Trump as the Glue Joining Barbarism and Technology

 

The Wannsee Conference… is not regarded as the point at which the policy [of extermination] was confirmed rather than initiated. It remains an important juncture, however, the moment when barbarism and technology joined together in the most demonic alliance ever. If Hitler found ‘willing executioners’ among his own people, he also found them among his conquered subjects… The Holocaust was enacted in the fevered dreamscapes of Eastern Europe where… Holocaust was a state of mind before it was Nazi policy.

–Latvian-Canadian historian Modris Eksteins, Walking Since Daybreak (Mariner Books, 1999).

The above quote has stuck with me ever since I read Eksteins’s book over a decade ago. Partly because I had visited the former Jewish ghetto in Vilnus, Lithuania and had frequented a square in Klaipeda at least partly famous for being the locus of a speech by Hitler. It came back to me today when someone suggested that the Trump candidacy, if he loses tomorrow, will have been a net good since at least the truth has come out—we now know the extent of the racism in the right wings of much of America.

I do not agree. Had the technology of Nazism not met the barbarism of anti-semitism already latent in parts of Poland and the Baltics, then would the lives of Jews and Roma been fine? Certainly not. But neither would millions of Jews and Roma had been exterminated because of the legitimating of the barbarism through the election of Hitler.

Is Trump Hitler? No, of course not (The reason such comparisons are useful is to make stark one’s reason not to make a direct comparison). The chances that Muslims, Latinos, and Blacks would be exterminated is minimal, thank goodness. But the nomination of someone who so regularly spews racist and xenophobic rhetoric legitimizes a hatred for the Other. Trump claims to be the voice of his people, which may be the case in some ways. But that voice would be better bottled up. The frustrations with immigrants (like Somalis in Minnesota—Trump’s most recent target of his rhetoric) doing things differently would be better off not expressed. Time may not heal all wounds, but it might keep them from becoming gangrenous.

For the conservative, there are certainly better, more benign choices than to hold one’s nose and vote for Trump. Four more years of left-of-center policies are four more years to create a constructive right-of-center policy. It may not be ideal for those who lean Republican, but neither is Trump, who has little regard for conservatism anyway. At best, he will fumble his way through a term, fighting with his own party and flaming out. At worst, well, I’d rather not entertain those thoughts. Such a task can be the opposite of constructive.

(See also  “Is Donald Trump a Sodomite?“)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Locals

Her voice was vaguely European, not specific to a nationality but housing a general air of condescension.

I had started across the street in need of a weather report and directions to a trailhead that I had very little information about other than what I happened upon on the internet a week back. I checked what wi-fi signals I could pick up and, lo and behold, the name of her particular coffee shop popped up on my screen. I needed a password so I walked across the street, under the “Wi-Fi Here” sign, and into the shop to get something that would grant me access to the information.

It was 4:30, which is a little late for a coffee, but I was not about to spend $4.50 for a vegan muffin. There were books, which seemed a particular kind of hodge podge—tiny homes, permaculture gardening, vegan cooking, how your dog is a mirror into your soul. I looked at a collection of Wendell Berry essays, but decided to get a coffee in the end when I realized I had read several of the essays already.

“How can I help you?”

“I’ll have an Americano.”

“Just hold on, let me help this woman.”

This other woman was buying a book called Street Vegan.

“Are you a true vegan?”

“No. . . I’m an omnivore but I’m interested,” the other woman answered.

I didn’t hear the rest of this conversation, but waited patiently with my phone in hand noting the disappointment on her face as she listened to this woman admitting to such a moral failure.

“How may I help you?” she eventually asked me.

“I’ll have an Americano.”

“Okay.”

“Can I also get the password to your wi-fi?”

“Just wait.”

So I waited again until she finished brewing my Americano (black; the other option with coconut cream) and then I paid ($4.00!), all with my phone in my hand waiting for the password. Once we were all settled, she said, “Okay, the password is ————”

I started to type into my phone, but she interrupted me.

“Could you take your device outside?”

She waved to the outer room where the tables were looking as if to shoo away the poisonous waves coming from my phone. I wandered out to check the weather and then find more information on the trail. A grey-haired man worked on an airbook in the corner.

“Can I help you with anything?” the grey-haired man asked.

“Me?”

“Well, you’re looking at books and checking your phone. Perhaps I can answer any questions.”

