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What Would People Think?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Getting Theological Instead of Grammatical

[I should SO be doing journal work right now. Instead of correcting some professor's grammar and citations, I will now engage in political-philosophical-theological argument.]

Improv comedy maestro and all-around cool guy Zhubin Parang weighs in on issues of scriptural interpretation and religious dialogue in the political sphere. I tried to respond in a comment on his blog, but I had too much I want to say. So here goes.

Zhubin's an atheist and understandably skeptical of religious argument. Folks like Pat Robertson and James Dobson give him ample reason to distrust those who use Christianity for their political arguments and as a basis of their political ideology. Folks like Jim Wallis, Christians who probably support most of the political goals that Zhubin supports, make him nervous because their religious language seems to exclude non-believers.

I, on the other hand, have become more and more confident that Christians like myself should use their faith to form their political ideology and - at times - in their political dialogue. That's one reason I'm wearing my "Proud Member of the Religious Left" shirt today. It's not the same as using God in a trump card for every political argument. I'll get back to that point. (If I don't remind me in a comment and I'll update. I should be doing a staff edit right now.)

I've been taking a seminar this year on Christian perspectives on legal thought. I've been impressed with the depth, richness, and variety of Christian thought on government that has come down through the ages. (How sad that Christianity in politics - like everything else in politics - has been reduced to shallow, simple talking points.) There's St. Augustine's vision of the government as a way for Christians to love their neighbors by working to ensure some measure of peace in a violent, depraved world. There's Martin Luther's (frankly disturbing) deference to government. There's 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's explication of love and justice...and how humble recognition of our fallen, self-interested nature should lead Christians to support the welfare state. There's Dietrich Bonhoeffer's thorough, detailed theological analysis of what the idea of "Christian freedom" means for politics...an analysis that eventually lead him to attempt to assassinate Hitler. There's Stanley Hauerwas, who feels that Christians in government are so intent on "fixing" things that they have lost track of what makes them uniquely Christian. (Among the things that Hauerwas believes Christians should support but have lost sight of: pacifism.)

I certainly don't claim to have it all worked out, but I feel I have a whole new set of intellectual tools to work with.

Let me respond to one of Zhubin's points. In the context of discussing how Islamic feminists are re-interpreting of the Quran, he says:

Now, I fully support such re-interpretations, but only partly because it justifies feminist Islamic principles. More importantly, re-interpretations tend to dull the meaning of a text. The Bible has had the benefit of 1) undergoing an almost infinite amount of re-interpretations since its existence, and 2) the proliferation of Christian denominations that demand everyone "personally" interpret it. As a result, the Bible can be used to justify practically anything, from anti-homosexuality to socialism to feminism to fascism to whatever. With the multitude of valid interpretations, any individual one loses authority, and thus coercive power. I think this is a contributing factor to the separation of church and state in the West: there's no coherent doctrine that can be extracted from Christianity, so what can Christians rally around? You might as well make laws based on public policy reasons.

Interpretation is neither intellectually dishonest, nor does it "dull the meaning of the text." The Constitution has been interpreted and re-interpreted by the ever-disputatious and fertile minds of judges and lawyers. Is the Constitution, as a result, meaningless? A Strict Constructionist (who, by the way, I do believe are intellectually dishonest) might argue so, but I disagree. Its meaning is understood in the different light of modern society, but it still creates and enforces certain fundamental principles of governance. It still shapes who we are as Americans. It has NOT been transformed into a tabula rasa upon which anything can be written. Its meaning is shifting but bounded, and it still has an independent effect on our legal and political thought today.

So with the Bible. Yes, it has been invoked on seemingly every side of every issue in Western history. But...well, I have two related responses. First, I must agree with Matt Novak in Zhubin's comment section that it has been haphazardly and wrongly invoked in many instances. It's far too easy to take a single verse of scripture, ignore the rest, and create what I believe is an un-Christian political philosophy. (Not that I am saying there is only one Christian political philosophy out there.) This leads into my second point - although there are many legitimate interpretations of the Bible, its meaning is still bounded. There is no way one can interpret "love your neighbor" or even "kill the Caananites" (a part of scripture that DEFINITELY must be understood in context) to mean "torture children for fun." I would argue it can't mean "torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib" either.

