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History | Noah Stepro

Noah Stepro

Noah Stepro

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Michael Brown, Reconstruction and The Great War

Police make me nervous. Seriously. I realized most of the people I know don’t share this sentiment. When I’m at the park playing basketball or barbecuing and I see a patrol car come through I just assume they are going to harass me. Now I am a law abiding, middle-class, Anglo, family man…I don’t get harassed by the police nor do I give them cause to harass me. I didn’t give them cause as a child or teenager either. The only difference is that I lived in not so nice areas of the Antelope Valley. So I don’t get the sense of security and goodwill that my friends and coworkers who grew up in affluent communities do. In my history police equaled problems. I have quite a few good friends in law enforcement and realize that this is a jaded perspective. However, it is a perspective that persists.

Ferguson

This is what is at stake in Ferguson. You have outrage at another shooting of an unarmed citizen by the police…something that happens alarmingly often in the Black community. Race as a social construct is most definitely a primary issue at play here, and many Black thinkers and leaders are highlighting this. We all need to listen. From my own experience, I also see the issues of power and privilege that are often underneath and interwoven with matters of race, and they seem to be rearing their ugly head in Ferguson. For this article, I want to focus on this element of power and privilege. There is a problem behind Ferguson, behind fueling race riots, arrest murders, and labor disputes, and it is power and privilege. Affluent folks view law enforcement as an extension of their will (maybe with the exception of speeding tickets). Disadvantaged people view the police as antagonists to their well-being. One of the biggest problems with the Michael Brown shooting is this divide. In many ways the outcome of this incident has little to do with Brown and the officer and much more to do with a historical rift between the poor severed from the resources they need and the rich controlling these resources (and law enforcement) to protect their privilege and security. ferguson-missouri

Reconstruction

In the aftermath of the Civil War the executive office and Congress were faced with the impossible problem of not only reincorporating peoples and institutions that had waged war on the Union, but also embracing and empowering a nation of freed slaves who had little-to-no property, education or self-governing life skills. Radical Republicans called for property redistribution and enfranchisement while the elite, defrocked Planter class attempted to impose a new order of slavery through intimidation and coercion (black codes, sharecropping, etc). This latter group formed militias to promote white supremacy (the Ku Klux Klan being the most infamous of these groups). These paramilitaries would harass the newly freed people and use violence to keep them from utilizing their recently amended civic and Constitutional rights. The Radical Republicans in Congress were able to employ the US Army to break up these militias and ensure the protection of these people. Through a whole convolution of events, the radicals fell out of power, federal troops were withdrawn from the South and the swift disenfranchisement of Black Americans ensued. In the shadow of this unraveling, Congress passed a law called Posse Comitatus  stating the federal government cannot use federal troops to enforce the law. Track with me on this…most Americans would see this as limiting the power of the federal government for the protection of the common people. WRONG! The point of Congress’s action was to keep disadvantaged people in the mercy of the powerful. This was not meant to protect people from the US military or a growing police state…that still takes place. Under Posse Comitatus the National Guard is still allowed to be called in to establish law and order under the Governors direction. On more than one occasion the president has used federal troops to break up strikes and protests. We have established federal armories (we have one of these in Palmdale) to provide weapons for troops during a state of emergency (which is most likely a riot or grassroots movement, not a Red Dawn type Russian paratrooper invasion of the West Coast). This federal legislature was composed to prevent the federal government from ensuring black Americans would live without fear of violence or persecution and forfeit the right to vote.

The Great War

It is often the case that the events of history offer us two messages – a superficial answer and a deeper underlying meaning. This is the case in Reconstruction; this is also the case of World War I. This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the Great War’s outbreak and historians and commentators have been debating the root causes and effects of the war for the past century. In a truly Marxist interpretation (don’t worry, I’m neither a Communist nor a Marxist)…WWI was neither about class nor nationality nor race (ethnicity, linguistics, religion)…it was about power for the powerful. Marx assumed that the next great international war erupted it would be countered by a revolution of the workers…those who produce v. those who own the means of production (the bourgeoisie v the proletariat). Marx underestimated the power of patriotism…he wrongly presumed that poor factory workers and struggling farmers in England would identify with poor factory workers and struggling farmers in Germany (or Russia or the Austro-Hungarian Empire) over and above the rich industrialists of their own country. The problem: they didn’t! The ideologies of togetherness, solidarity and patriotism trumped those of like-mindedness and self-interest.  he events in Ferguson are not so unrelated to the events of Austria a century ago. Is the Brown shooting only about race? The result of believing this may end up turning poor people against poor people; the imperial leaders told European peasants it was all about nationality – turning factory worker against factory worker. Planter elites told Southern people it was all about race – turning poor white farmers against poor Black farmers. The problems of Reconstruction, WWI, and Ferguson have common ground that extends beyond race, nationality, or ideology. They are all about power and privilege.

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These are a few divides I choose to look at, but certainly many (if not all) historical conflicts fall into this category (The Cold War is a great example). I want to propose to thoughts that challenge the polemics offered on cable television today:

  1. Race Is An Issue – But Class Is Underneath.

The pain of slavery and reconstruction is alive and well today…in the South more so than anywhere else. Men of color have far greater reason to suspect the police of undue harassment and profiling than I do. However, race can be misleading if we don’t follow its trail toward other issues. Many civil rights leaders started at race and moved towards the issues of class: Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Caesar Chavez. The Great War wasn’t really about nationality…this was used to incite the passions and fears of nations. Ferguson isn’t only about race…race as the end all can become the faux amis employed to rouse suspicion of our neighbors. Can I go so far as to claim that race can be utilized as a misnomer during reconstruction…aimed to divide White and Black in a pitch to win White support for the dominant power class? There is a powerful TIME article that elaborates on this much more eloquently than I ever will.

  1. Violence Isn’t Powerful Enough. 

I have a friend and teacher who once told me that Jesus was a pacifist because “violence wasn’t powerful enough.” In a recent post on Ferguson David Fitch penned: “This is the dilemma of violence. It never gets us anywhere in the long term. It’s the devil’s way to keep the sin ongoing.” It has taken me several years to understand what he meant; it has taken Ferguson. The National Guard is called in to establish law and order – and maybe they will…however…Law and Order is much different than PEACE! The National Guard will never establish peace!

  1. Peace isn’t a tranquil state, but a new order.

I don’t mean a new political order…that is what Woodrow Wilson called for in his New World Order mandate for a great League of Nations. A new political order will always turn into another establishment wielded by the power of the privileged. We need a new social, relational order. We are doomed to repeat Reconstruction, WWI and Ferguson until we stop viewing each other in binaries that alienate. Jesus, the greatest pacifist ever, called the world to live under his new order (the Kingdom of God) were mercy triumphs over judgment, where we treat each other with dignity and respect, where love is the organizing principle and not privilege or power. The League failed and Reconstruction faltered not because they are bad, but because they aren’t enough!

We need an interior revolution that starts within communities and homes…not an imposed mandate from an institution.

“Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes…. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations…. Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.”

—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Why Your iPod Is Calling You To A Higher Standard

Here are some thoughts that are quite embryonic…I’d love your feedback and collaboration.

It occurs to me, as a history professor, that one of the greatest challenges we face in understanding historical context is to be objective with our biases, presumptions and approaches to understanding different people and places. This continues to be a problem for Western cultures as we interact with other cultures around the world (the “White Man’s Burden“…) – we assume we understand things that are strange and foreign to us.

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A regular assignment I give to my American history classes is to blog on the “connection between technology and psychology”. A core element of this idea is that we are inevitably controlled by the things we create…not always for the better, but sometimes for the best. It is very hard to envision our lives without the technological wonders we come to appreciate – smartphones, cameras, the Internet. On a historical level, this is why we have such a hard time understanding the morality and ethics of the past. For instance, it is hard for most students to grasp why feminism and gender equality did not become a more pressing issue and unified movement before 100 or so years ago. Why weren’t women demanding systematic equality centuries early? Because people in general were not questioning oppression and equality. As technology advanced (literacy and communication)  and social theory developed with it (the Enlightenment and human rights) we were drawn into a higher ethic of behavior…one where inalienable rights existed for all people. Without understanding the historical and cultural context of this development…patriarchy seems absolutely ludicrous. But placed within a framing story the raison d’être becomes apparent (even if unjustified).

