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A National ID Card? - Why it Might Merit Another Look

Posted on Friday, May 30, 2014 No comments

Friday, May 30, 2014

As news about Edward Snowden continues to drip out, it is helpful to remind ourselves how we got here - especially as the latest government scandal tends to drown out the earlier ones.  The National Security Agency (NSA) collects usage data on tens of millions of cell phones.  It is important to note that they do not "listen in" on the calls, but they do keep records such that the volume, time and duration of calls - the 'metadata' - remain available for analysis.

I blogged earlier about this, providing Chapter 9 of my book as a sample.  We have to start asking questions about "data ownership."  There is very little economic activity which does not originate data on a computer network somewhere.  When you swipe your credit card, data is originated on the network (e.g. Visa or MasterCard) and the issuing institution (your bank or credit union).  When you use your ATM card, you originate data on your bank's system, and maybe on another network system if you are using a network ATM.  When you check a book out of the library, you originate data on the library's computer system.  And when you place a call on your cell phone, you originate data on the carrier's network.  And so on, throughout almost our entire daily economic life - web browsing and email included.  And then there is this new frontier of genetic medicine - in the near future your genetic code might exist in some computer network as bits and bytes.

It might come as a surprise, but you do not own this data.

As for your cell phone usage, in most cases, that data is addressed in the fine print of some privacy policy. Most privacy policies allow the carrier to share the data - over which they claim ownership - with government in response to "legal process."  Of course we have heard the uproar over 4th Amendment protections.  But the 4th Amendment protects our person and property from unreasonable searches and seizures.  So again, the question is this: Who owns the data?  If the data is not our property - and it isn't - the 4th Amendment does not protect us here.

This is why I argue for a constitutional amendment stating the following:
All data pertaining to the identity and economic activity of a person, including any information obtained from the data, shall remain the property of the person.
But there is another, related issue we have to tackle.  And this one is generally a very big no-no to conservatives.  I'll argue below why a national identity card is actually crucial to our civil liberties.  I'll show how it can provide - literally - the "key" to establishing intellectual property rights over data originated by our economic activities.

A Term Only a Geek Could Love: "Public Key Infrastructure"

Allow me to whip out my pocket protector and don my beanie - you know, the one with a propeller on the top.  (If you're a jock, I'm that guy your grade school teacher used to talk about - the one he said you'd end up working for some day.)

In the computing world, the "Public Key Infrastructure" (PKI) is a set of hardware and software standards that allow for the creation of "tokens" - physical things which can be used with computers to identify the user.  The most common "tokens" are the "smart card" (like the photo featured in this post) or a specialized USB "thumb drive".  Because the "smart card" is the more common of the two - and is the model for what a national identity card might look like, I'll try to discuss how it works without getting my beanie's propeller spinning too fast.

A smart card can be placed in a USB card reader.  Alternately, keyboards are available with built-in smart card readers.  The card reader reads the small yellow "chip" on the card, which is capable of storing a small amount of data.  In the PKI, special files called "digital certificates" can be created and stored on this chip.  Generally, there are two main kinds of certificates: one used to "sign" emails and another used to otherwise identify a person.  Standard Internet website hosting technologies allow a web site to require the submission of the user's digital certificate.  This is often done in place of the traditional username and password.  Often, the digital certificate is written to the card to require a PIN.  All major operating systems either come pre-engineered with the ability to prompt for this PIN, or a utility can be installed to provide this functionality.

But the propeller is really starting to spin on the beanie, so let's get to the heart of the matter.

Anonymity, Privacy and a National ID Card

One of the aspects of the Internet which has been prized since its inception is anonymity.  While this has certainly been abused, that has always been the case with freedom.  But as the Internet has developed into an engine of economic activity, we choose to give up anonymity (necessarily) when it comes to things like banking, retirement accounts, email, etc.  But we do not choose to give up privacy.

Or do we?

The answer to that question hinges on the question of data ownership.  If we do not own the data, when we originate it on the vendor's computer system (be it an email provider, a bank, a cell phone carrier or what have you) we give up privacy to the extent that the privacy policy allows the data owner to make whatever use of the data specified in that policy.  It is unlikely most of us wade through all that fine print.  If we did, we would realize that unless we "opt out" - in most cases by ending the business relationship - we have given up our privacy.

There is a better way.  And we need not wait; the technology already exists in the PKI.

Remember here that the crux of this proposal is to establish - in the Constitution outside the grasp of politicians - that data originated by our economic activity remains our intellectual property.  But if this is going to work, we have to have a way to digitally identify what belongs to us.  Enter PKI and a National ID Card.

We could revise our amendment as follows:
All data pertaining to the identity or economic activity of a person, including any information obtained from the data, shall remain the property of the person.  The Congress shall have the authority to establish a digital identification card for the purpose of establishing intellectual property rights over such data.  Congress shall make no law respecting use of a national identification card for any other purpose.
What this does for us is allow us to identify ourselves - selectively giving up anonymity - for the purpose of establishing our property claim over data originated on the system to which we have identified ourselves.  It is important to note that websites can optionally require a digital certificate.  We can still retain our anonymity elsewhere on the Internet.  But when we are anonymous, we make no claim of ownership over any data which might be created.

