Monday, February 1, 2016

The Trump Phenomenon, Political Correctness, and Professional Wrestling: A Theory

Trump: Refreshing?

A few months ago, someone I respect said, "Whatever else can be said about the Trump candidacy, he sure is a breath of fresh air!"

I was perplexed. I find Trump grating and offensive. To find him refreshing is so at odds with my experience that I didn't know what to do with the idea.

But as I probed a little deeper, I began to realize that the experience of Trump as "refreshing" was rooted in the very same features of Trump's persona that generated my far more negative response: Trump's tendency to throw conventional social restraints to the wind.

Whether you find that refreshing or offensive depends on how you experience those restraints.

Sometimes, social restraints can feel burdensome. Those who complain about "political correctness" (a term mostly used by those who complain about it) describe it as a kind of hyper-vigilance against any word or gesture that might hurt someone's feelings. specifically the feelings of historically oppressed groups such as women and minorities.

According to these critics of political correctness, standards for protecting the feelings of these groups have become so exacting that well-meaning people have to be constantly on guard against accidentally saying the wrong things or saying them in the wrong way. They feel as if they can never let down their hair and just relax for fear of offending someone. They're constantly walking on egg-shells, exhausted by the effort--all because some people, as they are inclined to put it, are oversensitive and should just grow a thicker skin.

If this is how you feel in relation to a set of social norms, then someone who bull-dogs ahead without the slightest regard for those norms will be experienced as refreshing. It can feel vicariously liberating.

But if you experience those same social norms as essential constraints for a just society, as standards of decency established for the sake of creating a space where human beings can interact from a footing of mutual respect, then the person who bull-dogs through them will be experienced as grating and offensive.

Political Correctness

I don't want to turn this post into an extended exploration of "political correctness"--but it does seem that Trump supporters are heavily represented by people who complain the most strongly about it. So a few words are in order.

Here's what I want to say. "Political correctness" is a term bound up with efforts to point out the ways in which systemic oppression is perpetuated by ordinary people doing and saying things that were entirely acceptable in their communities of origin. When it comes to addressing how such words and behavior contribute to injustice, I believe we should engage with each other in a spirit of grace. That is, I think we should recognize that we're all flawed, that we all come from backgrounds and upbringings that have habituated in us things that maybe shouldn't be there; and we ought to address these realities with patience and forgiveness.

But I also think that we need to hold each other accountable for the ways in which our words and behaviors contribute, however unconsciously, to systems of oppression. Those who most need to be held accountable are probably the very ones who are most likely to find it burdensome. If you were raised in a context where racist and sexist ideas were commonplace, then resisting racism and sexism is going to be hard work. This doesn't mean you shouldn't do that work. It doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't expect you to do it. But if you're trying to do that work, a spirit of grace should define how others respond to your inevitable failures.

And in case there was any doubt: a spirit of grace should define how we respond to those who have a hard time maintaining a spirit of grace in the face of others' failures.

Maintaining that balance is hard. And even if the balance is struck, people can easily become defensive if they feel that their way of life, their families and communities, are being judged as part of the problem of oppression.

And so we have, on the one hand, morally compelling expectations about how to stand for justice, resist ideas and behaviors that perpetuate oppression, and show respect for historically oppressed groups. On the other hand, we have demands delivered without a spirit of grace that feel both overwhelming and excessive, making no room for ordinary human limitations and loyalties.

Where I experience primarily the former, others experience the latter. I don't want to dwell here on whose experience is right. The truth is that our current social norms almost certainly contain elements of each--and given our backgrounds, we will tend to focus more on some elements than others.

But if our norms contain elements of each, then Donald Trump has been plowing through it all indiscriminately: shaking off the overwhelming and excessive demands along with every real standard of human decency and respect. As his supporters cheer, I am reminded of a low point in my life when I became, however briefly, obsessed with professional wrestling.

