Journeys in Alterity Has Moved!

Good morning, faithful readers. Starting immediately, I’ll be publishing this blog over at The League of Ordinary Gentleman as one of the excellent site’s sub-blogs. You can subscribe to the feed here. Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you over at the new location.

In the near future, I’ll be converting this site into a professional website for my freelance writing and editing work. The blog archives will still be available here. I will also be continuing to write at Vox Nova, although I will no longer be cross-posting what I write there at JiA. Yes, I’ve split myself in two, but no, I’m not making a horcrux.


About Those Conscience Protections

Michael Sean Winters is understandably miffed at the HHS ruling that will require many Catholic institutions to cover contraceptives in their insurance policies. Indeed, the president has lost his vote. President Obama never had my vote, but I could add his refusal to expand conscience exemptions to my reasons why.

I understand why he went ahead with the ruling as is. He thought it was the right thing to do. Contra the statements of celibate religious authorities, most people value the widespread availability of contraceptives as a much-needed social good. Obama met opposition from a vocal minority that, let's face it, doesn't represent the majority of Catholics, who use contraceptives without a second thought. My guess is that Obama, if he considered the reaction from Catholics at all, figured only a tiny minority would be bothered by the mandate. If the majority of Catholics don't follow their faith’s teachings to the letter, why should Obama be expected to take those teachings seriously?

When making decisions about social policy, especially policies that will have major ramifications for voters, any skilled politician will make a cost-benefit analysis. In this case, Obama had very little to lose and much to gain by making contraceptives more readily available. The official teachings of the church wouldn't interest him so much as the actual opinions of voting Catholics, who for the most part either don't care or probably think expanded access to contraceptives is a good thing.

Nevertheless, President Obama should have expanded the conscious exemptions. First, while the state shares responsibility for the healthcare of the people within it, the state has the primary responsibility of protecting the rights and freedoms of its people. Helping people bear the burden of healthcare costs, noble as it is, is no excuse to violate religious freedoms. Second, by not expanding the exemptions, Obama betrayed his promises to Catholic supporters of his policies, notably the Affordable Care Act. Obama earned their support in part by promising to uphold conscience protections. They took the move as a slap in the face. Third, the ruling may prove counter-productive. Catholic institutions—some of them anyway— participate in healthcare on the condition that they are free to follow Catholic ethical norms. Forcing these institutions to materially cooperate with what they deem contrary to their faith incentivizes them to cease such participation.

Catholics have every right to fight this ruling tooth and nail.  (VN)

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The U.S. Is a Mortal Threat to Iran

Sharp wordsmith Mark Helprin is among my favorite novelists, but his occasional meanderings into strategic analysis and wonkery leave much to be desired. Case in point: his latest in The Wall Street Journal, an assumptions-ridden piece peppered with inconsistencies and misrepresentations arguing for a U.S. attack on the "Iranian nuclear weapons complex." While not calling for an invasion, Helprin suggests "massive ordnance penetrators; lesser but precision-guided penetrators 'drilling' one after another; fuel-air detonations with almost the force of nuclear weapons; high-power microwave attack; the destruction of laboratories, unhardened targets, and the Iranian electrical grid; and other means." He shows no shred of doubt about the consequences of his proposed strike, dismissing any long-term terror retaliation or a military response from either Russia or China. Nor does Helprin express any calculation of the human cost Iran would suffer by the attacks he so desperately champions, a cost which should figure into any consideration of lethal force.

Let me get this out of the way: I don't for a minute think that the U.S. is a terrorist state, run by a regime enthused by malicious and hateful intent. I wouldn't equate it morally with worst abusers of human rights around the globe. Having said this, however, it pains me to say that the U.S. and those supportive of its aggressions are gravely negligent and careless about the real human costs of those aggressions. As a result of negligence and carelessness--and, for the record, murders--the U.S. has spilt a lot of blood and piled up a lot of bodies. The truth is this: the U.S. is at least as great a mortal threat as most dictatorial and terrorist regimes are.  

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They’re Strangers to Me; Kill Away!

The other day, while at a birthday party for a friend of my son, I initiated a discussion with a couple of the parents about the presidential candidates. The subject of the assassinated Iranian scientists came up because I, instigator that I am, brought it up. The two people with whom I was engaged expressed their being okay with possible U.S. involvement in these killings. One of them openly shared her reason for not caring: “I don’t know them. Nobody I know knows them.” Stopping Iran from producing a nuke seemed to be all that mattered. Don’t want to get wacked? Don’t be an Iranian scientist.

