On the murder of David Kato

I know others have been blogging this story, but we had a canon from the Episcopal diocese of San Diego at our church this morning who spoke about it, so I thought I would try to give it some small additional bit of attention.

Last month, David Kato, a gay rights activist in Uganda, was beaten to death after a tabloid (oddly called Rolling Stone) published a photo of him and several other people it maintained were gay under the headline “Hang them.”

According to this article in the New York Times,

Mr. Kato was beaten to death with a hammer in his rough-and-tumble neighborhood. Police officials were quick to chalk up the motive to robbery, but members of the small and increasingly besieged gay community in Uganda suspect otherwise.

“David’s death is a result of the hatred planted in Uganda by U.S. evangelicals in 2009,” Val Kalende, the chairwoman of one of Uganda’s gay rights groups, said in a statement. “The Ugandan government and the so-called U.S. evangelicals must take responsibility for David’s blood.”

Ms. Kalende was referring to visits in March 2009 by a group of American evangelicals, who held rallies and workshops in Uganda discussing how to turn gay people straight, how gay men sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” intended to “defeat the marriage-based society.”

What has invariably been described as a “draconian” anti-gay-rights bill has been working its way through the Ugandan parliament for over a year, which among other things would “broaden the criminalization of homosexuality by introducing the death penalty for people who have previous convictions, are HIV-positive, or engage in same sex acts with people under 18 years of age.”

Meanwhile, a retired Anglican bishop in Uganda, Christopher Senyonjo, an advocate for gay people in the country who was expelled from the Church of Uganda when he first started working with gays and lesbians, is calling on the Anglican Communion to take a stronger stance in support of the rights of LGBT people. (The Anglican church of Uganda, while objecting to some of the more stringent penalties called for by the bill, has come out in support of a modified version that strengthens the current criminalization regime.)

The police have apparently arrested a suspect and are saying that the killing resulted from a “personal disagreement” and not from Kato’s activism. Some sources have been reporting that this was a case of some sort of sexual tryst gone bad, and not a hate crime. (Some conservative Anglican websites are even reporting this with a kind of satisfaction, as though it shows that concern about violence against LGBT people is just a bunch of liberal handwringing.)

Whatever the investigation turns up (and I know nothing about the circumstances of Kato’s murder beyond what I’ve read and nothing about the probity or otherwise of the Ugandan criminal justice system), the kind of climate of hate being fostered in Uganda–by professed Christians in many cases–is nothing other than the antithesis of the gospel of Jesus. The church of Christ, and particularly its leaders, needs to be crystal clear about that and unstinting in its defense of human rights and dignity for all.

Marriage and the Law-Gospel distinction

I wanted to highlight a section from this Peter Berger article I linked to earlier because it’s similar to something I’ve written before, but Berger is a smarty-pants intellectual and I’m just some guy, so it should carry more weight coming from him. This is the notion that the Lutheran view (or maybe “a” Lutheran view) is that marriage is part of the civil order (Law), not the order of redemption (Gospel) . That being the case, it’s amenable to being changed if people determine that human well-being is better served by such change.

Berger writes:

I am a Lutheran, though hardly an orthodox one. People who find out that I am politically conservative, but theologically liberal, get seasick: if they like my politics, they are baffled by my theology, and vice versa. While I would be unable to subscribe to the full text of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, there are key elements of Lutheranism that continue to appeal to me. One of them is the distinction between Law and Gospel. Everything we call “society” and “politics” falls under the category of Law—to be approached responsibly and prudently, not in the high tones of prophecy. The Law is not part of the redemptive process, the Gospel does not provide inerrant rules for the order of society. Accordingly, the Lutheran Reformation declared marriage not to be a sacrament of the church. It belonged to the realm of Law, not of Gospel. It seems that marriages were not celebrated in church in the early days of the Reformation. A marriage was constituted by the act of the two individuals setting up a common household, not by any act performed by clergy—after the act by the couple had already occurred, it was blessed by a minister outside the walls of the church. Therefore, marriage is not to be understood as a sacred entity, but rather as a socially useful and morally acceptable institution—as such subject to prudential considerations. I find this a very helpful way of thinking about it.

