The Death of Adulthood

We’ve reached the end of adulthood in America according to AO Scott. Or at least of the patriarchal version of it, anyway, which Scott sees in three paradigmatic dramas of our era—Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, whose protagonists and their downfalls allow us to “marvel at the mask of masculine incompetence even as we watched it slip or turn ugly.”  On Scott’s reading, “in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grownups.”  It’s a provocative, sweeping hypothesis of the sort that are useful for engendering conversations, even if it doesn’t stand up under analysis.

And it may not:  David Marcus intemperately lambastes the essay, describing Scott’s style as “equal parts snobbery and self-effacement,” and his thesis a “crisis of the elites” rather than of “common folks.” Marcus presses the details of Scott’s historical case, and at some points makes appropriate corrections:  Scott’s description of the ‘Founding Fathers’, for instance, as “late adolescents” conflates rebellion against a paternalism of political authority with a dismissal of paternal authority per se, a move that at best seems highly tendentious without any further justification for it.

But on other points, Marcus (weirdly) buttresses Scott’s case even while attempting to dismiss it. As Marcus writes, “The last sitcom dad to get any kind of vaunted respect was Hugh Beaumont in ‘Leave it to Beaver.’” Technically, I suppose this contradicts Scott’s thesis that the past decade of television signals the “end of an era.”  But that the symptoms were present in previous generations isn’t exactly encouraging news, and makes me disposed to think that even if Mad Men is more the fruit of a long degeneration rather than an epochal revolution, Scott’s main point that we have a crisis of adulthood has some merit to it.

Yes, it is tempting to speak as though nothing in our culture has changed.  Every age has its antecedents, after all. We can speak of contemporary movie violence as though it is a Brand New Thing, but have you seen Titus Andronicus? Everyone dies, and in the most horrific of ways. Was that an outlier, or was the range of ‘acceptable’ simply that broad? If we take the movies as indicative of anything about a culture—and I’ll need some persuading that we shouldn’t—it’s hard for me to imagine Billy Madison or Borat finding a meaningful audience within the same culture that made and enjoyed Leave it to Beaver. The “Overton Window” for acceptable behaviors on screen has shifted, and certainly that means something. 

Ignoring that shift, and so leaving it unexplained, is the weakest part of Marcus’s response. He may consider the crisis of adulthood to be an “elite” phenomenon, a symptom of a liberal progressivism which wants its liberation and equality while having its dignity too.  Yes, NCIS is popular:  but so is Castle, and is there a show that better highlights the kind of adolescent-adulthood that is, for many young men, aspirational?  And “bro comedies” exist, which Scott deploys but Marcus does not mention. The aforementioned television dramas may have relatively small audiences: but a culture is made of its comedies as well, and on Scott’s hypothesis the emasculation of men in our highbrow dramas and the crass, juvenile antics of our cheap comedies are but two sides of the same adolescent coin.

Scott himself is aggravatingly ambivalent about these changes (contra Marcus’s description of him as “rooting for it”), even to the point of incoherent. “Just as men passed through the stage of sincere rebellion to arrive to a stage of infantile refusal,” he writes, “so, too, have the women progressed by means of regression.” I think that’s supposed to be an artful phrase, but what on earth does it mean?  Have there been benefits to the new culture?  Unquestionably.  But for whom, and at what cost?  If Scott’s own thesis is right, we can have our liberation from the patriarchy and all the benefits that accrue to women, but apparently only at the expense of everyone’s adulthood.  (Or that has been the cost, anyway:  we may be able to conceive of a different path to where we’ve come, now that we are looking back upon it.) Still, is there a point where the cost for such “progress” becomes simply too high to pay?  It’s not fashionable for Scott to shout “get off my lawn”, but progressives are not immune to the possibility of “buyer’s remorse.” Scott’s piece reads like someone who has woken up to what the progressive cultural temperament has wrought, and is somewhat unsettled by it.

My initial disposition, unlike Marcus’ slash-and-burn approach, is to welcome Scott as a potential cultural ally:  “Come on in, sir, the conservative water is fine.”  Or something like that. It ought to be a welcome sign that an admittedly progressive writer at the New York Times has been reduced to sounding crankier than many conservatives manage to. In this world, we cannot have too many allies.

But more interesting, and difficult, questions emerged once my smug schaudenfreude passed:  I mean, it’s great and all to point to the costs of our current culture, but we clearly aren’t going back. Manhood will inevitably take its form now in a “post-patriachal” age, and that has to mean something for how conservatives think of and conceive of adulthood.  Even if we think that the forces that undermined adulthood in America are rotten to the core, we’re all living in the environment they created. And neither Marcus’ optimistic account that the death of adulthood has been “greatly exaggerated” or my gut “we told you so” meaningfully solve the more pressing question of what shape adulthood should take in a world of creeping adolescence, and where the pressures on men and women are different than any they’ve known before.**

*Yes, Castle has the luxury to play with his toys and hard-working ‘Muricans don’t have time to worry about the death of adulthood. But toys and fun are what we want these days, even if we have to spend our days working to get them.

** This is a generalized claim, which may or may not be true about any particular person or even specific sub-communities.

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Respectability and the Plausibility of Orthodoxy

One point that deserves special mention with the ongoing conversation about “respectable” Christianity concerns the plausibility of “orthodoxy” in the minds of many of our non-Christian neighbors. One of the unique challenges facing Christianity in the coming years is that the very notion of religious orthodoxy doesn’t really make sense to many contemporary Americans.

We understand the idea of orthodoxy in some spheres, particularly in politics. Most Americans would find it quite odd if, for example, a gun-loving libertarian wanted to run for the Senate as a Democrat. We recognize that in politics certain beliefs tend to belong to certain groups. So if you favor a single payer healthcare system, that’s fine, but you probably should hang out with the Democrats rather than the Republicans. But we generally don’t have a similar understanding of this when it comes to religious identity.

