5 years of effort to accommodate my commitments to our marriage, my ordination vows and ministry, and this new reality. Eventually that did not work.
Phase five: Resolution
In 2000 things came to a head. My marriage had unraveled into a “trial separation”. I got a case of Hepatitis B as a result of unprotected sex with a tourist in the most famous gay spa in Bangkok. I nearly died, but Pramote, a Thai friend, stayed resolutely by my side night and day. It dawned on me that he loved me. When I recovered my wife announced she was going to get a divorce and I agreed to it. At that period I had another “religious experience” of call to ministry in which I “heard” Christ say to me, “Why are you not ministering to gay people as I have directed you to do?” I cannot exaggerate how liberating that experience was, although I knew nothing about how to really do ministry like that. Gay ministry in an overwhelmingly Buddhist setting would take a form I had never imagined. It was very unlike any ministry I had ever considered. I also began work away from Chiang Mai in order to have distance from my past and because the opportunity came. So Pramote and I began life together in Nakhon Pathom and Bangkok. This meant I was in a relationship. When a conservative missionary denounced this and incited the church leadership “to pray for me”, I was obliged to withdraw from church work and began a new career in higher education administration. Coming out for me included not only coming out of the closet and giving up trying to be discrete or to hide my sexual identity, but also getting out of one marriage and into a second one, and being out of institutional forms of pastoral ministry into unexplored ministerial territory.
Postscript: Pramote and I were married in a Thai ceremony twenty years ago. We were later officially married in the USA. Both of our families are reconciled to our committed relationship and so is our village community. We live on a small farm outside of Chiang Mai.
Suppose I were a teenager in America in 2021 and I got my picture on the local nightly news marching in a Gay Pride parade. My cousin saw the news and next day he and 6 or 8 of his friends met us coming into our high school. They were holding a banner reading PROUD TO BE STRAIGHT. In all our classrooms they had written the same motto on the boards. Suppose this followed incidents in our town of bullies picking on gay kids.
How would I feel that day?
Well, being me (as I imagine this scene), I’d feel vulnerable and embarrassed. But some other gay kid with a different personality and experiences might feel frightened and even suicidal. Another gay guy might feel enraged.
It is unlikely I’d feel, “Wow! It’s great that my cousin is exercising his right to freedom of expression!”
Now suppose this happens to be the day a new high school principal arrives and there is an assembly to introduce her. In her remarks she says, “It will be school policy from now on to highlight the contributions and heritages of minority groups in our school. That will include LGBTs, Native Americans, Hmong, and Cubans.”
I think I’d be feeling a little encouraged that we were going to get a chance to shine instead of hide. I’d be looking forward to special programs in addition to Black History Month. I’d already be thinking what we’d like to have in behalf of LGBTs like me.
But my cousin would be burrowing down into his discontent. Somehow he would conclude that honoring others dishonored him. He would suspect he was about to be diminished. Next, he’d be sure, would come suppression of speech. “They” would prohibit him from being honest. He’d have to watch what he said. It was already beginning.
Later that day my cousin exploded. “Where was ANY MENTION of us? We matter, too! We’re proud, too! There will be gay posters but never any straight posters. This school is going to …” (he turned his head away and I didn’t hear exactly what nether region he was thinking about).
As a teenager in this fantasy, I doubt if I would immediately see how sad it was that my cousin could be so oblivious of the circumstances and feelings of others as he squirmed back into his comfort zone full of entitlements.
[Backstory: a gay friend in the USA thinks “All lives matter” and seems unable to imagine how his saying so aggravates his Black colleagues. He asked my response to an account of a high school student who felt he was discriminated against for demanding equal time for White American Christian Patriots. I doubt any reply will change my gay friend’s mind, but this story is what I tried.]
An argument has re-emerged that the US National Anthem is racist. In part, it pertains to one line in the third verse (which is almost never sung any more):
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
To what was Francis Scott Key referring by saying there would be no salvation for slaves?
The NAACP is mounting an on-going campaign to replace the National Anthem. Wiki tells us, “In November 2017, the California Chapter of the NAACP called on Congress to remove "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem. Alice Huffman, California NAACP president, said: "It's racist; it doesn't represent our community, it's anti-black." (As reported on November 8, 2017 by CBS station KOVR-TV). In 2021 the campaign was re-joined.
