Thursday, August 25, 2005

Dietrich Bonhoeffer v. Pat Robertson

Pat RobertsonDietrich Bonhoeffer
Pat Robertson has apologized for his public call for the assassination of Hugo Chávez, but then compared the Venezualan president to Adolf Hitler and asked, "would it not be wiser to wage war against one person rather than finding ourselves down the road locked in a bitter struggle with a whole nation?"

To sum up: Robertson is sorry he said the U.S. should kill Chávez. But he's not very sorry.

"Is it right to call for assassination? No, and I apologize for that statement," he said. "I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him."

Now, try to follow the Robertsonian logic on this point:

1. Robertson is frustrated because we are accommodating "the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him"—presumably by not killing him.

2. The best way to refute "the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him" is to kill him.

After all, dead men don't complain about the people who want them dead.

Robertson compares self to Bonhoeffer

But if Chávez really is a Latin Hitler, surely no one could accuse Robertson of going over the top merely for advocating his violent removal from the plane of history. So later in the week the televangelist had one of his brainwaves (which he calls a "word of knowledge") and conjured up the spirit of the martyred German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as a witness for his own defense.

This is what Robertson said:
I want to tell you about a statement of, uh, the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who suffered under Adolf Hitler, and wondered what would be the case of a wicked dictator like Hitler, how would Christians react to that. And, uh, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is reported to have said "if you see a car going out of control, and heading toward a group of people, do you try to stop the car or you console the victims after it hits them?" And he said after weighing the moral consequences of that, he determined it would be better to stop the car and therefore he allied himself with those who were attempting to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and to take this monster off the world stage.
Robertson's comment on RealAudio

So, let's sum up: Chávez = Hitler, therefore Robertson = Bonhoeffer. After all, wasn't Bonhoeffer another misunderstood Christian prophet who, just like Robertson, got into hot water when he conspired to assassinate the evil dictator of his day? But can Bonhoeffer really be compared to a talking head sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned studio in Virginia Beach issuing death threats against political enemies?

True, Bonhoeffer joined the conspiracy to overthrow the Hitler regime by force. He paid for that choice with his life: he was hanged on Hitler's direct orders just weeks before the end of the war. But, unlike Robertson, he wasn't so quick to shoot from the lip. He was a lifelong pacifist who made an exception in Hitler's case only after years of soul-searching.

Robertson knows nothing about Bonhoeffer. His casual incitement to political murder is the opposite of Bonhoeffer's reluctant acceptance of killing in one extreme circumstance. "The first right of natural life consists in the safeguarding of the life of the body against arbitrary killing," Bonhoeffer wrote in his magisterial "Ethics." He continued:
The destruction of the life of another may be undertaken only on the basis of an unconditional necessity; when this necessity is present, then the killing must be performed, no matter how numerous or how good the reasons which weigh against it. But the taking of the life of another must never be merely one possibility among other possibilities, even though it may be an extremely well-founded possibility. If there is even the slightest responsible possibility of allowing others to remain alive, then the destruction of their lives would be arbitrary killing, murder.... Life may invoke all possible reasons for its cause; but only one single reason can be a valid reason for killing. To fail to bear this in mind is to undo the work of the Creator and Preserver of life Himself.
Here, Bonhoeffer is making a case against abortion, euthanasia, war and political murder. Like the late Cardinal Bernardin, Bonhoeffer sees the protection of life as a seamless garment: you can't oppose abortion, as Robertson does, and simultaneously advocate the extrajudicial killing of unfriendly politicians.

Bonhoeffer and the limits of power

Bonhoeffer, who knew and admired America, thought we were better than the kind of country (he was thinking of Nazi Germany) that puts national interest before moral values. In "Ethics," he contrasted the ideas of democracy that animated the French and American revolutions. Democracy in France was predicated on the "emancipated man," but in America, "quite on the contrary, upon the kingdom of God and the limitation of all earthly powers by the sovereignty of God."
It is indeed significant when, in contrast to the "Declaration of the Rights of Man," American historians can say that the federal constitution was written by men who were conscious of original sin and of the wickedness of the human heart. Earthly wielders of authority, and also the people, are directed into their proper bounds, in due consideration of man's innate longing for power and of the fact that power pertains only to God.
Robertson undoubtedly would agree with Bonhoeffer that "power pertains only to God," and as a self-proclaimed Jeffersonian democrat he could hardly believe that the U.S. government has unlimited authority to kill its enemies for raison d'état. Or could he? Jefferson's god was the transcendent prime mover of deism, a clockmaker who sets the universe in motion and then allows it to run on its own power. Robertson's god is a fussy micromanager who can be summoned minute by minute to fix any problem—whether chronic back pain or the unfulfilled wish for a Supreme Court vacancy. This raises the question of who (or what) is the god Robertson worships.

