Wednesday, January 19, 2011

And who is my brother?

I suspect that Alabama Governor Bob Bentley should discuss his religion in the way the Savior advised his followers to pray: in secret. He has told his fellow Christians what they already believed and thrown secular America into a panic, convinced that new Salem Witch Trials are just around the corner.

At a black church in Birmingham, the not-so-subtle Bob announced that those who did not profess faith in Christ were not his brothers and sisters and, from the reaction I'm seeing online, skeptics everywhere are ready to begin impeachment proceedings.

Everyone take a deep breath.

I'm a lot more alarmed, frankly, by reports that have come out of the Air Force Academy in the last few years about cadets being pressured to be "soldiers of Christ."

The governor's remarks took place, not in the legislative chamber, but in a church. Does he somehow forfeit the right to speak of his faith for no reason than that he holds public office?

The remarks seems to have been made in the course of a clumsy attempt to portray himself as more tolerant (racially). He wanted to make the point that color made no difference to him as to Christian brotherhood, but faith in Jesus did.

In the context of Christian theology, what he said was precisely correct. The sort of Christian who believes in the necessity of being "born again" reserves the terms "brother" and "sister" for those who also profess that experience; they are not meant as expressions of general approbation, as they are for much of society at large.

A poster on one message board speculated on what would have happened had a non-Christian said this, and I agree it's worth examining. If an Orthodox Jewish Mayor had stood in an Orthodox synagogue and said "Anyone who doesn't keep Kosher is not truly my fellow Jew," narrow-minded as that might have been, would anyone conclude from that, that the Mayor was about to impose Kosher dietary laws on the entire city or appoint only fellow Orthodox Jews to important posts?

If a Sunni Muslim city councilman stood in a mosque and said "Only my fellow Sunnis are true servants of the prophet; Shia is a perversion of the faith," would anyone believe he was proclaiming jihad in America?

This was a Christian, speaking in a church, using a term to which his kind of Christian attaches a very precise meaning. He specifically said that those who did not have faith in Jesus were not his brother and sister, meaning that in the theology of what he believes, the matter of their salvation is not settled as he believes his is. And are those of us who wouldn't care to join his club in the first place going to gripe because, though we have no interest in being born again, he doesn't speak of us as if we were?


© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?

Sherwin Nuland's 1994 book, How We Die, records the horrifying story of a young girl butchered on a street in Connecticut in front of her mother by a powerfully built psychotic who had somehow slipped through the cracks of the state's mental health system. Instances like this, the Virginia Tech murders, and, now, the tragedy in Tucson make everyone wonder, "But why doesn't someone do something about those people?"

This needn't imply a judgmental attitude toward those who commit violent acts. Mental illness is just that; several attempts were made on the life of Queen Victoria, but it was obvious that the shooters were insane and, though convicted of treason for attempts on the life of the monarch, they were not executed, even in that harsh age. Sarah Jane Moore, who missed the head of President Gerald Ford by just six inches when she fired at him in 1975, was similarly disturbed and apparently still is; as late as 2009, she said she was glad both that she had failed to kill the President and that she had tried. (Never mind the irony of her having been an FBI informant at the time of the attempt!)

It doesn't matter to the victims that, as an article in The New Republic points out, one's chances of being killed by the mentally ill in a given year are one in 14 million; if you are within range of Seung-Hui Cho in West Ambler Johnston Hall in Blacksburg, Virginia, on the morning of April 16, 2007, the rarity of your predicament is cold comfort. If you are the bereaved survivor of a victim, you are enraged.

My cousin lost his 13-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to the rage and irrationality of a man who shot them and their mother to death one night 2 years ago; an enterprising reporter tracked down the man's former wife, who said that she had often urged him to seek counseling for the violent thoughts and fantasies that were a continuing part of his mental experience, but he had refused. State government was not aware of his problem and employed him as a park ranger; although it was not required for his work, he legally carried the gun with which he slaughtered his wife and stepchildren.

What should be done? States should look very seriously at adequate funding for mental health programs. As the article in The New Republic points out, some states, such as New York, are setting up structures of outpatient services, combined with assertive efforts to contact those who seem to be in need and encourage them to use the services.