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So my thought is this…is there an evolutionary nature to our ethics (different from evolutionary ethics)? As we grow in our capacity to understand and engage with the world we live in are we called to an increasingly higher standard of moral duty? For the breadth of human history global poverty was not a problem…as industrial production and globalization created this problem new medias in international communication technologies have brought this plight to our front door. Because we in the developed world are aware of our brothers and sisters in their squalor, we have a responsibility to engage with them.

As our capacity increases so does our responsibility (inserting tongue into cheek to refrain from Spiderman quote). For instance, when most post-moderns read questionable situations within Scripture (polygamy, warfare, deception, slavery) we have no basis for empathy. We cannot realize that this world was one of famine, barbarism and hubris…survival was the point of this world. In western, 21st century America, survival is not on our mind, so there is no social benefit for polygamy. However, if we can supplant ourselves back to a time of patriarchy and piratry…being widowed under these circumstances would spell certain disaster. Polygamy can be an act of mercy and generosity in this world…not just an act of sexual depravity, exploitation and control. As we grow and evolve on an social level (food and medical assistance, housing supplements, benefits and employment) vestiges like polygamy no longer find justification. The same could be said of indentured servitude and the development of credit, or industrial waste and environmental sciences.

In a world of abundant information, social mobility, global communication, financial freedom and political democracy we have more freedom and responsiblity than ever before. Having a micro computer in your pocket means that you are instaneously plugged into the problems of our global village. You are not only informed, but have the ability to advocate for others, inform your self, fund causes, plan events, etc. all from your mobile device. So…if our ethics are to evolve with our technological advancement and intellectual competency where does that leave us? Do you think there is validity to that notion? Are there other connections? Examples?

The Zeitgeist of the Oscars

I think the cultural monuments of celebration in our time, Culture Making Celebrations (Oscars, etc.), Sports Championships (Super Bowl, Olympics and such), Political Victories, and Holiday Festus all speak clearly and loudly to what we value as a society. This has historically been true as we have seen these celebrations and the values the exemplify change over time. Pre-modern Worship Ceremonies typically highlighted fertility and agricultural production; The Roman Circuses and Gladiator Battles promoted the cultural of warrior strength and patriarchy; The Saint’s Days of Old Europe highlighted piety and community (and often ironically debauchery). So what message is heralded from Hollywood last night?

 

I think there a many…some good, some bad. But perhaps the loudest voice was the ghost of Ponce de Leon harkening us back to the fountain of eternal youth. Nothing is celebrated quite like perpetual agelessness. To be honest this was my first thought after seeing Gravity. I could not believe how good Sandra Bullock looked at 49 – good for her, she looks healthy and agile. But my reaction should be telling because it was what was echoed throughout the celebri-verse for weeks surrounding the film. Botox, surgery, crash diets, and Photoshop are nothing new to the visually heavy industries but the extremes we have gone to promote false vision of beauty are becoming disturbing.

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Absolutely nothing displayed this fetish more than the presentation of Best Actor category by Kim Novak. The 81-year-old actress most famous for her role in Vertigo nervously clung to the arm of her co-presenter as she approached the stage. It was clear this once popular sex symbol had undergone some zealous plastic surgery in an attempt to blend into the sex-sheen of Tinsel Town. Needless to say 81-year-old+sexpot+rhinoplasty+narcisistic audience=epic fail. Most of Hollywood turned on Novak like a sickly runt in the coupe…plucking the few remaining feathers of dignity she had until they were healthy and better by comparison. Film critique Farrah Nehme sums up the situation so well:

So let’s say — just as a hypothetical for-instance — you are an 81-year-old star whose last movie was in 1991 and who hasn’t been to the Oscars in many a long year. Not that you were ever nominated for one in the first place; you were, after all, a sex symbol for most of your career. As the evening approaches, the anxiety sets in. Harsh lights, you think. High-definition cameras. And a public that remembers you chiefly as the ice goddess whose beauty once drove James Stewart to the brink of madness.

And even back then, when you were 25 years old, you worried constantly that no matter how you looked, it wasn’t good enough.

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It seems the zeitgeist, the ghost of our age reverberating out of Los Angeles and embraced by large sections of our world is: “Your Body Isn’t Good Enough”. Most of us are not quite as self-obsessed as Hollywood because we can’t afford to be – plastic surgery, personal trainers and expensive skin care are out of our reach…but we all have a choice in our death! Take the issue of creamation…That is right, cremation speaks to how we view our bodies. Cremation in America has risen from 3.5% in 1960 to 45% today…and we are projected to grow 10% in the next ten years. I see this as reflecting two trends:

  1. We are moving from a physical religious/ethical history – Christianity/Judaism to an esoteric, dualism of body/spirit. We have this in the Western Tradition in the Greeks, particularly Plato, but it is in the Eastern religions where the body is seen as something weak, imperfect and unspiritual. As we embrace a theology that is “spiritual-but-not-religious” we devalue the importance of our physical bodies.
  2. This devaluing is reflected in our obsession with beauty and youth. That might sound contradictory, but the mantra chanted is be as young and beautiful as you can (even though you will never live up to your own beauty – i.e. actresses and models saying they wished they looked as good as they do in ads and movies) until you die…then burn the body.

Traditionally in Western culture to burn the body was a curse…because the body is seen as an important component of life, not just a disposable vessel that is actually in the way of finding your “true self”. Now, I’m not actually opposed to cremation, I have friends and relatives who have been cremated and depending on how poor my surviving relatives are, I might be too. It is interesting however, to see the rise of this trend follow the rise of plastic surgery, image altering and visual media.

Eventually, might we twist, alter and distort our bodies until there is nothing let that resembles or original form?

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Would Jesus Go to the Super Bowl?

Would Jesus Go to the Super Bowl?

Yes. And No.

Today I reposted a blog on sex-trafficking and the Super Bowl…the traction and debate it generated really surprised me, so in the spirit of avoiding an endlessly repeating cycle of Facebook comments (most of which no one reads before posting their own thoughts) I will offer a more detailed, nuanced look at this Sunday’s super game.

“Jesus would totally go to the Super Bowl!”

  1. That is where people are gathering, Jesus seemed to be with the people…even beer chugging Broncos fans.
  2. Sports promote physical health, team work and sociability – the Lord likes all those things right?
  3. Watching a sporting event can be a great way to unwindand rest…certainly God was into that.
  4. There is absolutely nothing intrinsically wrongwith the sport of football.
  5. All the Seahawks love him.

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“Jesus would brandish a Pig of Nineskins and clear the stadium!”

  1. The Super Bowl is a place where celebrity worshipmay be at its highest point of the year. Between the ridiculously overpaid, championed athletes and the Halftime Show it is perhaps the most widely watched 3 hours of idolization out of every year.
  2. Merchandising, commercials, and endorsements/product placements promote happiness through stuff (i.e. capitalist materialism)…I’m pretty sure Jesus hated that and said some harsh things about envy and the worship of wealth.
  3. Sexual exploitation – that’s right I went there. Even if there wasn’t a single girl trafficked into the area for the purposes of pleasuring the traveling fans and franchises (which there are…I have a friend who was trafficked for such purposes) the sexual manipulation/exploitation that takes place during the ads and the Halftime Show is reason enough to avoid it.

So would Jesus go see the Seahawks and the Broncos show down this weekend? It depends on where his Father was leading. If it was the moment to be with some people that are going to open up and be vulnerable to him…I could totally see Jesus hanging at the game. However, it seems the Super Bowl is far more against the values of God’s Kingdom than aligned with it. Does the game explicitly mean idols and exploitation? No for most people it is a family tradition or the culmination of a season competition. But if we think about the deeper meaning of what it has mutated into over the last 30 years are we called to reexamine this national event?

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I tried to picture Jesus going to the Gladiator games or circuses in Rome…they were hedonistic expressions of violence, sexual debauchery and emperor worship. Is the Super Bowl that far away from Roman chariot races? If anything it may be more exaggerated and wide spread? I think one of the reasons my earlier post on FB rubbed quite a few people the wrong way is that sports can be major idols in our world. There is no direct vice in watching the game (the halftime show is a different story). I think this is where the confusion comes in…we can watch the game while still following and staying in the will of Christ, but should we? The answer is Yes. And No. If we are gathering to be together, reach out to our neighbors and enjoy community it can still be a great event (despite the underbelly of the beast…Jesus didn’t condemn nor support the Roman army) or it can be a time to revel in fantasy, lust and envy…what are you going to make it?

 

I genuinely think God loves football…not sure about the NFL though. What do you think? I’d be curious to hear from some football fans on this.

Sister Wives and Sincere Marriages

My wife loves the show Sister Wives – so by default I have picked up an affinity for the disappointingly undramatic reality show about a Mormon Fundamentalist family that is living a modern polygamist scenario. As soon as I saw this show and the hostility it generates in Utah, I thought to myself “I wonder how long it will take before this becomes muddled with gay marriage rights?” Well this last week U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups ruled against Utah’s laws prohibiting “Cohabitation” – stating it was in incompatible with the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

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Is this a victory for people wanting to practice polygamy? No, not really…because it is still illegal to be married to more than one person in all 50 states. Does it take a swing at the DOMA? No, the recent decision doesn’t really move in that direction either. It does beg the question “Who has the right to legitimize marriages?” Both sides of the culture war surrounding same sex marriage for some bizarre reason continue to argue that the government has the right and the final say so to legitimate and/or bar marriages…why? Historically this hasn’t been the case, and I don’t think it should now.

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This recent case and the national focus around the Brown family highlight the hypocrisy and silliness around the marriage debates. Judge Waddoups argued against the punitive Utah laws asking what difference exists between a polygamous marriage between a man and three women or a man fornicating with three separate partners of his choice. Jerrold Jensen, Attorney General for Utah argued a large distinction existed because the polygamous family was perpetuating the image of a marriage.

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So, what the state of Utah is arguing is that someone in a committed marriage with three people presents a greater threat to society than a man having three casual, uncommitted relationships which could begin families and create children…that makes a lot of sense.

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I have to hand it to the Brown family, though I think polygamy sounds like a form of strange torture and am somewhat morally opposed to the idea, they have sincerity in their marriage. Maybe more marriages would work and have a fruitful commitment if they were based on ethical, moral, and religious convictions than a state license. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive, but as long as we see the state as the justification and origin of our “cohabitation” we can also blame the state for our moral short comings. Maybe we could take a lesson from the Brown family?

Supreme Misgivings

The 2013-14 Session of the Supreme Court began this Monday…and a lot is on the line. Matters of abortion, freedom of religion, campaign finance reform, executive powers have all made the docket. I would like to offer several reminders as we watch this year’s judiciary review unravel:
• Corporations are not people
• “Separation of church and state” appears no where in the Constitution
• Abortion is a crummy issue to vote for your president on

Allow me to elaborate

1. Corporations are not people, be they get treated as such
We have limited the amount acceptable for individuals and businesses to give in matters of political campaigns. There are a lot of reasons for this but avoiding a corrupt, quid-pro-quo is the biggest. Placing a limit of $2,500 on political giving to any one candidate and a $46,500 aggregate for multiple person contributions seems to accomplish this. In 2008 Citizens United vs. FEC changed all this…for the worse. Now corporations are arguing that through the 1st Amendment, the free speech clause, that their (the corporation’s) rights are being hampered by restricting their spending/donating power.

Yes that is right, Walmart has personal rights under the Constitution. This is the argument before the court…Money=A Voice. What we purchase says something about what we value…If that is true, than how we spend our money shouldn’t be infringed upon – that is a violation of the 1st Amendment (Freed Speech). This Amendment applies to corporations just as it applies to people. That means that Chevron or Apple should be able to spend as much capital on political campaigns as they feel fit…because they have POLITICAL RIGHTS!!! The founding fathers didn’t have any problem with wealth influencing politics, this is why we had property qualifications for voting and did not allow for the direct election of senators. But the game has changed a lot since then…I don’t think Madison could possibly envision the power and reach of modern, technical corporations.

This isn’t the first time this argument has been made. Back in the Gilded Age many corporations argued that they shouldn’t have to pay a minimum wage because it was a form of slavery. That is correct…the burgeoning form of business known as “corporations” sued under the newly ratified 14th Amendment, arguing that a minimum wage was a form of slavery or servitude and that the federal government had no right to intervene.

Should corporations have the same rights as people before the law? Should they have limited liability and a limitless lifespan? A lot of people say no…but it isn’t our choice…this rests with the Supreme Court. Pay attention this year as some very important things could be coming down the pipeline.

2. Separation of church and state is an “idea” (not a clause) to protect religion from the corruption of the state.
Over the past few decades the notion that the state and organized religion should be divided by a massive, immutable chasm has grown. Through the likes of the ACLU and the growth of pluralism in America we have embraced this idea…that some how faith corrupts the state. Once again, not what the framers of our government intended. They saw faith as the only thing that could produce real virtue, the thing that a good government hinges upon.

“Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.” – John Adams

“The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” – Benjamin Rush

Perhaps one of the engines corrupting our state is a faithlessness. I am not suggesting by any means that we hang crosses and the ten commandments in some sort of coercive attempt to Christianize everyone. I literally mean faith…encouraging a deep, soul searching intelligence that we seem to be so bankrupt of.

3. Pro-life, Pro-choice should be the last filter you run a political candidate through
I need to watch my phraseology on this one as it is an incredibly emotional issue for almost all of us (as it should be). The problem is, as will be seen this coming year, political candidates don’t decided legal issues of abortion…the Supreme Court does. There are 9 justices with life terms on the court, these are appointed by the president only when one retires or dies. Your presidential representative may go an entire term without getting to appoint a new justice…even then they need to be confirmed by the Senate. Once a pro-life candidate is on the bench they will need to wait for a pertinent case to come on the docket. After all that the likelihood that they would be outvoted 5-4 is very likely. Is abortion an incredibly important and relevant issue today? YES! Should this be the first thing you consider when looking at a Congressional or Presidential candidate? ABSOLUTELY NOT!

I could go on about presidential powers of recess nomination, the lack of democracy at work within the SC, the absurdity of our standards of judgement for the judiciary burden and so on, but I have said my two cents. There are a lot of misunderstandings when it comes to issues of law, here were a few I think every American should be aware of. After all, as Thomas Jefferson said:

“Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” – Jefferson

“Overconfidence and complacency are among our deadliest enemies”

– Franklin D. Roosevelt: State of the Union Message to Congress, 1944

Obamacare Falls on the Cactus Curtain

Today’s “shut down” only codifies the cynicism my generation has towards government and bureaucracy. I really don’t care about Obama-care or the Republican/Democrat divide. I am interested in a government that has the interest of the people at it’s center. The fact that all Congressmen/women are getting paid during the “shut down” highlights the absurdity of the matter. Is this really about the interest of the citizens? Or is it about political ambitions on both sides? Obama has made this the cornerstone of his administration…is it really about helping people? With the 50-100% increase in some medical plans I can’t possibly think this is about the best interests of the people.

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The Atlantic posted this tidbit today: “At the National Institutes of Health, nearly three-quarters of the staff was furloughed. One result: director Francis Collins said about 200 patients who otherwise would be admitted to the NIH Clinical Center into clinical trials each week will be turned away. This includes about 30 children, most of them cancer patients, he said.”

I have to hand it to Jon Stewart, he assesses the situation well with this…it is not about Conservative/Liberal, it is about what is Constitutional and lawful!

Another example of how politicians are out for themselves and not the public. The L.A. Times recently ran an article on the “Cactus Curtain” of the Antelope Valley…separating Lancaster and Palmdale. This divide is all about the vote-ability and political potency of each town/mayor…not what is in the best interest of the people. 100 million+ has been wasted on the squabbling…leaving the rich richer, and the poor suffering at the hands of a widening income gap.

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Who cares about the “Stand off”? Who even cares about he National Parks for that matter? Don’t we care more that the majority of our politicians care more about elect-ability than virtue and truth? IDK, days like this make me apathetic to government and reestablish my belief that God and the Kingdom of Heaven are the only hope for humanity.

Count It All As Shit – Christians and Cursing

Is it ok for someone following Jesus to swear?

Words change.

What is offensive changes. Language, and the meaning we socially construct with it, morphs and shifts as society transforms (this is one of the things that postmodernism is all about). Curse or swear words are socially constructed as well. I had a friend from Sweden stay with me for several weeks and he was cussing like a sailor. Every time he met someone he would say “hello how the f*$@ are you?” I had to apologize to everyone he met…he thought this was really funny. Not being a native Anglophile he had no concept of what he was conveying…he had no social framework for his language.

Curse words are nothing more than icons we ascribe meaning to. I am sure the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon would not use the phrase “nigger entertainments” today as he did in an 1891 Sword and Trowel publication. There is a reason today’s Bible translators use “urinate” or “to relieve oneself” instead of the King James employment of “piss” (1 Sam 25:22, 25:34; 1 Kings 14:10, 16:11, 21:21; 2 Kings 9:8). In the last two decades, even the word “sucks” has mellowed and is no longer the hotbed of Christian offense.

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1. Pre-modern societies believed the most offensive words were excommunicatory in nature.

I was able to repay my Swedish friend a few years later when I was in Stockholm. The gravest of words utterable in his country is the Swedish word for Satan (though ironically no one believes in Satan…it is one of the most atheistic countries on earth). So being the good friend that I was I relished every opportunity to call things Satan…he found a new appreciation for the position he put me in. Offensive words were religious terms that threatened punishment and damnation. It is the same in France (another very atheistic country). My French speaking friends tell me the most offensive words in their language are still along the lines of religious cursing and calling someone a “devil”. In English, the words “damn” and “hell” used to have a harsh edge but have softened over time. The names of God and Christ and Joseph/Mary are often called up to create offense. In fact, the word “cuss” is related to “curse” which has religious overtones, as does the word “swear”.

At Sunday School, I was told not to use words like “Geez Whiz”, and “Jeepers” because they were toned down versions of swear words. There were lots of these words – “Gosh”, “golly”, “dang it”, “heck” . . .”s’truth” which means ‘God’s truth’ and is still popular in Australia. In my mother’s household children would have to say “Amster-naughtyword” instead of Amsterdam BUT . .. she was allowed to repeat the refrain “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a nigger by the toe . . ” That was not offensive in her day (to white people at least).

2. In the Modern culture (from the Industrial Revolution-Internet, and in some cases we still live there), words that caused the most offense affronted our personal and private sensibilities.

These offensive words were normally associated with private body parts, bodily functions of a toilet nature (I remember when I wasn’t allowed to say “fart” or “puked”), and sexual relations. The shift began in the 1800’s as the Industrial Revolution drove a deeper wedge between the male and female spheres. Victorian morality of the period frowned upon discussion of any aspect of sexuality. A “cult of purity” arose…people fetishized the “pure” to ridiculous extents, going so far as to replace the words for chicken “breasts” and “thighs” with “white” and “dark” meat. Now the words “ass” or “crap” or “piss” – all functional words that previously served a purpose – are offensive.

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3. Today’s Post-modern world is most offended by exclusionary language, as the voices of the margin dwellers and powerless have been given consideration and brought to the center.

Marginalizing people due to their race, gender, disability or status is about the most offensive thing you can say. The School Success and Opportunity Act (transgender school bill) that recently passed here in California highlights the centrality of this shift. Being “pure” is no longer the concern of school discipline, but it is being fair and equal. Bullying and language of exclusion are the threats of today and the language associated with them is often seen as expletives. When I was a teenager it was common and acceptable in youth circles to hear words like “gay” or “retarded” used to describe something as odd…but not today. Such words have been removed from the cannon of what is acceptable. Hip-hop producer Russell Simmons recommended eliminating “extreme curse words” from the recording industry.

Which words?

“nigger”

“bitch”

“ho”

Note the absence of sexual- or bodily-function-type cuss words. These days, no one loses their job for saying “shit” but if you say “Bitch” or “Nigger” in the US or “Ching” in Australia or “Paki” in UK then your entire career might be on the line.

In the USA a lawsuit was brought against a Southwest Airlines Flight attendant in 2003 for using this rhyme, even without saying the n___ word. What she said was “Eenie, meenie, minie, mo, pick a seat, we gotta go”.  Its the same refrain I used to repeat when choosing between toys.

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So “how then shall we live?”

I am not trying to make an argument for offensive language, but I would like to look at meaningful language. The triteness of our dilemma over language may illustrate the state of our hearts. What are we really concerned with when it comes to cussing? Allow me to illustrate with a line I’ve used in a sermon before from Tony Campolo: “While you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” Campolo illustrates the problem of putting “morality” before sincerity. What compels us? Are we turned off by the appearance or language of someone before we can engage their hearts?

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It isn’t how we say it, it is why we say it!

St. Paul says something along the same lines in Philippians 3:8. For those interested here it is in the Koine Greek: ἀλλὰ μενοῦνγε καὶ ἡγοῦμαι πάντα ζημίαν εἶναι διὰ τὸ ὑπερέχον τῆς γνώσεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ τοῦ κυρίου μου, δι᾿ ὃν τὰ πάντα ἐζημιώθην, καὶ ἡγοῦμαι σκύβαλα, ἵνα Χριστὸν κερδήσω”…

The word you want to keep your eye on is “σκύβαλα“—pronounced “skubala.” Here’s a literal translation of the verse: “But indeed I also consider everything to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I forfeited all things; and I consider them shit so that I may gain Christ…”

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Everything else is Shit!

Yes, you heard me right. Skubala means shit. Not only does it literally mean shit—i.e. human excrement—but it also has the same connotation. It is a vulgar word. Paul would not have said it in mixed company unless he expected a reaction. It’s difficult to find Christian sources that discuss skubala, but it’s use in ancient writings outside of the Bible makes clear that it was considered very impolite and yet he used it anyway. Why? To make a very clear point and to speak in a way that his audience would undoubtedly understand. They got the message. Sometimes, we need extreme language to help us contrast the extreme distance between a life with God vs a life without God. The leading modern Greek lexicon BDAG glosses skubala as “refuse,” “garbage,” “human excrement,” “crud,” and “crap”—very strong words for this Christian scholarly book. So the original text of the sacred Scripture contains a fowl word. English translations don’t like this word. They take the edge off it:

  • King James: …and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ…
  • New American Standard: …and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ…
  • New English Translation: …I regard them as dung!– that I may gain Christ…
  • Revised Standard: …and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ…

The same can be said of Isaiah 64:6All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” That word for “filthy rags” would be better translated from the Hebrew “menstrual rags” or more modernly “used tampons” – paints a different picture. The sterilized version of filthy rags makes me think of a dish cloth, not used sanitary napkins.

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There is something reassuring to me about an author of Scripture employing a vulgarity and about Paul caring much more about the passion and depth of our commitment to Christ than the shit of this world. It highlights Paul’s humanity and the intensity that should be conveyed with spiritual truth. Isn’t the truth of what is being communicated more important than the language used?

The problem is not if you are cursing or not, but are you uplifting or not? Cursing fulfills two functions: 1. A filler for poorly constructed sentences, leaving you sounding unintelligent. 2. A means to elicit a reaction. Some times that is humor or shock, some times it is to offend. But then there is a double standard to what is offensive…if you are a part of the minority group it is ok to appropriate your slurs and wear them as a badge of honor. Does the slur make a difference? I could sing about slapping bitches and hoes or I can sing about assaulting women and girls…it is still equally offensive to me…I simply feel the full impact in the first statement. It conveys what I am really trying to get at.

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So I could call all the things of this life “dung” or I can call them shit. They both say the same thing, but the second gets more to the point. I think this get’s to what Martin Luther meant when he told people to “sin boldly”: “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” This gets to the heart of the cursing dilemma. Not that Luther wants us to be full of sin, but that we would realize we aren’t saved by our morality, our clean language.

If we are concerned more about the words we craft than the subject of them (form over substance) we miss the point. Dallas Willard calls this type of religion “sin management”. That kind of hypocritical concern with the appearance of things is what most of my friends hate about “religious people”; funny enough, Jesus had a few things to say about those people. Cursing emphasizes what you are trying to say…cursing isn’t usually the problem, what we are saying is usually the problem. So the same author who urged us to “not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” can call something shit. There are plenty of “moral” Christians whose vocabulary is clean, but whose language is empty.

Is your language one of “sin management” and morality or of unbridled conviction?

 

 

Many of the words and thoughts from this post flow out of an email conversation from my very brilliant co-pastor Greg Larson, a blog on curse words and a blog on Greek syntax.