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The End of Marriage? Or the Beginning of Belonging?

Posted on Monday, June 29, 2015 No comments

Monday, June 29, 2015

In the Old Testament/TaNaK there is a book among what the Jews call the Nevi'im - or Prophets - where God speaks to the prophet Hosea and tells him to marry a prostitute.

There are lots of theories out there about why God would do such a thing.  But if we simply read the book it becomes clear that God does it to set up an object lesson of how the relationship between Him and His people had deteriorated.

Frankly, this is what I think is happening among us today with the Court's recent decision on gay marriage.  I'll state it bluntly: I think this is God's judgment - and not on gays.  This is His judgment on us for allowing our arguments to become our idols.

Before I explain that, let me point out here that I think the Court - and Justice Anthony Kennedy in particular - has made a grave mistake.  The 'law' may have now been settled, but the 'culture' - which is the foundation of the law - has been thrown into turmoil.  Here is the part of Kennedy's ruling which has gone viral:
As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage.  They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
There is nothing in the Constitution about "equal dignity."  There is, though, about "equal protection."  It is important that we understand how the Constitution and law work "negatively."  This is to say that the Constitution erects a fence between the government and the people; it outlines what government cannot do and so offers protection to the individual.  To say it requires "equal protection" means that government cannot deny to one class of people protections extended to others.

So if heterosexual couples are offered certain protections under the law, then homosexual couples cannot be denied the same.  Earlier the Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) because it denied federal benefits to couples whose marriages had been recognized by their states.  This was pretty cut and dried and entirely correct.

The idea of 'civil unions' - a contractual arrangement like marriage - has been part of this debate.  This is a way of accomplishing two distinct goals: First, to extend equal protection of the laws to homosexual couples.  Yet second, to allow the culture to work out the definition of marriage through legislative means.  And the culture, with respect to this equal dignity, works affirmatively rather than negatively.  This is why Justice Kennedy is wrong; the Court has just improperly extended its jurisdiction beyond the law to include the culture.

Returning yesterday from vacation in Singapore, I was reading up recently on some of how Singaporean society and their judiciary have struggled with this.  A Singaporean Supreme Court ruling upholding laws against homosexuality is an interesting study in contrast.  From the Economist with emphasis added:
The court itself, both in oral arguments last summer and in this ruling, repeatedly expresses unwillingness to consider "extra-legal" and "emotional" arguments, which have their place in the legislative rather than the judicial process. The court's role, the ruling said, was to be "independent, neutral and objective", though in the early, throat-clearing section of this ruling, the court noted that it grants the government a "presumption of constitutionality", because "our legislature is presumed not to enact legislation which is inconsistent with the Singapore Constitution.
Justice Kennedy's argument is nothing if not 'extra-legal' and 'emotional'.  This does not mean his argument is wrong.  It is to say that it is misplaced - it belongs in a legislative context rather than a judicial context.

What is so sad about all of this is that we as a people broadly speaking were just starting to get our hearts and heads wrapped around our cultural responsibility to afford equal dignity to our neighbor, gay or straight.  Especially among the Millennial generation, public opinion has changed dramatically.  What Justice Kennedy and the Court has done is nothing short of a late-term cultural abortion.  We were on the verge of giving birth to a more mature cultural stance vis-a-vis homosexuality - one where we are willing to live with our moral discomforts in the larger context of upholding the individual dignity the image of God demands.

Yet many of us were fighting this with our arguments.  And this is why I think we have been judged for our idolatry.

What I mean by idolatry is anything we erect which then prevents us from seeing the image of God where He has created it to be seen - in our neighbors.  We have erected our arguments against homosexuality in general, and gay marriage in particular, such that we no longer could see the image of God in our gay neighbor.  And so the Court has now torn down our idol.

The question is whether or not we will learn the proper lesson.  And that lesson is not that homosexuality is natural nor is it that homosexual marriage is morally equivalent to heterosexual marriage.  There really is no argument to be had here: the anatomy of the man and the anatomy of the woman, and the biology of reproduction, are right in front of us an show us what is natural - and therefore what is moral.  These are not things that have been taught to us; they are things which were obvious to us before there was anything at all to believe and teach.

And so the lesson is to simply stop arguing; there is no proper argument to be won here.  In place of our arguments we need to see again in our neighbor the image of God.  And our neighbor just might be gay.  If we attend to the image of God in him or her, and the dignity which this image demands, we might just find again the image of God in ourselves and rediscover the redemptive purpose for our lives.

