Generous Orthodoxy  

Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Book of Daniel for our times

I have just had the great privilege of re-reading two commentaries on the Book of Daniel in preparation for the last two Sundays before Advent. I had almost forgotten what a great book of faith and witness Daniel is, especially when taken in its totality.

The most exciting of the two commentaries is by Norman W. Porteous (Daniel: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965). The second one, by André Lacoque, is notable particularly for its foreword by Paul Ricoeur, no less (The Book of Daniel. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979). The Porteous volume is by far the most accessible, but both of these interpreters insist that the context of the book is the key to its interpretation. That context is not the time of the Babylonian exile in which the stories of Daniel and his friends are set, but the time of the writing of the book c. 164 BC. At this time the Jews of Jerusalem were undergoing persecution and even martyrdom under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, during the time of the Maccabean revolt (a quick look at the early chapters of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees 7 in the Apocrypha gives the idea).

Ricoeur writes that the book of Daniel is concerned with "the relation between radical extrinsic deliverance[the invasion of this orb by the God who is entirely independent of it] and the movement of history...because the apocalypse [revelation to Daniel], as an act of discourse, is itself an intervention of history which responds to a still open question for all those who have not received the vision and known the interpretation. This question asks, How long will tribulation continue? Is God weak? Indifferent? Malicious? What is the meaning of suffering? It is to this existential situation, at the hinge of the next to the last hour and the last hour, that apocalyptic speech wants to respond, with the penultimate efficacy of a call to passive resistance. It is right that henceforth this resistance, with its suffering, should be a part of salvation. For in the final analysis this very resistance, thanks to the word of comfort, knows itself to be situated between what is next to last and what is the Last."

Both of these commentaries are post-critical; that is, they know all the historical-critical issues, they know the philological problems, they know the textual difficulties, they know that the stories about Daniel have legendary features, but they brush all that aside. Thus Lacoque writes that "what the story [of Nebuchadnezzar's dream] loses in verisimilitude it regains in terms of rhythm which becomes heart-throbbing. Daniel rushes to Arioch in the palace, then from the palace to his residence where he mobilizes his companions to implore divine mercy for the revelation of the mystery" (p. 42). And Porteous writes, "We must just recognize that the author of our book is not concerned about historical accuracy...the details are of interest [only] to the philologist, whereas the author uses the [details] as a rhetorician for their effect."

Ricoeur, charmingly, describes himself in his Foreword as one who has been helped by Lacoque's commentary because he is "a reader who has lost his naïveté". In view of the fact that Ricoeur was one of the most sophisticated philosophers of hermeneutics of the twentieth century, this is disarming, to say the least. He has written extensively of the "second naïveté" which comes after the first naïveté is lost. This "second naïveté" is the posture before the Scriptures which all academically-trained preachers should seek. Will Willimon, in his new book Conversations With Barth About Preaching writes:

"One of Barth’s great gifts was his cultivation of naïveté....I love the way that Barth continues to be shocked, surprised and filled with wonderment at Biblical texts all the way to the end of his life. In seminary...we usually think of hermeneutics as a matter of inquiring increasing interpretive sophistication. However, Barth’s childlike naïveté enables him to see and hear things that we more serious adults miss. As a child he was taught Basel-German songs by his mother. These simple songs influenced Barth throughout his life...As a boy he was so sure of the reality of Jesus that he spent Palm Sunday standing at his window, eagerly watching for the entry of Jesus into his Swiss town."

When I read the story of Daniel in the lions' den to my grandson, he looked at me wide-eyed and asked, "Did that really happen?" I am not sure how best to answer that question but it is up to us preachers and teachers to convey the underlying truth of the incomparable stories in the book of Daniel:

--The Most High God rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whom he will, and sets over it the lowliest of men. (4:17)

--Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up. (3:17-18)

--There is no other God who is able to deliver in this way (3:29)

--Even pagan kings will come to know the God of Israel: His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing; and he does according to his will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand (4:34-35)

--The prayer of Daniel is a model for us: We do not present our supplications before thee on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of thy great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, give heed and act; delay not, for thy own sake, O my God, because thy city and thy people are called by thy name. (9:18-19)

--The forces arrayed against God are formidable. The saints will experience the most intense discouragement and suffering. The most powerful of these forces, represented by the “horn” of chapter 7, shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times and the law…However, God will triumph at length, and the court shall sit in judgment, and his dominion shall be taken away, to be consumed and destroyed…and the kingdom and the dominions shall be given to the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom….(7:25-27)

--Those who remain faithful to God in the time of trial will be vindicated by God, sometimes even in this life, and assuredly in the life to come. The saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever and ever (7:18).

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Paying attention to a major issue of our time

Finally some one is paying attention to the voices of Christians who have been struggling to gain a hearing on the subject of American-sponsored torture. Most of the credit belongs to James F. Kay, editor of Theology Today, and George Hunsinger who has led the effort from the beginning, but I am grateful to have added my piece to the record.

The New York Times, November 11, 2006

A Topic That Few Politicians Dared to Touch: Torture of Prisoners

By Peter Steinfels

The October issue of Theology Today, a scholarly journal published by the Princeton Theological Seminary, featured a series of articles on torture. “It is a matter of shame,” writes one of the contributors, Jeremy Waldron, a professor of law at New York University, that “we have no choice but to conduct a national debate about torture.”

That debate, Professor Waldron continues, is not about stopping torture by “corrupt and tyrannical regimes” but about whether the American people and the American nation want “to remain part of the international human rights consensus that torture is utterly beyond the pale.”

There were few if any signs of such a debate in the midterm election campaigns. That cannot simply be because of the government’s insistence that the United States abhors torture and does not practice it. The government insists on many things — about the war in Iraq and economic prosperity, for example — that its political opponents do not hesitate to challenge and challenge vociferously.

Torture is different. It is such a stain on personal and national character that nothing but appalling photographs could have forced the subject to the fore. When it comes to pressing the question of official complicity, no stack of equivocating documents can have similar force. In a season of shameless attack ads, torture is still too shameful to be debated.

As for religious reaction, Fleming Rutledge, the Episcopal priest and noted preacher, said in this issue of Theology Today, “In my lifetime, I do not remember any major public question being so studiously ignored as this one.”

The journal articles stem from an effort to change that. They are based on presentations at the founding conference, in Princeton last January, of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Prominent religious leaders, Protestant (both mainline and evangelical), Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim, issued a statement, “Torture Is a Moral Issue,” that was a sweet seven sentences in length:

“Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved — policy makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished values. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.

“Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed?

“Let America abolish torture now — without exceptions.”

...[In one of the Theology Today articles] William T. Cavanaugh, who teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, draws on his previous study of torture by the Pinochet government in Chile. His most provocative observations may be that, however counterintuitive, “those who torture tend to think of their work in extremely high moral terms.”

Citing examples from Chile, Professor Cavanaugh notes that “torturers sometimes imagine their acts as a kind of self-sacrifice on their part: ‘What terrible things I must do in order to defend my beloved people!’ ”....

In another article, a leading evangelical ethicist, David P. Gushee, a professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., worries that the United States is “succumbing to the temptation to waive moral rules that we have every reason to know are applicable to us.”

“We know that torture is wrong,” Dr. Gushee writes, “but just not now, not in our exceptional case, not in this global war on terror. Yet we are queasy enough, that we do not want to call torture, torture.”

Instead, he continues, “we deny that we are torturing, or we deny that our prisoners are really prisoners, or when pushed to the wall, we remind one another of how evil the enemy is and how much worse other countries or ideologies are.”

“We give every evidence,” he concludes, “of the kind of self-deception so characteristic of the descent into sin.”

Dr. Gushee has not limited his concern to scholarly pages. Last February he wrote an article for the popular evangelical monthly Christianity Today titled “Five Reasons Torture Is Always Wrong.”

All these writers must step carefully around the fact that the president and other American authorities have repeatedly denied that the government tolerates torture — even while they reserve its right to use what are delicately referred to in official parlance as “enhanced” or “alternative” interrogation techniques.

Obviously, these theologians have something less than complete confidence in such official protestations, and one can understand why.

In a White House compromise with a small group of adamant Republicans, last month’s Military Commissions Act, for example, left standing the United States’ commitment to Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions protecting prisoners from violence, cruelty, torture and humiliating and degrading treatment.

But while the legislation spelled out certain “grave breaches” of Common Article 3 that would constitute war crimes, it also underlined the president’s power to interpret the nation’s obligations, to define what is grave or not and to screen his definitions from court challenges, and maybe even from public knowledge.

Already, the Central Intelligence Agency has warned that detained Qaeda suspects must not be allowed to disclose their treatment to courts — or perhaps even to their own lawyers — lest other terrorists “adapt their training to counter the tactics that C.I.A. can employ in interrogations.”

Is there any way around this lack of transparency? Here is one idea, admittedly inspired not by sober theological analysis but by political ads.

Let all interrogations be videotaped (interrogating off camera would itself be a “grave breach”). Three years after any interrogation, the video would be made public. One could assume that by that time terrorists would have learned whatever techniques had then been in use.

The important feature, of course, would be the kind of endorsement now required of campaign advertising — a closing shot of the president on screen. “This interrogation was paid for by the American people,” the president would have to say, “and I approve of its methods.”

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Sam Bowers dies; compare with Saddam Hussein

Sam Bowers died yesterday.

Who was he?

From the first day to the last, he considered himself a Christian knight ordained to defend the purity of what was called "the Southern Way of Life." By any account he was the most murderous of the 10,000 murderous members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He was our own home-grown terrorist.

A careful reading of the following obituary presents some instructive conclusions about the continuing power of biblical faith in the black community. Note the measured statement by the son of Vernon Dahmer, one of the certifiable heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

This obituary written by Jennifer Lee appeared in The New York Times today, 11/6/06:

Samuel H. Bowers Jr., the imperial wizard of a Ku Klux Klan faction who was found guilty in 1998 in the firebombing murder of a Mississippi shopkeeper 32 years earlier, died yesterday in a prison hospital in Parchman, Miss.

Mr. Bowers was the charismatic leader of the most violent and secretive division of the Ku Klux Klan, the Mississippi White Knights, which at its peak had up to 10,000 members by law enforcement estimates. The F.B.I. attributed nine murders and 300 beatings, burnings and bombings to Mr. Bowers and the group.

He was convicted eight years ago for the 1966 firebombing of the home of the shopkeeper, Vernon F. Dahmer Sr., 58, who had allowed fellow blacks to pay their poll taxes and register to vote in his store.

Mr. Bowers sent two carloads of Klansmen with 12 gallons of gasoline, white hoods, and shotguns to the Dahmer house near Hattiesburg, Miss., on a cold January night. The burning gasoline was tossed into the house; Mr. Dahmer, whose lungs were seared, held attackers at bay so his family could escape, then died later in the arms of his wife.

Mr. Bowers was brought to trial five times in the Dahmer killing. The first four trials ended in hung juries, but in 1998 he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Previously, he had served six years in federal prison for the killings of Andrew Goodman, Michael H. Schwerner and James Earl Chaney, the civil rights workers who were murdered in Neshoba County, Miss., in 1964.

“Sam Bowers lived a life consumed with hate for African Americans,” said Mr. Dahmer’s son, Vernon Dahmer Jr., in a telephone interview from his home in Hattiesburg. “He caused a lot of pain, suffering and death for many individuals and families in my race. During his life, he never apologized or asked for forgiveness for his actions. Apparently, he felt justified in what he did to his many victims. Now that he has passed from his life, God will be the judge.”

It is worth noting that Charles Marsh, in his distinguished book God's Long Summer includes the only extended interview that Sam Bowers ever gave. It is fascinating in its creepiness.

Also, Will Campbell--being a truly radical Christian-- maintained his ties to Sam Bowers, at some cost to himself. Read about it in Will's book And Also With You.