It is important to understand that it is precisely a national digital identification card with PKI digital certificates which makes actual privacy in the digital age possible.  We already recognize that in order to pay bills, bank online, manage a retirement account, send and receive email, etc., we have to identify ourselves - usually with a username and password.  With a standardized way to replace the username and password - the digital certificate - and with a constitutional guarantee that data originated on systems we have identified ourselves to with that certificate remains our property, we now have complete control over our personal information.  In order to make any use of it, the vendor will have to obtain a license from us.  And in order to access it for any purpose, the government will be subject to the restrictions of the 4th Amendment.

Lastly, I'll make an observation as a computer security professional.  The proliferation of systems with usernames and passwords has made our identity and privacy less secure.  Most people will use the same password for different systems, so once one is compromised, others easily follow.  Or if different passwords are used, because there are so many, people tend to write them down.  Lose the Post-It note, and there goes your bank balance.

A national identity card with a digital certificate secured by a PIN can replace every username and password with one PIN.  It also has the advantage of adding a true "second factor" to security.  The first factor with a PKI "token" like a smart card is that you have physical possession of the card itself - cyber-security professionals refer to this first factor as "what you have."  The card is physically placed in the card reader and read by the operating system.  The second factor is knowledge of the PIN.  Cyber-security refers to this as "what you know."  An analogy would be a door with two padlocks.  One uses a 4 digit code to open the lock, the other a key.  In order to open the door you have to "know" the combination of the first and "have" the key to the second - two factor security.  Many website are now periodically challenging the user with a security question.  This adds an extra layer of "what you know" and can continue to provide extra security against the possibility that the smart card would be lost and the PIN disclosed to the same malevolent impersonator.

An amendment to the U.S. Constitution both establishing our ownership over data about us and authorizing Congress to issue a national id card would be a huge step toward bring the concept of individual liberty - and the privacy it requires - into the digital age.

"American Exceptionalism" - Exactly What Does This Mean?

Posted on Saturday, May 24, 2014 No comments

Saturday, May 24, 2014

In the England of the 1600's if you were at home on Sunday morning - meaning, of course, you were not in church - you could expect a knock at the door.

Beginning in 1593, English law classified as 'recusants' those who refused to participate in Anglican services on Sunday.  The law was originally aimed at Roman Catholics, but in the early 1600's also was applied to other groups like Protestants whose beliefs were animated mainly by the conviction that one became a Christian by choosing Christianity for themselves and being baptized as an adult - as opposed to being baptized as an infant.

This did not sit well - to say the least - with the English Crown and its clerics.  It didn't go over very well with Rome either.  And even among the Swiss Reformed and Lutherans - the two other main groups in the Reformation - this group of 'dissenters' (also called 'separatists') were condemned and persecuted.  A lot of issues were up for debate during the Reformation.  But few issues threatened the political order of the day like the question of how one became a Christian - and a member of the community.

With the 'authorities' in pursuit behind them, and a future of religious freedom to be pursued in front of them, the people we know from American history as 'Pilgrims' ended up at Plymouth Rock.

A National Identity of Ideas

It is crucial for us as conservatives to understand how this pursuit laid the foundation for what we call 'American exceptionalism' today.  European history is a story of national identities formed around ethnicity and religion.  After Constantine's Edict of Toleration the Roman Church became the most significant unit of society in the Roman Empire.  If you lived in the Roman Empire, you were Roman Catholic.  To play with the language a bit, this produced a 'Churchist' society.  The Reformation then produced competing religious loyalties, which plunged Europe into decades of religious war.  The Treaty of Westphalia in 1498 ended these decades and produced the 'nation-state' system we take for granted today.  Europe, then, went from being a 'Churchist' society to being a 'Statist' society - one where the State is the most significant unit of society - and remains so today.  European national identities are still built around ethnicity and religion.

This was on full display as recently as October of 2010 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel pronounced German efforts at multiculturalism an utter failure:
[At] the beginning of the 60s our country called the foreign workers to come to Germany and now they live in our country... We kidded ourselves a while, we said: 'They won't stay, sometime they will be gone', but this isn't reality.  And of course, the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] and to live side-by-side and to enjoy each other... has failed, utterly failed.
 "They live in our country."

There seemed to be something about this pronouncement which resonated with conservative political media here in the U.S at the time.  But to uncritically accept the premise that multiculturalism has failed is to completely miss why we believe America to be exceptional.  For Europe, this conclusion - that 'multiculturalism' has failed - is simply a cop-out.  It allows the cultural elite in Europe to avert their eyes from what is really failing - the European Statist social model.

To have the State as the most significant unit of society works just fine as long as everyone looks and speaks the same and shares the same history.  Studying the decades of religious wars in Europe, it is not hard to understand why they look to the secular State... their memories of what a 'Churchist' society looks like are too painful.  But unless we are to shut down the Internet and social media and ground air travel, multiculturalism is the inescapable arc of human history.  The world is getting smaller and cultures are interacting more.

