Humid Thursday

The weather today reminds me of New Orleans (although it's about 20 degrees warmer than it is here today), and the warm weather and recent passing of Mardi Gras lead me to Dirty Coast, a non-tacky t-shirt shop. I like quite a few of these, but I'm not sure I could get away with wearing "Louisiana: Third-world and proud of it" here in Indiana.
Particularly with all the whiny liberal kids sitting next to me in the computer lab. My Tulane t-shirt will have to do.


Business and Social Responsibility

George Will today writes, "it is mysterious whose interests, other than those of their shareholders, corporations are supposed to be controlled by." In doing so, he's ripping off Milton Friedman: given the short memory of Americans, few will probably recognize the explicit link.

Mysterious indeed. I can think of three groups that corporations whose interests ought to be watching out for: the employees, the customers, and the community.
What happens when employers aren't acting in the interest of their employees? Unhappy employees, possibly seizing control of the means of production (in an ideal world), more commonly just doing a really lousy job, and ocasionally bringing in firearms and killing their co-workers. [I'm tempted to write more on this from my perspective as an adjunct professor, but others have laid out the issues more eloquently than I can.]

Unhappy customers don't give you repeat business; in extreme cases, they sue, or die and their family sues. Even discounting the Ford Pinto, the tobacco industry stands as testament to this.

Finally, the community has a stake as well. Who wants to live near a high-density feed lot? Other industries have their problems, too: this just happens to be in today's newpaper. If shareholders live elsewhere, can a corporation ignore the interest of the community in which it's located?
Milton Friedman's article was published nearly forty years ago, so I won't be surprised if people don't remember where this argument came from, but it irritates me that people can't see that it's built on faulty logic.


Violence and Sex

I was talking to a fellow last night about movies, usually a pleasant topic for people who don't know each other very well. And it didn't surprise me that we have very different tastes in movies. What did surprise me was the overall sense that he was sensitive to sex, but not to violence: Frank Miller's 300 was fine, but he wanted to make sure there wasn't any actual nudity in The Spirit.

I don't want to question his commitment to Christ, but it seems to me that violence is more important. Sure, there's Matthew 5:27-30, but Jesus spends a fair amount of time hanging out with women with questionable reputations, and almost none with soldiers. This might--I'm not asserting, just suggesting--point to where salvation is possible, or at least more probable.
Yes, sexual ethics are important, and our current culture trivializes what ought to be a sacred institution. But violence isn't a sacred institution: we are commanded to be peacemakers and told to turn the other cheek. When the disciples fight back in Gethsemane, he warns, "all who live by the sword will die by the sword."

I'm not calling for a renewal of the Hayes Code, just for a sense of priorities. I don't like it when women are reduced to their body parts, but where's the outrage when men (and women) are reduced to body parts?


So gäbe es außerhalb unserer Welt Hoffnung?

Er lächelte: »Viel Hoffnung—für Gott—unendlich viel Hoffnung—, nur nicht für uns.«


Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk...

with Julius Watkins. Who knew a french horn could swing like that.

And now for something completely different:

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

-Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)


Friday night

(duh-na duhda duh-naaa)
"they say it's your birthday!"

(duh-na duhda duh-naaa)
"well, it's my birthday too, yeah!"

(nuh-na nahna nuh-naaa)
"they say it's your birthday!"

(duh-na duhda duh-naaa)
"We're gonna have a good time!"

(buh-na buhba buh-naaa)
"I'm glad it's your birthday!"

(duh-na duhda duhna)
"Happy birthday to you!"

Well, that was last week; now I'm just getting old(er).


Yesterday's Sermon, delivered at Eldorado (OH) UU Church)

