A wild-haired Jew preaching to present-day conservatives who themselves claim to follow a first-century Jew, but their actions suggest otherwise

This was posted on the Sanders for President Reddit page. It’s the response of a former Liberty University student, a conservative Evangelical who was reminded by Sanders what his religion, what his Savior, had to say about the way we should treat the poor.

“So here’s the interesting thing. When I was watching Bernie Sanders talk at Liberty University, I was just really shocked, and something kind of magical happened for me, because as I watched that guy stand up on that stage, here’s what I saw. I saw a wild-haired Jew crying out in a hoarse voice, in a very forceful and forth-speaking way, he was convicting the Christian leaders and religious leaders in that University and calling us out for being complicit in the abandonment of those who suffer: ‘The least of these.’ And siding with the powerful and the rich and the masters of this world. And he was convicting us, and calling us out. And we scorned him, and we stared him down, and with sour faces we thought, ‘Who is this whacko? And why do all these people seem to follow him, seem to like him? This wild-haired Jew, crying out from the wilderness of the political Left, in his hoarse voice?’”

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Politics and the American culture of authenticity

Authenticity is all the current appeal. It’s been that way for a while, but it’s still current. I remember speaking at a conference a few years ago when I argued that excellence was something you should value when it comes to doing what you do. If you do something, do it with excellence, not mediocrity, and people will be attracted to whatever it is you’re doing.

That’s a generalization, of course, but at the conference I was speaking about Christian liturgy. Someone in the audience during Q&A time said that authenticity was more what people were interested in these days rather than excellence. My response was basically that words can be manipulated to mean whatever you want them to mean.

The person who made the point about authenticity was actually trying to narrow the church’s use of liturgy to exclude more contemporary expressions of the church’s conversation with God. In this case it was a matter of manipulating words. The word that preceded this use of authenticity in relation to liturgy was “orthodoxy” (and it was used with almost ruthless exclusivity). Words and their applications change. Human manipulations of words are essentially constant.

Authenticity is one of those words that doesn’t make sense as its own referent. What I mean is, something (or someone) must be authentic with reference to something else. For example, you can’t just say someone is authentic and expect everyone to know what you mean. You may have a vague sense of what you mean in your own mind, but authenticity is one of those words that requires a more explicit referent. “He’s an authentic baseball player” means he’s good at what he does—hitting, fielding, throwing, running, etc., etc.

Donald Trump is being touted as “authentic,” because as a GOP 2016 presidential primary candidate he is, for now, enjoying a certain level of popularity in the polls. His authenticity, the pundits say, is the reason for his popularity. Well, Trump is authentic with reference to what? Does he enjoy popularity in the polls, does he draw such large crowds just because he is … authentic? What is it that draws people to Trump’s “authenticity”?

Trump speaks his mind. Everyone knows this. But so do the other candidates. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, they all speak their minds. So what is it that sets Trump apart as being “authentic”? What is Trump’s edge over the other candidates? According to the popular view of Donald Trump, he is authentic because of the way he speaks, not because of what he speaks. He is considered authentic because he has no filter.

That has become the crass, popular, now edgy definition of authenticity. You can be a misogynist, a narcissist, a liar, a cheat, and a megalomaniac. You can be authentically all of those, but what has come to matter most to the crass mass (as Horace once referred to the low-information populace of Rome) is the authenticity of your vulgarity. We laugh. We boo. We cheer. So what. You’re just like us. No political double-speak. No filter. Just from the gut. That we understand. And that’s all that matters. It’s all in the way you say it, and not at all in what you say.

The one candidate that seems the most “authentic” to me is Bernie Sanders. Like Donald Trump he speaks his mind and doesn’t care what the consequences are, whether those consequences come from the media that chooses to mischaracterize who he is, or whether the consequences come from the big corporate campaign donors Senator Sanders so naturally criticizes. But Sanders’ authenticity isn’t defined by the way he talks. It is all about what he says. And he has a lot to say. I hope we’re listening.

The Affordable Care Act and the legal fallacy of the prooftexting hermeneutic of fundamentalism

This morning the US Supreme Court ruled that federal subsidies, for states that have refused to set up their own insurance exchanges, are a part of the overall intent of the law. The challenge was based on an isolated wording of the law indicating that individual states had the authority to accept or refuse the federal subsidies, which would have a very clear impact on the implementation of the ACA.

It is not so much the details of the law that I am focusing on here. The key issue is the hermeneutic that led to the challenge in the first place. Hermeneutic, in academic terms, is a method of interpretation. The method of interpretation employed by those who read the words of the ACA and challenged the law was to isolate a few words and to read them out of the overall context of the statute.

The fact that opposition to the ACA comes almost entirely from conservatives is only part of the dynamic that drove this challenge. There’s another dynamic at play that is virtually lost in the analysis. I call it the prooftexting hermeneutic of fundamentalism.

As a parallel development of the Neo-conservative movement in the 1980s (Ronald Reagan, James Baker [the bulldog who was sent to further entangle the election mess in Florida in 2000], James Watt, Newt Gingrich, Jean Kirkpatrick, William F. Buckley, Jr., et al., et al., ad nauseam), the Religious Right and the Moral Majority (Francis Schaeffer, Billy Graham [American revivalism], Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson) grew out of the American Christian fundamentalist movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In fact it’s still around.