“Absent elaboration by Francis Scott Key prior to his death in 1843, some have speculated more recently about the meaning of phrases or verses, particularly the phrase "the hireling and slave" from the third stanza. According to British historian Robin Blackburn, the phrase alludes to the thousands of ex-slaves in the British ranks organized as the Corps of Colonial Marines, who had been liberated by the British and demanded to be placed in the battle line "where they might expect to meet their former masters." Mark Clague, a professor of musicology at the University of Michigan, argues that the "middle two verses of Key's lyric vilify the British enemy in the War of 1812" and "in no way glorifies or celebrates slavery." Clague writes that "For Key ... the British mercenaries were scoundrels and the Colonial Marines were traitors who threatened to spark a national insurrection." This harshly anti-British nature of Verse 3 led to its omission in sheet music in World War I, when the British and the U.S. were allies. Responding to the assertion of writer Jon Schwarz of The Intercept that the song is a "celebration of slavery," Clague argues that the American forces at the battle consisted of a mixed group of White Americans and African Americans, and that "the term “freemen,” whose heroism is celebrated in the fourth stanza, would have encompassed both."
“Others suggest that "Key may have intended the phrase as a reference to the Royal Navy's practice of impressment which had been a major factor in the outbreak of the war, or as a semi-metaphorical slap at the British invading force as a whole (which included a large number of mercenaries)." (Here ends the Wikipedia explanation.)
These days we criticize traditions based on contemporary interpretations. Literature, monuments, and especially patriotic commemorations are subject to review and rejection. So the question of whether the National Anthem is racist or not does not entirely rest on what it originally meant. Whether something is worthy of honor and respect today depends on its meaning to people at present.
It can be argued that nobody cares about verse 3. The third verse is removable. In fact it has been removed. It is never sung and is not a relevant part of the anthem as it is used. The US National Anthem consists of only one verse, ask anybody..
So, this whole debate must be about something else than the content of that one controversial phrase.
What that is is not hard to find. It is not really the song that is at fault, but the whole concept that the anthem symbolizes. The objection raised by Alice Huffman of the NAACP five years ago was in the context of Colin Kaepernick “taking the knee” during pre-game playing of the National Anthem. That act of protest has become a major political hot-button issue, greatly expanded by Donald Trump and his part of the Republican Party.
But “The Star Spangled Banner” is here to stay. It is not about to be replaced. It is deeply rooted in the national psyche. There are no viable contenders, although there are better songs, no doubt about that. But the more pervasive issue is the nature of the United States of America in our time. Until that has been agreed upon what we sing and our posture when we sing it is really a peripheral matter
The heart of the matter is the US fight over what the country stands for. It is problematic to call the USA “the land of the free” when so many people are in many ways not free. They do not have equal access to the nation’s promises. It is impossible for them to feel pride and gratitude for being marginalized and deprived of equality and respect. The National Anthem does not even hint at efforts to repent and improve. Those who are proudly singing seem to have achieved the American dream and haven’t the slightest concern about Americans who have been prevented from it. And that is what hurts and makes one want to pray on bended knee for the USA to improve.
We are human beings: inanimate material brought to life, and invested with consciousness. It is indisputable that we are not alone in this. Dogs and spiders, fish and even brainless octopuses are physical compositions with various kinds of consciousness. That much is known.
Biology has discovered how we come to life, how our cells multiply, and how they transform basic chemicals and physical elements into infants capable of independent life, and how we continue to ingest physical stuff to sustain our bodies.
What we have not even begun to successfully explain is where our consciousness comes from. For a while it seemed that the new science of psychology would eventually do that. Freud broke through to astounding insights, Jung to others. But some underlying principles, some unifying concepts, remain elusive.
Religion has tried to account for this in another way. As Mircea Eliade put it, “… homo religiousus always believes that there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in this world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real” (The Sacred and the Profane, p. 202)
Religion has for millennia proposed alternative mysteries in which to immerse our concern about how we think and how we compound those ephemeral flashes into enlightened understanding. Religions provide coded clues contained in narratives and ritual reenactments that potentially turn one of the mysteries into consuming truth, the heart of consciousness. Then religions have tried to dismiss as unimportant or evil whatever mysterious residue may remain.
Religion’s fundamental principle is that there is a reality that is separate from whatever makes up physical reality … stardust, electrons, and everything physical. It is so separate that the sciences designed to perceive what is real about the universe are skeptical that this other reality exists at all. Science believes that everything about us can be accounted for without resorting to mystery.
Yet, the mystery of consciousness remains. There are thoughts, memories, and dreams that cannot be accounted for. Many can. Most can. But not all of them. Those, few though they may be, haunt us and entice us. They beguile us and refuse to let science have the last word. More than that is the mystery of consciousness itself.
