November 15, 2004

Reflection on the Recent Election

November 2, 2004, was a sad day for me. When it became obvious the next day that President George W. Bush had been elected, I wrote the following message to the e-mail list of Progressive Episcopalian of Pittsburgh (PEP). I am PEP’s president.
Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.
— 1 Peter 5:8-10 (NRSV)
I am profoundly sad today, and I suspect that many in Progressive Episcopalian of Pittsburgh feel as I do. Even supporters of George W. Bush—a group that most certainly does not contain me—must have reservations about yesterday’s elections. Although both the popular and Electoral College votes will be closely divided, the vast interior of the country is, to borrow a term from Maureen Dowd, Bushworld. Democrats cling to the continental fringes—the Northeast, part of the Upper Midwest, the West Coast, and Hawaii. Florida, whose residents surely favored Gore in 2000, is today blood red. Republicans continue to be a slim majority, yet rule with arrogant swagger. Bush has failed utterly to be a uniter and not a divider. And, yet, we appear to be condemned to another four years of his polarizing “leadership.”

Putting aside my fear that neither the United States nor the world can survive another four years of Republican rule without some as-yet unknown global calamity, I am worried by the widely remarked phenomenon that the Bush victory—and I assume it is a victory—is driven by “moral values.” Apparently, 80% of people interviewed in exit polls who cited “moral values” as their top concern voted for Bush. This appalling statistic is a challenge to all Christians who are not conservative Evangelicals. I fear that, in the popular mind, God is a Republican. This is a situation we must change, lest the years ahead see a spiritual and intellectual return of the Dark Ages.

Whatever our immediate goals in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Episcopal Church, or even the Anglican Communion, we, with other Christians in the country, must represent Christ’s message as one of love toward God and of our fellow brothers and sisters. Christianity needs to be recognized in the popular imagination as a religion whose message is not necessarily one of literal adherence to a simpleminded reading of the ancient texts. I want to be proud, not embarrassed, to call myself a Christian. I want others to join me on the Christian journey, a difficult path whose twists and turns are not always obvious and whose borders are often ambiguous, rather than sharply delineated. I want people to recognize that “moral values” are not a fixed checklist so much as a set of principles and a process for applying them. Chief among those principles is love and the example of it we have in Jesus Christ. We achieve our moral vision by engaging our entire selves—mind, body, and spirit—in the quest for God’s plan for us. Prayer, study, reflection, and listening are elements of the journey, as is action, but not simply reflexive action that mistakes self-interest and prejudice for God’s will.

Perhaps our mission statement is too narrow, our audience too restricted. We are Christians, and our job is to represent Christ to the world. That world is very different from the one in which he walked two millennia ago. We would do well to ask ourselves the question often asked, though perhaps poorly answered, by conservative Christians: What would Jesus do? Let me put that another way: Were Jesus in the White House, would his agenda be that of George W. Bush? The answer to that question is obvious to me. We need to make it obvious to others.

September 15, 2004

Lower Manhattan

Recently, I saw a news segment on television about a Dick Cheney campaign event at the Statue of Liberty. The correspondent said something about the changed view of Lower Manhattan from Liberty Island since the destruction of the Twin Towers. For the first time, it struck me that "Lower Manhattan" has taken on a somewhat different meaning since the events of September 11, 2001.

August 25, 2004

Is “Both” Really Necessary?

In a news story on NPR this morning, a reporter read the following sentence (or something close to it): “Both of the planes disappeared within a few minutes of each other.” I considered writing to NPR yet again to protest this manner of using “both,” but I decided to post a comment on my Web log instead. Obviously, my previous letters to NPR on the overuse of “both” have been to no avail.

I admit that the reporter’s sentence is neither false nor ungrammatical. It is true that plane A disappeared within a few minutes of the disappearance of plane B. It is equally true that plane B disappeared within a few minutes of the disappearance of plane A. The question we must ask, however, is whether only one of these assertions could possibly be true. The obvious answer is “no.” The relation disappeared within a few minutes of the disappearance of is clearly symmetric. Near simultaneity is a shared property of two events and cannot be attributed exclusively to one or the other. Particularly on the radio, where brevity is surely a virtue, the sentence should simply have been: “The planes disappeared within a few minutes of each other.” I suspect that whoever composed the sentence, however, was unconsciously using “both” as an intensifier, stressing that the crashes constituted an extraordinary coincidence.

The redundant use of “both” is common. Here are a few more examples: “Both drug stores opened near one another.” “Both boys were of equal height.” “Both speakers shared the podium.” “Both phenomena have a common origin.”

“Both” is nonetheless a useful word that is not always redundant. Consider these sentences: “Both drug stores opened is the suburb of Bethel Park.” “Both boys are 5 ft. 2 in. in height.” “Both speakers were on the 2 o’clock program.” “Both phenomena are caused by magnetic fields.”

July 5, 2004

Independence Day Thought

Driving home from an Independence Day party and a subsequent outing to view the fireworks sponsored by Mt. Lebanon Township, I reflected on the day, which had included a sermon on political freedom versus Christian freedom and a class that focused on Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who wrote the first Book of Common Prayer. In our class, I expressed the view that separation of church and state was among the greatest and most beneficial innovations of the Founding Fathers. At the time, I was thinking of the many people, including Archbishop Cranmer, who were burned or beheaded in a sixteenth-century England in which church and state were inextricably entwined. On the drive home, however, my thoughts were more abstract and more analytical: separation of church and state denies to the state the imprimatur of the church and denies to the church the power of the state. The effect, in a society generous in its grant of rights to a free people, is to encourage the honesty and integrity of both church and state.

I hope your Independence Day was a good one.

June 28, 2004

Senate Indecency

Permit me to point out an irony that has been noticed by others, but which is simply too good not to mention.

Last week, Vice President Dick Chaney apparently told Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy “fuck you” on the floor of the Senate during a group photo session. Chaney told Fox News, “I felt better after I said it. A lot of my colleagues felt what I said badly needed to be said.” No doubt!

Both houses of Congress recently voted to allow the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to raise fines for indecency on broadcast radio and television to $500,000 (House) or $275,000 (Senate) per incident. (Apparently the word “fuck” is, in all contexts, deemed indecent.) As disrespect for free speech and willingness to ponder to the basest of voter prejudices knows no party, the votes were lopsided and bipartisan.

The Senate should fine the Vice President to show that, in fact, its vote was completely sincere.

June 24, 2004

Surprising Old Usages

I have been reading Richard H. Schmidt’s wonderful book Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality. Schmidt describes the lives and writings of 29 notable Anglicans, beginning with Thomas Cranmer and ending with Desmond Tutu. For each Anglican writer, he also provides excerpts to help the reader gain a sense of that person’s work firsthand.

Schmidt treats his subjects chronologically, and, since I have only begun reading the book, I have been encountering some old text. This slows my reading somewhat but isn’t otherwise much of a problem. Every so often, however, I am stopped in my tracks by a word that clearly means something different from what it would mean in a modern context.

For example, addressing the intent of sacraments, Archbishop Cranmer writes: “Our Savior Christ hath not only set forth these things most plainly in his holy word, that we may hear them with our ears, but he has also ordained one visible sacrament of spiritual regeneration in water, and another visible sacrament of spiritual nourishment in bread and wine, to the intent that, as much as is possible for man, we may see Christ with our eyes, smell him at our nose, taste him with our mouths, grope him with our hands, and perceive him with all our senses.” Encountering that word “grope” is disconcerting. Clearly, it simply means handle or manipulate. The modern word is never used that way, and, I think, is being used less often to mean to reach or to search uncertainly (grope in the dark, grope for a word). The first meaning of “grope” that comes to my mind—and likely yours, I suspect—is, as The American Heritage Dictionary delicately puts it,“[t]o handle or fondle for sexual pleasure.” What an inappropriate meaning that would be in Cranmer’s sentence!

A confession from Lancelot Andrewes’ Private Devotions also contains a curious archaic usage. He begins (in the 1840 translation of John Henry Newman—Andrewes had a habit of writing in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew): “Merciful and pitiful Lord.” The word “pitiful” has the most obvious and straightforward meaning here—albeit a meaning lost to current usage—full of pity. The modern word, of course, means inspiring or deserving pity, perhaps due to some inadequacy. Andrewes, however, is hardly calling God inadequate!