Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, October 31, 2005

What Rosa Parks meant

"Here was a woman who through a very unassuming personal action triggered a whole movement. I want to pay homage to that. As a white person, I find it particularly extraordinary that her act was such a universal message. It did as much for me as [for] any minority in our society."

--Brian Higgins of Takoma Park, Md., quoted in The New York Times 10/31/05

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Justification in action: an amazing story

This article from the October 18 New York Times by Paul Vitello is extraordinary, not only because it illustrates mercy, but far more rare and memorable, it describes an almost perfect balance between justice and mercy, condemnation and acquittal, punishment and restoration. I can't remember ever having read anything quite like it.

RIVERHEAD, N.Y., Oct. 17 - The compassion of a Long Island woman, Victoria Ruvolo, who was nearly killed 11 months ago when a 20-pound frozen turkey was thrown into the windshield of the car she was driving, helped secure a lenient jail sentence on Monday for the young man who was charged with the crime.

"You're being given an extraordinary gift," Judge Barbara Kahn of Suffolk County Court told the defendant, Ryan Cushing, 19, in sentencing him to six months in the county jail and five years' probation.

Mr. Cushing might have faced as much as 25 years in prison on the multiple felony charges originally brought against him in the attack, on Nov. 13, which broke every bone in Ms. Ruvolo's face and left her with brain injuries. After two weeks in an induced coma, she underwent months of surgery and rehabilitation, and continues to suffer impairments, though she has returned to work.

The Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas J. Spota, and Mr. Cushing's lawyer, William Keahon, seemed genuinely awed by the victim's temperate sense of justice. "Had she taken a different position than she did," Mr. Keahon said, "my client would have been incarcerated for many years. This to me is a very spiritual thing."

Before Monday's sentencing, Mr. Cushing handed Ms. Ruvolo an envelope containing what his lawyer said was a four-page letter. In it, Mr. Cushing apologized for what he had done: tossing the turkey into oncoming traffic from the back seat of a moving car carrying him and four other teenagers. And he thanked Ms. Ruvolo for her central role in urging Mr. Spota to be lenient in his prosecution. The defendant and the victim then embraced.

In his formal statement before sentencing, which he read from notes, the defendant turned to Ms. Ruvolo and said: "Your ability to forgive has had a profound effect on me. It has already made a positive change in my life."

But despite her role in swaying Mr. Spota, and despite a highly emotional scene in the courtroom last August, when Ms. Ruvolo stroked Mr. Cushing's head while he repeatedly apologized and sobbed on her shoulder, Ms. Ruvolo showed her sterner side as she delivered a victim impact statement...She said: "I have not absolved you. I expect you to take the consequences of your actions, both criminally and civilly." Courthouse observers assumed she intended to file a suit for damages. She has said she holds all five of the teenagers in the car that night responsible. The four others involved in the case have settled by pleading guilty to lesser charges and accepting terms of probation...

In [Ms. Ruvolo’s] statement, she said: "If I had been alone in the car that night, I would have died. It upsets me that at the cost of my life, not one of the teenagers had the guts or decency to come back or call 911. This haunts me. I wouldn't leave an animal to suffer on the side of the road, let alone my fellow man."

Still, Ms. Ruvolo's statement remained anchored in the same sense of compassion and justice that seems to have guided her throughout the case. It is a sense that seems rooted in the personal and particular, rather than in any fixed idea of justice.

"I sincerely hope you have learned from this awful experience, Ryan," she said. "There is no room for vengeance in my life. I know you are remorseful."
She added: "I've stubbornly rejected the notion that you should be treated more harshly. I truly hope that by demonstrating compassion and leniency, I have encouraged you to seek an honorable life."

"I believe that sometimes different paths cross for one reason or another," she concluded. "Ryan, prove me right."


Reaction to this post (and the Times article) has already been noteworthy. For instance, Peter Hoytema writes:

"I don't know about you, but my pastoral experience has indicated on many occasions that people are often misguided in their understanding about the nature of forgiveness. I continue to be surprised by the fact that many seasoned Christian believers commonly equate forgiveness with the suspension of judgement. True mercy, it is often assumed, cancels out the consequences of sinful behavior. Forgiveness, in the opinon of many, basically means that people should not be held accountable for whatever foolish choices they may have made. I'm not sure what kind of categories Ms. Ruvolo is working with in her own thinking about forgiveness, but her gracious act sure looks like forgiveness to me, despite her own statement to the contrary. She says she has not absolved Ryan of facing the consequences of his action. This is well and good. It's unfortunate that too many people think that forgiveness negates all judgement, and that mercy does away with accountability. The cross of Jesus Christ clearly indicates otherwise. There, the preeminent manifestation of grace coincides with the supreme display of judgement. Grace, as Bonhoeffer famously pointed out, is always free but it is never cheap. I've always liked the way Augustine put it: we are not so much punished for our sins as we are by them. That, it seems to me is exactly the difference between judgement and discernment and why, especially in the practice of forgiveness, it is so important that we heed our Lord's admonition to be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves."


Another friend was baffled by Ms. Ruvolo, did not think she was sincerely forgiving. In this context I recalled an observation of the distinguished New Testament scholar Reginald Fuller, who wrote (I forget the source), "forgiveness is not enough." It is helpful for our understanding when we realize that the apostle Paul almost never spoke of forgiveness. His term was justification. A better translation of this word, which is gaining in favor, is rectification. The point here is that forgiveness is too weak a word to encompass all that is involved in God's creative action to set things right. Justification is not simply acquittal (or "legal fiction," as some have complained). Rather, it is God's transforming, redemptive action on behalf of his creature and his created world. Judgment upon what is wrong is necessary for the rectification of the sinner and, ultimately, of the principalities and powers and the whole cosmos.

Race in America: the humanity of August Wilson 1945-2005
(excerpts from obituary in The New York Times 10/3/05)

Mr. Wilson did not write plays with specific political agendas, but he did believe art could subtly effect social change. And while his essential aim was to evoke and ennoble the collective African-American experience, he also believed his work could help rewrite some of those rules.

"I think my plays offer (white Americans] a different way to look at black Americans," he told The Paris Review. "For instance, in Fences they see a garbageman, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman’s life is affected by the same things [as theirs]—-love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives."

...[Wilson] was a connoisseur of the art of storytelling offstage and on. Here’s the story behind all his character’s stories, in his own words: "I once wrote a short story called ‘The Best Blues Singer in the World’ and it went like this: ‘The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.’ End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I’ve been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story. I’m not sure what it means other than life is hard."

PBS broadcast about the number one issue of our time in America

Please listen out there: for what it's worth, though abortion is a sinful sign of the Fall from God's once and future plan for us, that is not the issue that threatens to destroy the special destiny of America (and I do believe that we were called to such a destiny). Until April 2003 (the date of the Abu Ghraib revelations) I thought the defining issue was capital punishment, and in some ways it still is; but if we look unblinkingly upon the brutalizing effects of harsh treatment of prisoners, not only upon the captives themselves but also (and especially) upon its perpetrators (much data is available), then the number-one issue that transforms fresh-faced sons and daughters of Christian America into torturers is the Bush administration-sponsored short-cutting of the Geneva Conventions. Actually, never mind the Genevas--what about simple human decency? What about the fundamental Christian calling to be merciful to those who are entirely in our power?

Anyway, if you didn't see the PBS program (and probably very few did) here is a link to the New York Times review of it.

Better still, go to the PBS site for direct contact with the documentary itself.

Monday, October 17, 2005

A Moral Crisis in America

Sojourners alerts us this week to a moment of reckoning that all Christians must take seriously. They have explained it better than I can. If there were ever a time for the church to join with God's "preferential option for the poor," this is it. Here is the link:

Sunday, October 16, 2005

George Washington and the treatment of prisoners

Thomas Friedman wrote a column on March 24 that bears repeating, especially since Washington's appeal has skyrocketed in recent years along with that of the other Founders. The title of the column was "George W. to George W." Here are some excerpts:


I know war is hell and ugliness abounds in every corner. I also understand that in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, we are up against a vicious enemy, which, if it had the power, would do great harm to our country. You do not deal with such people with kid gloves. But killing prisoners of war, presumably in the act of torture, is an inexcusable outrage. The fact that Congress has just shrugged this off, and no senior official or officer has been fired, is a travesty...

By coincidence, while following this prisoner abuse story, I've been reading "Washington's Crossing," the outstanding book by the Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer about how George Washington and his troops rescued the American Revolution after British forces and German Hessian mercenaries had routed them in the early battles around New Jersey.

What is particularly moving is one of Mr. Fischer's concluding sections, "An American Way of War," in which he contrasts how Washington dealt with prisoners of war with how the British and Hessian forces did: "According to the 'the laws' of European war, quarter was the privilege of being allowed to surrender and to become a prisoner. By custom and tradition, soldiers in Europe believed that they had a right to extend quarter or deny it. ... In these 'laws of war,' no captive had an inalienable right to be taken prisoner, or even to life itself."

American attitudes were very different. "With some exceptions, American leaders believed that quarter should be extended to all combatants as a matter of right. ... Americans were outraged when quarter was denied to their soldiers." In one egregious incident, at the battle at Drake's Farm, British troops murdered all seven of Washington's soldiers who had surrendered, crushing their brains with muskets.

"The Americans recovered the mutilated corpses and were shocked," wrote Mr. Fischer. The British commander simply denied responsibility. "The words of the British commander, as much as the acts of his men," wrote Mr. Fischer, "reinforced the American resolve to run their own war in a different spirit. ... Washington ordered that Hessian captives would be treated as human beings with the same rights of humanity for which Americans were striving. The Hessians ... were amazed to be treated with decency and even kindness. At first they could not understand it." The same policy was extended to British prisoners.

In concluding his book, Mr. Fischer wrote lines that President Bush would do well to ponder: George Washington and the American soldiers and civilians fighting alongside him in the New Jersey campaign not only reversed the momentum of a bitter war, but they did so by not only reversed the momentum of a bitter war, but they did so by choosing "a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution. They set a high example, and we have much to learn from them."

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Note to preachers: Harvard and Yale get George Herbert, for once

Helen Vendler is University Professor at Harvard and Langdon Hammer is chairman of the English department at Yale. In this week's New York Times Book Review (10/16/05) Langdon reviews Vendler's new book, Invisible Listeners, and in the process manages to cut through to the very heart of the gospel to remind us of the mandate granted to every preacher. Note especially the phrases "the ordaining function" and "the divine agency." Langdon-cum-Vendler interpret Herbert to give us a superb Pauline definition of justification (better translated as "rectification"). Vendler is analysing one of Herbert's most well-known poems. Here is Hammer's key paragraph:

[Vendler makes a] fine discrimination in her discussion of "Love (III)," Herbert's dialogue between Love [the person of Christ] and the poet. The poet feels unworthy to join in Love's banquet, which signifies both the Eucharist and general human connection. Love, a gracious host with exquisite manners, asks if there is anything the drooping poet lacks:

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
Love said, you shall be he.

Vendler notes the ordaining function of Herbert's "shall be." In contrast to the simple "will be" of futurity, it not only says the poet will be worthy, but promises, through divine agency, to make him so.

Reinhold Niebuhr and the self-righteousness of the righteous

Arthur Schlesinger has succeeded in jump-starting a renewed interest in Reinhold Niebuhr and the socio-political themes of his work. A letter to The New York Times Book Review (10/16/05) sums up much of what is important here (emphasis added):

To the Editor:

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. is right that we desperately need a renewal of Reinhold Niebuhr's Social Gospel, which called on believers and nonbelievers to battle injustice while looking out for the sin of pride lurking in their own righteousness. Schlesinger has done more than anyone else since Niebuhr's death a generation ago to keep his political outlook alive. But getting Niebuhr back means recognizing that he may not have been ''the most influential American theologian of the 20th century,'' as Schlesinger claims. Paul Tillich may well have eclipsed him by the 1960's, when religious and secular liberals were exchanging Niebuhr's Irony of American History for Tillich's The Courage to Be.

Ever since then liberals have found Tillich's focus on individual empowerment much more useful than Niebuhr's harping on the persistence of social inequality and the power of sin to infiltrate even the souls of the virtuous. By now individual sinfulness has dropped out of much evangelical preaching, too, replaced by the message of salvation through ego-building and identity-making. Jesus has become the beneficent big brother, dispensing not judgment but limitless encouragement for personal growth. Tillich, who died in 1965, would rue the use to which his thought has been put. But getting Niebuhr's vision back — social and individual sin intertwined, Jesus as a prophet targeting injustice — means challenging Paul Tillich's influential legacy across the ideological spectrum.

RICHARD WIGHTMAN FOX (Professor of History, University of Southern California)
Worcester, Mass.

Note: Stanley Hauerwas and others have been sharply critical of Niebuhr in recent years, and it may be debated whether Tillich really had that much influence. But it seems to me that the issues that are delineated in this letter by Professor Fox are at the very heart of the dilemma of American Christianity today.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Science and religion controversy: two good letters to The New York Times

To the Editor:

The Book of Genesis was never meant to be a scientific treatise. A literal reading of Genesis might lead one to conclude that the world is less than 6,000 years old and that the Grand Canyon could have been carved by the global flood 4,500 years ago. Since this is impossible, a literal reading of Genesis must be wrong.

A person who denies the facts converts faith into fantasy.

Science and religion are companions, not antagonists. Religion can never conflict with science. Science is about what is, religion is about what should be. Science is about how we got here. Religion is about why we got here. Darwin asked how did the species evolve. He never intended to propose why the species evolved.

Genesis speaks in metaphors and on many different levels, as does the rest of the Bible. To restrict our understanding to the narrowest and most literal interpretation is to underestimate the timelessness of the Bible and to overestimate our own abilities.

Ammiel Hirsch
New York, Oct. 6, 2005
The writer is senior rabbi, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue.

To the Editor:

When I was a sixth grader in a Roman Catholic school, the teacher, a nun, asked our opinion about creation. I suggested that when the Bible says that God created our world and the universe in six days, maybe God's days were different from our days and that each of God's days lasted millions of years. To my surprise, she agreed with me.

Most Christians would agree that God is omniscient and all-powerful, and that his ways are at times mysterious. If they truly believe that, why is it so difficult to accept that God allowed life to unfold slowly, that man as part of life evolved, and that geological and biological processes may have taken billions of years?

Tim Boland
Lake Stevens, Wash., Oct. 6, 2005

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Queens in waders

A column in The Wall Street Journal reminds us that there was a catastrophic flood in the Netherlands in 1953. The levee system collapsed in 500 places. More than 1800 people drowned and 100,000 evacuated.

As a result the Dutch government put into place "a complex system of dams and barriers...a technological achievement comparable maybe to the American Apollo project that put a man on the moon."

As in our present situtation following Katrina, for the first days and weeks after the flooding in Holland there was a deficiency of inspired local and national leadership. But there was an exception. The columnist concludes:

A notable exception was the royal family. Within one day of the disaster, Queen Juliana and her mother, Queen Mother Wilhelmina, visited drowned areas, wading though the water with rubber boots. Many who had lost everything recounted in newspaper stories how imortant those symbolic gestures were. Even a left-wing newspaper wrote: "The queen is everywhere these days...Just by being there she gives hope."

--Simon Rozendaal, Wall Street Journal, 9/7/05

Mark Noll on the basic issues challenging American Christians

In a new collection of essays entitled One Electorate Under God? (published by the Brookings Institution) Mark Noll, professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College (Illinois), identifies seven civic issues that are related to how he understands the traditional Christian faith that grounds our existence:

1) social redress for African-Americans
2) protection of pre-natal life
3) equity in taxation
4) expansion of free trade
5) availability of medical care to all
6) free exercise of religion
7) adherence to the international rule of law

Professor Noll notes with dismay that "neither of the major parties is making a serious effort to consider this particular combination of concerns or even something remotely resembling this combination." He is left wondering if he can vote for any candidate of either party.

--quoted in Peter Steinfels' "Beliefs" column, New York Times, 9/21/05

Does this remind you of anyone?

In Orhan Pamuk's important novel about religious strife in eastern Turkey, Snow, he describes a meeting of revolutionary leaders who “sat down with an easy confidence known only to those for whom it has become second nature to decide other people’s fates.”

Philip Gourevitch expresses a similar thought in a somewhat different way in his book about the Rwandan genocide, in which he writes that having power over another person [or group] means forcing them to inhabit your story of their reality.

Monday, October 03, 2005

What's wrong with blockbuster movies?

A February New Yorker contained an article by Louis Menand about Hollywood movies. He traces the implosion of movie attendance since 1947 (who knew that average weekly movie attendance in 1947 was 90 million and is now 15 million?) His principal target is the blockbuster movie which dominates the screens today. What he has to say is relevant for preachers and congregation. This is the concluding paragraph:

"Blockbuster dependence is a disease. It sucks the talent and the resources out of every other part of the industry. A contemporary blockbuster could almost be defined as a movie in which production value [special effects, giant battle scenes, chase sequences, etc.] is in inverse proportion to content...why doesn't anyone put more than two seconds' thought into the story? The attention to detail in movies today is fantastic. There is nothing cheap or tacky about Hollywood's product, but there is something empty. Or maybe the emptiness is in us."

--Louis Menand, "Gross Points: Is the Blockbuster the End of Cinema?" The New Yorker, 2/7/05. (emphasis added)

Point: let not the preacher be intimidated by the supposed supremacy of the visual. We still have the greatest story ever told.