He goes on to make the point that “traditional” marriage is a relatively recent construct that differs in significant ways from marriage as it is portrayed in the Bible (or as it existed in the pre-modern world more generally). When conservatives talk about defending traditional marriage, he says, what they’re usually referring to is bourgeois marriage, which really only dates back to about the 18th century. This is the view of marriage ” in which women were no longer a possession but a partner, in which the married couple set up a household separate from wider kin (the ‘nuclear family’), where the spouses were ideally bound together by romantic love, and where children were regarded as very special beings with distinctive rights.”

Berger comes to a different conclusion than I would–instead of full-fledged marriage equality, he advocates replacing civil marriage with two categories of civil unions, one for households where children are involved and one where they aren’t–but I also find this a helpful way of thinking about the nature of marriage. If marriage is ultimately a matter of the “kingdom of the left,” to use traditional Lutheran terminology, then it’s a matter of ordering our common life together, not a matter of ultimate salvation. In other words, it isn’t a sacred, unchangeable reality, but a flexible institution that can and should be modified to accommodate new insights and changing views on things like gender roles and sexual orientation.

Friday links

– Many people have pointed to this omnibus post at Mother Jones that provides background, context, links, and ongoing updates on the situation in Egypt.

– Marvin writes on understanding apostolic poverty.

– At the blog Memoria Dei, a post discussing feminist theologian Mary Daly’s use of women’s experience as an analogue for the divine.

– Palgrave Macmillan and the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics have launched a new series of books on the ethical treatment of animals. So far, two titles have been published: An Introduction to Animals and Political Theory by Alasdair Cochrane and An Introduction to Animals and the Law by Joan E. Schaffner. The series is co-edited by Andrew Linzey and Priscilla Cohn.

– Crystal has a post discussing John Milbank’s and Keith Ward’s differing views on Kant (complete with a video of Ward lecturing on the subject).

– Rodney Clapp on giving yourself (and others) permission not to pray.

– The State of the Union and “semi-Niebuhrianism.”

– Kevin Drum on the virtues of a strong labor movement.

– Oasis and Radiohead: two very different British bands that defined alternative rock in the late ’90s.

A note on Christ and culture

Derek has a convincing piece at Episcopal Cafe arguing that it’s simplistic to see “liberals” (specifically, those who support things like women’s ordination and same-sex marriage) as simply going with the cultural flow while “conservatives” are upholding timeless standards of biblical morality. Using H. R. Niebuhr’s typology from his classic Christ and Culture, he points out that both liberals and conservatives are frequently beholden to culture in various ways. Moreover, he urges “liberals” to genuinely ground their convictions in the soil of the gospel.

While I largely agree with this, I also think Christians should honestly admit that “the culture” is sometimes up ahead of us in various respects. In other words, it’s not necessarily a question of our bringing “Christ” to bear on “culture,” since we can’t claim to have a monopoly on truth and churches have their own cultures that are often shaped by things other than the gospel. The church always remains under the judgment of the gospel (hence the Reformation slogan that the church should be “always reforming”–semper reformanda).

Plus, if, as Christians believe, Christ is a living reality, he eludes any attempt by the church to grasp or “own” him. And because Christ is Lord of the whole world, his Spirit can manifest itself in people and movements outside the formal confines of the Christian community. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that churches would’ve made what progress they have in equality for women and LGBTQ folks if they hadn’t been prodded by largely secular movements.

Obviously Christians need to use discernment and the resources of their own tradition to sift the wheat from the chaff. But this is just to say that different approaches (as described by Niebuhr’s typology) will be appropriate under different circumstances. Sometimes the church will be called upon to take a rejectionist “Christ against culture” stance, sometimes it will be more accomodating, sometimes it will exist in a paradoxical tension, and sometimes it will seek creative transformation.

Social justice and Christianity are inseparable

I’ve honestly not paid much attention to Glenn Beck–I’ve never even seen a clip of his show, and most of what I know about him comes from blogs and other media reports. This past weekend’s “Beckfest” on the Mall, though, significantly raised his profile. It’s even being suggested that he’s now the head of a new religious movement.

It seems that one of Beck’s signature themes is that Christians should have nothing to do with “social justice”–apparently he even told his viewers to leave their churches(!) if their pastors advocated social justice. Social justice has long been a bogey of the political Right–in the view of many conservatives it stands for an attempt to engineer socio-economic outcomes rather than leaving those outcomes to the workings of the free market. Libertarian thinker F. A. Hayek even claimed to find the phrase “social justice” vacuous.