“I’m camping at Ruckle Park and am checking the weather to see if we should stay for the rest of the week or go home early.”

“Ah. Sometimes people want to know the ferry schedule and they could just ask someone.”

“Right. I’m also checking my email while I have wi-fi. And am looking for a hike.”

“The best hike is down this road on the First Nations reserve.”

“Oh! I’m glad you said that, because that was the hike I was looking for! I just didn’t know where to find it on the map.”

The woman who sold me the coffee poked her head in the outer room and said, “See, human contact is always better than devices.”

“Yes, but I talked with two of the park rangers at Ruckle and they didn’t know about the hike so I thought it was a secret I stumbled across.”

“Well, you need to talk to the locals; they don’t always hire locals at the park,” the man said.

“How do I get there?”

“You drive down to the end of this road. You’ll pass all these billionaires’ third homes and then the road will end and you should see the trail head there. Great views of the islands.”

“Is it an actual old growth forest?” I asked, “That’s what I read on the website.”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Okay, well I guess I’ll see for myself, anyway.”

I went back to my device because the locals couldn’t answer my emails for me. After a few minutes, when I was done I asked the man, “What was the name of the First Nations band?”

“I don’t know,” he said, not looking up from his work. “The trail is Reginald Hill.”

dsc_0188

An arbutus tree hugging a Douglas Fir

This turned out not to be the case. I found the website that told me about the trail. One  end of the trail begins near the Reginald Hill trailhead, but I didn’t tell him. I also found out that the First Nations band is called the Tsawout nation. They do not live there anymore but have moved to Vancouver Island now. The trail is on the last bit of land they have left in the Gulf Islands, which they use for various celebrations and ceremonies. We hiked it the next day and it became one of our favorite hikes we’ve ever done as a family, with very large trees, a haunting cedar grove, and beautiful beaches. We were grateful that the Tsawout nation allows people to hike on it despite their being displaced. They are no longer locals.

Four days later, while waiting for the ferry, I went back into the cafe for a cup of coffee. My wife wanted to see the place so we all went in but that proved too many people for the back room. Or so those in charge seemed to think. They sent the rest of the family into the front room while I waited to order. As the same European woman brewed my coffee, she asked, “Did you find the hike?”

A little surprised that she remembered me, I answered, “Yes!”

“The one on the coastline?”

“It was wonderful.”

She nodded knowingly and handed me my coffee. “Here you are darling.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

You with the top hat, your nation requires your service

Sometimes I feel guilty for loving the olympics. The IOC’s corrupt, the host cities often go into hock in order to build the facilities and host the games, the same cities often exploit the most vulnerable residents in order to make room for the facilities and guests, and all the problems with nationalism.

But I get sucked in to the confluence of so many athletes of all different shapes and sizes competing at the highest of levels. I love the passion that comes from training so hard for four years for that one moment and the inherent drama that comes when eight people are peaking at the same time. I usually don’t care which country comes out on top, but it’s hard not to root for USA, where I’m from, and Canada, where I live. But occasionally, you’ll catch me cheering for Lithuania even against the US or Canada.

I seem to be in the minority when it comes to different countries performances in the games. Pretty much every website or newspaper has a medal count broken down by different nations and I’ve been increasingly impressed by the United Kingdom, or, as they like to call themselves, Team GB. Team Great Britain has been Great. Apparently, GB only historically excelled in sitting down sports—cycling, sailing, rowing, and equestrian events. But they’ve been earning medals in all events this year, including swimming, gymnastics, diving, track, as well as the sitting down sports.

The reason seems to be partly attributable to a talent identification program with the hashtag #discoveryourgold. Their greatest success story is Helen Glover who started rowing through the program in 2008 having never rowed before. She is now perhaps the greatest rower in the world and is undefeated in the last 4 years, breaking world records along the way and wiping out the competition Ledecky style, with her partner Heather Stanning.

From what I gather, one applies online giving some information about age, height, weight, dominant eye and hand, and then goes through a physical to determine what sport he or she would be best suited for and to determine whether he or she could potentially become world class in said sport.

I love this idea. Often, we start doing sports because we want to be like Mike or because it’s what we’re good at that’s nearby. That’s great for the vast majority of people. Most people are not world class in any sport. It’s best just to find a sport that teaches fitness, comaraderie, a healthy sense of competition, and a skill set that you can do into dressage20hatadulthood. But what if you’re leaving something world class on the table? What if you have what it takes to be the greatest rower of all time but you grew up in north Texas where no one rows?