Last night, while listening to the latest debate, I heard the audience boo the suggestion that we ought to apply the Golden Rule to our dealings and relations with foreign powers and people. Ares forbid we treat strangers the way we want to be treated. Woe to those who put themselves in another’s place and consider the world from his or her perspective.

Enter Robert Wright: “I've long thought that the biggest single problem in the world is the failure of "moral imagination"--the inability or unwillingness of people to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from their own. Especially incendiary is the failure to extend moral imagination across national, religious, or ethnic borders.” When I reflect upon the gravest of social ills, I realize he’s correct: a failure of moral imagination underlies all of them. And what’s scary is that, while I cannot picture myself committing horrid deeds along the lines of terrorism, genocide, or butchery, I’m guilty of the disposition that gives these evils birth. For all my talk of hospitality and alterity and all that jazz, I’m a selfish, self-centered lout who all too often cares little to nothing for my fellow strangers, their walks of life, and their perspectives on the world.

How do we nurture a moral imagination? Freddie DeBoer gives us a clue. When he was thirteen, he took a trip with his father to Indonesia:
One night, he woke me gently and led me outside, where one of his Balinese friends waited for him. We were in the village, inland, where few tourists ventured, at least at that time. We got in a bemo and drove for awhile, and when we got out, my father led me by hand in the moonlight to a mass grave.
We met an old man there. If you know the right people and know how to ask, you can still find them, I'm sure, older Indonesians who will tell you the stories. He walked us over to the roadside-- I have no idea where we were, geographically-- and showed us a shaded ditch. It was dark, and anyway, there was nothing to see. Just dirt, just earth. You would never have known that bodies were piled underneath, just a few feet down. The older man started speaking and my father spoke to him. (He spoke such wonderful Indonesian, and serviceable Balinese, I envy it even now.) He translated for me, briefly. I bent over and put my hand on the dirt. I tried to imagine my own family, what was left of it then, crammed down underground, with dozens of others. I tried to do whatever I could to make it real. The dirt made it corporeal. It was something I could touch, lay my hand on. I have never been the same, never.
We have to find ways to make the lives and deaths of others real to us, because, if we don’t, then not only will we not care when bodies are piled in graves, being inclined instead to cheer the killing, but also we may be the very ones getting our hands bloody.  (VN)

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Chief Executive Murder

About ten days ago I wrote ironically that a President of the United States cannot be a murderer because, for the most part, the general public doesn't consider the deliberate killings of innocent people in which he is complicit to have been acts of murder.  Well, guess who's been helping to perpetuate this myth?  That's right: "pro-life" presidential long-shot Rick Santorum.   Now that Santorum is under public scrutiny, some comments he made back in October about offed Iranian scientists are making the rounds.  The wannabe Jaqen H'ghar had this to say:
On occasion scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead. I think that's a wonderful thing, candidly. I think we should send a very clear message that if you are a scientist from Russia, North Korea, or from Iran and you are going to work on a nuclear program to develop a bomb for Iran, you are not safe.
Santorum expressed his hope that the United States has been involved in these deaths, and justified the past and future assassinations on the basis that the U.S. has already assassinated an American citizen, so why not?  None of these killings qualify as murder or terrorism, of course, because the United States by definition doesn't do those sorts of things.  Sure, it may appear to do so, but substantially the actions must be different because of who's doing them.

This, folks, is the myth of the United States.  It's one thing that won't change in 2012.  No hope.

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Does It Matter What We Believe?

In a word, yes, but I understand why some readers took me to be implying the opposite in my previous post, the one about a friend ceasing to consider himself a Christian. Michael Brendan Dougherty, for example, felt I was giving another’s loss of faith no more than a shrug, when an appropriate response would have been to throw a life preserver or rope to the man overboard. Instead, I had wished my friend well in his faith journey and explained why his apostasy, so to speak, was for me no cause for fear. I expressed my respect for his faith journey, even though it differs in direction and manner from my own.

I stand by everything I wrote in that post, but some qualification may help. It is not my position that everyone’s beliefs and ideas are equal. People who pursue the truth do so to varying degrees. Some get closer than others. Some people don’t give two pellets of newt poop for the truth; they’re devoted to something else. Rest assured I harbor no respect for journeys in selfish self-gratification. I may be a pluralist, but I’m no relativist.

Now to qualify my qualification: it matters what we believe and what think, but it matters more that we’re habitually disposed to the truth and its pursuit. I’m a parent of children whom I am raising in my faith. However well or poorly they are catechized, they may in life stray from my beliefs. That possibility worries me, a little, but I’m more concerned that they maintain an interest in the truth. I’d rather they be passionate about true knowledge and unflinchingly seek it out than they have no care for what’s real while going through the motions of their religion. The former allows for movement toward God; the latter is really only the illusion of the soul’s ascent.

I dare say that faith doesn’t always look like faith. It isn’t only manifested in recited creeds, liturgical celebrations, and having one’s doctrinal propositions in order. If faith is a response to God, then it’s a response to the truth, in which case those who strive after true knowledge by definition have faith. And that gives me hope. (VN)

A Christian No More

Friend in the ‘sphere Andrew Hackman declares he’s no longer a Christian: “I really don't consider myself a Christian anymore. Somewhere along the way (to be explained in more detail in a future blog post), I realized that the claims of my religious beliefs had no more inherent validity than anyone else's. Once the light bulb goes on that your group sounds to every other group the way every other group sounds to yours... and that REALLY sinks in... well, it's all up hill from there.” This journey uphill Andrew describes as being a hopeful agnostic.

I sympathize. The convergence of postmodern pluralism and instant global communication technology has revealed a world of countless creeds, doctrines, myths, and rituals. The notion of there being one God or one reality to which only one faith gives true testimony seems especially ludicrous today, and not merely on the surface. Each faith points back to an origin that can no more be demonstrated empirically than proven theologically.

Considering faith from the perspective of others leads one to the realization that, functionally, the world’s confessional faiths are all doing basically the same thing. They all claim to give voice to a deeper truth—sometimes called God, sometimes called something else; sometimes through sacred texts, sometimes through ritual action. How can an outsider decide between them?

Choices are made, of course. People commit themselves to a religion or faith-based way of life. People convert. They fall away and forsake one faith for another or for no faith at all. People have their reasons for choosing one faith over another, but none of these reasons is a direct line to God. We tend to go with what makes the most sense to us given our situation, circumstances, and life experiences. Christianity no longer makes sense to Andrew, and so he no longer considers himself a Christian. Catholicism makes more sense than the alternatives to me, and so here I am.

Admittedly, the appeal the Catholic faith has for me more to do with the ways in which its myths and sacramental rituals enthuse my imagination than with the impression its teachings have upon my reason. I remain committed to living according to its teachings, even the ones secular society deems silly, but I find myself more inspired to live according to its stories. I may be one of those types who would remain Catholic even if it could be shown that there was no literal truth to its account of the universe. If Catholicism is just a fiction, well then to heaven with it!

Anyhow, I wish Andrew the best in his faith journey, a journey that for everyone means a passage through the cloud of unknowing, an unknowing that ends only in death. Sorry folks: even the best of creeds and dogmas cannot capture God: the best they can do is point us to what is wholly other. Andrew tells us that Christians he knows fear he’ll burn in hell for his abandonment of the name “Christian.” I do not share their presumptuous and despairing concern. It makes no sense to me given the image of the Crucified Christ: God goes to all that trouble only to deny those whose honest and hopeful search for the truth leads them to places that make pastors nervous? Get real.

Yes, truth matters. It matters a lot, which is why I have to respect the journey towards it, even when the journey differs in direction and manner from my own. If my saying this makes you nervous, all I can say in response is, “Be not afraid. God goes before us always.”  (VN)

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The President Cannot Be a Murderer

United States foreign policy being what it is, the Commander-in-Chief cannot but be complicit in the deaths of innocent people, some of which resulted not from accidents, but from “the cost of doing business.” Despite this fact, the populace generally doesn’t think of the president as a murder, as someone who has unjustly and intentionally killed (or had killed) innocent people.

One reason for this stands out: the state has a monopoly on the use of violence. It can legitimately kill—even kill innocent people—where you and I cannot. When state violence results in what for you or me would constitute mass murder, the deaths are called mistakes but not crimes, unfortunate but not negligent, collateral damage but not murder. Case in point: the president has at his disposal weapons of mass destruction, but not weapons of mass murder.
While the state’s monopoly on the use of violence pretty well explains why we don’t consider the Commander-in-Chief a murderer, there may be another reason: we hold officials of the state to a different moral standard, at least when they’re conducting official state business like killing people. After all, having a monopoly on the use of violence doesn’t mean all one’s violence is legitimate and justified. No, some other mode of thought is at work here.  (VN)

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