Like many other millenarian evangelicals, Robertson reads the Bible as a systematic outline of God's plan for the end of history. And the plan, he believes, is that at some point in the not-too-distant future God will move against his enemies in an end-times battle for political power. The trumpet will sound, the heavens will open, and the Lord will return to the earth as a military messiah leading an army of born-again Christians against the forces of Antichrist. Robertson's fantasy novel about Armageddon, "The End of the Age," reveals his messiah as the muscular action hero of pop culture—a homicidal Punisher, Terminator or Darkman who executes judgment with brutal efficiency.

Robertson's Jesus is not the crucified One whose arms reach out in an embrace wide enough for all humanity, but a vengeful archon who does not constrain but liberates the demons of human nature. There is no moral distinction between his bloody ascent to universal power and the power politics of a nation prepared to set aside its moral values to defeat its enemies—real or imagined. Thus, it is possible for this god's many worshippers to demonize an adversary (Chávez equals Hitler) and then publicly exhort the state to take his life.

I truly believe that Robertson's god is not God, but (as Bonhoeffer's mentor, Karl Barth, would have said) a no-god: an hypostasis of the human will to power. And that god is roaring around America like a ravening lion these days—a graver threat to our nation than one Latin American strongman could ever be.

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Fowler's revenge

Emilio Largo
It came right out of the blue, like a Spitfire firing all eight barrels at a lumbering Junkers bomber. It was like the lead sentence of today's blog, designed to grab your attention like the aggressive display of an angry polecat defending her young. So imagine my surprise when I read the following in a New York Times book review:

"[H]e wears a black patch to cover an eye that went missing in a childhood hockey accident...."

"Wot the bloody 'ell?" I exclaimed. "Have I gone completely spare?"

But there it was, and not merely a slip allowed by a lazy editor. A quick search revealed hundreds of uses in the Times of this intolerable Briticism ... the first as early as 1988. By the time Chandra Levy and Laci Peterson went missing, it was virtually standard usage. Now it pops up everywhere: in USA Today, People, your local newspaper. The Portsmouth (N.H.) Herald used it a few hours ago: "The fire occurred just days after almost $1,000 went missing from the store's cash register." And, just to prove this is no blue-state aberration, so did a paper in Utah.

Ben Yagoda in The Chronicle of Higher Education notices a trend to gussy up American English with Briticisms that would have been considered quirky affectations not so long ago. "Run-up" (as in the "run-up" to the election), "ring up," "chat up," "spot-on," "at university," "on holiday" and "booking" are showing up in daily discourse. Do you want a cup of coffee? Oh no, let's "chat up" over "a coffee."

The cause? Yagoda speculates that the influence of British editors and writers who have set up shop in the U.S. may have something to do with the trend. (He mentions Tina Brown, but my candidates are Andrew Sullivan and the odious Christopher Hitchens.) He suspects the root cause is "the eternal appeal of sounding classy without seeming pretentious."

My rule is that every American should limit herself to two Briticisms: exceed that quota and you'll come across as an upper-class twit, and then all of your friends will go missing. Choose one that's useful because it fills a gap in American English, and the other as a sort of trans-Atlantic pet. My choices are "run-up" (no obvious American equivalent) and "brainwave" (which I much prefer to "brainstorm").

Isn't this blog brilliant? Yes, it is: the Brits use the adjective promiscuously to mean anything that's nice: that was a "brilliant" (or "brill") supper, tie or haircut. So if a Brit says your brainwave was brilliant, that's not necessarily a run-up to a Nobel prize.

What can be done, dear reader? Probably nothing. The fad must seem very chic and Euro to its retrologizing victims, or at least brilliant and spot-on. And perhaps it's only payback for the decades of American colonization of British linguistic space—a trend noted after World War II by the second edition of Fowler's "Modern English Usage":
It was a favourite theme of Mencken that England, now displaced by the United States as the most powerful and populous English-speaking country, is no longer entitled to pose as arbiter of English usage. "When two-thirds of the people who use a certain language decide to call it a freight train instead of a goods train, they are 'right'; then the first is correct usage and the second is dialect." We are still far from admitting this claim, but in fact are showing signs of yielding to it in spite of ourselves.
So it might be time to dust off your copies of Fowler's classic or, if you didn't acquire one at university, buy a copy now. If we're going to affect Briticisms, we might as well be correct about it: creatures with legs, fins, gastropods or pseudopods may indeed "go missing," but not an eye or the contents of a cash register. And stop saying "Briticism." Fowler hated the word: it's either "Britishism" or "Britannicism."

Call it Fowler's revenge.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Was Robertson's death threat a federal crime?

On, former presidential counsel John Dean argues that Pat Robertson committed a felony under federal law when he advocated the assassination of President Hugo Chavez.

"It is a federal felony to use instruments of interstate or foreign commerce to threaten other people, he wrote. "The statute is clear, and simple. Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 875(c), states:
"Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both."
Dean's article in FindLaw
Dietrich Bonhoeffer v. Pat Robertson

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Sigh, religion of the crate!

Finding myself bored this evening, and wanting to beat back for a few minutes the encroaching shadows of melancholy, I decided to amuse myself with a game of Babble. You can do this with any online translation program: I prefer Altavista's Babelfish.

Now, you don't necessarily have to play this game to produce unintentionally hilarious translations. For instance, a straightforward sentence in a German newspaper was properly translated by my Lang-o-brainiac into plain English: "Someone who stands up for social justice doesn't have to go around in sackcloth and ashes" ("Wer sich für soziale Gerechtigkeit einsetzt, muß nicht in Sack und Asche gehen"). But Babelfish was confounded by the syntax, so it came out as, "who uses itself, does not have for social justice not into bag and ash said to go!"

My mom always warned me that who uses itself does not into bag and ash said to go.

But back to our game. To play Babble, find a fairly cogent text, then toss it back and forth from one language to another, until finally you produce a gem of pure gibberish. So this is the text I chose:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. Karl Marx, 1843
Pious suffering is simultaneous, the expression of the material suffering and a protest against material suffering. Religion is the sigh of the suppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
That was too much like the original! And it more or less made sense. So I tried again.

The suffering pious is simultaneous, the expression of the suffering of the material and a protest of meeting to the material suffering. The religion is sigh of the suppressed creature, the heart of a world heartless and of the soul of circumstances soulless. He is opium of the peoples.
The syntax is beginning to wobble a bit, and there's just a hint of aphasia: "a protest of meeting to the material suffering." But I wanted total unintelligibility, so I forged ahead.

The drawer simultaneous difficulties, the expression of the equipment for you you took difficulties and a protest around for comes to the contact to with for him dances the drawer material difficulties. The drawer religion sigh that are avoided the drawer of the creature of the heart of the world and of the circumstance. It is the population opium.
We're beginning here to babble incoherently, and it's almost time to fetch the saliva bucket, but it's not yet in the bag and ash. There are still hints of intelligibility here and there. More work to be done.

The simultaneous difficulties of the crate the expression of the relative equipment for you have it the permitted difficulties, and this on the part of approximate in contact the equipment of the protests of the crate dance the relative difficulty with it. Sighs the religion of the crate, he is avoided in the crate of the creature of the heart of the peace and the circumstance. This opium of the population.
Eureka! Now, THAT is a true muddle of babble, a mumbo jumbo of blathering hugger-mugger. And yet, you can still feel empathy for the crate, which (I assume) is creaking under the weight of too much relative equipment. Dance the relative difficulty with it! Sigh with the religion of the crate! The poor thing is avoided even in the crate of the creature of the heart of the peace and the cirumstance! O ungrateful creature of the heart! O world! O humanity! This injustice! This opium of the population!

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

A tale of two Christians

On Monday, televangelist Pat Robertson urged the U.S. government to assassinate Hugo Chavez, the elected president of Venezuala. On Tuesday, Brother Roger Schutz, founder of the ecumenical Taizé community, was buried in a funeral liturgy that attracted 10,000 mourners from every continent.

Robertson calls himself a Christian, and so did Brother Roger, but are their gods the same?

Pat Robertson's god is the military messiah of Armageddon theology. Like some other evangelicals (not all, thank God) Robertson reads the Bible as a fantasy novel about revenge. His Jesus is the muscular action hero of pop culture: a Punisher, Terminator or Darkman who exterminates his enemies with brutal efficiency. But for Robertson, the Bible is not so much a revenge novel as it is a copy of tomorrow's newspaper that arrived miraculously at his front doorstep. There's not much room for the cross in Robertson's vision of god: the crucifixion was merely a hiccup in God's plan for the ages. A divine seizure of political power through apocalyptic warfare is the destination of human history.

Brother Roger's god is the crucified One whose arms reach out in an embrace wide enough for all humanity. His god has no enemies list, and neither did Brother Roger. In "The Wonder of a Love" he quotes the early Christian theologian Diognetus: "There is no violence in God. God sent Christ not to accuse us, but to call us to himself, not to judge us, but because he loves us." For Brother Roger and Taizé, the reconciliation of humanity through Christ is the goal and object of history.

Which god is the true God of Israel and the church? And if Robertson's Jesus is not god, then who, or what, is he?

Pat Roberston

Robertson calls for Chávez assassination (AP)
Hugo Chávez vs. America (700 Club)
'I personally thank Robertson for warning the nation'
Left perspectives on Venezuela

Brother Roger

Solemn funeral for Taizé founder (BBC)
Resurrection eucharist for Brother Roger of Taizé (ACNS)
Taizé website with funeral coverage
The spirituality of Taizé (Spirituality Today)

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Books, CDs, Videos


I'm beginning to build an online shop for you, dear visitor. You'll find this collection of books, music and film to be eclectic and, perhaps, eccentric. But that's what the ego-trip called blogging is all about. If my obsessions became your obsessions, then we would have world peace.

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