But there’s danger in such a program, too. Rowing’s one thing. I swam competitively and training for crew seems like training for swimming without the speedo and shaving. If it turned out I was an okay swimmer but had the potential to be a world class rower, then send me to wherever people row well.

But what if the results come back and the talent ID program thinks I’ve got the right stuff to be a world class Olympian in something like dressage or race walking? I’m not sure how maxresdefaultI would respond. I like to tell people that I’ve never lost at the game Twister, but if Twister were an Olympic sport, would I want to train everyday for the bragging rights of becoming the best Twister player in the world? Even for Olympic glory and the stake of the pride of a nation?

  Could I turn down the chance to become among the best in the world at anything? Even if that something is as goofy as walking really fast or wearing a top hat and dancing with a horse to “Ice Ice Baby?” I don’t know if I’d have the courage to enter the program for fear of letting down my country in the end after all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In Which I Take the Controversial Position that Michael Phelps is the Greatest Olympian of All Time

First, a bit of background: Mike Pesca, host of the podcast “The Gist,” regular panelist on the sports podcast “Hang Up and Listen,” and bearer of a name that would suggest some sympathy for swimmers of all species, hinted this last week that Michael Phelps may not be the greatest olympian of all time because of the sheer number of possible swimming medals available. Because there are so many chances to earn medals, that gives Phelps more opportunities to win medals than athletes in other sports. This, as he indicated atone point, is objectively true. It’s also not an original argument; it’s one I’ve heard every four years for the last 8 years or so, often with the addendum that if there were a 100 meter backwards dash, then Usain Bolt would win that, too.

Mike Pesca from slate.com

What follows is my response to Mike Pesca’s Afterball on this week’s Hang Up and Listen where he reiterates his point about swimming and seems nonplussed (one of his favorite words) at people’s inability to grasp his point. He suggests that the people who argue for Phelps and the number of swimming medals inclusion in the Olympics don’t seem to be used to arguing about sports and don’t seem to appreciate Pesca’s demotion of the status of an American athlete in particular (because of patriotism?). Anyone who knows me, knows that I love to argue about all sports, so I try to buck the trend. I sent this letter to him two days ago and he responded right away. I don’t know if he fully buys my argument but I’ll reprint his response below for the sake of disclosure. Apologies for the humblebrag in the second paragraph.

One of these is the greatest. . . perhaps. . . for now. . . in my opinion.

Dear Mike,

First of all, I follow lots of sports, which is why my favorite podcast is Hang up and Listen. Second, I’m not super patriotic. I live in Canada, my kids were born in the UK, I haven’t lived in the US since 1998 and have no set plans to move back even though I mainly pay attention to American politics, the NBA, and the Texas Rangers. Which is to say, I guess I’m not your normal sparring partner when it comes to Michael Phelps and swimming.

Let me also say that I’m kind of with you when you give your reasons that swimming events at the Olympics pool are a bit diluted (pardon the pun). You make some good points when you argue that Phelps’ medal count does not necessarily make him the greatest Olympian. And this is coming from a swimmer. I was the scholar athlete of the year at my Texas high school and, much much more recently, British Columbia masters provencial champion in the 100m freestyle for my age group. But despite my decent success in the pool, I would never consider myself a top athlete. I’m just a fine swimmer.

That being said, I still think Phelps is the greatest Olympian so far and, ironically, it actually does have to do with the number of medals he’s won. This is despite the fact that you (and many others, you are definitely not the first) seem to think many swimming events are superfluous (or, at least, not different enough from other events to merit extra medals at the Olympics).

First, some quibbles: It seems to me that you are comparing swimming mainly to track and field and so (I’m guessing here) might open the possibility that Usain Bolt is a greater Olympian than Michael Phelps. Forgive me for putting words in your mouth, but I’ve heard other people put these words in their own mouths so I’m making assumptions based on them. That being said, no swimmer that I know of would protest added track and field events. I don’t see why adding backwards running would be a bad thing in the next Olympics. Who wouldn’t love to see Usain Bolt running backwards for 100 meters? 200 meters would be even better if he had to navigate the curve backwards. Would it seem ridiculous? To some, I’m sure. But running backwards actually does require a different skill set and the use of different muscles (like the different strokes does for swimming, and maybe even more so). It would be a true test of Bolt’s dominance and not a given that he would win such an event.