So the question becomes which model for community life is best suited to responding to these inevitabilities.  If the State is to be the most significant unit of society - and the individual exists for the benefit of the State (which is to say, to pay increasingly higher taxes) - well, Europe has been there and done that, and all they got were brooms bought on crushing debt to sweep up the public ashes.  The next time you see riots in France on TV, note how they originate among immigrant communities where private resentments are nurtured toward all things public.

But then there is America.  Like Europe, we have immigrant minority communities.  Unlike Europe, we largely do not have a problem living together peaceably.  And this is precisely because our social model has historically been one where the individual - created equal to all other individuals and possessing 'inalienable rights' - is the most significant unit of society. The State, then, exists for the benefit of the individual - which is to say to secure those inalienable rights - the first among which being the right to practice the devotions of one's religion in public and in private, or to practice no religion at all.

At the heart of the difference between a Statist social model and an 'Individualist' model is the difference between a national identity of ethnicity and religion on the one hand and a national identity of ideas on the other.  When the dissenting Pilgrims risked everything to come to the New World, they brought with them the ideological scaffolding of this identity of ideas.  And their descendants built the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution on this scaffolding.

As conservatives today, we are heirs to their courage: The Pilgrims in the face of the dangers of the sea and the wilderness; our Founding Fathers in the face of the gallows of the English Crown.  But we can only honor this history when we are clear about what it means for us to be exceptional.  We have formed a national identity around a set of ideas about human freedom - not around ethnicity nor religion.  No people had done this before - and none have done it since.

But we must also come to terms with the significance of this.  The flowering of many cultures and their religions among us - both in the privacy of home and church/mosque/temple/synagogue and in the public spaces we share - testifies to everything that is exceptional about America.  Multiculturalism in America is alive and well.

They do not live in our country - rather, together as a community we remain free.

"Climategate II" and the "Democratization" of Science

Posted on Saturday, May 17, 2014 1 comment

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Global Warming is in the news again, this time with the reported suppression of a paper written by a highly respected German climatologist because it might contribute to the skepticism expressed in some circles about global warming.  What I'll pick up from the news here is a trend which has been called the "democratization" of science.  Both sides in this debate decry this trend, but identify it differently.

Advocates for public policy changes to arrest global warming complain about the idea that anyone with a blog (present company certainly included) can contribute to science.  Skeptics complain that politicians think science can be subject to public opinion polls and presume to dictate when a debate has been 'settled'.

I come to this debate first and foremost as one who has taught undergraduate courses in critical thinking.  Thomas Jefferson noted: "In a republican nation whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance."  Founding Fathers like John Adams believed strongly that democracy required the general populace be well-educated in order to be able to study and understand the issues of the day.  So my questions surround what appears to be a disconnect between the nature of the inquiry at hand - the changing climate - and the conclusions being presented.

But before I take that up in detail, let me comment on the advocates' complaint about the 'democratization of science'.  This problem isn't really new.  It happened a few hundred years ago in another form - the 'democratization of theology' - and caused quite a stir.  A certain mathematician, who was also a devout Christian, understood well what the Church taught about the cosmos.  And then he improved on an earlier invention - the telescope - and began to chart the movement of the planets and stars.  And this created quite a problem for him.

By now it should be clear we are talking about Galileo Galilei.  But there is something about the history of the 'Galileo affair' which is little understood, and very pertinent to this debate.

The term 'binary logic' is sometimes used by philosophy students to describe a process of thought which tries to reduce everything to propositions which are either true or false (or 1 or 0 if you are a geek like me and make your living in the digital world).  For Galileo, what the Church taught about the heavens and what he was observing and documenting clearly presented a binary problem.  What the Church was teaching simply could not be true if he was really seeing what he was seeing.  Something had to give.

So Galileo presented what he thought was a solution.  The passages in the Bible which described the course of the heavens were not to be taken literally, but to be understood as using 'phenomenological' language - that is to say, language which described something as it appeared to the unaided eye rather than how it actually happened.  And it was here that the Church really got wrapped around an axle.

The idea that a mathematician would presume to instruct the Church on how she read her Bible did not sit very well.  I can imagine the theological academe reacting with scorn: "Um, we have people to discuss and debate how we read the Bible, thank you very much...  You just stick to your math, astronomy... or whatever it is that you do..."

And Galileo refused, of course.  And the rest is, as they say, history.

This is instructive in light of the debate over global warming.  The response to skeptics' questions is often nothing more substantive than an ad hominem attack on the skeptic's lack of a scientific resume.  It is as if to say: "Um, we have people to discuss and debate changes in the earth's climate, thank you very much.  You just stick to your computers, your blog... or whatever it is that you do."

This is not to claim that anyone can do science.  It is to claim, though, that any reasonably well-educated person can question it.  And when science is deployed in an effort to influence public policy, in a democracy, that questioning is actually essential.  So here I'll try to explain the nature of my questioning - which orbits around a disconnect between the nature of the inquiry and the conclusions being presented.