The inconvenient fact, though, is that Christianity is inseparable from the quest for social justice. We could define social justice, in a rough and ready way, as social institutions oriented toward the common good and the flourishing of all people. The key point here is the attention to institutions. “Changes of heart” where people become more generous, loving, etc. are perhaps a necessary but not a sufficient condition for social justice. The structures of society (e.g., law, economy, or government) result from human decisions, and when they are unjust, humans are responsible for changing them. The idea of individual improvement divorced from efforts at social reform is a peculiarly American heresy.

This is not some fringe, lefty view of the matter. Everwhere Christianity has garnered significant influence, that influence has spilled over into attempts to reform social institutions (for both good and ill, it should be admitted–viz. prohibition). Christianity has always been a significant impetus for social reform, including playing a role the creation of a welfare and regulatory state to provide a safety net and rein in the excesses of the market.

In contrast to the majority Christian tradition, the knee-jerk vulgar libertarianism of Beck seems to oppose any efforts on the part of the government to temper the workings of the market to ensure, for instance, that no one goes without basic necessities of life or the goods they need to flourish as human persons (goods like health care, education, and a clean and healthy environment). But mainstream Christian social thought doesn’t recognize an absolute “right” to unlimited accumulation of private property severed from an orientation to the common good, and its ideal is not a government that is studiously “neutral” with respect to the outcomes of markets or other social structures. For instance, as I’ve pointed out before, the general consensus of the tradition has been that the poor are entitled, by right, to the excess wealth of the rich, so long as they lack basic necessities.

Justice, it has been said, is simply the social form of love. Clearly there’s room for reasonable disagreement about what the best means are for reforming social institutions to bring about greater justice. But it has to be said: the idea of a totally hands-off government indifferent to institutional outcomes is, at best, a minority position within Christian social thought.

Questioning growth in Asia

I thought this article in the NYT was very interesting: not only are some Asian economists questioning whether their countries’ economies can continue to grow at a double-digit clip, they’re questioning whether growth should even be the ultimate object of economic policy.

In considering this risk and the increasing evidence of the toll that rapid economic development is already taking on Asia’s environment, economists and other experts in Asia have taken up the call to re-examine the prominence of economic growth as a measure of policy success, particularly the use of gross domestic product.


economists … warn that even with greener development, the result may still be the same if the goal remains an American-style standard of living.

It seems to be virtually a truism that the earth can’t support a world full of people who aspire to the American standard of living, despite the fact that most of our economic and much of our foreign policy rests on the opposite assumption.

Even in developed countries, environmental thinkers like Herman Daly have argued that “growth” is no longer a suitable proxy for progress in human well-being.

Interestingly, some of the economists mentioned in the article are coming to the same conclusion:

Asia may instead need to carve out a vastly different vision of prosperity that does not rely on ever-increasing levels of material consumption.

And in what represents a bit of strange casting, some economists say the answer may lie in drawing on Asia’s religious traditions — Shinto, Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism — with their emphasis on harmony with nature and self-denial.

“Is there any commandment from the heavens that one must have one’s own swimming pool?” [economist Bhanoji] Rao said. “That one must have 10 bedrooms?”

To illustrate, he cited Mahatma Gandhi’s comment about the Earth’s providing enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.

One would like to think that for us in the West, Christianity would provide similar resources for shifting away from a growth-and-consumption-oriented lifestyle. That’s assuming it hasn’t become fatally compromised by its connivance with the economic status quo.

Huxley on distractions

I’ve been spending what free time I have this summer dipping into the works of Aldous Huxley, both his fiction (Island, Eyeless In Gaza) and non-fiction (Brave New World Revisited). I’m currently working my way through a collection of essays called Huxley and God, which, as the title suggests, deals broadly with religion.

Huxley is best known of course for his dystopian novel Brave New World, but he also had a lifelong interest in religion and mysticism. He popularized the idea of a “perennial philosophy”–a basic metaphysical, psychological, and ethical structure common to the great religions of the world. Huxley was a friend and mentor to Huston Smith, who further explored the perennial philosophy (or “primordial tradition” as Smith prefers to call it) in his study of the world’s religions.

One of the points Huxley returns to in several of these essays is the danger distractions pose to the spiritual life. We’re more commonly aware of the dangers of our passions–our deep-seated desires, our self-will. But, Huxley says, the “imbecile mind”–with its constant, meaningless chatter–can be even more insidious:

It is of [distactions’] essence to be irrelevant and pointless. To find out just how pointless and irrelevant they can be, one has only to sit down and try to recollect oneself. Preoccupations connected with the passions will most probably come to the surface of consciousness; but along with them will rise a bobbling scum of miscellaneous memories, notions, and imaginings–childhood recollections of one’s grandmother’s Yorkshire terrier, the French name for henbane, a White-Knightish scheme for catching incendiary bombs in midair–in a word, every kind of nonsense and silliness. … [W]e are … creatures possessed of a complicated psychophysiological machine that is incessantly grinding away and that, in the course of its grinding, throws up into consciousness selections from that indefinite number of mental permutations and combinations which its random functioning makes possible. Most of these permutations and combinations have nothing to do with our passions or our rational occupations; they are just imbecilities–mere casual waste products of psychophysiological activity. (Huxley and God, pp. 153-4)

In Huxley’s view, the modern world has made it particularly difficult to free oneself from distractions because it has elevated the pursuit of constant distraction to a positive good (one is reminded of Pascal’s line about men’s miseries deriving from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone):

The Old Adam’s restless curiosity must be checked and his foolishness, his dissipation of sprit turned to wisdom and one-pointedness. That is why the would-be mystic is always told to refrain from busying himself with matters which do not refer to his ultimate goal, or in relation to which he cannot effectively do immediate and concrete good. This self-denying ordinance covers most of the things with which, outside business hours, the ordinary person is mainly concerned–news, the day’s installment of the various radio epics, this year’s car models and gadgets, the latest fashions. But it is upon fashion, cars, and gadgets, upon news and the advertising for which news exists, that our present industrial and economic system depends for its proper functioning. For, as ex-President Hoover pointed out not long ago, this system cannot work unless the demand for non-necessaries is not merely kept up, but continually expanded; and of course it cannot be kept up and expanded except by incessant appeals to greed, competitiveness, and love of aimless stimulation. Men have always been prey to distractions, which are the original sin of the mind; but never before today has an attempt been made to organize and exploit distractions, to make of them, because of their economic importance, the core and vital center of human life, to idealize them as the highest manifestations of mental activity. Ours is an age of systematized irrelevancies, and the imbecile within us has become one of the Titans, upon whose shoulders rests the weight of the social and economic system. Recollectedness, or the overcoming of distractions, has never been more necessary than now; it has also, we may guess, never been more difficult. (pp. 156-7)

One can well imagine what Huxley would’ve had to say about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, um, blogs, and the various gadgets that keep us constantly in touch with these sources of distraction. O brave new world, indeed.

“Spiritual Progressives” converge on DC

I won’t be attending, but I thought I’d flag the conference of the “Network of Spiritual Progressives” taking place this weekend in D.C. since it’s being hosted by my church.

Presenters include Congressmen Keith Ellison and Dennis Kucinich, Brian McLaren, Joan Chittister, Bill McKibben, and Michael Lerner, among many others. The agenda is crafting “an alternative to Tea Party extremism and Corporate Domination of American Politics and Culture.” Looks like it’s an attempt to forge a coalition of religious and secular liberals to exert pressure on the Obama administration from a progressive direction. I probably wouldn’t sign onto everything on their policy wish-list, but given how far to the Right the “center” of our public discourse has moved, anything that might help revivify the genuine Left and further break up the Right’s monopoly on religion-talk is welcome.

The crooked path from metaphysics to morals

Guest-blogger “Aeolus” at In Living Color flags a book by Rod Preece that attempts to set the historical record straight on Christianity’s attitude toward animals. The assumption among many animal advocates has been that Christianity reinforced a hierarchical attitude that was inherently detrimental to animal well-being, and that only a more science-based approach, heavily indebted to Darwinism, has allowed us to begin to change our attitudes. The history, as is usually the case, seems to be a bit more complex:

To take one example, his close reading of the Victorian debate over vivisection turns the standard notion of Darwinism’s benign influence on attitudes toward animals, if not on its head, at least on its side. Although Darwin wrote that the subject of vivisection made him “sick with horror”, he supported it in the interests of scientific progress. Indeed, those opposed to the practice, who included Queen Victoria, Lord Shaftesbury, and many other prominent Britons, were more likely to be motivated by their Christian beliefs than by a belief in evolution, Darwinian or otherwise. John Ruskin, who passionately opposed harmful experimentation on animals as being in defiance of “the great link which binds together the whole creation from its Maker to the lowest creatures”, resigned his professorship at Oxford in 1885 because the university Senate approved funds for a physiology laboratory that would perform vivisection.

Read the rest here.

It seems to me that this is just one example of how you can draw different moral conclusions from the same metaphysical or religious premises. Many do seem to take the exalted ontological status ascribed to humanity by Christian theology as a license to exploit animals. Others–notably Andrew Linzey–argue that our special status actually imposes special obligations on us to treat animals with compassion and respect. Similarly, Darwinian naturalism has been used to justify both a dog-eat-dog ethic of ruthless competition and an ethic of respect for animals based on our kinship with them.

Musings on a social- and ecological-market economics

My two recent posts on property rights and libertarianism don’t really adequately represent the way I think about economics these days. For the sake of argument, I accepted certain principles held by libertarians, but I don’t think those principles are sufficient. Libertarian principles have a simplifying austerity that can be appealing–I found them appealing for some time–but I’ve become convinced over time that they oversimplify things quite a bit.

The view I’ve gravitated toward instead is what is sometimes called a “social market” perspective. By this I mean that “the market” taken by itself is an abstraction without any privileged status. This is because economic production and exchange are always already embedded in and structured by their social, cultural, and political context. Property rights, rules of contract, etc. are not timeless, abstract principles, but artifacts of a particular society and its history. The social-market perspective doesn’t reject private property or freedom of exchange, but it situates it within the broader social nexus. The market is a part of society, not the whole of it, and a proper goal of economic policy is to restrain the market and balance the goods it delivers with other goods.

For instance, this position would favor a robust social safety net and other welfare-state mechanisms that enable people’s participation in the market (e.g., state supported education and health care) as well as public goods and services like roads, parks, libraries, museums, etc. that are available to all on a non-paying basis. It would also set limits to economic activity in the interest of environmental protection, quality of life, and community self-determination.

As political philosopher John Gray describes the idea,

the market is not a natural social phenomenon, but instead a creature of law and government. A second idea is that the market is not free-standing or self-justifying but part of a larger nexus of institutions, sharing with them a justification in terms of the contribution it makes to human well-being. A third idea is that the market lacks ethical and political legitimacy unless it is supplemented or complemented by other institutions that temper its excesses and correct its failures. … The theory of the social market economy, at its core, is that market institutions are always embedded in other social and political institutions, which both shape them and legitimate them. (Gray, Beyond the New Right, p. 116)

A social-market perspective has a lot of overlap with social democracy or democratic socialism, but the route by which I’ve come to it has been primarily through ecological thinkers like E.F. Schumacher, Herman Daly, and John Cobb, who emphasize that the market exists within the context of society, which in turn exists within the context of the economy of the entire earth. As Daly writes, “the economy [is] an open subsystem of a larger, but finite, non-growing, and closed ecosystem on which it is fully dependent for sources of low-entropy raw materials and for sinks to absorb high-entropy waste materials” (Herman E. Daly, Beyond Growth, pp. 218-9). Consequently, they reject unlimited growth for its own sake and promote a “steady-state” economy with strong limits on inequality.

This is consistent with a Christian perspective, which sees people as persons-in-relation, as part of a community in the widest sense that includes not only other people, but nonhuman animals and the non-sentient creation, with God as the ultimate context. We can only make fully informed judgments about our economic life when we situate the human community in this wider sphere. Daly again: “The vision of economy as subsystem is not the same as the fundamental religious insight that the world is God’s Creation, and that we and all our little creations are part of and limited by that larger creation, but it is certainly more in harmony with that insight than the vision of man’s economy as the total system with nature a subsector whose services can be substituted by other sectors” (Beyond Growth, p. 219).

Market institutions can, therefore, rightly be curtailed based on ethical judgments arising from this broader perspective. The proper goal of economic policy is healthy communities in the widest sense, not “growth” in the abstract. This may require value judgments about good human lives that are anathema to certain doctrinaire forms of liberalism, but liberal worries can be partly met by observing that the best way to collectively make such judgments is through establishing a more thoroughly democratic and participatory polity.