Secondly, you mentioned in Hang Up and Listen’s Afterball this week that there is quite a bit of overlap among 200 IM racers and 400 IM racers, implying, I guess, that one of those is unnecessary. As a point of argument, you note that 200 meter runners often medal in the 100 meter race or the 400 meter race, but rarely both. But doesn’t that open up the possibility that we really are just missing the 800 IM in swimming? If we have the 800 IM, I’m guessing that there would be some 800 IM winners on the 400 IM podium along with 200 IM winners, but few 800 IM swimmers that also make the podium for the 200 IM. Wouldn’t that fit with what you are saying better?

Thirdly, some scientists have argued that Bolt could win the long jump with little difficulty, though it might interfere with his training in the 100. I think it is a legitimate problem with choosing Bolt over Phelps as greatest Olympian of this century if he chooses only to race in three races when he clearly would be competitive at a fourth event. And, is it that unreasonable to think he couldn’t at least try to win the 400? In 2008, Phelps won the 100 butterfly, the 200 freestyle, and the 400 IM. Are they similar? Maybe, but they still require a combination of speed and stamina that one would like to see Bolt replicate on the track. (Note that Mark Spitz did not swim a 400 meter event in 1972 when he won 7 golds.) If Bolt added at least the 400 or the long jump, I think the case could be made that he is greater than Phelps. But Phelps, at least, attempted to earn all he could earn.

And that’s why I would pick Phelps over Bolt as the greatest Olympian. It’s not that the events in which he swam were not different enough. It’s that he did all he was capable of and didn’t hold back. And not only that, in one Olympiad, he never lost. In 8 events, with multiple heats, in 100, 200, and 400 meters, and with all the world gunning for him, he never faulted and never lost. Even Simone Biles, who I have no reason to think is not the greatest gymnast of all time, even she got bronze in an event she has dominated throughout the rest of the week. Phelps pushed himself to the limit 8 years ago and succeeded in a way that Bolt chose not to do and Biles was unable to do (at least this year).

Consider also that Bolt and Biles have not yet had the opportunity to win the same event four times over four Olympiads and I think Phelps has the belt. Whether the 200 IM should be an event in your eyes or not, it’s not as if he wasn’t swimming against the world’s best in that event all four times. Couple that feat of longevity with the feat of catching lightning in a bottle in 2008 and I don’t see the issue here. Phelps may not be as great an athlete as Bolt or Biles (whatever that means) but he is a greater Olympian (for now).

Sincerely,

Drew Lewis

Pesca’s Response:

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Madness of King Donald

MTE5NDg0MDU0OTg3MjQ1MDcx

Alexander Hamilton

I am obsessed with the soundtrack for the musical “Hamilton.” I know I’m not the only one and so I don’t think I could say anything new about it here. Briefly, though, for those of you unaware of it, “Hamilton” is a play, sung-through so that the soundtrack is essentially the unabridged soundtrack of the play itself. The subject is the youngest founding father of the United States Alexander Hamilton and what makes the show noteworthy is that much of the lyrics are rapped. It has thus earned comments about the ostensible absurdity of a “hip-hop musical” about the first treasury secretary of the United States. And yet it works, not despite of the musical styles employed, but because of them. As the author of the play Lin-Manuel Miranda notes, hip-hop allows for way more lyrics than any other musical style and so he can pack in more story and more allusions and more meaning in his play than can other playwrights.

What the style also allows is clever reimaginings of important scenes in American history, such as a cabinet debate between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over how to manage the nations debts after the War done in the style of an 8-Mile-like rap battle. This particular song was my first foray into the musical since it was played on the NPR podcast “Planet Money.” One of the highlights of this song are the way these two historical figures whose portraits grace American currency really go after each other with ad hominem attacks. For instance, Jefferson begins the debate and includes the verse:

JEFFERSON:

But Hamilton forgets

His plan would have the government assume state’s debts

Now, place your bets as to who that benefits:

The very seat of government where Hamilton sits

HAMILTON:

Not true!

JEFFERSON:

Ooh, if the shoe fits, wear it

If New York’s in debt—

Why should Virginia bear it?

Hamilton’s response ends thusly, hitting on Jefferson’s interest in growing hemp and James Madison’s frailty:

And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment

Don’t lecture me about the war, you didn’t fight in it

You think I’m frightened of you, man?

We almost died in a trench

While you were off getting high with the French

Thomas Jefferson, always hesitant with the President

Reticent—there isn’t a plan he doesn’t jettison

Madison, you’re mad as a hatter, son, take your medicine

Damn, you’re in worse shape than the national debt is in

Sittin’ there useless as two shits

Hey, turn around, bend over, I’ll show you

Where my shoe fits!

Despite how much I enjoy this scene, I became troubled by it over the last few days with news of the last Republican debate. I didn’t watch it, so I only know what people said about it and that was of course dominated by what two of the candidates had to say about the size of Donald Trump’s anatomy.

One reaction to the way Trump talks in general is a New Yorker cartoon of former presidents shaking their heads at Trump holding up his small hands. But are we lionizing the founding fathers a bit too much? Does not Lin-Manuel Miranda offer a better picture and one that looks more like Trump and Rubio than the whitewashed pictures that hang in portrait galleries and on our currency? After all, it wasn’t just Jefferson and Madison who fought with Hamilton, but also John Adams, who was in the same party as Hamilton. Hamilton sabotaged Adam’s candidacy with an incendiary 50 page pamphlet and Adams, in turn, sabotaged Hamilton’s legacy for centuries with his own savage responses. One of the few things Adams had in common with Jefferson, it seems, is a shared hatred of Alexander HamiltonCoverStory_Blitt_Presidents_Trump-690x942-1453499456

Until pretty much last year, when Miranda’s musical became the hottest ticket on Broadway, Hamilton was primarily known as the guy who Vice President Aaron Burr killed in a duel! As ridiculous as Republican politics seems right now, and as obsessed as each seems to be with guns, I’m pretty sure we’re miles away from one of them actually killing another one with a pistol!

How, then, do we reconcile our perception of what “presidential” is with how the most revered presidents actually acted? Well, first, I think we should be better historians and realize that our founding fathers were more accurately named “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis in his Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name. They squabbled and were imperfect. They were often nasty to each other (like some modern politicians). And their ideas were often very much at odds with each other to the point that the country each envisioned was often not the same country at all.

Second (and this is merely a theory based on my wanting desperately to find a way to disqualify Trump and Cruz from leading a modern nation-state), despite their hatred of each other Hamilton and Jefferson still recognized the importance of compromise. This is dramatized in “Hamilton” with a somewhat cynical number “The Room Where it Happens,” where Aaron Burr is aghast that Hamilton would allow for the capital of the United States to move to the Potomac river in Jefferson’s state of Virginia. Why would Hamilton agree to this? Because Jefferson and Madison let Hamilton form the financial and banking system in New York. The Capital for the capital, if you will.

The Room Where it Happens

The five competing theories of governing in “Hamilton” don’t have direct analogies in the current presidential race, but they illustrate what’s going on in a limited fashion. Hamilton (Federalist, abolitionist), Jefferson (agrarian, states-rights Democratic-Republican, slave-owner), Burr (idea-less opportunist; someone “you could have a beer with”), King George III (authoritarian). The fifth is George Washington, who plays the ideal that no one can live up to: Great leader with great temperament who has the modesty to give up his own power for the sake of the Republic.

I’ll leave it to you to decide if any of these fit in the current campaign. But it seems to me that Trump is a combination of Hamilton (“am I talkin’ too loud? / Sometimes I get over excited, shoot off at the mouth /”), Jefferson (populist and a hypocritical racist), and Burr (party-flipping opportunist). Any of these is arguably “Presidential.” But with Trump (and Cruz?) you also get a huge dose of King George’s authoritarianism.

I recently saw a hat parodying Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” It reads “Make America Great Britain Again.” It was unclear what the hat wearer is trying to say, though. Is he an anglophile who actually wants America to join Great Britain again, now that the head of state is merely a figurehead? Or is he arguing that Trump’s rhetoric makes him sound like a wannabe crazy narcissistic monarch? In “Hamilton,” the crazy narcissistic monarch King George III sings, “When you’re gone, I’ll go mad / So don’t throw away this thing we had / Cuz when push comes to shove / I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why *Samaritan’s* Purse?