Trump as Professional Wrestler

Back in the late '90's, there was a brief period when I was sucked into professional wresting. I watched it daily, at first bemused, then fascinated, then hooked. It was a spectacle in which none of the ordinary rules of propriety and decency obtained. It was all about testosterone-fueled indignation. But because it was all pretend, watching it was strangely liberating. I could vicariously step into a world where all those norms were suspended, where I had no need to watch myself or censor myself.

The pretense of reality made that release possible: The wrestlers pretended it was all real, and so I could imagine that it was real. But at least in my case, it was also crucial that I knew it was pretense. Since it was fake, there were no costs. No harm done (at least if I ignored the news stories about the personal meltdowns of the actors). At a time when I felt overwhelmed by moral demands and judgments delivered without that crucial spirit of grace, professional wrestling offered me an escape into a world where those kinds of expectations were like tissue paper to be torn off and cast aside.

In a recent ThinkProgress piece, Judd Legum makes the case that professional wrestling offers us a lens for understanding Trump's success. Legum invokes the ideas of the French philosopher Roland Barthes, who tried to understand the appeal of professional wrestling. Unlike boxing, which is about excellence achieved within the confines of a sport defined by rules, "wrestling is a sum of spectacles." It is spectacle defined by passion, by indignation, by a rough sense of justice meted out with body-slams and folding chairs turned into weapons.

The ring is a pretense, and the spectacle spills outside it regularly to remind us that there are no rules. As Barthes puts it:
Some fights, among the most successful kind, are crowned by a final charivari, a sort of unrestrained fantasia where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee’s censuring and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators.
Judd Legum thinks Barthes analysis of professional wrestling would work as well as an analysis of Trump's campaign. Trump is campaigning as if the electorate were professional wresting fans. What he offers is the kind of spectacle that is most absorbing, most satisfying, when all the rules are swept away by a triumphant disorder.

And so Trump can lie, and be caught in his lie by a disabled journalist, and then mock the disabled journalist with physical gestures obviously mimicking the journalist's disability--and then, instead of apologizing for such blatant offensiveness, go on the attack, accusing the the journalist of "grandstanding about his disability."

This is the pro wrestler with the microphone, insulting all his opponents with self-righteous indignation, all to the wild enthusiasm of the crowd.

Is it refreshing?

When excessive rules and overwhelming expectations are publicly brushed aside, that can be refreshing. But when all rules, all norms of common decency and restraint, are ignored in favor of the pro-wrestler's self-righteous brand of bullying, the resultant spectacle can be refreshing only to the extent that we recognize it as pretense--a fiction to be indulged for a  moment, an escape from reality.

But the illusion of a world where ignoring all standards of decorum has no consequences is just that: an illusion. It can be momentarily liberating to step into the fiction. But if the fiction spills out of the arena and into the real world, if the triumphant disorder is not contained to the realm of pretense, then what we have isn't a refreshing spectacle. What we have is a disaster.

So for me, the key question is this: Will Trump's supporters, caught up in the spectacle of their favorite wrestler beating down all opponents without any regard for conventional standards and restraints, realize that Trump's candidacy is taking place in the real world--a world where ignoring rules of human decency actually does real harm? As primary season kicks off, will his fans start stepping back from the spectacle and say, "Oh, but this is the actual leadership of a real country we're talking about, not just a show"?

Today's Iowa Caucuses will offer some clues, if not a definitive answer.

Friday, January 15, 2016

On Refusing to Play the "Who's Persecuted Worse?" Game: Muslim and Christian Edition

I am one of a number of progressive Christian writers who has devoted considerable attention in recent months to Western persecution of Muslims. I've certainly written more on this issue than I have about Muslim persecution of Christians.

Every once in a while, I find myself taken to task for this--often in connection with horror stories about brutal treatment of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. A friend will point out that these minority Christians are in far greater danger of being harmed for their faith than any Muslim in the West.

The message, put simply, is this: "They persecute us when they're in power worse than we persecute them when we're in power."

I don't want to play that game. I don't want to focus on which group persecutes the other more egregiously. Persecution, wherever it occurs, is awful. Wherever it occurs, it needs to stop (and probably won't).