Science 101: Correlation Does Not Mean Causation

And you do not need a degree in science to understand this.  But this does not mean correlations are not important to science.  To maybe oversimplify, when science collects and examines data, discovering a statistically significant correlation between two things - say atmospheric CO2 and global mean temperatures - then helps a scientist form hypotheses which can be further tested.  But it is important to make the distinction between the correlation on the one hand and empirical evidence on the other which might be discovered as a result of the testing of subsequent hypotheses.

This, then, brings us to the data and the statistical modeling which is done with the data.  If the conclusion being presented is the existence of a correlation between concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and global mean temperatures, then the statistics are evidence - evidence of the correlation.  But if the conclusion being presented is one of cause-and-effect - that human activity is causing global warming - then the statistics are simply not evidence.

What is left for climate science to do here, then, is to plug the data into statistical models and predict what they think may happen.  This is very different from observing and documenting what is actually happening.  This is why we hear repeated appeals to consensus.  This appeal should immediately prompt us to ask: "Why in the world would a scientist appeal to consensus if they have evidence."

Here we have to go back to the Galileo affair.  The consensus was, of course, that the heavens all rotated around the earth.  But Galileo was actually observing something entirely different.  He had evidence to the contrary.  As a scientific matter, the consensus was utterly meaningless in the face of contrary evidence.  And this is why we rightly remember Galileo: He thought for himself - even about how his Church read her Bible - and so stood up to the consensus.

The consensus, at least as it is asserted, is that human activity is causing global warming.  The IPCC actually attaches a percentage of 'certainty' (95%) to the conclusion.  But let's be clear about the nature of the inquiry and the conclusion it is presenting.  The appeal is made to consensus because they do not have actual empirical evidence.  Global warming science is drawing its conclusions based on statistical models which predict what they think will happen, not what they have actually observed in empirical experiments.  The complaint will immediately be made that global warming has been 'observed' in the data.  So let's look at the data.  But again, we must keep the nature of the conclusions being presented at the forefront.

I like to tell my critical thinking students to always 'start with the conclusion' when examining an argument.  The nature of the conclusion governs the manner in which you examine the argument.  If we are starting with a conclusion that asserts a percentage 'certainty' of human-caused global warming, it means we are examining an inductive argument.

In a deductive argument, a conclusion follows as a matter of mathematical certainty from its premises.  The easiest way to see this is to note that if A=B and B=C, A must, as a mathematical certainty, equal C.  In an inductive argument, however, instead of this kind of mathematical certainty we are looking for probability.  The conclusion falls somewhere on a spectrum with 'not likely' on the left and 'highly likely' on the right.  An inductive argument never really reaches mathematical certainty like a deductive one does.  Thus it is unlikely global warming science would ever claim to be '100% certain'.  Scientific inquiry simply does not entertain certainties like this.

In an inductive argument, the volume of relevant data is crucial.  The more data you collect which can be shown to support your conclusion, the more you can push your conclusion to the 'highly likely' side of the spectrum.  So how, then, does climate science go from less data to more certainty?  Joseph D’Aleo and Anthony Watts show that around 1990 the reporting stations in the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) dataset dropped by no less than 75%.  It can also be shown that the stations lost to the dataset were at higher latitudes (further from the equator), higher altitudes, and rural locations, all of which naturally tend to be cooler locales.

But even apart from the statistical bias this would cause, the more fundamental question - again, about the nature of the conclusions and the nature of the inquiry - revolve around the volume of data.  You simply do not move an inductive argument more to the 'highly likely' side of the spectrum with less data.

A Product to Sell or a Problem to Solve

Before I continue, let me point out that I will not suggest here that climate science is engaged in a nefarious conspiracy, nor am I suggesting things are 'made up'.  But I will suggest that the scientific community is no less subject to budgetary imperatives than any other community.  And these imperatives become magnified when you marry the scientific community to quasi-governmental bureaucracies like the United Nations's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Advocates for global warming are fond of challenging skeptics by noting the source of their funding.  So, if we are going to "follow the money," especially in light of how the very existence of a bureaucracy - and its budget - depends on concluding human causation of climate change, then by all means, let's follow the money.

If you trace back the dollars budgeted to a scientific organization, your inquiry will lead to one of two places.  Either investors are providing the funds or public and private grant-making institutions are providing the funds.  For the investor community to fund the science, it must be done in support of a product to sell.  But there is a lot of good science being done which does not relate to a product to be sold.  This science is funded by competitive grants.  And to compete for the grant funding, you must have a problem to solve.

Climate science clearly does not have a product to sell.

Again, I am not suggesting some nefarious conspiracy.  I am suggesting that scientists assert an economic value to their work - in their grant applications - on the basis of being able to solve a problem.  If the globe is, in fact, warming (and the culling of the dataset is more than enough to call that assertion into question), but this warming is not being principally caused by human activity, then global warming is not a problem we can solve.  Since climate science does not have a product to sell, to admit this possibility would be to call into question the economic value of the work being done.