I was reflecting on the parable of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37) recently after the controversy over Franklin Graham’s statements on Muslims. He recently agreed with Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims, writing, “For some time I have been saying that Muslim immigration into the United States should be stopped until we can properly vet them or until the war with Islam is over.” It seemed strange to me that the CEO of an organization called Samaritan’s Purse would say such xenophobic things about an Abrahamic religion made up largely of Semites from the Middle East. Did I not understand the parable of the Good Samaritan? Upon my rereading, I was struck by how unfamiliar I was with the story. Or, should I put it another way, I noticed that the parable’s familiarity in the culture had smoothed the edges of a much more challenging story than we often give it credit.

For instance, the text itself never calls the Samaritan “good.” “Goodness” does not seem to be at issue in the story, but yet we call it the parable of the “Good Samaritan” anyway. It should be called “The Merciful Samaritan.” The Levite and Priest are not necessarily not good in the story. But they don’t show mercy to someone else as the Samaritan does.

Secondly, Jesus answers the question “who is my neighbor” quite confusingly. The situation that spurs the parable is that an expert in the law asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him what is in the Torah and the man says to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a quote from Leviticus 19, wherein there are a bunch of laws related to how one treats his or her neighbor, including you shall not steal or defraud your neighbor. “And who is my neighbor?” asks the man, to which Jesus tells him the parable.

At the end of the parable, though, Jesus asks the expert in the law “which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “the one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

To which I say, “What a strange way to answer the question.” Not that Jesus told the parable; that’s normal for him. We’ve come to expect that. But rather, the man asks who is his neighbor whom he shall love as himself. He deduces that the neighbor is the one who showed mercy, the Samaritan. Therefore, anyone following closely would presume that the expert in the law should identify with the beaten and robbed man and should love the one who shows mercy on him. But Jesus then tells the man to do as the Samaritan did.

It’s a strange rhetorical technique, perhaps meant to point us back to the original question, which is “what must he do to inherit eternal life” (answer: act like the Samaritan), which raises another question that is not mentioned enough: What is the significance of him being a Samaritan? The first definition of Samaritan in my dictionary is “a charitable or helpful person.” But that is a very anachronistic definition and not at all what the first readers would have understood.

Part of the significance of him being a Samaritan is related to the significance of the other two defined characters being a Priest and a Levite. They were on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem (to go work at the Jerusalem Temple?) and they refused to touch the bloody man because it would violate their duties as Priests and Levites. In other words, they were following the Law—the very Law that Jesus was pointing the expert in the Law to read in verse 26. But Jesus didn’t ask the expert “who was following the Law?” Rather, he asked him, “who was the neighbor?” The neighbor was the Samaritan, who happened to be on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Both of these towns are in Judaea and not Samaria. In other words, he was not a neighbor in the traditional sense as we understand neighbor, but only a neighbor as defined by Jesus and the expert in the Law. He was a neighbor because he showed mercy.

This is the second time Samaritans are mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. The first time is in the previous chapter, at the beginning of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem for Passover. In that brief passage (9:51-56), Jesus sends messengers into a Samaritan village “to get things ready for him.” The Samaritans, though, did not welcome Jesus, because he was “heading for Jerusalem.” Presumably, because Samaritans rejected the Jerusalem Temple as an illegitimate locus of worship, the Samaritans also rejected those who worshipped there.

In response to Jesus’s rejection, James and John offer to call fire down from heaven to destroy the village! This certainly indicates how hated the Samaritans were by Jews at the time (not to mention how hated the Jews were by Samaritans). Jesus, however, rebuked his disciples for suggesting such a thing. Thus, for Jesus to use a Samaritan to be the neighbor in the parable must have been quite a shock to the disciples, certainly, considering they were willing to treat a Samaritan village as if it were Sodom and Gomorrah for refusing Jesus.

I find this quite challenging. I’m really not sure what to do with the passage, especially considering that what comes between the two stories that mention Samaritans shows Jesus condemning Jewish towns as being worse than Sodom for essentially doing the same thing as the Samaritan town! (Luke 10:1-16). It seems incongruous to me.