Today is Groundhog Day, a minor civil holiday which gives its occasion to an excellent movie starring Bill Murray. I won’t be talking about the movie this morning, although highly recommend it.
Groundhog Day has earlier roots in the pagan Celtic tradition of Imbolc, and roughly marks the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox. It isn’t the turning of the seasons that we usually note; it’s a more subtle passage. We know at the outset, regardless of whether or not the groundhog sees his shadow, that we have a ways to go before winter is through. However, it marks the time when lambs are born, and are reminded of the first faint stirrings of spring.
The reminder that spring is coming is important just about now; growing up out in rural Oregon, this was the time of year when we would get the worst weather. When I was in the seventh grade, there was an ice storm that closed the school for a week, and my family wasn’t able to make it out of our driveway except on foot. We had no electricity during that time, and we were living far enough out in the country that we were among the last to get hooked back up by Portland General Electric. Since we were on a well, so it also meant that we had no running water during that time.
This isn’t a story of deprivation, though: it was one of the best weeks my family has ever had together. We talked and played games, mostly, and even fetching water and firewood became an adventure, necessary but not dreaded.
It also gave us an opportunity to talk to the neighbors. We knew them, but didn’t often have the chance to visit, all of us caught up in our daily routines. Everyone had enough food and supplies to make it through, but everyone was willing to share. No one had to rush off to work, so helping each other was a pleasant activity and a way to strengthen those bonds.
This past week, we’ve had a similar, but thankfully not quite as dramatic, experience. I’m always amazed how it brings people together—going outside to shovel out a neighbor’s car, or pushing someone out of a drift as they try to round a corner. And people I’ve never met before and may never see again have done the same for me, walking over with being asked and laying their shoulders to my car to get it out of a drift.
At this point, I’d like to pose a lawyer’s question, one that you already know: who is my neighbor? Jesus answers with a parable, one that looks fairly simple on the surface.
The story starts with a fellow walking down the road. He’s mean and ornery—ornery being a corruption of the word “ordinary,” and mean in its original mathematical sense, along the lines of “average.” He’s no one special, there’s nothing to make him stand apart, but he gets mugged and left for dead. He could have been hit by a drunk driver, or even simply slid off the road into a ditch: something bad has happened to him, it’s not his fault, and he needs assistance.
The story develops with a familiar three-part form. Just as Goldilocks finds the first two bowl of porridge too hot, and therefore unacceptable, the first people to come by fails to offer help. The first passer-by isn’t just anyone, either: he’s a priest, wearing a cross and carrying his Bible. He’s not worried because he knows God protects the righteous. He sees the first fellow lying there, and he figures he must have deserved it, thinking of the prophet Amos saying, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people; I will spare them no longer (Amos 7:8) Of course, in his heart he knows that he isn’t really immune to danger, so he crosses the street for good measure.
Now I’ll speculate a bit. He sees this as an ambiguous situation, where he’s worried there might be more going on than he realizes; he might feel obliged to help, but is also worried about the kind of person he might be helping, as well as his own personal welfare. It’s just too scary to deal with: he’s wearing his white “good guy” hat, and everyone else who lacks the white hat of the hero is assumed to be a villain in disguise, or at least providing the opportunity for the villain to strike again. In the face of this kind of ambiguity, this fellow adopts a position of retreat: it is seen but rejected.
Another person comes along, who corresponds to the bowl of porridge which was too cold. He’s actually walking down the other side of the street, but, curious, crosses over to see what’s going on. This second person goes to church every Sunday, goes to prayer circles and Bible study at his church—but the phrase from the Bible that pops into his head is from Psalm 98, “All who pass by have plundered him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.” (Psalm 98:41) Yes, the guy needs help, but it’s not my problem. This second person doesn’t know exactly what’s happened here, but he doesn’t feel the need to resolve the ambiguous nature of the situation into simpler, easy-to-digest bits which may not fit the facts. But recognizing the possibility to act doesn’t move this second passer-by. This person denies responsibility through passive alienation: the world is a tough place, we’re all on our own, and I have to worry about getting home.
The story reaches its inevitable climax with the appearance of the Samaritan, but the term has lost its punch for us today. The first hearers would expect the third person to conform an accepted pattern, “the priest, the Levite, the people”—that is, a Jew. Instead, we find a Samaritan, and the trace of the original reaction is found in that adjective, “good,” indicating that this is no ordinary—ornery—Samaritan. For the first hearers, it would have been a bit like Goldilocks skipping the third bowl of porridge and pouring herself a glass of bourbon.
I don’t want to dwell on this point overly much, because I think it distracts us from the story as a whole. That is, there’s a tendency to jump to the end without really thinking about how these pieces fit together.