Greece in 2015: When 2+2 Finally Doesn't Equal 8

Posted on Monday, June 15, 2015 No comments

Monday, June 15, 2015

We are about to find out what happens when an entire generation attempts to make 2+2=8.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) - which is only the most significant of Greece's creditors - has withdrawn from negotiations over Greece's debt restructuring.  As the Wall Street Journal has reported, this basically signals to the Greek government that they will not be getting a 'better' deal than the one on the table.

We are not Greece - yet - but it is very important to understand what is going on here so we do not end up where they are.

Fully 80% of Greece's budget goes to government employee wages and retiree pensions.  That is 16% of their economic output on a year to year basis and will balloon to fully 25% if they do not reform this sector of their society.  These reforms are at the heart of the dispute.

To understand how they got there we first have to divide our life into three phases: we are a student, we are a worker, and we are a retiree.

The first and last of these stages requires government support, and even here in the United States we are largely in agreement on what that should look like.  We do not want our children in the workforce, so we provide for public education.  This, of course, requires taxpayer support.  And as we age we are less able to be productive in the economy as our health begins to fail.  Here in the United States we lean (a bit too much, though) on Social Security and Medicare, which are funded by taxpayers, for this last phase of life.  Indeed, when Social Security began after the Great Depression, part of the rationale was to provide incentive for older people to leave the workforce, opening up job opportunities to younger people.

We largely agree on the underlying idea that we take from the economic production of those in the middle to support those at the beginning and at the end.  But if we do agree on this, we then simply have to face the mathematical facts of life: there needs to be enough people in the middle producing in the economy in order for us to be able to support those on the other ends of this spectrum.

This is where Greece is in complete denial.  In Greece, a hairdresser is considered an "arduous profession" which allows a person to retire early.  This is an example of how language is abused to create the "magic words" necessary to end up with 50-year old retirees.  The tax burden necessary to support this kind of retirement benefit structure then suppresses economic output, constraining job opportunities for young people.  They (young people) then end up studying until they are 30.

And so you end up with 30 year old students and 50 year old retirees.  This is a math problem, and frankly it is a very simple one that does not require academic economists, central bankers, or any other form of 'experts' to understand.  There are simply not enough people between 30 and 50 to produce in an economy to support this.  And so the government has to do two things to keep this charade going: over-tax those between 30 and 50 and go further and further into debt.

Much has been made of the tax-avoidance of the Greek people.  But this is not a problem as much as it is a symptom of the problem.  The problem starts with thinking that money (the Euro) is a tool of the State. Having made that mistake, governments like Greece's think they can make 2+2=8 by way of creative monetary and fiscal policies.  Greece - and the rest of us - are about to find out what happens when mathematical reality finally overcomes political ambition.

Greece's political society looked to the Euro as a tool (cheap loans) to continue with their socialist political ambitions.  What they did not realize is that money is first a utility contrived by people to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  In Greece, as part of the culture of tax avoidance, Greeks exchange "special coupons" that are accepted at places like grocery stores (instead of Euros).  They might as well just call those coupons Drachmas and get it over with already.

The Greek people (civil society) never exclusively adopted the Euro as money, and therefore Greece has never really been a full member of the Eurozone.  Greek political society wanted the Euro as a tool of political ambition.  If there was ever an example of how statist monetary policies, like that espoused by Paul Krugman, drive a destructive wedge between political society and civil society, Greece it is.

And we are about to find out how destructive those policies can be.

There are really only two paths to the same end: The current Greek government is going to cave and accept pension and government workforce reforms.  This will precipitate a political implosion, which will then precipitate a subsequent economic implosion.  Or negotiations will fail and Greece will default and leave the Euro, precipitating an economic implosion.

And the academic economists like Krugman will wail about how unnecessary it all is and how evil conservatives are for insisting on 'austerity'.  This will, of course, be complete nonsense.  Austerity is not what will implode Greece's economy.  Eventually, their economy will implode simply because 2+2 does not equal 8.

Another extension will not change this. "IOUs" - basically bonds with no maturity date and a zero coupon - will not change this either.  These IOUs will only further us along a path to the place where money itself loses its meaning.

... Jenner: Gender, Sexuality & the Image of God

Posted on Monday, June 8, 2015 No comments

Monday, June 8, 2015

Maybe we should just start doing what the Indonesians do and go by a single name.

And Malay languages like Indonesian, Malaysian (properly known as 'Bahasa Indonesia' and 'Bahasa Malaysia') and even the many dialects of the Philippines all lack gender in their pronouns, so maybe this problem of gender is a problem of language...  Looks like us Anglo-phones got a raw deal when our forebears gave up on that tower-thingy they were all building some years back...

But seriously - we're getting all tongue-tied over Bruce Call-Me-Caitlyn Jenner and all of the implications it has for a dynamic many among of us (meaning social conservatives) have come to call the 'culture wars'. The easy way out, of course, is to harden the walls of our ideological fortresses. I think there is a better - albeit much harder - way to respond.

First Things First - The Culture of Celebrity

In some ways we are simply reaping what we have sown. We Evangelicals have, in a significant sense, all but created the celebrity culture that now turns on us and our values.  From what passes for 'Christian' television today to church services which amount to little more than just another episode of Entertainment Tonight, to the selling of raffle tickets for the privilege of having dinner with a 'celebrity' pastor, we have taken the one thing that is actually guaranteed to be redemptive - the image of God with which we have been created - and bartered it for the opportunity to live someone else's charmed life for an hour or so.  If we grew up living vicariously through that heroic image on a box of Wheaties in the morning, why are we surprised that no one is waiting for us at the cultural finish line with that cultural championship trophy?  What were we running for, again?  A medal for living someone else's life?

This really isn't about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner or even about gender identity.  It isn't even about the 'culture' more broadly thought of.  It is, rather, about our proper place in the lives of the people that surround us today.  For us that place should be rooted in a relatively simple - but very profound - observation from the story of creation in Genesis.

Our uniqueness as persons comes from being created in the image of God.  But we have also been created 'male and female'.  And so our attention is divided between the ways in which we are like the animals - gender and sexuality - and the ways in which are like God.  Which of these two commands our greater attention, then, tells us everything we need to know - regardless of the gender-assignment decisions some celebrity decided to make.

A 'Hopefully Ordinary' Sense of Spirituality

On the back end of the Flood story in Genesis God promises not to destroy the earth again, but is also crystal-clear about requiring something of mankind.
Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man. (Genesis 9:5-6)
Something was lost when Cain murdered his brother Abel.  And it seems mankind stopped even looking for it by the time of the Flood.  But there was something about Enoch and later Noah.  The story tells us they "walked with God."

It is impossible to know exactly what this means.  I can perhaps imagine a literal walking alongside God.  And while I'd love to be thought of in such a rarefied spiritual sense, my own Christian life seems a bit more ordinary than that.  This is probably for the best, because if I did actually "walk with God" I am rather certain there would be a mega-church somewhere ready to make a spiritual celebrity out of me.  I wonder what we would call the cereal - 'Breakfast of Spiritual Superheroes'?  But I digress...

Even in that ordinariness, there is a sense in which I can see in myself the image of God - and then at least try to present that image to the people around me by seeing in them, too, that same image of God.

Might it be that "walking with God" is no more complicated, nor any more rarefied, than simply choosing to present in ourselves the image of God to others?  And to see in others that same image?  Maybe what was remarkable in the Genesis story had less to do with how "spiritual" Enoch and Noah were, but rather how the rest of the world had utterly abandoned this simple sense of being His image to each other.

So in choosing to see in ourselves and others the image of God we choose to be redemptive - that is, we choose to live the life God has given us to live (not someone else's for a hour), where he has given us to live it (rather than in the walls of a spiritual fortress), and among whom he given us to live it.

And this is hard.

Being Redemptive Means Being Uncomfortable

I do not know anyone personally who has undergone gender reassignment, so I am not quite sure how I would handle it if Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner were someone close to me.  What I am sure of us is that while manning the rhetorical ramparts of the culture wars might gain me some spiritual street cred, nothing of the image of God is guaranteed to show through the winning of an argument.

My wife and I went to a funeral the other day, and on the way home dropped by my parents' grave site.  Before that we went into a little grocery along the way to see if they had flowers.  The clerk I approached - if I am to be honest about my judgment of body language and behavior - was probably a gay man.  I am no more in agreement with the naturalness nor moral equivalence of homosexuality than I have at any point been, but I did notice in myself the desire to simply make the exchange between me and him a pleasant, polite exchange devoid of the baggage of cultural arguments.  I had no control over his affect.  But I certainly had control over mine - and the opportunity to have it reflect the image of God.

I suspect the course of time will only make being the image of God in my world more and more uncomfortable.  I suspect, as well, that meeting the challenge with the choice to be redemptive will then only become more and more important.
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