One of the basic hermeneutical assumptions of fundamentalism is that the Bible is the inspired word of God. This is very much akin to the approach of Islamic fundamentalism in its assumptions about the Qur’an. Here is how the syllogism of prooftexting works. If our scripture is the inspired word of God, then every syllable is sacred without human contribution. And if every syllable is sacred without human contribution, then every word, every sentence, has a timeless message for all of humankind.

There are multiple issues that follow from this basic syllogism of American Christian fundamentalism, but here I am only interested in one of the implications this has for interpretation within fundamentalist communities, and that is prooftexting. Prooftexting, as religiously justified on the grounds of the fundamentalist assumption of inspiration, is a method of selecting a text out of its context to “prove” the fundamentalist assumption. From a historian’s perspective, this is an egregious misuse of reading texts. But fundamentalists justify it, because it supports the assumptions that undergird the formation of their faith. The closed circularity is so obvious that it shouldn’t warrant pointing out.

Fundamentalism has historically been a separatist movement, choosing to separate themselves from a corrupt society in order to avoid the impurity of the sinful world. Since the emergence of the Religious Right (Moral Majority) movement and its combination with the Neo-conservatives in the 1980s, fundamentalists have shifted their separatist perspective to one of engaging the culture as warriors in God’s army whose mission it is to win back for God the United States as a Christian nation. Never mind the separation of church and state imbedded in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Into the culture war fundamentalist Christian politicians and activists bring with them their refusal to compromise theologically (now politically) and their prooftexting hermeneutic. Hence their challenge of the ACA in the Supreme Court by reading a few words of the statute out of their context while conveniently ignoring the overall intent of the law.

Fortunately, six of the nine Supreme Court justices were intellectually honest enough to understand that reading a few words out of context is a very clear problem. On the other hand, whether the two conservative justices, Roberts and Kennedy, who voted to strike down the challenge voted this way because of their intellectual integrity or because they were politically motivated to pull the GOP’s collective butt out of the fire in view of the gathering storm that would have exploded had they taken health care coverage away from millions of American citizens, well, I suppose that becomes a matter of opinion. Or we could let their legislative track record speak for itself, beginning with their appointment of George W. Bush as president in the 2000 election. Imagine how the entire world would be different had they not followed the fascist path to solving the problems of that election.

White privilege, racism, and myth

This from my colleague and friend Jim Perkinson over at Radical Discipleship. Jim is a poet, an artist, a thinker, and a radical activist who lives it. Racism isn’t just the transgression of polite boundaries. It is an ugly, systemic hatred imbedded in our psyches, an embodied fear that has evolved for generations. It’s a good read. It will make you stop and consider your own adherence to a narrative that denies the many ways we participate in a culture of racism.

An internal discussion among the IMF staff regarding income inequality

IMFStaff members of the International Monetary Fund organization just published a document for debate regarding the global scope of income inequality. And while I dislike the phrase “income inequality” and prefer the phrase “opportunity inequality”, the document makes important points about what is probably the most serious issue of our times. The disclaimer at the beginning of the document warns against associating the findings of this paper with the IMF and that the paper should be taken as the views of its authors. That’s fine. It presents a lot of facts for serious consideration. The one overarching fact is that paying people more in real wages, rather than exploiting the working poor and gutting the middle class, makes for an environment that allows the economy to work for everyone, not just a privileged few. It’s worth the read.

The hallucinogenic ritual culture of the Philistines?

Israeli-town-of-Yavneh

This article appeared yesterday in the online magazine Ancient Origins. Archaeologists have discovered chemical compounds in a pit associated with the local Philistine temple in Yavneh (Israel). While this is evidence related to a culture that existed centuries before the Second Temple period, I have often wondered about ekstatic experiences described in Second Temple period apocalyptic texts. What were the actual mechanisms? Mystical receptions of other worldly revelations (which is what they wanted their readers to think)? Vitamin depletion during long periods of fasting? Ingestions of hallucinogenic chemical compounds extracted from local flora? Were Enochic apocalyptic visions chemically induced in ritual settings? I kind of like the thought of this explanation. They would not have used the chemicals to “escape” reality or self-medicate in ways that happen in today’s complicated and sometimes sophisticated drug culture. They probably would have used the chemicals as a sort of access to “heavenly” visions which they then interpreted in terms of their own peculiar socio-political contexts.

Media manipulation and the attempt to silence Bernie

Ignoring one who disagrees with you is clearly a form of polemic. I know this from experience. It’s a passive agressive tactic that can be very effective. Noam Chomsky has had plenty to say about media manipulation of political information over the years, and this is a shining example. Bernie Sanders deserves to be heard, especially since he has such a substantial following among the working class and poor in the US. From our friends over at naked capitalism.

The measurable and socially immoral consequences of opportunity inequality

We have this posted over at Naked Capitalism this morning, originally from VoxEU. This is even more disturbing when combined with the social reality that the disenfranchisement of young people who are not integrated into the basic structures of society invites higher crime rates.

The conservative attack on academics in higher education

Since conservatives have pushed the adjunct model to its limits over the last 10 year span and effectively can squeeze productivity in that direction no longer, now they are going after tenured faculty who were all but silent while the rest of us suffered. I try not to have hard feelings about a class of faculty who viewed adjuncts as less than themselves (even though adjuncts have the same credentials and many are more qualified than the privileged tenured), but I certainly don’t wish this on anyone and I think it is grotesquely small-minded of conservative legislators who are having their ignorant way with “liberal” academics.

Ground breaking and dedication ceremony scheduled for the Huron Valley Community Garden and Urban Farm

Garden meeting today. Growing interest and participation from the neighborhood. Publicity for the dedication/groundbreaking ceremony here.