But I can already hear the response: If persecution is the problem, then isn't it relevant to consider where the persecution is worst, and then direct my efforts mainly there? Maybe Christians minorities suffer more in Muslim majority countries than Muslim minorities suffer in the West. If so, shouldn't I care about that? Should I then focus my energies on denouncing Muslims for targeting Christians instead of the other way around?

Let me explain why I don't.

It isn't because the persecution of Christians in some parts of the world isn't a problem. It isn't because my heart doesn't bleed when I hear about a Christian boy in Pakistan who was beaten and then set on fire after admitting he was a Christian to the two men accosting him.

The reason is because this attack on a Christian boy in a Muslim-majority country springs from the same deep ideological well as this brutal attack on a Muslim woman in Toronto, or this attack on a Muslim woman in southern France, or this shooting of a Muslim taxi driver in Pittsburgh, or any number of other recent incidents in which Muslims in the West have been targeted for verbal abuse, vandalism, and violence.

The reason is because all of these attacks are about dehumanizing and assaulting the "other," the one who is different, who isn't one of "us." I look at my world and I see an all-too-human impulse to create in-groups and out-groups, and then target members of the out-group not for anything they have done, but simply for belonging to the wrong group. When the out-group is a minority and the in-group a majority, this ideological targeting can often rise to the level of systematic persecution and oppression.

But if the problem is this sort of us/them ideology and the violence and injustice it inspires, the question for me is how I can best use my voice to address that problem. And here it matters that I am a Christian living in a Christian-majority country where Muslims are far more likely to be the targets of Islamophobic persecution and attacks than the other way around.

My audience is primarily Western, primarily Christian. I could, of course, talk to that mostly-Western audience mostly about other people's propensity to fall into us/them thinking, other groups' conscious and unconscious biases. I could focus my attention on how even moderate Muslims, when they fail to stand against extremist ideology in their own ranks, become part of the problem.

But what effect would that have? It won't cause those other people to pause, to introspect, to think about the ways in which they are promulgating divisiveness. etc.--because they aren't my audience. Will it cause Christians in the West to pause, to introspect, to think about the ways in which they are promulgating divisiveness?

Or will that kind of emphasis only serve to promulgate divisiveness? If I, as a Christian, start focusing on all the times when Muslims have acted badly against Christians, all the ways in which Muslim extremists have assaulted Christians, will that break down the us/them ideologies that I think are the real problem, the deep human propensity that does so much harm?

There is no great mystery here, but it needs saying: When members of one group start denouncing the horrors and crimes committed by another group, that does not tend to reduce in-group/out-group ideology. The way to reduce such ideology is for members of a group to be on guard against the rumblings of such ideological hatred within their own ranks, and to speak out against it when and where they see it happening. I feel called to do exactly that.

I'm an American Christian. As a Christian, I believe in taking the plank out of my own eye before taking the speck out of my neighbor's eyes. I believe that if I want to work against the human tendency to divide the world into us and them, I need to start with myself and my community.

We live in a world where there are different religions, different nations, different cultural traditions. Humanity is divided into groups, and that's not going to change. What might change is the tendency of these groups to vilify each other. What might arise is a world where people who are different can co-exist in greater harmony, a world where we dehumanize each other less. How should I work for that?

I can, of course, try to talk to other groups about their tendency to wrongly vilify and dehumanize my group. There are times when all of us may be called to do just that--especially when we or those close to us have been the targets of ideological hate, and our impassioned words can give a human face to what has been dehumanized.

But in general I have far more influence within my own communities, the ones I understand, the ones whose languages I speak. If in-group/out-group ideology is a problem, then the first step is to turn to my group and say, "Let's not do this ourselves. Let's not get sucked in. Instead of chastising moderate Muslims when they fail to sufficiently repudiate the extremism among them, let's model what that's like. Let's be what we want to see in the world. Then we will be far better positioned to work for change."

"Who is more egregiously persecuted?" is a blame-game. I want to play the change-game. And change, meaningful change, begins with ourselves and moves out from there.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Proposed Wording for a New Doctrinal Requirement for Employment at Wheaton College

We now have available to us Larycia Hawkins' response to the Wheaton Administration's request for "clarification" about her remarks concerning Christians and Muslims worshiping the same God. It has been posted on Scribd.

In this statement, Hawkins clearly articulates her agreement with Wheaton's statement of faith, and she eloquently explains her broader philosophical/theological perspective, in terms of which that statement of faith is fully harmonious with her brief social media remarks about Christians and Muslims. In other words, it is now clear that Hawkins continues to endorse Wheaton's statement of faith, and that given her broader philosophical and theological perspective, her doing so is entirely consistent with her claim that Christians and Muslims are people of the book who worship the same God.

Of course, one needn't accept her broader philosophical and theological perspective. Although it seems quite plausible to me, Wheaton officials may ascribe to a different perspective, one which does not permit the reconciliation between the faith statement and Hawkins' remarks that Hawkins' own perspective permits. But if Wheaton is trying to fire her because they find her broader philosophical/theological perspective unacceptable despite its harmony with Wheaton's faith statement, then in fairness they ought to clearly announce that they have adopted a new doctrinal requirement for employment at Wheaton.

I thought I'd help them out with some proposed wording for the new doctrinal requirement. I suggest the following:

Wheaton College has traditionally maintained, as a doctrinal requirement for employment at Wheaton, that all employees accept Wheaton's historic statement of faith. We have now determined that this is insufficient as a doctrinal requirement. Additionally, we now require that Wheaton employees accept the current leadership's idiosyncratic philosophical and theological perspective and the interpretation of Wheaton's statement of faith (including purported implications) that follows from that perspective. Current employees, including tenured faculty, should be aware that even if they presently embrace the leadership's broader perspective in addition to the statement of faith, their employment may be jeopardized should the leadership's perspective evolve and change. However, there is little danger of such change, since perspectives typically evolve in the light of thoughtful conversations among persons with differing perspectives, and this is something we no longer permit.  

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Wheaton College, Larycia Hawkins, and the Question of Whether Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God

The other day, Wheaton College initiated termination proceedings against Larycia Hawkins, the tenured Wheaton political science professor who has been wearing a hijab in solidarity with her Muslim neighbors. She was suspended late last year for social media statements in which she explained her actions. Among other things, she said that Christians and Muslims "worship the same God," and it was for this claim that her employment was jeopardized. According to Wheaton officials, the concern was that this claim is incompatible with the statement of faith that all Wheaton faculty must agree to.

Apparently, the provost was convinced that, indeed, there is a conflict between Wheaton's statement of faith and the view that Christians and Muslims worship the same God--convinced enough to recommend termination. That recommendation must be reviewed by a number of parties before it results in an actual termination, so there may yet be time to salvage the situation.

I say "salvage" the situation because--unless there is something that both Wheaton and Hawkins are keeping secret--it seems puzzling at best, and marginally crazy at worst, to say that there is a conflict between Wheaton's statement of faith and Hawkins' claim.

Certainly, there is no direct contradiction. Troll through Wheaton's statement of faith all day, and you will not find the claim that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods. It's just not there. Wheaton officials will surely concede as much. What they'll likely say is that there is an implicit contradiction. In other words, what they're saying is that if you accept Wheaton's statement of faith in all its parts, an unstated implication of that acceptance is that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods.

But this is almost as indefensible as claiming there is a direct contradiction. Now, there is something that follows immediately from the understanding of God spelled out in Wheaton's statement of faith, and which has implications for the relationship between Christianity and Islam. What follows is this: Christians and Muslims have very different beliefs about God, including some that are about God's essential nature.

Among other things, Christians believe that God is essentially triune, whereas Muslims reject this.

But to get from this (rather obvious) fact to the conclusion that Christians and Muslims worship a different God, you need to add some premises about the nature of linguistic reference. That is, you need to delve into the philosophy of language. To put it simply, if you adopt a fairly standard view about the nature of linguistic reference--one that was laid out quite beautifully by Edward Feser in a post at the end of December--you get the conclusion that despite the very important differences in belief about God, Christians and Muslims are referring to the same individual being when they speak of God. To get the contradiction that Wheaton administrators claim is there, it seems you'd need to deny this fairly standard view about the nature of linguistic reference.