Part of the issue, no doubt, is that many strands of American Christianity have defined themselves more in terms of methods and techniques for doing ministry rather than well-defined theological creeds. As a result, many Christian young people have grown up in the church without developing a robust understanding of Christian theology or why we do the things we do.

A related issue is the problem of how many churches have tended to fall back on business jargon as a way of talking about church life, which merely makes explicit the sense that Christian faith isn’t really about articles of belief so much as it is about achieving certain results for yourself and your community. This is one of the troubling under-currents to the ongoing Mark Driscoll saga, for instance, as Doug Wilson wisely noted in his post on the issue last week.

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Beyond the Pink Police State: Community Health Workers

James Poulos’ recent exploration of what he dubs the Pink Police State lays out an argument that is clear, even if not immediately accessible: our obsession with health coincides with a desire for impulsivity that has not only led to social permissiveness regarding sexual behavior, but state involvement to ensure that all behavior, even that which is considered transgressive, is appropriately hygienic. Those who prefer the sacrifice of political freedom for interpersonal hedonism are all too happy to lean on whatever political categories– libertarian, progressive, or indifferent– are in vogue at any moment, so long as our existential restlessness leads us to either sexual satisfaction or continually cruising for the next round of jollies. Similarly, our economic restlessness should leave us either satisfied with buying things or continually cruising for the Marxist revolution. His solution to this not-quite-Brave New World era is human conversation and an assent to human malleability to overcome the comfortable patterns of thought that enslave us in the Pink Police State.

Poulos’ diagnosis, which pins the statist delineation of safe and unsafe sex on “elitist technocrats and erotic populists,” is close enough to the truth to throw us off the chase. There is indeed reason to fear the erotic populists, as I’ve already elucidated how sexual libertinism is class warfare, a point that Ross Douthat has extended to the technocrats. However, even once we have understood the siege tactics of our new regime, we must not only discern its architects more carefully, but we must also embrace more specific policies to facilitate the sort of face-to-face conversations that are necessary.

The main weakness in Poulos’ piece– the moment I was practically salivating for, especially when he deploys the metaphor of a tender pink steak– is that sex is the centerpiece of his conception of the Pink Police State instead of food. While the tempests of sexual politics are often the most pitched in American discourse, the food and drink we consume is of far more interest to our hygienic overlords. Most people end up caught in the natural endgame that ensues when sex is free enough to be used to sell anything and transgression is revealed as masturbatory: either they are consumed in an endless cycle of identity politics or they gently drift into something resembling monogamy. Sex is the sideshow in the Pink Police State, but food and drugs–which are responsible for far more deaths and subject to far more regulations–are in the center ring.

The arch-villains in the Pink Police State are those who profit off disease. When we raise our fists against statist manipulation of what goes into our orifices, we forget that these powers have been accorded to the state in part because industrial capitalism gave individuals, companies, and institutions power to destroy lives and communities. While there are certainly plenty of sex-peddlers who chew up and spit out the vulnerable, the profits extracted in the course of damaging the land and our bodies are far more formidable–as are the dangers posed to our health. When an enormous acreage of good soil can be abused to grow a vast monoculture of corn that is then turned into a large quantity of sugar that is subsequently exported across the world in carbonated beverages to drive up amputations due to diabetes, the djinn is literally out of the bottle.

The Pink Police State wishes to stem this tide through a variety of means, for better or for worse. I am happy to say that I have met some technocrats in my day (I do not know how “elite” any of them have been.) A great number have cared for such amputees and other people who have suffered harm from what we call “lifestyle” diseases. They are almost entirely moved by compassion and while they are paid (often by the state through one means or another) to treat or prevent disease, most would be happy to be out of a job if it meant that fewer people became disabled or dead at younger ages. While libertarians and conservatives frequently bristle at attempts to control the sale of certain substances (or, even worse, to make other substances safer to inject), it is crucial to recognize that the habits of behavior and thought that Poulos elucidates in Part 4 of his series can be shaped in ways that prolong lives. Regardless of whether or not one thinks that any restriction on tobacco whatsoever is worthwhile, it is useful to recognize that the effort made to reduce its use in America has resulted in a reduction in death and disability.

However, public health and population health are not merely measures of extending lives or preventing amputations. These things are measurable, which makes them useful to the technocrats, but health is far more than the absence of disease. Health is wholeness, as Wendell Berry has observed, and it is at this point that my sympathies with the Pink Police State part ways. A measurable decrease in amputations is hardly a victory if the preserved feet are still pointed at the droning television for the rest of the days that they are attached. Understanding the natural order of creation leads us to understand that our bodies are better suited for vegetables than soda; it takes only slightly more effort to realize that face-to-face conversations are just as much a part of our reflection of this order. Words like “holistic” are often thrown around casually to describe this philosophy, but we must appreciate the weight of holism that requires change in every aspect of our lifestyles from what is sold to how we have our conversations before this language can be useful.

Yet the powers that profit from disease and the state that wishes to magnify itself to save the day both seem to have little interest in holism; minimizing the power of one will only give the other more latitude to damage both creation and creativity. How then can conversation– beyond eloquent appeals on blogs– be fostered?

A better policy is needed, one that distributes the power of the state downward to facilitate conversations–perhaps, frankly, to subsidize them. This solution may be inherently unappealing to advocates of political freedom, who may see such subsidization as the most dastardly move of the Pink Police State yet. However, short of a sudden, spontaneous embrace of beloved community (which we can always hope, pray, and work for), we will have to use the apparatus of the state against itself and rebuild the power in neighborhoods and small towns.

What is this policy that might make more face-to-face conversations happen, improve the measurable health outcomes of our population, promote healing in wholeness, and perhaps even destroy the Pink Police State with its own money? James Poulos said that the future belongs to community organizers. I would suggest that the ideal kind of community organizer for this task of battling the twin powers of corporatist high fructose corn syrup and statist hygiene is a community health worker.