There are tough questions to be asked, and a democratic society requires an educated populace willing to think for themselves and ask those tough questions.  Among the tough questions are these: Is the IPCC now the institutional 'church'?  Is the scientific community now the 'priesthood' that we dare not question?  Are those who think for themselves in the face of a contrary consensus now to be intellectually imprisoned by the 'magesterium' of that consensus?

[UPDATE: Many thanks to my friend Allan Chhay - who almost always disagrees with me - for providing me this excellent and funny link about the climate change debate.  There are a couple places where the language is, shall we say, less that the refined English we would otherwise expect from our British friends (??? - I am not sure, but that's how he sounds to me), but this is actually very revealing.

Watch for the "Statistically Representative Debate."  The priests used to wear black.  Now, it seems, they wear white lab coats.  They gather as the new 'magesterium' to shout down the ones who dare question their consensus.  There really is nothing new under the sun.]

Nurturing Community: The Perils of Moral Discomfort in Civil Society (Part 2 of 2)

Posted on Friday, May 9, 2014 No comments

Friday, May 9, 2014

In Part 1 of this 2 part series I write about what I call the 'Anatomy of a Christian Apology'.  Community without conflict is impossible, so we're left to look for ways in which we can maintain the integrity of what we believe and yet build community among those whose beliefs are different - and in some respects very different.

Among political conservatives, this challenge is seen between those of us who view ourselves (as do I) as 'social conservatives' and those among our fellow conservatives who would likely identify themselves as 'fiscal conservatives', many of whom also identify as libertarians.  There is a sense - one which I am not completely in agreement with, but do understand - that we should leave the social issues alone.  To the extent that this is a call to afford my neighbor the full freedom of his or her conscience, I agree wholeheartedly.  But in order to succeed at building community, we do need to be able to talk about what we feel to be right and wrong, just and unjust.

Even if we are not aiming to come to an agreement, we should be able to talk about the social issues so as to come to a mutual understanding.  I am less interested in winning an argument on these subjects than in helping my neighbor better understand why I view things the way I do.  And I want to make sure I accurately and fairly understand my neighbor's different point of view.  This is why I chose homosexuality and gay marriage as my example in Part 1.  There is no issue among conservatives more current and on point for this discussion about nurturing community.

Genesis 20: The Peril of Seeing Through the Eyes of Moral Discomfort

To the reader who does not share my Evangelical, social conservative leanings, I'll ask for patience with the rest of this necessarily long post.  The stories in Genesis were told, and later written down, in part so that ancient Israel would have a way of talking among themselves about how it was they were to relate to the world around them.  As a Christian, I look for these lessons and then seek to find a way to apply them to my own life situation.  Being part of a community of people who do not share my beliefs is part of that life.

To illustrate this, I'll include here the full text of Chapter 20 in Genesis.  I'll do a couple things with this:  First, I'll highlight and boldface the parts that show how things really were and how Abraham perceived them to be.  You'll see a dramatic difference between the two.  Secondly (and I'll explain more below) I'll highlight and underline a portion where I am adopting a translation different from what you will find in published translations of the Bible.  (Bible Gateway is a good online resource if you want to compare and contrast different translations.)
Now Abraham journeyed from there toward the land of the Negev, and settled between Kadesh and Shur; then he sojourned in Gerar. Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” So Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream of the night, and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married.” Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, “Lord, will You slay a nation, even though righteous? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. Now therefore, restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”
So Abimelech arose early in the morning and called all his servants and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were greatly frightened. Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, “What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What have you encountered, that you have done this thing?” Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she actually is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife; and it came about, when the gods misled me from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is the kindness which you will show to me: everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”’” Abimelech then took sheep and oxen and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him. Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; settle wherever you please.” To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is your vindication before all who are with you, and before all men you are cleared.” Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children. For the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
Of course I have to explain my translations (highlighted in green), especially of Abraham's dialog.  But first let me introduce the reader to a little background on the texts of the Bible.

What Family Recipes Teach Us About Ancient Texts

I grew up in a U.S. Navy family, so my dad was often gone for months at a time.  Because of this, I grew up helping my mother around the house.  To this day I still enjoy cooking and baking, and teaching my boys how to make their own meals.  Mom had this little box of index cards on which were recipes for all kinds of things.  One of those recipes was for toll-house cookies.  These were my dad's favorites, so we grew up calling them 'daddy cookies'.  If my mom was busy with other things, I would take it on myself to bake a batch when I noticed (usually on the sly in the middle of the night) that they were getting low.

I learned that this cookie recipe had come from my paternal grandma, who had probably gotten it from an earlier generation.  Most of us are familiar with these old family recipes.  I found out, however, what happens when you don't quite copy the recipe correctly.

One time I pulled out the first cookie sheet of the batch, and let it cool while I finished up preparing the second and putting it in the oven.  I then grabbed one of the warm cookies from the just finished sheet to taste it.  I grimaced and winced at the same time - if that is even possible - at the saltiness of my new cookies.  It turned out I had copied the '1 tsp' (teaspoon) of salt from mom's index card as '1 tbsp' (tablespoon), and so mixed quite a bit more salt into the dough than I should have.