More to the point, Christianity and the Bible have a meaning and basis independent of modern American society. (For this idea I owe a massive debt to H. Jefferson Powell, who is heading up the seminar of which I speak. On an unrelated note, I like the guy because he's a Free Speech absolutist.) It's very difficult to honestly critique a society from within it system of values and meaning. Cicero strongly criticized the decline of the Roman Republic and bemoaned its loss of nobility. What he missed is that the golden age to which he nostalgically hearkened was itself full of cruelty and violence. Since that time, many seemingly crusading social critics have appeared myopic to future readers. (i.e. How could so many anti-slavery activists - not to mention Abraham Lincoln - simultaneously oppose slavery on the grounds that Black people are human beings with individual dignity......and supported racism and segregation?) Part of the problem was that each of these people, however intelligent and independent, were inescapably a product of the system they critiqued. Try as they might, they couldn't really see with different lenses than those of their society. They had no place to stand outside the system to get a good view of it.

What the Bible and Christianity offer (at least to me) is a place to stand outside of American society in order to critique it....to see its good and bad parts in a different light. (Christianity also offers me the very meaning of my life, but that's outside the scope of this post.) Now I'm still a product of late 20th- and early 21st-century America, but Christianity offers me at least a partial way out.

Let me give you an example (again, entirely cribbed from Powell). I have become ambivalent about the fundamental American value of individual rights, or at least how it's used these days. (And with that, I sacrifice any chance of a political career.) Not that I oppose rights, but my support is more qualified. Jesus commands that I love my neighbor and gives the example of the Good Samaritan - who gave of his own time and money to help a man in need without a thought to how it might affect him or his safety. To a Christian, such selflessness is the standard toward which we must strive. At times, "individual rights" can point the other way. Its emphasis is inherently on "that's mine and you can't take it." It can encourage a self-centered view of the world that focuses on "my rights." Thus we have Supreme Court rulings that regulations intended to protect the environment are a violation of somebody's property rights. No room for looking at the greater good or the long-term in that vision. No sense of community or self-sacrifice.

I still support individual rights - but not for their own sake. Just as Augustine supports government because "loving one's neighbor" includes ensuring that there are police to protect her from getting mugged, I believe "loving my neighbors" includes protecting them from government oppression and violence. The American emphasis on individual rights does much to impose procedural and substantive restrictions on government violence (like the death penalty). It does much to ensure equal treatment of people that affirms their equal human dignity - which Christians should support because we all reflect the image of God. Historically, individual rights have often - though not always - worked to achieve social justice and social peace.

Ok, so that's one example.

[I just spent an hour and a half writing this horrendously long post, and I still haven't reached the topic of religious dialogue in the political sphere. That will have to wait for another time. I hope y'all take time to comment and respond to this. When you do so, feel free to remind me to get around to writing about that topic.]

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Human Rights Partially "Un-Screwed" and Other News

1. Well, the Graham Screw Human Rights Amendment has been partially withdrawn. The new Levin-Graham Amendment restores the detainees' right to challenge their "enemy combatant" status and any sentence by a military tribunal that was over 10 years (including death sentences). The ACLU points out that those with sentences under 10 years still go no appeal (or at least no mandatory review...I'm unclear on this point), no habeas rights to challenge torture, and no habeas claim if the government just decides to detain them forever without determining their status.

But it's still a hell of a lot better than the Graham Screw Human Rights Amendment. At least they can (usually) challenge why they are there.

2. All you people who were not in Unexpectedly Sober should go check out their website! Check out the songs I wrote (see my last post...new songs by me have been added)! I'd love feedback!

3. I have an op-ed in The Devil's Advocate, Duke Law's student newspaper. They haven't updated their webpage with today's issue, but for the sake of vanity, I'll include my article (part of a point-counterpoint with the Duke Law Republicans) below. You may comment on it if you'd like...but I'd really like your response to my songs. (And Mike's songs and Jeff's songs and Dan's songs. Unexpectedly Sober rocks so much.)

My article is below

“Lying Lips” and Their Victims

By Ben Stark, President, Duke Law Democrats

Arrogant lips are unsuited to a fool -– how much worse lying lips to a ruler!

- Proverbs 17:7

If you only talk to some conservatives, you might actually be surprised to know that a top Bush Administration official has been indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice. Sometimes it'’s nearly impossible to discern the truth amidst the fog of Republican spin and talking points. So let'’s clear the air and remember what the indictment of I. Lewis "“Scooter"” Libby is really all about.

This is about a ruler with lying lips. This is about an administration that lies and the people who suffer because of those lies.

Scooter Libby lied to the grand jury; as a result justice -– and national security -– suffered. He misdirected special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald in the latter'’s attempts to uncover who compromised national security by leaking the name and status of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson. While conservatives claim the perjury charges prove there is no underlying crime, the truth is that the Bush Administration'’s obstruction and lies are preventing Fitzgerald from discovering the truth and charging the underlying crimes. Rove, Libby, and others cannot mislead the prosecutor and then point to the consequence of those lies for vindication.

And by the way, perjury is a felony. Republicans were perfectly willing to point this out when the alleged perjurer was a Democratic President. (Sen. Mike DeWine in 1999: "“Perjury perverts the judiciary, turning it into a mechanism that accepts lies-so that injustice may prevail."”) Lesson learned: perjury is only bad when it involves sex, not national security.

(For those who think it'’s no big deal to expose a covert CIA operative, allow me to quote a source with some authority on the subject: "“I have nothing but contempt and anger for those who betray the trust by exposing the name of our sources. They are, in my view, the most insidious of traitors."” -– George H.W. Bush, former President and former C.I.A. director.)

Let us never forget that people have died because of our "“ruler'’s"” lying lips. To date, over 2,000 American soldiers and over 20,000 Iraqis have died in the Iraq war, a war we entered because Bush and his underlings lied to the American people.

Remember how this whole indictment mess began. In January 2003, while trying to persuade the American people to take out Saddam'’s (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction, Bush said: "“the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa."” Uh oh! Better beware those mushroom clouds! Let'’s invade and stop this nuclear program. Only problem: Saddam'’s nuclear program was long defunct and not moving toward recovery. As early as September 2002, State department officials informed the Administration that the uranium claim -– based on forged documents -– was "highly dubious."” Bush used it anyway. Joseph Wilson exposed these lies and it was in retaliation that Libby and company leaked his wife'’s covert status.

This is not an isolated incident. Americans will long remember the Administration'’s record of treating long-discredited intelligence claims as the gospel truth . . . and using them to send our troops to their death. Here'’s another example: in October 2002, Bush claimed "“Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases."” Colin Powell made similar claims before the U.N. in February 2003. Their source? Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a Qaeda operative captured in Pakistan. The problem? At the same time Bush was citing Libi as "“credible" evidence of an Iraq-Qaeda connection, the Defense Intelligence Agency had concluded this "“credible"” source was "“intentionally misleading the debriefers." Libi had no way of knowing about such training camps. Either Bush and company were too incompetent to read their own intelligence reports, or they just didn'’t give a damn about the truth. They wanted their war.

It'’s about time these lies caught up to Bush, Libby, Rove and that whole cabal. But it'’s cold comfort to the parents, siblings, and spouses of their victims. Lying lips have consequences.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Unexpectedly Sober - The Legend Returns!

Mike Mott, a god among men, has created a website devoted to Unexpectedly Sober - the greatest band ever to play songs that I wrote. Mike was the prolific songwriter, lead singer, and occasional guitarist. Jeff Woodhead played rhythm guitar. Dan Ortiz (who, to my knowledge, does not have a blog) played lead guitar with gusto.

You can get lots of info on the band and lyrics to a lot of our songs on this page. Sadly, no mp3s that I know of (most of them would be low-quality recordings on a crappy cassette tape anyway). This site brings back so many memories it makes me want to cry for joy.

For those of my friends who only got to know me post-Vanderbilt, the songs on the site that I wrote are, in alphabetical order:

  1. "Better Than Prozac" - a song about friendship
  2. "My Perfect Plan" - a sarcastic song about my inability - at the time - to get a girlfriend
  3. "My Promise" - a defiant, and perhaps self-righteous, song about faith, hope, and love
  4. "Sixth (Chrissie and Brooke)" - my most personal song, tying my sorrow about the murder of my nieces in 1994 to 9/11
  5. "Smiles Got Power" - an intentionally meaningless and silly song, but defiantly upbeat
  6. "World" - a song I wrote about certain very selfish people who thought our worlds should revolve around them

Hopefully, I'll be able to get Mike to put up some of the songs I've written post-graduation like "Epiphany", "Sky On Fire" and maybe even my worship song "Joy In The Deluge."

Check out the songs by Mike, Jeff, and Dan too. Mike, especially, is a prolific and talented songwriter. (Nothing against Jeff and Dan, but Mike blows us all out of the water.) I wish there was some way I could play the songs for you non-Vandy folks. Well, I guess I have the ones that have been recorded.

Man, those were the glory days. I will long contend that I lived with rock stars at Vanderbilt. It's just that the rest of the world didn't realize it.

The Judicial Battle of the Ages Begins

I'm currently reading a couple opinions by Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito in the area of securities regulation. They are actually interesting and well-considered opinions on that area of law, specifically on the duty to disclose insider information. But, frankly, it's really boring, too. The general public is not going to get up in arms about the distinction between a corporation's duty-to-update and its duty-to-correct.

This, on the other hand, ought to get everybody's attention. Everybody knows Alito's a conservative. But everybody knew John Roberts was a conservative, too. It's just that nobody had anything concrete to attack him with (or defend him, for that matter...it's just that the default was affirming him, so the opposition needed ammo). Roberts could always say that positions he had advanced previously were those of his clients (i.e. Republican administrations) and that he could approach each issue without having made up his mind. An unlikely fiction, but nobody could rebut it.

Looks like Alito's not going to have that luxury. In the 1980s he wrote a document in which he brags that, working for the Reagan administration, he advanced "legal positions in which I personally believe very strongly."

Among the juicy tidbits where Alito stakes out his position:
I am particularly proud of my contributions in recent cases in which the government argued that racial and ethnic quotas should not be allowed and that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion . . .
In college, I developed a deep interest in constitutional law, motivated in large part by disagreement with Warren Court decisions, particularly in the areas of criminal procedure, the Establishment Clause and reapportionment.

Well, this is what a lot of people wanted....a chance for an all-out ideological war about the role of the judge and, more to the point, the hot-button judicial issues of our day. Since Alito directly says that these are his personal views, there's no room for evasion now.

For better or for worse, the battle has begun.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

I Wish I Prayed Like This

A group of high school students from my church, The Chapel Hill Bible Church, went to one of the poorest regions of America, a Navajo reservation. They went there to serve...to actively show God's love. They did this by praying, worshipping, playing basketball with a young guy named Mark, putting shingles on broken roofs, helping a woman named Alta (a Navajo nurse whose alcoholic husband is never around) by working to fix her plumbing problems...and otherwise practically loving the residents of the reservation.

I was blown away by the prayer that these students prayed at our church service after returning from the reservation. They had a printed version of it so we could pray along and I'm going to reproduce it in its entirety below. The last portion is taken from the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi. The whole thing is just so profound...so much about what Christians should be seeking and praying.

Enough of my talk. Here's the prayer.

Father God, Lord Jesus, Friend, Holy Spirit,

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving spirit may so move our hearts, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; look with compassion on us; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; unite us in bonds of love; accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne.

By the Grace of Jesus Christ our Lord.

almighty and most merciful God, we remember before you all poor and neglected persons whom it would be easy for us to forget: the homeless and the destitute, the old and the sick, the prisoners and the poor, the discriminated and the over-looked, and all who have none to care for them. Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy. Grant this Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor.

By the Grace of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Look with pity, O Heavenly Father, upon the people in this land who live with injustice, terror, disease, and death as their constant companions. Have mercy upon us. Help us to eliminate our cruelty to these our neighbors. Strengthen those who spend their lives establishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all. Bring Justice and Salvation to the Navajo people.

By the Grace of Jesus Christ our Lord.

O most Merciful Father, bring healing into Alta's life. Fix her plumbing problems; give her strength to serve the sick under her care; renew her husband, free him from his alcoholism; bless their marriage. O Almighty God, we ask that you would save Mark with your redemptive love, make your Spirit known to him, reveal your presence in his life; amaze him with your love. We know that all these things are possible with you dear Lord. Bring Salvation to the Navajo and all the peoples of this country and this world.

By the Grace of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is discord, union;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

By the Grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

My Friends Are Better Bloggers...And I Hurt My Thumb

3 things before I get back to staff editing:

1. The illustrious Jeff Woodhead sends Senator Burr a well-reasoned argument that The Graham Screw Human Rights Amendment - aside from being a violation of human rights - will undermine the War on Terror. I doubt Burr will read it, but it should be required reading for every Senator.

2. My colleague-in-humor, Zhubin Parang, gives the following accurate assessment of the MPRE, the legal ethics exam that every law student must take:

I took the MPRE last Friday, and I may very well have failed it. You just can't tell with that test. But let me advise all you 1Ls and 2Ls that it is very important to know under what circumstances a lawyer's disqualification from a case is imputed to his firm. It's especially important because all real-life legal ethical dilemmas occur exactly as they do in the MPRE, with someone walking up to you and saying, "You have to represent a client whose mother was a former client, from whom you learned confidential information relevant to the current case. You have two minutes to decide which of the following four courses of action you will take. Number One..." And if you choose incorrectly or run out of time you're immediately disbarred. Not a profession for slackers, folks.

I really hate legal ethics. First off, it has nothing to do with being an ethical person. Legal ethics is so anemic. It's about what behavior is so horribly below the standards of common decency that even lawyers will punish you. Second, actually a lot of the rules are not common sense. Like all this stuff about fee-splitting, imputing conflicts to your firm, and advertising. It's actually quite easy to violate some rule unwittingly. So it's a bunch of rules that aren't intuitive, don't help you to be an ethical lawyer, but do make you really nervous.

3. I worked 4 hours with Habitat for Humanity today. It kicked so much ass! It was so fun. And at the end of 4 hours, I could see the results of my work: a roof with shingles and a house with siding. What am I doing in law school? This was so much better!

(Yes, I know making a living doing manual labor is actually harder. I wouldn't be so nonchalant about the fact that I hammered my thumb so many times there's a black mark on it if that happened every day. But it doesn't happen every day to me. So it was quite a relaxing break. And I helped a couple to own a house. That's cool.)

More on the GSHRA

The New York Times weighs in on the Graham Screw Human Rights Amendment, finding it does have good parts...but that the suspension of habeas corpus for the detainees is a terrible, terrible idea. Go read it.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Graham Screw Human Rights Amendment

In honor of the marketing genius who tried to rename the recent Republican budget bill as "The Moral Disaster of Monumental Proportions Act", I shall henceforth refer to the Graham amendment I blogged about below as "The Graham Screw Human Rights Amendment."

I encourage you to do the same.

For some more substantive analysis of the amendment, and why Congress sadly does have the power to do this, see here.

Stupid Lindsey Graham!

[Haven't been blogging much lately. Tends to happen when you don't have a moment to stop and think.]

Y'know I had almost begun to like Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC). He had been part of the "Gang of 14" moderate Republicans and Democrats who headed off the nuclear option a couple months back. He, along with most Senators, supported John McCain's anti-torture amendment. And when the existence of secret CIA detention centers - and the inhuman treatment that happens there - was leaked to the Washington Post last week, Graham scoffed the the Republican leadership's plans to investigate how the leaks got out: "Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. The real story is those jails."

Sure I didn't agree with him on many, many things - Graham was one of the prosecutors of Bill Clinton's impeachment trial - but I thought he was reasonable about America's commitment to human rights.

Until, that is, he got the Senate to pass an amendment that stripped the Guantanamo detainees' rights to challenge their enemy combatant status.

"It is not fair to our troops fighting in the war on terror to be sued in every court in the land by our enemies based on every possible complaint," Mr. Graham said. "We have done nothing today but return to the basics of the law of armed conflict where we are dealing with enemy combatants, not common criminals."

So filing a lawsuit to challenge whether you are properly classified as an "enemy combatant" is now the equivalent of suing "in every court in the land . . . based on every possible complaint"? Forcing the Defense Dept. to prove it has a good reason for locking up - and, let's admit it, possibly torturing - Detainee X is "not fair"? Wonder how "fair" it must feel if any of those detainees in fact were NOT even Taliban or Qaeda soldiers, but simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. We can't know right now, can we?

Never mind that even Taliban soldiers should be treated like prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions!

Other news:
- The Moral Disaster of Monumental Proportions Act of 2005 failed to pass in the House.
- Steve McHone (Rest In Peace)
- My job search continues.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Another North Carolinian Dies Tonight

Yes, Steve McHone shot his mother and stepfather.

But that doesn't mean the State should kill him. Aside from all the usual reasons against the death penalty (it accomplishes nothing, it's murder, it doesn't deter murders, the guy's not a danger anymore).....

- his victim (mother) pled for his life before she died
- his brothers and sisters (the victim's family) have made their peace with him and don't want him to die
- the prosecutor says that - if it were a legal option under NC law at the time - he would only have sought life without parole, not death
- the prosecutor suppressed evidence that he may not have intended to kill (possibly weak evidence)

At this point, Mike would say "so it goes." I can only say my heart breaks.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Give 'Em Hell, Harry!

"I never give 'em hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell."

It's very fitting to quote the famed exchange between Harry Truman and his supporter in light of the recent actions of Senator Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats. Republicans have been stonewalling the investigation into prewar intelligence for far too long, and I am thrilled that the Democrats have taken the gloves off and called them on their b---s---.

This is about 2,000 Americans and countless Iraqis in body bags. This is about the American people being misled into killing. This is about how our government made a terrible decision which will have consequences for decades to come. I hesitate to say "the American people deserve to know the truth" because it sounds like empty political posturing......but dammit, they do!

Thank you, Harry Reid.