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Nearly five years ago, in the midst of a lot of argument over the public implications of Christian theology — about the demise of the Religious Right, the rise of Islamist terrorism, Christian signaling (often confused and distorted) by Republican politicians — I set myself a task: to write a series of essays on several New Testament passages that address how one goes about being a Christian in public. The purpose of the series would be to set forth the often startling angles from which the New Testament authors regarded political power, angles that would present some surprises for everyone.

After setting forth the idea, alas, two things happened. First, the arguments, provocations, and occasional atrocities piled up. Second, I became too busy following them, and occasionally responding to them on their own terms. After stating that serious Christian engagement with the world requires “reading, marking, and inwardly digesting” Holy Scripture, the troubles of the world distracted me from that very work. The results were frankly terrible for my soul.

The lesson I learned the hard way, of which I am now more persuaded than ever, is simple: deep reflection on the Bible is the key to remaining sane and hopeful in our decidedly interesting times. Not that following the events is unimportant. St. Luke (to take only one example) is a model of how to think with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. But ten minutes of perusing the Acts of the Apostles discloses that St. Luke didn’t forget Scripture for the news. And for that reason he neither drifted with his times nor overreacted to them. He could approach issues of his time from surprising angles, and regard them with critical hope.

Moving, then, from introduction to the first essay proper, we leave the pages of St. Luke and the apostolic age and rewind to a small-town scandal preceding Jesus’s birth, as recorded in first pages of St. Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

S Matthew 1:18-21 (ESV).

One of the questions this brief passage raises is “in what did St. Joseph of Nazareth’s justice consist — that he had cause to divorce Mary, or the quiet manner in which he resolved to divorce her?”

The question actually presents a false dichotomy. Joseph’s righteousness consisted in both. For, in his time as in ours, there was no shortage of men willing to divorce their wives on the flimsiest of grounds: to seize upon trivial “causes” to justify themselves when their real motive may have been to marry a richer, more sexually attractive, or more complying wife. In Joseph’s time that was called “any cause” divorce; the contemporary equivalent (now practiced by both sexes) is “no-fault.” Joseph did not practice “any cause” divorce. His cause — apparent fornication — was unquestionable. It was a ground for divorce recognized even by the strict disciples of Shammai, and by Jesus himself.

st joseph and gabrielThat said, in describing the nature of Joseph’s righteousness St. Matthew’s accent is on the quiet manner in which Joseph resolved to divorce Mary. He was “unwilling to put her to shame.” In legal terms, what that means is that while Joseph had the right to a for-cause divorce — involving a public trial and whatever shame followed for Mary — he would pursue only the remedy prescribed for “any cause” divorce: privately to procure and deliver a certificate of divorce. That would have meant also that Joseph waived his claim for any monetary compensation for Mary’s infidelity, and any recovery of the bride-price he had paid her family.

I start this series here because in the pages of the New Testament Joseph’s kind of forbearance — from pressing claims of righteousness, shame and honor — is not an isolated curiosity. It occurs so frequently as to mark a kind of paradigm shift between the Old Covenant and the New: that while the definitions of moral rights and offenses continued, the approach to remedies — penalties to wrongdoers, compensation to the wronged — changed substantially. The didactic passage most obviously on point is St. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians that it’s better to suffer wrong than to have lawsuits among church members (1 Cor 6:1-8). But this little pinch of leaven leavens the whole of the New Testament, the whole of the Kingdom of God. And in its unemphatic way, this ethic stands as a quiet but powerful witness against the excesses of our rights culture, and the cultural, political, and legal brinkmanship to which those excesses so often lead.

Joseph needed no trumpet, no public assertion of his right, no open vindication. His justice, manifest in the remedies he would and would not pursue, was as regular and quiet as the intake of breath. Like alms given with the right hand and kept secret from the left, Joseph’s resolve is a paradigm of true righteousness. It creates, at the very beginning of the New Testament, a striking new atmosphere, in which we can form the kind of character that alone can sustain faithful Christian public engagement.

Some time ago a good friend of mine wrote a note, in the midst of a set of truly appalling circumstances, about the importance of non-judgment. For, she said, we don’t really know what anyone is up against. We do not know the history of the one whose action we judge. And, if we were given the history and circumstances of those we judge, would we have done better? 

Nothing in the note, especially given the circumstances it addressed, was wrong. Quite the contrary, in its place it was exactly right. And yet, after reading it through twice, I had a nagging thought that it was incomplete. Yet that’s about all that anyone is willing to say publicly about judgment these days: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” There is more that needs to be said, though, and hardly anyone is saying it.

Hi Ed Nathan Jr.

Thus saith the kidnappers of Nathan Arizona, Jr.: “Now y’all without sin can cast the first stone.”

 

The thing more that needs saying has to do with the distinction between appraising and condemning. The connotations attached to these two words are quite different, though both can be used as synonyms for judging. Appraising and condemning may sometimes be distinguished in their effects, but more often in their respective intentions and underlying assumptions. The condemning man, when pointing a finger at a wrongdoer, doesn’t stop to think whether he’d have done any better — but probably assumes he would have. The appraising man also does not stop to think whether he’d have done better, but for a very different reason: what he would have done isn’t the standard.

There’s a reason the demanding teacher — the relentlessly critical appraiser of thoughts and words — is an archetypal character. And it’s no accident that under that archetype’s crusty exterior is a heart of gold. The exacting teacher is the one who cares. It is precisely because he does care that he will push his students to and just beyond the point they think of as “the limit” — but not so far beyond them that the students will break. The teacher knows the standard for all is wisdom, virtue, and high beauty, and that only great exertion will get us there.

From listening to a bit of FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee, it isn’t really hard to grasp what was behind the Federal B.I.’s no-prosecution recommendation in the case of Hillary Clinton. Here is the Bureau’s thinking in a nutshell: even though the Espionage Act sets forth gross negligence as the required mental state for a violation, the feds can’t prosecute everyone, so they have reserved prosecutions for specific-intent cases. If the Director’s summary of the FBI’s historic practice is correct, then the no-prosecution recommendation in Clinton’s case is consistent with that. Fair play.

What I don’t get are Comey’s repeated, totally gratuitous, and absurd general statements about the criminal law: that crimes generally require specific intent rather than negligence; even that criminal statutes requiring only negligence may be constitutionally infirm on that ground. If that were so, a lot of people currently serving time for involuntary manslaughter would be amazed.

Nor do I get the Director’s waffling on the question of whether Clinton violated the law. The answer to that question, assuming that Comey’s characterization of Clinton’s information-handling as “extremely careless” is accurate, would clearly be “yes.”

If I were making Comey’s case, I would ask and answer four simple questions:

Q1: Did Clinton violate the law?

A: Yes. The law requires gross negligence in handling information; she was grossly negligent.

Q2: Can federal prosecutors prosecute every violation of the law?

A: No.

Q3: In light of that, how have federal prosecutors decided whom to prosecute?

A: By looking at whether the evidence further shows intent to violate the law, intent to cover up a violation, or intent to give confidential information to enemies.

Q4: Did Clinton violate the law in a manner that shows such intent?

A: No.

Therefore, Clinton violated the law, but the FBI’s no-prosecution recommendation is consistent with the FBI’s and the Justice Department’s treatment of other persons who violated the law’s gross negligence standard. The kinds of violations Clinton committed have customarily been handled, not by criminal prosecution, but administratively within agencies.

Was that so hard?

“Is national grieving still possible?” Russell Moore asked yesterday, for good reason. The Orlando shootings have unmasked a sad reality which, if it continues to spread, doesn’t bode well for the United States going forward: that for many Americans, exploiting the angles of cultural identity politics is more important than expressing common humanity and compassion (e.g., by offered prayers, cries of lament, calls for aid). Not a few words of unqualified, unreserved grief and kindness have been met with something like: “Until you support legislation/programme X, your expressions of grief aren’t worth a single molecule of spit from your vile mouth.”

Also unsettling: several important facts from Orlando — like what the killer’s precise motives and associations were — are only just now being established with something like solid precision. But in many quarters the commentary, spin, and blame cycles ran faster than the investigative and reporting cycles. Instead of digging up and beholding the stubborn facts in all their terror and sordidness — and complexity — the priority of the day was to transform just outrage at a profoundly evil act into hatred against Group X.

Such responses haven’t, thank God, been universal or even predominant. But they have been common. Far too common. Where the expression of human grief and the practical alleviation of human pain are less weighty matters than which Reichstag Fire Narrative wins, there is a disease in the public mind. If you have been smacked down by Bizarro Nation for expressions of grief and sympathy, even for organizing or participating in relief efforts, do not be discouraged. Carry on. You are the sane ones.

That said, since it is imperative that our love “abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment,” none of us ought be obtuse about the following realities:

(1) The fifty persons who have died, and the one-hundred and three who were shot, were shot at a gay nightclub. The killer targeted his victims because they are gay. Therefore, while constructive responses to this act of terrorism must be general and national, not factional, it will not do to blind ourselves to the fact that all persons and communities which identify as LGBT, and friends and family of LGBT persons, are and for some time will be suffering from particularly acute grief for their loved ones and fear for their safety. Note that, respect it, and act accordingly;

(2) The murderer-terrorist in Orlando was a Muslim. Therefore, it will likewise not do to blind ourselves to the fact that Muslims and Muslim communities in the United States are and for some time will be uniquely subject to, and suffering from elevated fear of, backlash. Note that, respect it, and act accordingly;

(3) Whenever terrorists strike, two opposite errors will appear to tempt us: first, “the killer was a totally unique monster, an unhinged lone wolf”; second, “the killer is the true face of Bogeyman Group X which, given half the chance, stands ready to mobilize an army of people to go and do likewise.” Note both errors well, note that they are in fact errors, and avoid them.

May the recently departed rest in peace. Grace and peace to those whose homes and communities have been and will be particularly affected by this evil.

Christ, have mercy upon us.

Blessed are the casino owners, for theirs is the kingdom of money.

Blessed are those who boast, for they shall have Total Recognition.

Blessed are the egomaniacs, for they shall inherit the front page headlines.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for controversy, for they will have carcasses on which to gorge themselves.

Blessed are the vindictive, for they shall scratch out vindication.

Blessed are the outrageous, for they shall be seen as inscrutable.

Blessed are those who denigrate the competition, for they shall make the Deal.

Blessed are those who are written about, for theirs is the kingdom of money.

Blessed are you when you have a young, beautiful piece of a**, for it won’t really matter what they write about you.

I cannot say I’m surprised we’re not doing the French non-Mistake. Still, I find the collapse of Bill Kristol’s first independent-candidate trial balloon a little depressing, for the reasons Mr. Noah Rothman states eloquently in this article.

Which means back to the drawing board for conservative #NeverTrump movers and shakers, and a longer wait for a good candidate for many of the rest of us conservative voters, who are hoping for a reasonable alternative to swallowing either of the presumptive major-party nominees as a “lesser” evil.

Meanwhile, some discontented conservative Christians (by which I mean people, mostly Catholics and Evangelicals, who would regard the Apostles’ Creed as true and the Bible as inspired even where its ethics plainly conflict with the ethics of the contemporary secular world, including but not limited to the ethics of the Sexual Revolution), convinced that stopping the Donald must be regarded as priority no. 1 in the 2016 election, have started floating the possibility of voting Clinton, and even asking Evangelical leaders to spend their credibility in telling their congregations that it’s okay to vote Hillary.

To these I would urge patience and caution, and a more realistic appraisal of the evils a Clinton administration would represent. There are the general evils of a Clinton administration — like the fact that its head would be corrupt — but for small-o orthodox Christian voters, Clinton’s presidency would present the following, more specific, evils:

(1) If Ms. Clinton gets to pick one or more Supreme Court justices (and appoint many lower federal judges) it’s pretty certain that Elane Photography v. Willock will be written into federal Equal Protection jurisprudence, and cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores and Rosenberger v. Univ. of Virginia overruled, at soonest opportunity. Moreover, as hinted by Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli in his oral argument in Obergefell v. Hodges (see pp. 36-39), under a Clinton administration and with Clinton appointees as federal judges, it’s quite possible that many evangelical and Catholic institutions which hold to Scriptural and historic Christian norms on sex (the kind we are and the kind we do) will be Bob Jones-ed. And given the tenure of federal judges, the judiciary could continue delivering such results for decades after the end of a Clinton term of office. In other words: goodbye to any meaningful Free Exercise, RFRA, Free Speech, and Free Association protections for the “hater” class; hello to the de facto Establishment of liberal theology and religious tests for office (read: no Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, or Orthodox Christians need apply — unless they’re prepared to remain closeted and perform all official acts like good secular liberals).

(2) A President Clinton would almost certainly enjoy the protection and support of the Democratic Party, its Governors, and its Representatives and Senators. She’d also be propped up by much of the mainstream media. A President Trump, by contrast, would not only face vigorous opposition from the opposition party and media, but also considerable suspicion within his own party. (I regard most of the Trump endorsements now coming from the GOP as pro forma fulfilments of Party loyalty pledges.) And as unsettling as it is that Trump has smashed so many (to borrow David Frum’s excellent term) protective guardrails of American democracy, it wouldn’t surprise me if many even among Trump’s now-devoted supporters end up withdrawing their support after his election. It’s easy to arouse popular anger and energy by cheap (and often inconsistent) signaling on the campaign trail. But when someone has to govern, the all-things-to-all-men signaling has to stop and tough choices have to be made. In that reality, I think a good many grassroots Trump supporters would quickly become disillusioned and fall away — bad seed as well as good withers quickly in the rocky ground.

(3) When the popular support dries up and the opposition and suspicion do not, Trump would no longer have the means to pound further upon the guardrails of American politics — except perhaps via his use of the presidential bully pulpit. And here I’ll make a concession: a President Trump’s use of the bully pulpit would almost certainly prove damaging. Perhaps more damaging than a President Clinton’s. Certainly it would prove damaging in less predictable ways. We can be pretty sure that Clinton’s national preaching, like her policies, would embolden abortion-rights absolutists and illiberal Social Justice Warriors, neither of which needs further emboldening right now. Trump’s pulpit rhetoric would . . . well, who knows? Inflame racial hatred? Teach boys to objectify women? Provoke foreign powers? Alienate allies? Forge unholy alliances with authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin? No one can say with much certainty, but the candidate’s own lips regularly make the darkest speculations entirely plausible.

This likely abuse of the bully pulpit, however, I regard only as a good reason not to vote for Trump. It still isn’t a good reason for conservative Christians to throw their support to Clinton. So don’t be impatient. We may not have a French Revolution, but other help could be on the way — if not to win, at least to lead a serious and noble opposition we can support in good conscience.

The voice of Eric Peters, wonder that it is, works in many settings. He often tours with acoustic guitars only, which sounds folk-y — and his voice has a warm softness that makes it work that way. But when he goes to the top of his tenor range and then further up into his pellucid falsetto, it’s not hard to imagine him as the frontman for some stadium rock band.
What a delight, then, to hear Eric’s Far Side of the Sea — and be amazed that the singer’s voice also has a thoughtful restraint that sounds entirely natural in new wave and synthpop.
 photo-original
The album hasn’t released yet, but rest assured that you’ll want to own it when it does.

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