Two things in particular trouble me about this story. One of the main ways of unlocking these riddles we call parables is to put yourself in the story. But where are we in this story: who are we suppose to identify with? There are only four characters, and I don’t want to take the place of any of them. The first guy, well—I don’t want to get mugged and left for dead. I suspect that that’s not the real problem: I don’t want to have to rely on the kindness of strangers. I could probably deal with the physical pain: cuts and broken bones will heal. The vulnerability that’s truly frightening, at least for me, is asking for help. I can just picture myself, half dead, reassuring the passers-by, I’ll be fine, I just need to catch my breath.
Of course, we often find ourselves in situations where we clearly need help. When I was a teenager and learning how to ski—downhill, not cross country—I discovered a “tree well.” I don’t know if you have them around here: you need very large evergreens—branches close to the trunk pretty far down, surrounding the tree—and a whole lot of snow. The branches create a pocket of air around the trunk; “tree wells” have been described as the “dangerous void or area of loose snow typically surrounding a tree after a heavy snowfall.” So, I’m unsteady on my skis, and I discovered a tree well, which by now you may recognize is a euphemism for saying that I fell into a tree well. But I didn’t just fall into one the way you might fall into a regular well: I had these long strips of wood attached to my feet, which were too long to fit into the hole. So, I was hanging upside down in the tree well. And the branches of the tree kept me from reaching up and doing something, although I honestly don’t exactly know what I would have done. It wasn’t the road to Jericho, but I clearly needed help and was happy that someone stopped and helped me, and I didn’t even have to ask. It’s a more extreme example of what usually happens after a snowfall, but again it quickly answers the question of, “who is my neighbor.”
But this is only from the perspective of the victim: even if I can identify with the guy on the side of the road, half-dead, I’m not usually that person. I want to be the one who helps, right? The Samaritan is intended to bring up the image of someone whom you don’t expect to get help from, and maybe don’t even to want to help—a black teenager dressed in gang colors, or an illegal Mexican immigrant. The specifics aren’t as important as the idea that there’s a barrier blocking easy identification, because it isn’t so much about accepting help as being able to put myself into someone else’s shoes. And in most situations, we’d rather identify with the priest or the Levite. But clearly I’m neither the priest nor the Levite, because they’re jerks. Or, maybe we can say that they’re immature instead, and say that they have normal responses for where they are in terms of development. And we can say, “I’ve outgrown that.”
I suggest this because I suspect that we’ve all been the priest and the Levite at some point. I still carry the guy who asked me for help in the grocery store parking lot in NOLA fifteen years ago—still carry him with me: he asked for a jump because his battery had died, and I refused for no good reason, and I knew it.
Hold on a second…. That reminds me of another passage…
“hungry…nothing to eat, thirsty…nothing to drink, 43 stranger, did not invite me in, I needed clothes, was sick, in prison…” [Matthew 25:41] Whew—nothing about giving strangers with dead batteries a jump. Thank goodness! And of course, that was years ago: I would like to think that I wouldn’t even hesitate to help today.
But this brings me to the second thing that troubles me about this parable: the answer subverts the question. Who am I obliged to help, who am I obliged to love?
We read this story as if it says, “Everyone!” But what are we to do with the priest and the Levite? They’re beautiful children of God, too; they’re traveling down the same path we all are.
What do we do with those who see the world in black and white, or simply opt-out? We have to be good neighbors to them, too, even when they’re not injured on the side of the road. We can makes suggestions and model appropriate behavior ourselves. But we can’t really force them along, hold them to the standards we have difficulty meeting ourselves, demanding that they meet our notion of appropriate conduct, even if we know that they really are capable of it—which is sometimes the most difficult situation of all, when others don’t rise to the potential we see in them. It’s like a math problem, or trying to read a book in a foreign language: staring at it doesn’t always help, things don’t resolve into a coherent picture that makes sense. It can be frustrating when it happens to us, particularly when we really do want to be able to do what others do, see what others see. And it can be frustrating as we try to help others to see and do the things they ought; but we can’t see for them: they have to do it for themselves. We continually run up against the limits of what we are capable of doing for ourselves, and what we are capable of doing for other people, and those limits often contract and solidify the more we push up against them. We find resistance, retreat, and apathy.
So what are we to do?
We can help shovel, or push them out of their drift, but mostly we can just walk with them as others have walked with us, holding a space and allowing them resolve the ambiguities they face in the manner that makes sense to them. That’s the only way anyone is able to move forward along this path we all walk together.
I started by mentioning Groundhog Day, and it’s roots in the Celtic holiday Imbolc, and I’d like to finish by drawing a parallel between this day and where our country is at the moment. This is a dark and cold time, and whether or not the Groundhog sees his shadow we’ll be here for a while longer. But I’m hopeful that we’re seeing a shift in the mood, a subtle one, the way that Imbolc lets us know that we’re on the way back to more pleasant times. We can’t do it as individuals: we have to come together as neighbors.