Background checks for gun ownership should be more thorough. In the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy, background checks were sharply on the rise, and that's as it should be.

Public figures should be aware of the need for security in an age of increased risk and plan accordingly. It need not be oppressive or even very obvious; according to one article I read this week, no public figure has been killed in the United States since 1978, while pacifistic Sweden, ironically, has tragically lost two politicians to violence. We don't have to risk another absurd "Don't tase me, Bro!" episode simply to take reasonable steps to protect public servants.

What should not be done? Panic-based broadening of the criteria for commitment. It took 15 years of involuntary and unnecessary confinement of a man locked up in Florida with hardened criminals, subject to daily abuse, though he was no danger to anyone, to get the courts to erect a safe standard to preserve individual integrity in this matter. Not every oddball is a threat. A woman walked around Midtown Memphis for years, approaching strangers for bus fare and loudly cursing those who did not comply, but she was not dangerous. I encountered a man named George wandering the campus of the University of Memphis, wearing a turban, approaching guest lecturers and holding up a crystal to their faces that he claimed enabled him to read their thoughts, until the University forbade him to attend lectures any more. George fantasized that he was the confidant of the world's intelligence agencies and that every woman who smiled at him at a coffee counter was interested. Eventually, he blew his brains out for sheer loneliness. He needed help but was not a danger to anyone else.

If we had geniune psychics walking around like the ones that predicted murders about to happen in the film Minority Report of a few years ago, we could spot the potential Jared Lee Loughners and Seung-Hui Chos and take preventive action. Absent that capability, we can't, and we are at risk for targeting the merely eccentric and constructing a paranoid society so intrusive, so punitive, that it makes airport security groping seem inconsequential by comparison and forces everyone who is strikingly different in some way to hide behind a bland mask. It would have clapped Stonewall Jackson in a confinement ward after enough people noticed Jackson's eccentric tendency to march the streets of Lexington, Virginia with one arm continually raised high in the air to "align his organs." It would isolate the decidedly individualistic and anyone who didn't happen to fit a conventional frame of reference.

My late friend Charles was interviewed by a social worker in a child custody dispute. She spotted his Wild Turkey on the sideboard and his Sons of Confederate Veterans plaque; he voluntarily showed her the licensed pistol he kept in an upstairs closet, unloaded and with the safety on. She wrote up a report portraying him as a whiskey-guzzling, gun waving, yahoo who was a potential danger to his own son. That is one of the outcomes I fear.

I volunteered at a street mission once (to write operations manuals for them in their use of computers); the young man who showed me around later confided that "the Lord" had shown him that I had "put a curse on his head" and that he had to repel the demons. I don't want him locked up, and I don't care to be confined either, at the behest of his fervent fellow believers. I don't want to see mental warrants sworn out by spiteful family members or score-settling neighbors or co-workers. The system we have now is quite imperfect--Sarah Jane Moore had been vetted by the Secret Service before that fateful day in 1975 and labeled not dangerous--but so is the thinking that would have everyone peering into everyone else's hearts and minds in an inclination to see danger, not realizing the extent to which they were seeing the vagaries of their own minds.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A moment’s reflection

I agree with what Emerson wrote in his essay "Social Aims":
“It is an excellent custom of the Quakers, if only for a school of manners—the silent prayer before meals. It has the effect to stop mirth, and introduce a moment of reflection.”

That custom seems in danger of going the way of dinner table conversation and handwritten thank-you notes.

The skeptic may plead that he is aware of no definite Being to whom he could address anything like a prayer. I think something like the following should be suitable:
May we be grateful
For blessings that enrich us through no efforts of our own.
May we be mindful
Of those who spend each day in want through no fault of their own.
May we determine
To seek the good of all and not our private gain alone.
May we discover
Grace, wisdom, strength to aid us facing challenges unknown.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Death on a cold day

Chesterton once wrote that while everyone was seeking to accommodate themselves to the spirit of the age, most progress in history had occurred at the hands of men who refused to accommodate themselves to anything.

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, died on this day in 1645, on Tower Hill by the headsman's axe, on orders of Parliament. He was 71 and so loathed that only his advanced age had spared him the gruesome evisceration that many wished to inflict on him.