I do have faith that there is some meaning to be found in the incongruity in these passages. But I also have faith that that meaning is not what Franklin Graham wrote recently, that “Muslim immigration into the United States should be stopped until we can properly vet them or until the war with Islam is over.” What seems to be two of the few clear things in the passage that gave us the name Samaritan’s Purse is that mercy can come from surprising places and that we are to show mercy to the stranger. Oh, and that maybe  disciples of Jesus should refrain from sending down fire from heaven on any city.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Creation in the Book of Job

As some know, I am finishing up a short book on the important things to know when reading the book of Job. It’s called Approaching Job and will be published soon in the Cascade Companion series. I thought I’d offer up a preview from the final chapter (where I am able to dip my feet in my relatively new obsession of trees). I will also accept any comments (biblical or botanical) or questions since it is a draft. 

Two more caveats: This comes at pretty much the very end of the book so I do assume that the reader will be familiar with some of the critical issues and the plot of the book of Job (things covered in the first three chapters of the book). Also, forgive the sloppy documentation. I used footnotes and just imported them into the lines. 

Creation

According to Genesis 1, on the sixth day of creation, God created humans and commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” According to many critics of Christian theology, most famously, Lynn White, this first divine commandment to humans has led to our current ecological crisis. (Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (1967): 1203-1207.) There is, perhaps, some truth to White’s claim despite protests from environmentally sensitive evangelical exegetes. (See Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion, 32.) The primacy of the Priestly creation story would certainly lead many to conclude its primacy as an ethic and less sophisticated exegetes might conclude that such a command gives humanity license to dominate the earth with little concern for its ecology. Furthermore, that the Bible begins with Genesis 1 must mean, to many, that it is the most important creation text. The problem for many readers of the Bible is that there are other biblical texts that recount the creation of the world by God and creation often looks quite different in those accounts. That should not cancel out the command to subdue the earth (whatever that might mean), but it might limit the command somewhat, depending on one’s hermeneutic.

The Book of Job, for instance, offers a mitigating vision of the creation story despite displaying an awareness of the Priestly creation text from Genesis 1. Firstly, note that the narrator’s description of Job portrays him as one who has, in fact, been fruitful and multiplied. He has, after all, seven sons and three daughters, which is a large number of children in any era. Job also has demonstrated his willingness to exercise dominion over things that move upon the earth, such as his large cache of livestock (seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys).

Furthermore, when Job opens his mouth to curse his day in chapter 3, he certainly parodies Genesis 1:4’s “Let there be light” by saying “that day, let there be darkness.” What follows, as we noted in the previous chapter, is a metaphorical dismantling of creation. So when God responds from the tempest, and specifically responds to Job’s opening speech from chapter 3, the author of Job is not merely offering a new, independent creation narrative. Rather, God’s speech is informed by Genesis 1.

There is nothing inherently problematic with two creation narratives, obviously, for distinct creation narrative on the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 follows the seven day creation narrative of Genesis 1:1-2:3. What the creation text of Job does, however, is not solely augment the Priestly text (as some might suggest Genesis 2 does to Genesis 1), but rather it offers a competing thesis of creation and humanity’s role in it. God does not tell Job from the tempest that Job is to fill the earth and subdue it, nor is Job called to till it and keep it (Genesis 2:15). Rather, Job is ironically told that he is not at all instrumental in the work of creation or its maintenance. The sarcasm in God’s rhetorical questions throughout the speeches indicates that Job evidently knows how far flung the universe is and how incidental to it humanity is. (Job’s own speech in 7:17-21 and elsewhere suggest that he already knows his insignificance in the world. Humanity’s transience, in fact, is one of his reasons for questioning the justice of his suffering. “What does my punishment accomplish,” he seems to be saying, “considering my insignificance in the grand scheme of things.”)

The theological point of the speeches from the tempest does not, however, promote a worm theology given from on high, particularly when coupled with the restoration of Job in the epilogue. That God, even after speaking of all the nooks and crannies of creation that have no bearing on the life of Job, deigns to restore Job and even call him “my servant” shows that God does, in fact, hold humanity in a high regard—as a servant of God and a servant of God’s creation.

What, then, should we take from this conclusion? What is the proper ethic promoted here if a lowly human can still be considered a servant of God and creation? As a test case, let us consider the forest and our relationship with it.