Those familiar with baking will likely think: "This is why you use all caps to write 'TBSP' and lower case to write 'tsp' when writing a recipe."  This is, as it were, a 'scribal tradition' for the copying of recipes.

And just as a particular recipe might be handed down among multiple children in a family, and then get changed a little here and there - in different ways by different branches of the family - the texts of the TaNaK/Old Testament come to us in a very similar way.  Evangelical Protestants believe the Bible to be uniquely inspired by God.  But we apply that belief to the original parchments, not to the copies.  The problem we face is these originals have been long lost to history.

So imagine you have a special family recipe that the family believes originated with great-great-great grandma Teresa (my paternal grandma's name was Teresa).  You look for the original, but cannot find it.  It was probably lost to the family generations ago.  So what you do is contact all of the branches of the family to see who has copies.  After collecting all of the available copies, you start to compare them.  If you were to notice, for example, that the copy of the toll house cookie recipe from my branch of the family called for '1 tbsp' of salt, just because you know baking you are almost certain this reflects a 'scribal error'.  And by comparing all of the available copies, noting things like which family took care to adhere to 'scribal traditions' and which did not, and which were older and which were more recent, you can probably reconstruct with a high degree of certainty what great-great-great grandma Teresa's original recipe looked like.

Comparing the available ancient texts of books like Genesis is almost exactly like this.  There are 'families' of ancient manuscripts.  Each of these 'families' shows evidence of scribal traditions.  Some appear more carefully copied, others less so.  As the biblical scholar weighs the differences, when they do appear, one of the principles they apply is the principle of the 'more difficult reading'.  What this means is that if one copy has a reading which is 'more difficult' (for a variety of possible reasons), it is considered possible that a scribe creating the 'less difficult' copy may have tried to 'correct' what he thought to be an error in the 'more difficult' reading.  Thus the 'more difficult' reading is thought likely to be closer to the original.

A 'Difficult Reading' in Genesis 20

Genesis 20 is one such passage.  The word in Hebrew for 'God' is 'elohim'.  This is actually a plural word.  Conventionally, a plural subject would be paired with a plural verbal form.  But in the Hebrew Bible, 'elohim' is usually paired with a singular verbal form.  Technically, this a grammatical error, but it is done to indicate that 'elohim' is to be understood in the singular ('God') as opposed to the plural ('gods').  There are ancient copies of Genesis 20, however, which pair the plural 'elohim' with the plural form of the verb for 'wander' when Abraham says "When God caused me to wander from my father's house..."  If we were to choose this copy as being closer to the original, we would have to quote Abraham as saying: "When the gods caused me to wander from my father's house."

Now to have Abraham adopt a view like this (many gods as opposed to 'monotheism', or one God) is problematic.  But remember our principle: the more difficult reading is to be preferred because it is more likely that it was changed over time by scribes uncomfortable with the original for some reason.  But it is even more problematic when you allow the verb for 'wander' to take on its normal connotation, which is to stumble about aimlessly as if drunk.  If we allow the normal connotation of the verb, we have Abraham saying "...when the gods misled me from my father's house..."  Now we have some real problems!

Until, that is, we allow the story to invite us into Abraham's world of emotions, motives and intentions.  And to do this, we have to back up a little.

In Genesis 18:22-32 we see Abraham 'bargaining' with God.  This is where God has decided to judge Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham is bargaining for God's mercy.  Genesis 19 tells of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  And in Genesis 19:27-28 the story expressly takes us back to the place where Abraham had bargained with God.  Here the Hebrew narrator uses the word "behold" to expressly invite the reader to see the scene through Abraham's eyes.  The dialog of the 'bargaining session' is very detailed and intimate.  But when Abraham returns to that same place, he sees his 'prayers' have, quite literally, gone up in smoke.  While the story tells us the angels had rescued Abraham's nephew Lot, the story leaves us to wonder whether Abraham knew this or not.

In Chapter 20, the dialog between God and the king of Gerar is interesting.  In Abraham's bargaining session with God, he appeals to a sense of justice: that God would not judge the 'righteous' with the wicked.  The Hebrew word for 'righteous' is 'tsadiq'.  It is the same word used by Abimelech when asking God "Lord, will You slay a nation, even though 'tsadiq'?"  The allusion here to Abraham's question to God in Chapter 18 is unmistakable.  (Most modern translations use 'blameless' here.  While this is a valid option, by using a different word, the English translation obscures what is otherwise an obvious allusion.)

And this, then, is what we might call the 'emotional context' of Genesis 20.  Some interpreters will argue that trying to delve into Abraham's emotions like this is inherently speculative.  While I agree in one sense - that we cannot be certain - a good story does exactly this.  It invites the reader into the inner life of the main characters.  Wondering how the main characters feel, and why they do what they do, is speculative - and is also the hallmark of good character development.  While I believe these stories to actually have happened in history, they have still been handed down to us as stories. The ancient Hebrews simply did not write their history as we do ours today.

And so it is in Genesis 20, upon coming to Gerar after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is summoned to the court of the king.  It is here where we learn that Abraham had said to himself "surely there is no fear of God in this place..."  Abraham had told the people of Gerar that Sarah was his sister (instead of his wife).  Upon taking Sarah into the king's court, the king is said to have had a dream in which God shows him the truth.  And in 20:8 we see that the men of the king's court were "greatly frightened."  There was, indeed, a fear of God among them.  By reporting to us the great fear among the king's court, and by casting the dialog between God and the king in much the same way as the previous dialog between God and Abraham, Abimelech as a character in the story is 'rounded' alongside that of Abraham. And if we adopt the 'more difficult' reading in this chapter as we have here, this is a deeply discouraged Abraham questioning much of what he thought he understood about God and his relationship with Him.

Moral Discomfort in Civil Society

In taking up this story - the story of Abraham bargaining with God for mercy with respect to Sodom and Gomorrah, how he compares the 'wicked' with the 'righteous', the subsequent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the subsequent visit to Gerar and its discouraged observations - the undertones of the debate over homosexuality and gay marriage are unmistakable even to those with a minimal familiarity with the Bible.  I'll dispense here with the tip-toeing around the bush.

It is too easy for social conservatives like me to look at the gay community and say "there is no fear of God in this place."  This is to look at my community - civil society - through the discouraged eyes of my moral discomfort with the fact others do not live as I live nor believe as I believe.  When we do this, we are assuming a great deal about which we know nothing: We do not know anything of the place in the hearts of our gay neighbors where God may well speak as he spoke to the pagan king in his dream.  And to look at my community through the eyes of moral discomfort is to adopt a disposition of discouragement entirely inconsistent with the idea Christianity has "good news."

As I point out in Part 1 of this two part series, my belief in the heterosexual complement of nature puts me in a tough spot which can only be redeemed by a Christian apology.  My beliefs are hurtful to my gay neighbors, and so there is a deep gulf between me and them.  I can deploy my seminary training toward arguing my point of view only to widen that gulf - which would be to deepen the lack of mutual understanding and, ultimately, the discouragement of my moral discomfort.  Or I can choose to see in my gay neighbor the image of God, and simply choose to be a good neighbor to him or her.

This decision runs right to the heart of the matter of nurturing community.  I believe - no, actually I know because I have experienced this first hand - that I have neighbors in the gay community who believe much as I believe about community and the role of government.  We have worked well together in the past and I fully intend to contribute my part to seeing that we do in the future.  I will do that by seeing in them the image of God and choosing to be their neighbor.  I will not assume what I cannot possibly know about a fear of God.  And I will trust that God is perfectly able to translate the life of a Good Neighbor (in spite of my failures) into His Good News.

Nurturing Community: The Anatomy of a Christian Apology (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on Friday, May 2, 2014 No comments

Friday, May 2, 2014

Belonging is hard.

But it goes to the very heart of what it means to be a community.  As I try to articulate elsewhere on my blog and in my book, I have noticed a dynamic in my involvement in community volunteering.  It starts with a sense of ownership toward things that need to be fixed, leads to a sense of responsibility from which one discovers their community, and ends with a sense of dignity as one sees the fulfillment of good work done together with their neighbors.

But any time we put ourselves together with others, we bring our expectations and others bring theirs.  And these expectations inevitably conflict; others are disappointed in us and we in them.  I look at these things with the eyes of an Evangelical Protestant, so please forgive my reference here to the Bible.  The Apostle Paul, writing to the early church in Rome, counseled against allowing our relationships to revolve around our expectations and then seeking revenge when they are (as they inevitably will be) unfulfilled.  From Romans 12:19-21:
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
This is taken from Proverb 25:20-22:
Like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar on soda,
Is he who sings songs to a troubled heart. 
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; 
For you will heap burning coals on his head,
And the Lord will reward you.
Interpreters have disagreed on what the reference to "burning coals" means.  Elsewhere in the TaNaK/Old Testament burning coals are associated with seeking forgiveness.  It has also been noted (but not universally agreed on) that if someone's fire went out in the cold evening, they might be found among their neighbors with a bowl carried on their heads, hoping to restart their fire with coals received from others.  In this interpretation, to take coals from your own fire and offer them to another is to offer something not necessarily deserved.

I think there is merit to both ideas because they contribute to the idea of "overcoming evil with good."  A popular interpretation I think to be completely off the mark is to see "heap[ing] burning coals" as somehow exposing someone to shame.  In order to "overcome evil with good" we must attend to nurturing an environment conducive to reconciliation.  Note, however, this is not some Utopian ideal that suggests we can live together without conflict.  It is an ideal which not only makes room for conflict, but expects it as inevitable.

A Christian apology, then, has nothing to do with who owes what to whom.  It has nothing to do, either, with who is right and who is wrong.  A Christian apology shows that we value relationships, and when there is an inevitable break in a relationship, that break bothers us - as it properly should.  The challenge, though, is whether or not we are willing to take this idea outside of our church communities and live accordingly in our political community.

Gays & Gay Marriage: A Difficult Example

I can hear the reader muttering under their breath: "What?  How do you go from the 'Anatomy of a Christian Apology' to gays and gay marriage?"  Here is my answer:

I believe God created the heavens and the earth.  I believe that He created man and woman, each for the other, according to what I'll call "the heterosexual complement of nature."  Even if one does not come to nature from this Christian perspective and sees the anatomical design of the human animal as the product of evolution, that design - and how human sexuality functions in that design - is still right in front of us.

I also believe that the world around us, including ourselves - has been created with an order we can study and understand.  Again, someone can draw this same conclusion from an evolutionary point of view.  If this is true, however, then we should not be surprised to discover that how we experience our sexuality runs to the core of how we view ourselves as a person.

So here is where this gets difficult; here is why belonging is hard.  When my neighbor introduces himself to me and I find out he is gay, I should not be surprised to discover he believes he was born that way.  While that challenges what I believe about creation and "the heterosexual complement of nature," there really is no argument to be had here.  It is one thing to argue about how we should understand a story like that of creation in the Bible.  It is something else entirely to argue with someone about how they experience themselves as a person.  I simply have to assume there is far more about this interplay between our sexuality and our sense of ourselves as persons - and about the life story of my gay neighbor - that I do not know than there is that I do.  But I am also an heir to 5,000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition that teaches me the heterosexual complement of nature.  So I face a challenge: How do I belong to my gay neighbor?

It starts with seeing in them the image of God and ends with a Christian apology.

If I see in them the image of God, then my intentions toward them are an expression of my intentions toward God.  There is a reason the commandments tell us not to create carved "images" of God: He has already done it for us.  If I want to know what God is like, I do not make a statue for the fireplace mantle; I go next door and talk with my neighbor.

And my neighbor just might be gay.

To say, then, that homosexuality is not natural - which is the inevitable conclusion from observing the heterosexual complement of nature - is inescapably and deeply hurtful to my gay neighbor.  If I leave it at that, I have basically made him invisible to me.  And to pattern our life together only on what we believe is to make him invisible to us as a community.  I am left deeply unsatisfied with this in light of the community life to which I believe my faith calls me.  But I do believe, nonetheless, that homosexuality is unnatural.  So where does this leave us as neighbors?

It leaves us at a place where I must say: "I am truly sorry."

I am not sorry because I think I am wrong.  I am not even sorry because I think I necessarily "owe" an apology to my gay neighbor.  I am sorry because I see him - he is my neighbor.  And I realize there is a huge gulf between us - one that is deeply hurtful to him.  That gulf and its hurtfulness troubles me deeply, and I am not sure I know how to bridge it.  I know what the typical theological answers are from my Evangelical tradition, but the gulf between me and my gay neighbor seems to defy those neat and tidy theological categories we seem to prefer.

And so I am left to hope that we can get to know each other as neighbors, and to hope that the future will bring more clarity to each of us on these things.  But this requires we be neighbors today.  If by truly, genuinely saying I am sorry today I can earn a tomorrow with my gay neighbors, we might have the opportunity to build on this by working together in the community to which we both belong.  We might discover what we each bring to deepening our sense of community and to the hard work of solving the inevitable problems of our life together.

I believe this is what the next generation deserves to see from conservatives today:  They need to look at us and see a good neighbor before they hear a good argument.

(In Part 2: I'll take us through an in-depth analysis of a chapter in Genesis that points us in a certain direction when we consider how we relate to our larger community - gays and straights both.)

"Community Conservatives and the Future" Now Available on All eReaders

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Is it possible?  Can it be that those who would identify themselves as sympathetic to the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement have something in common with those who would are sympathetic to the 'Tea Party'?  What might this mean for a political environment more and more of us are becoming convinced is stacked against ordinary people?

Here is what that might look like, told from the perspective of one who, while sympathizing with the 'Tea Party' movement's concern for the fiscal future of our kids' economy, yet recognizes that the same basic dynamic that has produced debts and deficits has also produced income inequality.

A wide array of political issues are taken up here from a conservative point of view.  But this is a conservatism rooted in the community, not the Wall Street board room or country club lounge.  The hearts and minds of a generation which puts belonging before believing can be reached by conservative ideas - but these ideas must be articulated within a commitment to putting community first, and then interpreting our politics in that light.

"Community Conservatives and the Future" is now available from all major eBook outlets, including Apple's iBooks, Barnes & Noble's Nook, Kobo, and many others.  As from the beginning, the book is also available from for the Kindle or Kindle Readers for your iPad, iPhone, Android tablet and Android phone.

Search for "Community Conservatives" in iTunes to purchase the iBook.
Click here to buy from Barnes & Noble for the Nook.
Click here to buy from for the Kindle.
Click here to buy from Kobo for the Kobo reader.
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