The concept is fairly straightforward, if perhaps unfamiliar. Like bidets and decent mass transit, community health workers have only shown up in America when decided effort against the status quo met an appropriate funding source. We probably have doctors to blame for not implementing the use of community health workers (CHWs from here on); the number of things that a good corps of CHWs could do would either directly compete with a physician’s business or prevent enough complications to put a dent in any hospital’s income. While no grand proposal at any state or federal level has (to my knowledge) ever emerged, the concept of publicly funded CHWs equipped to practice the right kind of medicine opposes the American health industry so obnoxiously that any number of existing powers would feel quite skittish about their existence (the exception to this may be hospitals in my own home state, which have been told by Medicare that they are receiving a predetermined sum for services this year and it is up to them to figure out how to spend less than that sum.)

What do CHWs do? Well, it depends on where they are and who is paying them, but in general they are responsible for ensuring that every member of their community gets the services that benefit everyone (e.g. vaccines and primary screening), and they keep an eye on members of the community who already have a chronic disease and need help managing it so that complications do not develop. More importantly, they are the facilitators for any community decisions regarding health and the link between any one cluster of people and the state funds for infrastructure necessary to keep people from dying young. They can be very specialized– for example, focusing specifically on HIV-positive patients– or more general, covering a broad range of needs for a community.

I like face-to-face conversations with my patients. It’s one of the best parts of my job. Quite frankly, though, for the healthy–or the almost-healthy, those who have one or maybe two chronic diseases–my seven years of medical training is overkill for ordering their shots and their mammograms. Those seven years might be useful if someone is trying to ascertain exactly what benefit they may gain and what risks they may run by submitting to my suggestions, but rarely are they necessary (also, rarely are doctors good at this.) Someone with a high school education and perhaps a 1- or 2-year certificate could probably do the majority of what I do for a much cheaper price, and with the right tools at their disposal, they could probably do it more efficiently than I could. Furthermore, if a CHW or team of CHWs were assigned to particular areas, then the face-to-face conversations that they have all day long about what their patients are eating and how their patients are feeling could have a great deal less rush to them than a similar set of conversations than with a primary care physician (who can usually only give you 15 minutes of your time unless you’re dying or paying extra.)

CHWs must be based in the community and (whenever possible) from the community that they serve, for it is in the intangible relationships and the tangible presence that they draw their power to communicate and distribute their knowledge that they have acquired outside their locale. These ties are also what gives them the power to organize their community against the forces outside that would take their money in exchange for a higher risk of diabetes or would take their political freedom to protect them from their own decisions. The best CHWs do not change health behaviors through coercion (as does the Pink Police State) nor through seduction (as does the transgressive factory farm), but through collaboration. They have been an instrumental part of empowering communities all over the world and fit naturally into the institutions like chuches and neighborhood associations that help to sustain civil society. When people have embraced healthy behavior for themselves, the only thing that they will need from the state is protection from forces beyond their control (like pollution) and provision of medicines beyond their means (like antiretrovirals.)

The Pink Police State is truly a menace to the natural order, but before we beat it we’ll have to join it. If we can extract the goodwill of the elite technocrats to put money and power in the hands of people tied to local communities, the erotic (or gluttonous) populists will finally have a real set of countermeasures opposing them–members of a place who have learned discipline through conversations individual and corporate. In a world where our power of over nature has must be carefully stewarded, the care of our bodies is inseparable from policy. Our bodies, individual and corporate, can only be built up– and the Pink Police State can only be torn down–by the wisest policies.

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.

On Social Media and the Erosion of Conversation

Pew’s research on social media’s effect on people’s willingness to undertake conversations is worth pausing to reflect about for a moment.  Active social media use actually decreases people’s willingness to share their opinions not simply online, but in other contexts as well.  This is particularly true of people who think their opinions are in the minority, though it happens more generally than that.

A number of people pointed out after I posted it on, erm, the social media channels that they used Snowdon and the NSA as their test case, and wondered whether this might have been particularly to blame for people’s unwillingness to share their opinions online about the subject.  That’s a fair point, but not persuasive:  after all, people were less likely to share their opinions in person, too.  Unless people were possessed then by total paranoia–and not living in America at the time, I am skeptical that they did but cannot properly assess it–then it seems like the muting effect has to do with the threat of perceived disagreements than the subject matter itself.

Somewhat relatedly, Freddie De Boer recently lamented the nasty state of online liberalism.  As he puts it:

It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. 

It’s a bit narrow, though, to say that this is simply a liberal problem.  Spend a few minutes browsing the comments on Erick Erickson’s recent post on the conflict between his faith and his politics…or rather, don’t.  You already know what’s in there, and it is not pretty.  Conservatives (theological or otherwise) have their own “acceptable stances” and terms, too, and moving outside of them–as I have sometimes done–raises eyebrows and elicits emails.  Those exchanges have been, thankfully, generally more civil than what many folks get online.  But still, that kind of boundary-policing is exhausting to have to deal with.

I’ve been ruminating on all this recently, along with my friend David Sessions’ excellent post on why the internet is awful and Frank Chimero’s analysis of Twitter, which suggests that the nature of the conversation there has moved from the “front porch” mode to the “street” mode.  I don’t have grand thoughts about how it all connects–smarter minds than I, like David, will have to take up that task.

But by way of hypothesis, I do wonder whether the shift in conversations away from blogs or other internet “third places” toward the more intimate and personal “social media” platforms is partly responsible for the increasing difficulty people seem to have disagreeing with others online and elsewhere. This is particularly the case with Facebook, I think, moreso than Twitter–and might explain why Facebook users experience the ‘spiral of silence’ more.  In my Facebook use, for instance, I might go from pictures of my life around town one moment (when I lived in Oxford, anyway) to discussing the politics of Hobby Lobby the next.  I see pictures of my friends’ children, and then get comments from them disagreeing with me.