As far back as the Elizabethan era, people have been concerned with human exploitation of the forests, though there was little knowledge of the importance of the forests to the ecology across the globe. John Manwood, a jurist and gamekeeper of the Waltham Forest, penned a treatise of the laws of the forest in 1592 in England, defining a forest as a “certain territory of woody grounds and fruitful pastures, privileged for wild beasts and fowls of forest, chase, and warren, to rest and abide there in the safe protection of the king, for his delight and pleasure. . .” (John Manwood, A Treatise of the Laws of the Forest, Shewing not only the Laws now in Force but also the Origin and Beginnings of Forests; and of what Forests are, and how they differ from Chases, Parks and Warrens. . ., cited in Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, 72.) In other words, a forest is a forest if it is a sanctuary for wildlife and nothing more (other than the delight of the king).

By the Enlightenment, however, Europeans’ understanding of forests changed and the forest became subject, not to wildlife or even “delight and pleasure,” but to its utility to the economy. Robert Pogue Harrison, who writes about the evolution of European understanding of forests in Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, marks the change in attitude with Monsieur Le Roy’s eighteenth century Encyclopédie entry on “forest.” The key terms in the entry are “public interest” and “public utility,” which reduce the woods to humanity’s economic interests. Le Roy writes, “Religion itself had consecrated forests, doubtlessly to protect, through veneration, that which had to be conserved for the public interest.” (Cited in Harrison, Forests, 115.) As we have seen, this understanding, even in the case of religion, contradicts YHWH’s speech to Job from the tempest. There is no sense in the book of Job that Job or anyone should find the ostrich useful at all. YHWH’s point is that the ostrich “forgets wisdom” and yet it remains mysteriously important to YHWH despite its seeming ridiculousness. But the Enlightenment understanding of forests as public utility has remained and even influenced those who wish to preserve the forest, for religious reasons or otherwise. Harrison explains:

The Manwoodians of today are forced, however, to speak the language of those whom they oppose. This is precisely the language of usefulness. In their efforts to preserve the forest sanctuaries, they must remind science as well as governments that one day the abundant diversity of plant species that exist nowhere else but in the forests will prove useful and beneficial for such things as treating cancer or other diseases. They must contrive a thousand convincing or unconvincing arguments in favor of the utility of forest conservation. (Harrison, 124)

As we learn more about forests it becomes difficult not to hear the voice from the tempest reminding us of our own irrelevance with respect to the forest. That is, the tables have been turned. We want to help the forests as they have helped us, but one of the only things we can do is respect them. Consider some of the forests in North America, near where I am writing this. In the case of the edenic old growth Douglas-fir canopies and the rich biodiversity therein, the only real way that one can “till them and keep them” (in Hebrew, “to serve them and protect them”), is to put a hedge around them and let them be. One of the thousands of organisms that live and grow in the Douglas-fir canopy is the lichen Lobaria organa, which botanists have recently discovered are extremely slow-growing producers of massive amounts of nitrogen. The amount of nitrogen the Lobaria provides the forest depends on the age of the Lobaria, which is dependent on the age of the trees in which they live. In fact, Lobaria of any size may not be found in Douglas-firs younger than two hundred years old. Even then, it will take another three hundred years for the Lobaria to produce the nitrogen that will be of most benefit to the eco-system. Furthermore, there is nothing we can do to speed up the process. (Marie E. Antoine, “An Ecophysiological Approach to Quantifying Nitrogen Fixation by Lobaria oregana,” the Bryologist, 107.1 (2004), 82-87. See also Richard Preston, The Wild Trees,  185-186.) The Lobaria oregana and the Douglas-firs upon which they grow need what God can give it and that a single generation of humanity cannot—time. In other words, the best thing we can do for the forest is respect its place in God’s creation.

Note the challenge that arises when even discussing the theology of creation in the book of Job. We can discuss the importance of old growth temperate rain forests to humanity—how the huge amount of carbon stored in old growth trees is one of the most important mitigators of climate change in the world and how important it is to the future of humanity to slow global warming by protecting forests—but then again, we introduce the language of “usefulness” into creation. The usefulness of creation to humanity is nary a factor in the theology of Job. In fact, the introduction of utility brings us back to the pre-theophany theology of Job and his friends. Though that language may aid us in our service and protection of God’s Creation from the over-subjugation of the earth by a myopic humanity, in the end, we must remember the free God who brought it about and our insignificance and absence in that bringing. Even as we learn more about lichens and their role in the forest ecosystem, we still speak “by words without knowledge.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment