23 October 2009

Capital Punishment & the Shape of Christian Witness

I wrote an article about the anti-death penalty movement for Duke Divinity's nascent online journal, Confessio. You can read it here.

20 October 2009

What we do to ourselves

I've been a part of some interesting conversations lately surrounding Malcolm Gladwell's latest New Yorker article. In engaging (if graphic) fashion, Gladwell narrates the horrors of dogfighting alongside the emerging body of scientific evidence that playing football can lead to serious brain trauma, early dementia, and death. The shocking thing about football is that the researchers Gladwell profiles don't think it is only the serious, Tebow-caliber concussions that should worry us. It seems that years of "average" blows to the head (by football standards) can cause exactly the sort of brain damage previously associated with serious concussions (and boxing). In short, every offensive and defensive lineman is at risk, as are many other players.

In dogfighting, we can clearly see that the dogs have been taught to trust their masters, only to be thrown into a competition that is very likely to kill them. Gladwell's provocative suggestion is that football is not so different. The article is worth reading (and you can skip the dogfighting sections without losing much of the point).

There are a lot of different things to say about this article, but I'll confine myself to one for now: what do we make of the likelihood that, even if all the long-term dangers of football were known, many men would still choose to play the sport? Kyle Turley, a lineman featured in the article, says as much. We also know that people take risks, or willingly hurt themselves, for all kinds of reasons. Soldiers want to defend ideals or borders. Smokers want to meet immediate felt needs. Football players want fun, glory, education, money.

So where does this bring us? If you guessed Wendell Berry, you're a freak. Hat-tip to Steve for linking to this poem:

by Wendell Berry
1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons.

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred.

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without.

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

16 October 2009

Who are these deformed people?

When I was delving into Christian practices of mission and travel over the summer, one of the most helpful resources for me was a Christianity Today interview with Fr. Emmanuel Katongole. In that interview, Emmanuel, who teaches at Duke and led our Pilgrimage to Uganda this summer, said something that really bowled me over: "People looking at Christians should be confused. Who are these people? Are they black? Are they white? Are they Americans? Are they Ugandans?" I'm very challenged by the idea that Christian fellowship ought to baffle onlookers. We're called to be different, not for difference's sake, but because Christ has truly inaugurated a new age in which the former distinctions crumble. In his person, we are all bound to God, and through God, we are bound to one another.

A lot of these thoughts emerge, in much more elegant form than I can render, in an article for The Other Journal by Brian Bantam. Professor Bantam recently finished his Ph.D. at Duke and is now at Seattle Pacific University.
Of course, the Apostle Paul admonishes us to not be of this world, but we cannot take this as a matter of simple obedience. It is a task of de-formation. The church cannot merely ask, "What is to be done?" We must begin by asking, "What in the world are we?" We must discern together how the patterns of this world have become a part of us, how they have made us reflect something very different from Christ. [...] Our vision of what must be done and who it must be done for is always bound to who we perceive as others and who we see as our people.
Although Bantam and Katongole both begin their discussions with racial difference, the language of "de-formation" and identity ("Who or what are these people?") draws my mind immediately back to L'Arche. By committing ourselves to holy friendship with those whom society considers "deformed," the church as a whole may come to be considered "deformed". That is, we will not be conforming to the patterns of this world, which confer personal worth based on physical and intellectual ability.

Sometimes L'Arche has trouble finding houses to occupy, because neighbors and zoning boards aren't always thrilled about having such group homes on otherwise quiet neighborhood streets. "Who are these deformed people?" If only we were faithful enough that onlookers viewed every local congregation with the same wariness.

13 October 2009

We hate inflation AND deflation?

I was shocked to read that Colorado may act to reduce its minimum wage in the near future. Turns out they have a (good) law on the books that ties the minimum wage to the state's cost of living. But recessions mean deflation, and the cost of living in Colorado (and elsewhere) has declined slightly. So, while the prospect of reducing the minimum wage is jarring, it is also fair, at least insofar as the purchasing power of a minimum wage worker is maintained. (Of course, there are several countervailing factors: the rise in unemployment means fewer hours for many workers, and so gross incomes are already falling faster than deflation; also, people making more than the minimum wage are not, in general, having their wages garnished during the recession.)

This reminds me: when the USPS released the "Forever Stamp" in 2007, Slate noted that under a 2006 law, the cost of postage cannot increase at a rate exceeding the inflation rate. So, when the inflation rate is negative, doesn't this mean it's illegal for the cost of a stamp to stay the same, let alone to increase?

09 October 2009

Perspective on the Nobel thing.

"It's normally awarded to someone who has been in their field for some time. Considering that the president is at the beginning of his presidency, his body of work is just beginning."
--Arizona State University spokeswoman Sharon Keeler, explaining in April why the university decided not to award Barack Obama an honorary degree.

05 October 2009

What Government Can Do

The new Ken Burns documentary series is entitled The National Parks: America's Best Idea. After watching the first of the six-part series for free on pbs.org, it occurred to me that on the list of America's Best Ideas, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting also ought to rank pretty highly. Yes, it's like sixty years younger than the BBC. Yes, it's a convoluted system, where the public funds a private nonprofit corporation, which in turn funds individual local public television affiliates. Yes, it can be as much a political football as a public asset. But if taxpayer money is going to produce any television, it might as well be the best damn thing to air on TV since the West Wing. I know this isn't an airtight rationale for preserving the CPB, but let's all just take some time to savor the enjoyment of watching beautiful films about our public lands, funded (in part) by our public broadcast venture. It makes me feel good about my country, because, in the words of Sam Seaborn, "I think giving people a vision of government that's more than Social Security checks and debt reduction is good. I think government should be optimistic."

ALH on how we learn about race

The Office of Black Church Studies at Duke started a blog this year. Today there is a new post by Dr. Amy Laura Hall, Professor of Christian Ethics. She takes up some difficult questions about the formation of our racial consciousness, and she does so with her characteristically provocative honesty:
"The good liberals [...] can repeat 'equal' until their faces turn Obama blue, but their kids are watching who comes to dinner."
See the full post here.

01 October 2009

New from Nick Hornby

For my class on "Masculinity and Ministry" last spring, we read Slam! by Nick Hornby. It tells the story of a young teenage boy, an accidental pregnancy, and learning to love a woman and a baby he never expected to have as part of his life. I was reminded of Hornby (and that immensely entertaining, thought-provoking novel) this afternoon when I read a DCist interview with him about his new novel, entitled Juliet, Naked. It sounds similar to his most famous work, High Fidelity, but instead of running an independent music store, the male protagonist runs a website devoted to a single singer-songwriter-turned-recluse. His imagined relationship with the singer and his actual relationship with his girlfriend drive the drama of this story.

As was the case with Flannery: A Life, I am really taken by the cover design of Juliet, Naked. It's a great interpretation of the love triangle formed by the protagonist, his girlfriend, and the musician. Check it out: