While We’re At It (January 2014)
♦ In France, lawyers defending twenty-seven Roma, or Gypsies, charged with selling child brides and teaching children to steal added to the usual mitigating circumstances argument—they’re poor, so they have to steal, and so would you—the claim that France couldn’t apply its laws because the Roma didn’t recognize them. They said (this is the New York Times’ summary) “in some cases they [the Roma] were simply following age-old Roma traditions and generally operate outside the norms of society in ‘the style of the Middle Ages.’”
“It is very difficult to interpret their behavior based on our own twentieth-century standards,” one of the lawyers told the Times. “This community crosses time and space with its traditions, and we in Europe have trouble to integrate them. Yet they have preserved their tradition, which is one of survival.”
The court, culturally insensitive, or culturally imperialist, or just French, found twenty-six of the twenty-seven guilty.
♦ The prosecution was having none of it. Finding evidence that the Roma enjoyed expensive luxuries and had used modern criminal techniques, like tossing cell phones away after using them, the prosecutor said: “Someone in the Middle Ages would not be able to launder money amassed by children. They may have grown up in Eastern Europe. But they perfectly understood Western values. They were criminals.”
Yes, they were, but not for the reasons the prosecutor presented. (I’m assuming the court was right in convicting them.) Their use of modern techniques does not suggest they understand Western values. It only means they understand Western laws and what they have to do to evade them.
The prosecution was trying, we suspect, to find an objective basis by which to convict the Roma, that is, a way of disproving the defense’s claim on grounds the defense couldn’t contest. Because in a secular and pluralistic society the alternative is saying “This is right and that’s wrong, whatever your culture tells you,” and no one wants to say that out loud.
♦ “So what do you think of Pope Francis?” asked my friend, a young New Testament scholar at a Southern Baptist seminary. I said that I thought Francis was a perfectly orthodox man who wanted people to live out the faith more deeply, but whose method was a risky one. He frowned. He wasn’t buying it. “I was really worried by that interview,” he said, referring to the long interview that ran inAmerica. “And some of the other things he said . . . ” he added, and frowned again.
I tried to reassure him, and after a pause, he said, “He’s not Benedict.” He had drawn heavily upon Benedict’s moral theology in his latest book and thought the former pope understood the modern world with rare insight and knew how to speak about it. Of Benedict, he was a fan. But Francis, Francis bothered him.
Later, thinking about the conversation, I was struck—and cheered no end—that my friend, a committed Southern Baptist, is so personally invested in Francis’ success. He looks to the pope as a crucial, if not the central, spokesman in the world for the Christian mind and morality. He feels the pope to be his guy.
His predecessor in his chair at the seminary would not have felt this. Things have changed.
♦ We were talking outside the exhibition hall at this year’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, held in Baltimore the week before Thanksgiving. I’ve been to four of these, starting ten years ago, and in that short time the group’s general attitude to Catholics, and to a lesser extent to Catholicism, has—as far as the outsider can tell—changed a great deal.
The sessions included several Catholic speakers, like Ralph Martin and Scott Hahn, for example, and apparently no one said boo. The exuberantly Catholic Hahn spoke to a session led by a member of ETS’s executive committee, the Beeson Old Testament scholar Paul House, who afterwards took him off to dinner.
Ten years ago, friends told me then, the leadership argued long and hard before letting the Patristics group invite the newly Catholic Robert Wilken to give a session on the Fathers. In my hearing several members complained, a couple bitterly (though one of them said, rather sweetly, “Oh, but we like you”). Some thought that not only were Catholics not Evangelicals, they were so not-Evangelical that they shouldn’t be allowed to speak.
As I say, things have changed.
♦ And on the Catholic side as well, I should add, though I have no similar stories to tell. I have had the experience of the pious Catholic lady from central casting, with the Irish or Italian or Polish name, the daily Mass-going, novena-saying, rosary-collecting woman of stereotype who will suddenly say, “Evangelicals know their Bible!” or “I wish Catholics knew our Lord as well as the Evangelicals do.”
Her mother would have known some Protestants but known nothing of their religion other than that it was basically wrong. Her grandmother might have known such people existed and thought of them as the enemy, and remembered that Father had said Jesus was not to be found in their churches. But our pious Catholic lady from central casting will speak of Evangelicals as one might speak of a great athlete, or the unicorn.
Not to repeat myself, but things have really changed.
♦ Which is not to say it’s hugs all round. In a session on Evangelicals and the Second Vatican Council at the ETS, one older man complained that “Catholics don’t budge an inch on any doctrine” and that for Catholics “dialogue is just a way of gobbling up weaker churches, like an amoeba.” The speaker, an Evangelical, said that wasn’t true and went on to the next question. “They do gobble up churches,” the man said to the room as he put on his coat afterward.
Others, not so paranoid as that fellow, complained that the Catholic Church will not compromise and therefore was not truly entering into dialogue. They would only believe in the Church’s sincerity if she changed in ways she believes she cannot change. They didn’t see this, but they really expected the Catholic Church to be a Protestant church. Maybe we’d better wait on the hugs.
♦ A good lesson in reading the media from Terry Mattingly, founder and proprietor of the always useful Get Religion website: “Contrary to popular belief, the mainstream press really isn’t very effective when it comes to telling individual citizens what to think. However, as the old saying goes, the leaders of the mainstream news media (ditto for Hollywood) are much more effective when it comes to telling the American population, as a whole, what subjects to think about.”
Which is why the major media’s general ignorance and avoidance of religion are such problems. They tell readers that religion is not important without overtly telling them anything at all.
♦ “Good government pleases God,” said New York City councilman Fernando Cabrera, quoted here a few issues ago, and Notre Dame’s Rick Garnett agrees. “Lawmakers have a vocation and they are holders of a trust. Part of that vocation, and one of the things we trust them to do, is to actually make (good) law (and, just as important, not-make bad laws). Not only that, but because the ‘rule of law’ is itself part of the common good—i.e., it is one of those ‘conditions’ that is conducive to human flourishing — it is part of lawmakers’ vocation, and something they are obligated to do, to make law in accord with the rules-laid-down.”
Writing just after the Republicans shut down the government, he added, “‘Governing’ by brinksmanship, continuing resolutions, debt-ceiling increases, and (I would insist) over-aggressive executive orders does not count as ‘good government.’ So, I fear that God is not pleased.”
♦ Now from the other side of things: “Kristin M. Davis Appointed Women’s Outreach Coordinator Of The Libertarian Party Of Queens County (NY)” runs the headline of a press release from our local branch of the Libertarian party. Which continues: “Ms. Davis, formerly known as the Manhattan Madam for having run a high-end prostitution ring in New York City . . . was [in 2010] the gubernatorial candidate of the Anti-Prohibition Party. In that race, she stated she was confident she could ‘collect more than enough signatures from cadres of escorts, ex-escorts, strippers, dancers, dommes, gays, lesbians, Libertarians, Ron Paul supporters, U.S. Marines, rappers who revere the pimp and other lovers of freedom moving my petitions.’”
♦ To be fair to Kristin Davis, she now runs a home for the victims of sex-trafficking called Hope House. Not that she regrets her work as a pimp. Her working girls chose to do it. “Her old agency represented what she calls the ‘Pretty Woman-ish,’ professionalized side of the sex trade,” which she admits accounts for only one in twenty prostitutes, reports the Daily News. Davis explains: “I never forced a girl to do anything. It’s a completely different business model.”
♦ The North American Lutheran Church sails along happily, reports W. Stevens Shipman Jr., in the Forum Letter. Formed by those who’d left the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, a mainline body, and who weren’t quite so conservative as to join the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, the NALC recently held its third annual convention, and a good time was had by all.
Though the church has its “share of cranky saints still bitter (legitimately or not) over their ELCA experiences,” Shipman writes, “on the whole most in NALC report that they feel liberated from battles they never wanted, so they can now pursue outreach and Biblical discipleship . . . . It will be hard to undermine the nature of the church now that people have tasted and appreciated it.”
♦ Last April we wrote about New York City’s Commission on Human Rights’ suing some Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox, shopkeepers in Brooklyn for their dress code, which runs (or ran, the stores having taken down the notices): “No shorts, no barefoot, no sleeveless, no low cut neckline, allowed in this store.”
Reasonable enough, we would have thought, but deputy commissioner Clifford Mulqueen explains that women are a “protected group” and the second and third rules may make them feel “uncomfortable and unwelcome.” One of the shopkeepers’ attorneys told the Post, “Frankly, it’s very troubling that the commission thinks it’s OK for the Four Seasons restaurant to impose a dress code but not a bakery owned by a Hasidic businessman.”
This is not, exactly, about equality. The code probably excludes as many men as women. Hairy legs are no more wanted to be seen in these stores than shaved legs. No matter, as Mulqueen explains: “Telling men they have to wear a jacket and tie may make them feel unwelcome, but that person [he means men] is not in a legally protected class.” It’s about privilege.
The case goes to trial in administrative court this month.
♦ The editor is too polite to say it, but someone should mention to his critic (see the Letters section) that accusing someone else of Pharisaism is very hard to do without sounding pharisaical about not being pharisaical.
♦ It’s also very hard to accuse someone of being pharisaical about not being pharisaical without oneself sounding pharisaical about not being pharisaical about not being pharisaical. The loop will never stop. Better not to start it.
♦ After Germaine Greer said that freedom is the world’s most dangerous idea, and sex columnist Dan Savage picked population control, newspaper columnist Peter (brother of Christopher) Hitchens declared on Australian TV that “the most dangerous idea in human history and philosophy remains the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God and rose from the dead.” And bravo for him.
“You can’t really leave it there,” the host of the show insisted, and Hitchens went on: “Because it alters the whole of human behavior and all our responsibilities. It turns the universe from a meaningless chaos into a designed place in which there is justice and there is hope and, therefore, we all have a duty to discover the nature of that justice and work towards that hope. It alters us all. If we reject it, it alters us all as well. It is incredibly dangerous. It’s why so many people turn against it.”
“I’d have to agree with that,” said Savage, who’d just suggested, apparently mostly joking, that “abortion should be mandatory for about thirty years” because “there’s too many [rude word deleted] people on the planet.”
♦ I did not know well Richard John Neuhaus, who died five years ago this month, though we met at conferences frequently and always had an enjoyable talk (well, I enjoyed it). But I know well many people who knew him well, and it’s an admirable man who can be admired through the penumbras formed by emanations of his friends.