Laud, with Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, had formed the chief support of the detested political and religious policies of Charles I, a painfully well-meaning man and one of the most egregiously unfit ever to occupy the English throne. Laud resisted the Puritans, the Tea Party of their day, suppressing unauthorized pamphlets and having their authors confined to the pillory with their ears sheared off. He walled off the east wall of churches to contain the altar and enforced bowing at the name of Jesus in the Anglican liturgy, as well as the wearing of the surplice. He and Strafford developed a policy they called “Thorough” for upholding the King's edicts that provoked howls of outrage in England and Ireland alike. Execrated by his opponents and laughed at behind his back by his royalist confrères—Queen Henrietta Maria saw him, accurately, as a fussy, pompous little man—he was unyielding in his determination to see things done as his judgment told him was best and wept while attempting to bestow a final benediction on his friend Strafford as the latter was being led to the block in 1641.

Laud was not a lovable man. Peevish, temperamental, self-important, impatient, suspicious—after a dinner party, he counted his silver spoons to make sure the guests had not stolen any—he was mocked even by the King's fool, Archie Moore, who quipped “All glory to God and little Laud to the devil.” His intolerance of opposition and his relentless insistence on a beautiful and orderly liturgy made him so hated that the first and only attempt to introduce his edition of the Book of Common Prayer into Scottish worship at St. Giles' Cathedral in 1637 provoked a riot. Macaulay, the paradigmatic Whig, objected to Laud's fate only because, as he put it, ignoring the deposed prelate would have been the best punishment that his Parliamentary foes could have inflicted on the “ridiculous old bigot.”

Typical of his imperious nature, Laud was a man of contradictions. He was Chancellor of Oxford, where he endowed a professorship of Arabic, but he expelled undergraduates and disciplined faculty who objected to his religious views. Detested as a crypto-Roman Catholic by thousands, he refused the offer of a cardinal's post from the Vatican if he would only convert.

Why remember him? Against all expectations, Laud, who had lived and died by the principle that a church that had “one Lord and one faith should speak with one heart and one mouth” influenced the course of his mother church more than he might have hoped or his enemies feared. Because of him, Anglicanism swerved neither to the right nor the left: it did not turn into a species of Presbyterianism with bare liturgical overtones or, on the other hand, a mere curiosity, a pale echo of the religion of Rome, a forlorn orphan pining for its parent. Anglicanism remained whole and complete, and echoes of Laud's standards and beliefs can be discerned in Anglican worship today; it descended even to the Episcopal Church of the new American nation when, following the Revolutionary War, the first bishop of the American Church, Samuel Seabury, had to be consecrated by Scottish bishops using Laud's prayerbook of 1637. English bishops could not consecrate an American, because their form of worship would have required a swearing of allegiance to the English King.

How ironic that a man so consumed with his own importance, so full of anger and peevishness, so capable of harshness and cruelty, should have been the means through which the spirit of his church was preserved! The Deity does, indeed, work in mysterious ways. Those contemporaries of Laud considered in his day to be among the lights of Christian piety—Lancelot Andrewes, George Herbert, William Juxon—are known today mostly to specialists of that period. Herbert's poems, beautiful as they are, are an assignment for graduate students in English. The figures of speech in Andrewes's sermons are sometimes ridiculously overdone, and his book of private devotions, valuable as it is, is seldom consulted. No one remembers any longer that it was Juxon who accompanied Charles I to his own appointment with the headsman on another January morning, 4 years after Laud's death, so cold that Charles wore two shirts so that onlookers would not think he was trembling from fear.

No, it was neither Herbert, nor Andrewes, nor Jeremy Taylor, nor even later luminaries like Thomas Ken who preserved Anglican worship as something worthy and distinct, but this cranky little man, nearly eaten alive with impatience that the world could not see things his way and that he could no longer whip it into conformity, forced to witness the gleeful dismantling of everything he had fought for, and finally crying out, in a sort of despairing faith, “Lord, I am coming to you as fast as I can,” as his contemptuous jailers came to lead him to the chopping block. In a final moment of uncharacteristic humility, he said this prayer, which is found today in the Book of Common Prayer. It is his best epitaph:
Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.