At what point and in what way does consciousness start for an individual, and where does it come from? Even more, what is it? If we do not know that, do we really know anything?
Of course we do know many things. Memory serves us. The whistle of my tea kettle arouses me to action. Intention serves us. I have confidence I can get out of my chair and go somewhere else. We know things.
Almost all our knowing is learned from actions we took long before they meant anything. They became meaningful and remembered, and then were associated with other memories. However, our capacity to do this is an enigma. It does not have the nature of an electro-chemical process. It remains a mystery, one that we do not entirely control. This ability is not learned. It is intuitive, acquired without intent, and never fully domesticated.
We do not have it. It has us.
(Link to the first essay on consciousness: http://www.kendobson.asia/blog/consciousness-itself)
China is orchestrating a vast celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, this week. It’s a command performance in which the real object of people’s appreciation is economic wellbeing caused by managed capitalism wearing a Communist Party mask. At the same time, the USA is setting off fireworks and ramping up patriotic sentiment (somewhat short of fervor, it seems) to mark July 4, US Independence Day. A few days ago Great Britain commemorated the official birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, with a marching band in red coats and black hats as must be done, despite the pandemic, lest tradition be tarnished.
A patriotic narrative develops from a consensus. It evolves into a legend, which is a level removed from undifferentiated historical facts. The legend inspires stories and songs. Then come memorials, historic sites, and anniversary events.
On the whole, patriotic zeal is subdued these days.
The days are over when Kate Smith could stir our hearts as she belted-out “God Bless America.”
I, being ever suspicious of philosophical forces, would like to blame Foucault and his mentor Wittgenstein for having undermined people’s faith in national narratives, which are the essential fuel of patriotism. These mega-narratives, the philosophers told us, were manipulating us. At the time Foucault was writing, most of the generation who had not been annihilated in the battles, bombings, concentration camps, and gulags, were still alive and ashamed of having swallowed the myths and propaganda that portrayed the military as the backbone of all that’s important to civilization. In light of all that had happened just a decade or two earlier, those nationalistic tropes were shameful and best put out of mind. For example, Konrad Adenauer, on the whole a progressive statesman, humanitarian leader, and intellectual, was nevertheless outraged when William L Shirer published The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; Adenauer was upset because the book reopened fetid memories. The USA elected its conquering general President and applauded his highways and the better life in the suburbs. Patriotism began to decline but “the Red scare” slowed the slide until after Woodstock.
But philosophy is not to blame. Foucault and Derrida seemed to think they could do what Sartre had done, using persuasive criticism to sway the masses. Mao was the last one to be able to do that for half a century. Terror and rumors have replaced reason and debate.
Actually, philosophy rarely convinces a generation to think. Most people do not read philosophy. It is the other way around. Philosophy reads people.
Philosophy retrieves scattered spatters and throws them back onto a matrix and nails them into a frame, like a Jackson Pollock painting, for critics to stand back, make sense of, and admire as they will. A Van Gogh painting is not about sunlight in Provence, but about brilliantly executed brushstrokes. Even the exquisite and precise paintings of Jacques-Louis David are not about the death of Marat or the coronation of Napoleon, but all about reformatting current events as if they were classic and timeless, leaving people in galleries suspended in fantasy exactly as Dickens, Tolstoy, and Kafka were about to do.
Patriotism’s artifacts are motivational. But that power to move us is transitory. When it fades the artifacts are archived or reinterpreted. What does the obelisk to George Washington mean to Gen-Z youth? Or the Brandenburg Gate? The Lincoln Memorial has been given sustained pertinence by being the site of repeated events to commemorate emancipation and advocate civil rights. Sometimes patriotic monuments are destroyed as were Saddam Hussein’s, or they are engorged as at Mount Rushmore and the great pyramids, in order to make them ineradicable. Nevertheless, sand is the destiny of all of them.
This is a nadir of patriotism around the world, although patriotism has been usurped in behalf of supremacist religion, here and there. Patriotic legends are reduced to cartoons when that happens. Patriotic symbols become weapons. Even the poles on which flags are carried sometimes become spears once again as happened literally at the US Capitol during the insurrection on January 6. But for the great majority patriotism has declined without being morphed into cultural religion of any sort. You can tell that is going to happen when patriotic remembrances decline into military celebrations. It is in full swing when the celebrations consciously erase marginalized people and their contributions.
The decline of patriotism ends when the patria (Latin for homeland) ends, either through disintegration or relegation. Or when the country, with resources to support it, rebounds and responds to a new consensus about what it is all about.
Roman Catholic bishops in the USA are meeting to decide whether or not to permit US President Joe Biden to take communion as long as he supports legalized abortions. This would apply to all Roman Catholics, of course, not just POTUS. The New York Times reports that the Vatican has advised the bishops not to take this action, but the bishops are likely to continue the debate in their meeting anyway. They have a contingent that opposes the present Pope and his progressive stance. On theological grounds, several prominent Jesuits, however, oppose the use of sacraments as a “political” weapon. Their opposition is spurring a “This Is Not Your Table Movement” against the bishops.
Here’s my take on the theological issue, as a Presbyterian observer:
1. Weaponizing the Eucharist or any sacrament is indefensible. That is what the “This Is Not Your Table Movement” is saying.
2. Ecclesiology (the nature and role of the church) is the theological doctrine at stake here. If the Church is the body of Christ in the world today, then “the Church” is both the guardian and advocate of the sacred mysteries contained in the sacraments. To say that the Church cannot stipulate and regulate the form of those sacraments and access to them is to cast the Church aside and nullify its authority. The bishops, of course, will not do that and neither would most other theologians.
3. But it is important at this time and all the time to be alert to the possibility that the Church is in error. It has been in the past. This could be another of those times. This could be one of those times in which error is being embraced by enough of the organizational structure of the Church to indict the entire organization (in this case the Roman Catholic Church).
4. Correction from error of this type, of this magnitude, and of this effect, is a prophetic undertaking which is initiated by a call to repentance on the part of those who err. If they refuse to repent they stand in need of reprimand. If that still does not bring about repentance the Church takes still stronger action.
5. If, in the end, the Church remains adamant, there is no outside agent to enact punishment except God, the “author and finisher” of the Church and all creation.
6. This, then, brings us to the matter of legitimate protest. Can people exit the Church when they perceive the Church is unrepentantly and irremediably wrong? Of course they can, and they do. It is not an infallible sign that the people are right and the Church is wrong when people leave. But there was never, in the entire history of the Church, a time when branching off and separating was not taking place, nor was there a time when such effrontery of those leaving was not excoriated by those being left. In solemn retrospect, Christianity has spread this way.
7. Having said this, we come to the question of ecclesiastical authority in our time. It is being insisted that there is no Church (overall, capital C) that is proprietor of the sacred mysteries. Even when the sacred mysteries are symbolized as sacraments they remain available to any and all who perceive and give reverence to them. Therefore, the role and the nature of all churches are relegated to the socio-political realm. Churches are human organizations performing human, humane and humanitarian missions, albeit in honor of Christ. God is instrumental in these ministries in the same way that God is influential in every human life.
8. Is affiliation with a church valuable, then? Is it a necessity as insisted by the dogma that “outside the church there is no salvation”? Can an individual alone discover enough of the mysterious truth that encompasses life? Can life be fully realized without the support and accountability of a community of faith? For most of us the answer is that commitment to the best good and highest values will dwindle for those who refuse the kind of community found in the best churches. Fortunate, indeed, are those who connect to one like that.
9. Is the world a better place because there are Christian churches proliferating almost everywhere? Certainly there is strength in numbers. Effective action, and especially opposition to power, requires unity. A church is valuable as a strategic partner with other advocates of compassion and justice. A church that exists for the exclusive benefit of its members is not one of the best, no matter whether or not those benefits are religious and spiritual.
What is the best course for the bishops? Listen to your own best theologians rather than your politicians. Be one less combatant in the devastating US culture war.
The mundane world is not intimidated by our threats. It is attracted by our love.
We are on the cusp of the greatest reformation the Church has experienced since the 16th century. The side that will emerge and be called Christian three centuries from now will be the one with roots in this century that has the most Christ-like theology. Love leads to immersion, involvement, and incarnation. Love creates allies but it also enlightens the lover to the presence of the Holy One.
Theology begins where one is and asks, “Where is God in this?” It is impossible to accurately imagine that God is removed into a sublime heaven now that Christ has ascended there, and that our theology is all about how to expand that heaven into this abysmal mundus. It is ludicrous to fantasize about God caring for creatures while being remote and aloof. Theology as Jesus taught us how to do it begins in the here and now and identifies God imminently invested in this messy place. Theology asks, “What is God doing?”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.