The intellectual environment such juxtapositions create blurs any distinction between personal and public, which makes it more difficult to disentangle the disagreements I have with my friends about (say) social policies regarding marriage from my friendships themselves.   This is particularly true with people that I have not seen much, like friends from undergrad.  I’m not generally one to shy away from conflict.  But with what feels like so many minor conflicts and disagreements going all the time, attrition simply takes over and I lose my appetite for the conversation.  Those are people I’m supposed to be friends with, or at least friendly with, after all, but perpetual, pervasive disagreement at even a cheerful level is corrosive to that.

To borrow Frank Chimero’s categories, if Twitter has moved from the ‘front porch’ to the ‘street,’ Facebook has brought the street up on to the front porch.  People treat their Facebook walls like their own, personal space, a habit that Facebook has encouraged since the beginning.  But that raises the stakes for everything that happens there.  While it has always been difficult to distinguish between the personal and the public, Facebook is a business built on obliterating that distinction.  Everything is both, simultaneously, and that means the conversation has a different ethos than it does in a coffee shop.  Next time someone invites you over for dinner, try critiquing their views of fracking without any other social interaction. Let me know how that goes for you.

But as I said, I don’t have grand thoughts about this.  It’s an interesting conglomeration of essays, though, and I hope people ill take them up in the comments.

 

 

How Ferguson Taught me To Love Cops and Looters

Editor’s note:  Jack Bates is a PhD student in historical theology at Wheaton College, studying the theology and practice of the early church to enrich the theology and practice of the church today.  He visited Ferguson at the peak of the unrest and offers this reflection. 

You could feel the fear in the air. You could see it in the eyes of the mothers in the crowd—young and old, clutching infant daughters and granddaughters to their chests. You could hear it in the faint tremulousness in the voices of angry teenagers, even as they shout “F— the police!” in their bravado. It gives their swagger an edge of hesitancy, of uncertainty. The fear is obvious in the steely, seemingly-unfeeling gazes of the lines of police officers in their riot gear, uncertain about who intends for the protests to remain peaceful and who is intent that they don’t. This fear—of nearly everybody toward nearly everybody else, a fear intensely felt but carefully hidden—was my dominant impression of the situation in Ferguson while I was there this last weekend.

I have been closely following the news reports on Ferguson, and I think that most of the media outlets have missed this dimension of its atmosphere, a dimension I increasingly believe is crucial to understanding what is going on in the hearts and minds of that community. While I was in Ferguson, journalists mostly huddled behind police lines or inside the McDonald’s on West Florissant Avenue (which, when things got dicey, locked its doors to those of us trying to get to safety). At their most adventurous, reporters stood on the sidewalks as protesters marched by. It is no surprise, then, that so many of them—in their [detached objectivity? caution? fear?]—seem to have missed the palpable fear of the police and the protesters, a fear best perceived not by standing on the sidewalks but by trying to stand with the people.

That’s at least what I tried to do: to stand with the people of Ferguson as much as I could, to share in their mourning, their suffering, their pleas for justice. I did it as much as I could, as a white man from a whitewashed suburb of Chicago that lies 300 miles removed from the predominantly African-American St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. When police used tear gas on us to disperse our peaceful protest on Sunday night, I joined with them in their suffering. I even felt their fear—to a point. But there were facets of the experience of the people in Ferguson that I simply could not experience with them.

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When the tear gas canisters started flying, I was surprised at the rapidity with which the crowds fled. Within minutes, a handful of young African-American men and I were all that was left of the protest march. I thought to myself, “So it’s tear gas. What’s the big deal? You just stay away from the gas clouds.” But as some of my fellow protesters had told me earlier, generations of residents had grown up in fear of what the police would do to them if they “stepped out if line.” White people tell their kids cautionary moral tales with witches and monsters as the villains. Many in Ferguson grew up hearing stories in which the police are the villains. Whether such narratives are fair representations of police in the Ferguson area is more than I can say. What is important is that the idea that the police are to be feared is deeply entrenched in the psyche of the African-American community in Ferguson. That is absolutely crucial to understanding what is going on there, and it is very difficult for many of us to understand.

For me, the worst abuse of police power I’d ever been exposed to has been a few unjustly-given parking tickets. And police in middle-white communities aren’t perceived as dangerous oppressors, but as comic figures: overweight, incompetent bunglers dusted with donut crumbs. Chief Wiggum on “The Simpsons” or Sheriff Rosco on “The Dukes of Hazzard.” When a police officer in my extended family shot himself in the foot at the gun range, our expressions of sympathy were peppered with chuckles, smirks, and knowing glances. He had played his part well. All this made it difficult for me to come to understand the importance of fear in the Ferguson protests and the police response.

But I’ve come to be convinced that a spiral of mutually-reinforcing fear and violence seems—to me, at least—to be at the heart of what has happened in Ferguson. When protesters are afraid of police, they respond violently to police in an attempt to gain some control of the situation to manage their fear. The police then become more fearful of the protesters and respond with violence and intimidation to gain control of the situation to manage their fear, which prompts greater fear and violence from the protesters, etc.

Consider the looting that has plagued Ferguson since Brown’s death. Looting may be the grief of the community acted out. It may be simply opportunism. A Ferguson resident suggested to me that looting is a sort of performative protest: Brown was accused of stealing, so the protesters steal in solidarity with him. People don’t really seem to know what to make of the looting, and the interpretations on offer leave a lot to be desired.

I’m convinced that the looting can be understood as a response to fear and an effort to manage it. The feeling inside the protest zones of Ferguson was that of an occupied territory. Lines of cops in full riot gear every block or two. Squad cars. Blockades. All this makes the people of Ferguson feel powerless, and feeling powerless in the face of a heavily armed and armored occupying force naturally engenders quite a bit of fear. Looting provides a sense of control over the situation and therefore helps them feel less afraid. Too intimidated and fearful of the police to risk a direct confrontation, looters win a “war by proxy” by committing a crime and getting away with it, thus showing that the cops’ power is not without limit.

But why that particular crime? If the temptation is to score one against the Law & Order crowd, why looting rather than jaywalking or defacing library books? Suffering tends to generate entitlement, making us feel that we are owed some compensatory good. And we are tempted to take moral and legal shortcuts when we are denied goods that we think we deserve. People suffering because of the brokenness of their community and the heavy hand of occupying police forces feel they are owed something. Looters not only get material goods they desire, but they feel the freedom from police control for which they long.

The escalating response of police forces in Ferguson likewise illustrates well the fear and violence spiral. Post-9/11, there has been a greater sense of danger, diffused through Americans in general but especially inculcated in our police forces. This greater sense of danger, further, was added on top of the previous increase in the sense of danger precipitated by “War on Drugs” rhetoric and policing techniques. An embattled police force that has been conditioned to view a subset of the population as enemy combatants in a “war” will take on a military rather than a “To Protect and Serve” mindset. Further, since the police have no surefire way of identifying who is an enemy combatant in this conflict, is it surprising that they will resort either to demographic-based profiling or to simply treat all civilians as likely combatants?

Psychologists tell us that the stronger an unpleasant emotion is, the more motivated we are to attempt to eliminate the experience of that emotion. The greater the feeling of injustice, the greater the feeling of fear, the more desperate we feel to normalize our emotional state, and the more desperate means we will be tempted to employ to achieve that. If our communities do not turn to looting, if our police forces do not turn to excessive force, intimidation, and militarization, it may not be due to the moral superiority of our communities, but simply because fear and desperation are not felt in our communities as they are in Ferguson. The heavier the hand of the police presses on the people of Ferguson, the more afraid and desperate the people become, and the more tempted they are to take increasingly desperate and violent action to alleviate their fear.

Nothing I’ve written above serves as arguments for the moral justification for the shooting of Michael Brown, his alleged theft and alleged assault of officer Wilson, the violent police response toward the protesters and reporters who have been peaceful, the violent protester response toward police, or the looting. My aim, instead, is to render these actions more understandable, because understanding promotes compassion, even—and perhaps especially—when we don’t agree with the choices others have made. I’m trying to get us to give the right answer to the question asked in the context of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Who is my neighbor?”

The people of Ferguson are feeling intense emotions, and ending the cycle of fear and violence will require police and authorities in the Ferguson area to build trust by seeking to understand these emotions. The police damaged this public trust by releasing information about Brown as a robbery suspect alongside evidence regarding his death. Many in the public (understandably) interpreted this as a claim and a threat: “Brown got what he deserved, and if you step out of line, the same might just happen to you.”When protesters in Ferguson declare, “I am Mike Brown,”they mean it. They are giving voice to their fear that, unless justice comes to Ferguson, they might become the next Michael Browns. The people of Ferguson need to hear that their complaints, their groans and cites for justice—not just for Michael Brown, but for themselves—are heard and taken seriously.

A common refrain I’ve heard in response to the events in Ferguson is: “Officer Wilson just did what any of us would have done.” My temptation has been to respond, “So what if he did just do what I would have done? I’m a crooked man with a crooked heart.”

But it is more important to see that such a refrain shows solidarity and empathy only with the white cop with the gun in his hand. Why not ask what we would want to be done to us if we had been Michael Brown? If I had robbed a convenience store, I would still want police to attempt to use non-lethal methods of neutralizing me. If Michael Brown were my kid, I would want him to have the chance for his deeply-troubled youth to become the prologue to the story of God’s restoring grace in his life, rather than being the final chapter. Wouldn’t we want this for ourselves, for our children?

It is very problematic only to empathize with the police and not the African-American poor in Ferguson. I hope that a greater understanding of the situation in Ferguson will lead those who participate and those who observe to a deeper love for all involved. For the distinctively Christian response to the events of Ferguson isn’t “pro-police” any more than it’s “pro-protester.” It’s love. It’s compassion. For all involved: police, protester, looter. For these are our neighbors.

The Ethics of Jayber Crow

riverIn The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry Anthony Esolen notes that Berry’s longest Port William novel, Jayber Crow, is in many ways a modern day retelling of Dante. Berry’s own language throughout the book suggests the comparison, as his narrator, the novel’s subject and namesake, makes frequent mention of “the Dark Wood of Error.” What’s more, it’s hard not to note the similarities in Jayber’s relationship to Mattie and Dante’s to Beatrice–in both cases the story’s narrator is drawn to God via the love he has toward a godly woman he will only know from a distance. To understand the broader argument, you should just buy the book.

But here I want to focus on the particular question of what specifically brings about Jayber’s conversion and what exactly Jayber is converting to. The setting of the novel is mid 20th century small town Kentucky, particularly the small town of Port William. The novel’s narrator and protagonist, Jayber Crow, is a seminary dropout and barber who is in his early 40s and has been back in the Port William area for about 20 years. In the opening scenes of the novel, we meet a character who embodies the independent spirit we often associate with Kentucky. In one scene he describes sitting in a classroom at the orphanage where he grew up, staring out the window, longing to be out in a field instead of sitting in a stuffy classroom going over boring lessons.

In another scene, the young Crow actually makes a run for it and gets some distance from the school before the headmaster, who bears the the wonderfully Dickensian name “Brother Whitespade,” sees him and chases him down, dragging him back to the school. Crow describes his deep-seated fear of sitting at the foot of a desk staring up at his superior and so “the man behind the desk” becomes a shorthand in the novel for all things modern, bureaucratic, and confining. It’s not an exaggeration to say that most of the decisions made by Jayber in the novel’s early days are built around resisting the man behind the desk and protecting his own independence and autonomy at any cost

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The Death of Jerry Umanos: Filling up what is Lacking in the Suffering of Christ

Jerry Umanos (along with two other physicians) was killed last week, murdered by a police guard in the very hospital where he worked. Dr. Umanos was a pediatrician who served at Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago for many years before he began to divide his time between Lawndale and a CURE hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he not only cared for patients directly but was heavily involved in educating Afghan doctors, nurses, and midwives.

Dr. Umanos’ faith clearly informed the decisions he made about his vocation in ways that are applicable to all believers. His life and death are worthy of discussion not because we should all be teaching medical providers in Afghanistan (though more of us ought to), but because one does not need to be participating in a heroic vocation to be faithful Kingdom witnesses. In an age where followers, clicks, sales, and converts rule even Christian psyches, it is instructive for us to reflect upon a contemporary believer whose ambition was the glory of Christ among the poor and whose service to Christ cost his life.

While inner-city Chicago and Afghanistan are very different places, they are both in need of quality physicians. They also tend to be challenging and risky places for physicians to practice. Medical training in particular tends to make it very hard to commit oneself to a particular place; the intense competition for medical school and residency slots often forces trainees to move every 3 or 4 years as they progress in their education. Yet every institution that Dr. Umanos was involved with along the way spoke of his dedication and service– a clear example of a man making the most of every opportunity along the way to be a part of his formational institutions. Furthermore, though his service was divided between Lawndale and Kabul, his affinity for institutions committed to the empowerment of his neighbors is evident. Lawndale’s work in developing leadership among the urban poor is well-known, and training health providers is a growing field crucial to making inroads against enormous health disparities while advancing the Gospel. Dr. Umanos’ example shows just how powerful the relationships we form in our vocations can be when we are intentional and consistent.

This is not just a principle that is applicable solely to Christians who work in elite professional fields like medicine. Certainly the privileged have opportunities that allow them to produce more visible acts of charity– we might surmise that the man in Jesus’ parable who began with five talents had a greater chance of getting to ten than either of his counterparts. The challenge for every person who claims the name of Christ is relying on the transformative power of the Holy Spirit to produce in us the discipline necessary to be fruitful in hard places. The lesson of Dr. Umanos’ life is not that he was a special Christian who did things no one else could accomplish, but that he chose to faithfully pursue things that few other people were doing in a manner that anyone who trusts in Jesus can.

Secondly, we can see that Dr. Umanos made calculated sacrifices for the sake of following Christ. This Washington Post article details how he asked for a residents’ salary when he started at Lawndale, which meant that he probably gave up about $60,000-100,000 per year that he could have earned working at a less difficult job. Yet he perceived a calling from God and an affinity to a mission that was worth far more than a few thousand dollars. Many other believers have given up far greater sums of money or larger percentages of their income to serve others– but the point is not about the money, but about the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of faithful ministry. This sacrificial spirit is foundational to our faith and should not be limited merely to finances (for some may even be called to make greater sums of money that they can give away or use for some other good purpose.) Rather, we should each reflect on the gifts that each of us have been given and consider how they might bless God and others if we gave of ourselves at a level that is costly.

Dr. Umanos made some intentional sacrifices but he also took some intentional risks. While we should avoid excessively fetishizing suffering or martyrdom, it is crucial to recognize that, as Bonhoeffer said:

“…It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man and his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his won will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life.” (from The Cost of Discipleship

Jesus’ parables on the Kingdom of Heaven make clear the question of cost: following Him is worth far more than what we have, and in order to follow Him we must surrender all that we have. It is clear that there is a significant cost associated with the further proclamation of God’s Kingdom (masterfully exposited by John Piper):

” ‘I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake . . . filling up that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.’ Christ wills to have a personal presentation of his sufferings to the world. And the way he means to offer himself as a sufferer for the world to the world is through his people who, like him, are willing to suffer for the world. His sufferings are completed in our sufferings because in ours the world sees his, and they have their appointed effect. The suffering love of Christ for sinners is seen in the suffering love of his people for sinners.”

While for some the death that we are called to is primarily spiritual or emotional, we should not take lightly the weight of the testimony of either New Testament witnesses or millions of our worldwide contemporaries suffering physical and material loss for Jesus’ sake. By contrast, it is shallow to suppose that this is a call for all to go to Afghanistan or the inner-city (although, again, there are not nearly enough Christians in Afghanistan to give the peoples there access to God’s Word!) The sacrifice and risks we are called to are unique to each person who has tasted of new life in Jesus. We all must reflect on Christ’s incredible sacrifice for us and not shame ourselves with overwrought explanations for why we are avoiding the cross He calls us to bear with Him.

It is only when our eyes are fixed on Jesus and our hearts satisfied by the delight of His love that we can look upon our very lives as worth risking for the sake of advancing His Kingdom. The only way to do this, of course, is through the slow and steady spiritual formation that takes places when we are learning from and giving to our local institutions, most especially our local churches. The life of Jerry Umanos demonstrates the effects of formation on someone who has been thus shaped, leading him to a place where even the risk of violent death was not enough to discourage him from proclaiming Christ in word and deed.

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.

Belated thoughts on the Duck Dynasty Kerfuffle

The kerfuffle that Phil Robertson stirred up is now over, and as in all such matters it’s hard to avoid the sense that we are all the worse for it. Most everyone I know has reached the point of total exhaustion on the subject, and understandably so. But that’s what happens when rampant curiosity drives our intellectual pursuits: we rush in, plunder, and then move on. But sometimes there are things to be learned only after the crowds leave.

It’s hard to imagine a dispute that encapsulates the hilarious oddities of our age better than that which played out in the middle of the Advent season. In retrospect, the whole thing seems patently bizarre: I sat down to write about it several times, started to type “Duck Dynasty,” and promptly gave up. Athanasasius took on the Arians. Augustine fought Pelagius. Our grandparents defeated the Nazi’s, while our parents grew up in the shadow of Communism. Us, well, we get to parse the words of a reality TV star who makes an awfully effective duck call. I’d try to write a parody, but I’m not a good enough wordsmith for that. Simple description seems ludicrous enough.

The episode’s folly was exacerbated by the drab, joyless atmosphere that pervaded the whole affair. One side responded to his remarks with outrage, while the other defended him in kind. Oh, A&E laughed, for sure, “all the way to the bank” (as they say). And I suspect the family at the center had a good chuckle over the whole business. But few of us did.

We have no one to blame for the media maelstrom but ourselves, and we are all implicated. It does little good to point out (as many evangelicals, conservative or otherwise have) that it’s hard to take Robertson seriously as a “martyr” when there are real Christian martyrs in the world. Against such a backdrop, we ought to be as disturbed that “reality TV” exists at all. If the thing is worth watching, then its stars are doubtlessly worth defending.  But the ability to make that point and have it “liked” by others on Facebook is a luxury good as well. This is a dispute that belongs to a decadent age, and taking to our “platforms” to critique those who were distraught about it because there is bodily suffering elsewhere simply will not do. It’s hard to take any of the commentary seriously when compared to those who are dying for the faith, including the commentary that so earnestly points it out.

Still, as irrelevant as it might seem in the context of life and death, there was something at stake in the decision to suspend Robertson for his remarks. American Christians won’t face pyres or lions, but we may nicked away into irrelevance by a thousand paper cuts while we all shout “peace, peace” the whole while. Our culture war may be dominated by trivialities. But it is no less the warfare for it. The despotic tendencies of our bureucratic state may not lead to prison or death, but a soft despotism is despotic nonetheless. I understand why many young evangelicals have little patience for conservative concerns. Paper cuts are easy to ignore, and any aggregate case is easy to object to in the details. But that doesn’t mean the narrative is false—only that it’s difficult to prove.

After all, to cop a line from young evangelicals, if “politics is downstream from culture” than what precisely are conservatives supposed to make of A&E’s initial decision to suspend Robertson? Is it a harbinger of things to come from our political powers? Or if not this, at what point will it be appropriate for conservatives to be concerned? Young evangelicals who have made a business out of distancing ourselves from the political concerns of our parents have every reason to go on thinking that conservative concern about such cultural moments is one giant overreaction. Which is why more evidence that such moments constitute a trend cannot prove the point: the narrative is already set, and each piece of data is simply further evidence that the conservative sound and fury still signifies nothing.

It is true that Robertson’s comments were “crude,” or “coarse” as the family’s statement put it. Yet since I’m in a mischievous mood, I’d point out that Robertson deployed just the sort of anatomical language that young evangelicals have touted as the mark for “real talk” about sex. I’m half inclined to say that Robertson’s comments are a classic reminder that we ought all be more careful what we wish for. As I have never thought that sounding like doctors within the church is a sign of our maturity, I enjoy the freedom to disagree with everyone: I have no interest in defending Robertson’s comments, about sex or on race, but given how GLAAD responded to Louie Giglio it seems reasonably clear that it wouldn’t much matter how he put the point. A smile and a bit of sophisticated theological jargon can’t stop your bigotry, after all, or so the talking point goes. Had Robertson quoted the Magesterium would things have turned out much differently from how they did?

Still, it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that the whole thing is a farce, and that we are the joke. “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” Gandalf says in Lord of the Rings.  It is a petty demagoguery that besets us, as laughably impotent as the people it is trying to repress. We have the culture war we deserve.

When a Gay Man and an Evangelical Walked into a Bar

It sounds like the setup for a joke, but while there were plenty of laughs we were quite serious about the whole thing.  And CBN was there to watch.

A few months back my friend John Corvino and I did a public discussion on many of the questions relating to gay marriage.  Not only is John a published academic and a prominent participant in the gay marriage debates, but he is also something of a Youtube rockstar.  His video series on the arguments around gay marriage is way more engaging and fun than the series I’ve been cranking out, even if it’s wrong in nearly every way.  (That’s a joke.  He’s right on one or two things.)

Anyways, the whole thing was a fun and interesting conversation hosted by my friends at Midrash.  And the 700 Club was there to report on it, which means that yes, yes I have made my 700 Club debut.  You can hear me make one or two points in the video, but have mercy:  I was barely holding it together due to a sudden onslaught of pneumonia.

I have little to add beyond the video other than to note that the whole thing wasn’t (unfortunately) recorded.  But if you’re interested in having John and I out to repeat the scrum, we’d be happy to take up other offers.

The Questions of Gay Marriage: How serious a concern is homosexuality?

This is the third part of an ongoing series I started a few months back.  You can read the second part here. I am proceeding more slowly than I should, but I am wanting to give myself the space to allow the subject to marinate and to reflect on how I want to proceed.  Your questions and dialogue are (as always!) both most welcome in the comments below.

How important does Scripture seem to think homosexuality is?  It’s common these days to minimize the concern about this particular question before addressing it on grounds that Scripture says very little that is explicit about the subject, even if the now infamous six explicit verses are all negative.

That’s the claim that Richard Hays makes in his massively influential Moral Vision of the New Testament, at any rate.  He suggests there that “In terms of emphasis, [homosexual behavior] is a minor concern—in contrast, for example, to economic injustice.”

Hays goes on to argue for a traditional view of the question; but it seems this is a point where his methodology betrays him into misconstruing the text.  It may be the case that the importance of a respective issue could be determined by counting up the number of verses where it is mentioned explicitly.  But for someone with an otherwise incredibly sophisticated way of reading Scripture, that approach seems far too blunt.  That humans are created in the “image of God” is not a claim that fills many verses in the Bible; its importance for Christian theological reflection far exceeds its frequency.

What sort of background we compare those six verses to will determine what sort of distortion our inquiry into the subject will suffer from.  It is probably true that conservatives have overemphasized those six verses.  But the most problematic distortion is not simply that they have not talked enough about money, but that they have not properly located those six verses within the more fundamental moments of Scripture’s teaching about humanity:  creation and redemption.  Without that backdrop, any sort of moral proclamation about homosexual behavior takes on an exclusively negative character and fails both to offer the word of hope within the moral analysis and to lay bare the reasons beneath such a prohibition.

But if that is right, it may turn out that gay or lesbian behavior is much more than a “minor concern.”  If those six negative judgments—if they are negative judgments on today’s practices—are the exegetical tips of a theological iceberg, then the authors of Scripture may have few reasons to keep stacking such judgments on top of themselves, as the logic of the entire text would move against it.  A community steeped in that logic might need stronger denunciations of certain practices around money, as money is a universal phenomenon that pervades a community.  But while homosexuality is obviously of incredible importance to those who experience same-sex attraction, it does not draw everyone within a community into its orbit the way financial practices do.  But if this is right, then Scripture’s lack of explicit attention to the phenomenon might be an indication that it emerges into the open when the narrative of Scripture has lost its grip on a community.

It’s not clear that a community would have to be strictly a religious community for that to be the case:  it’s indisputable that the Bible has had a pervasive impact on Western society, and the decline in biblical literacy culturally has coincided with the rise in the public sanctioning of same-sex sexual activity and gay rights.  Is it anything more than a correlation?  The causal links may become intelligible if we could grasp the deeper connection between the logic of Scripture’s teaching about human sexuality and its purported negative judgments about homosexuality.

I put this forward by way of an exploratory hypothesis: the above may not hold up upon reconsideration of the texts themselves.  But it is worth bearing in mind, as it highlights the ways in which our exegetical starting points have a considerable influence on how we frame this particular moral question.

Where ought we begin, then, in considering the questions of gay marriage?  My own inclination is to follow the path that Jesus points toward in Matthew 19, and that Paul follows in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6:  the Genesis account.  This pathway has the advantage of being uncompromisingly Biblical and, if you like drawing sharp lines between Jesus and Paul, of being sanctioned by the “red letters” too.  But it also takes us straight to the heart of the matter in such a way that orients our attention away from the negative proposition about same-sex sexual relations toward the particular goodness of heterosexual sexual relations.  Whether that good is exclusively limited to heterosexual unions is a separate question, as is whether discerning it would definitively answer the question of gay marriage.  But neither of those can properly be answered until we first get a grasp on why marriage matters within Genesis to begin with.

It’s also important to note that this sort of exegetical strategy doesn’t stem from any sort of “embarrassment” about the prohibitions in Leviticus because of what we might call the “reductio ad slavery”:  Leviticus prohibits same-sex relationships, but slavery gets endorsed, which means Scripture clearly can’t be trusted.  Sometimes “shellfish” get tossed about, too, since Leviticus ostensibly doesn’t allow them.  But following Jesus behind Leviticus to the norms of human sexuality within Genesis shows just how empty that argument is.

The reasoning is relatively straightforward.  On the traditional reading of the Genesis account—which we will have reason to question—male-female relationships are revealed as normative.  Yet the aforementioned notion that humans are made in the “image of God” makes an appearance as well. What that means is a contest of its own. But the most dominant readings in the Christian tradition start with a shared and equal responsibility before God for all who share that image.  In light of such a fundamental equality, slavery begins to look like the sinful perversion that it is.  There may have been certain compromises to it as an institution within Leviticus, for a variety of reasons and qualified in important ways.  But as Jesus points out in Matthew 19, Moses made compromises on divorce law, too.  Does such a compromise undermine the norm of permanence for traditional Christians’ account of marriage?   Clearly not.  In fact, it is only recognizable as a compromise when people have grasped the norm in such a way that they are able to see the disparity.

But reaching back into Genesis may also have the effect of calling into question the importance of the distinctions between gay and lesbian practices then and now.  The most popular way around those prohibitions has been to say that the New Testament knows nothing of permanent, stable, monogamous gay or lesbian relationships and that its prohibitions don’t apply.  Whatever we make of that argument, it doesn’t matter much for a theological stance toward homosexuality that takes its cues from the account in creation.  If the prohibitionary norms (do not [x]) are themselves tied to and derived from the goods that Scripture purportedly presents as marking off heterosexual relationships, then the quality of those gay or lesbian relationships doesn’t determine their licitness according to Scripture.

That last point, though, needs clarification:  the appeal to Genesis is a doctrinal appeal that isn’t itself derived from anyone’s experiences.  The norms are instead implicit within and grasped within that particular story, that construal of how the world is.  That story establishes the norms for everyone’s relationships; it is the backdrop against which evaluation of our own choices, affections, and thoughts happen.

Whether and when a person or a society’s “experience” (broadly construed at the moment so as to include both personal anecdotes and social scientific evidence) might trump this doctrinal story is an interesting question that I suspect will come up later on.  But the logic of any appeal to Genesis for norms at least initially pushes people’s experiences to the margins, for it is an appeal to a form of relationship that exists before sin enters the world and hence a form of relationship that is necessarily unlike our own.

Such are the limits of appealing to Genesis, though, limits which mean that our understanding of its meaning for today is necessarily incomplete unless we also reflect upon the other pole of Christian theology, the redemptive work of Jesus.  These two loci are not competing:  they are mutually complementary, such that neither can be properly grasped without the other.  Creation is the context wherein the meaning of redemption is grasped; redemption clarifies, restores, and deepens the goodness of the original creation.  Without any integrating both poles of reflection, any account of human sexuality will necessarily be stunted.

Of course, none of this gets us to the actual question of what Genesis 1-3 says about the goods and norms of human sexual relationships.  Instead, it only argues for why we should choose this as a starting point and its limitations.  I’ll turn to that substantive question next time.