I don't want to rehearse here all the details of Feser's essay, but let me offer the following simple argument just to clarify the thinking involved: There is one supreme being, creator and sustainer of all reality. This is God. Muslims devote their lives to the worship of this being--and they have a bunch of beliefs about what this being is like. Christians devote their lives to the worship of this being--and have some very different beliefs about what this being is like. But insofar as both direct their worship to that being who is the supreme source of everything else, they direct their worship towards the same entity, even if they disagree in important ways about the nature of that entity. In short, when they speak of God and worship God, they are orienting their talk and their praise towards the same entity, even if they have different beliefs about what that entity is like.

This line of argument is fairly easy to understand, I think, and it is premised on certain views about the nature of language and reference. Put simply, the referent of "God" becomes fixed by certain key elements that establish a shared referent in the face of disagreement about what the object under discussion is like. Central to this view about the nature of language is a distinction between the "sense" of a term (the conceptual ideas we attach to it) and its "referent" (what actual entity or entities the term points to). To say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, it is sufficient that they have the same referent for "God"--that is, they are pointing in the same direction, even if they have divergent ideas about what the being they're pointing at is like.

And lest anyone think that disagreements about what is essential undercut a shared reference, consider the following example. Suppose I have two students who are doing an independent study with me. The first is a fairly typical college student (let's call her Mary), but the second (Martha) suffers from a delusional disorder that leads her to believe that I am an alien from another world--a Vulcan, let's say. She has a number of other strange beliefs that go along with this--for example, that I underwent ear surgery to remove my pointy ears and that I pluck my eyebrows every morning to obscure their upward sweep.

Now, being human is certainly essential to who I am. But when Mary and Martha are talking about me, are they referring to the same individual? Of course. When Martha says, "He's an alien" and Mary says, "No he's not," they're disagreeing with each other--and the only way they can disagree with each other is if they are talking about the same individual. Furthermore, when they sit in my office for the independent study, aren't they studying under the same professor? Aren't they talking to the same professor when they ask him questions? Aren't they submitting assignments to the same professor? If Martha turned in a final paper, would I be justified in giving her a zero because she hadn't turned it in to me, since "she thought she was submitting it to an alien, and I'm not an alien"?

You get the idea. Given a fairly standard philosophy of language, it is possible to have very different beliefs about an individual--even differences about what is essential--and still be referring to the same individual. You'd need a pretty unconventional philosophy of language to avoid this outcome.

In short, to derive a contradiction between what Hawkins said and the statement of faith she is required to endorse, you need to deny the fairly standard philosophy of language claims explained by Feser in favor of some alternative (and less standard) philosophy of language. There is no reason to suppose that Hawkins endorses this non-standard philosophy of language. In fact, her remarks explaining her views all but imply that she endorses the standard view described by Feser. (Consider the following statement: "In no way did I make a moral equivalency between Jesus and Muhammad or Islam and Christianity. That would be offensive to my Muslim friends and to my Christian friends to pretend that the religions are the same, that they're not different, either in practice or theology.")

Now, were a non-standard philosophy of language part of Wheaton's statement of faith, such that all Wheaton faculty are required to endorse this non-standard philosophy of language as part of their employment agreement, then there would be a problem for Hawkins. But I invite you to read through Wheaton's statement of faith carefully. Is a distinctive philosophy of language that rejects standard ideas about reference clearly laid out as an article of faith that Wheaton faculty must endorse? No? Then Hawkins needn't endorse any such thing in order to be in line with the statement of faith. So, she is free to adopt the standard view--which it seems she does. And when you combine the standard view with Wheaton's statement of faith, guess what? Hawkins' claim about Muslims and Christians worshiping the same God is wholly consistent with standing by that statement of faith.

In other words, Wheaton officials are flat out wrong if they assert that there is a conflict between what Hawkins said and what Wheaton's statement of faith requires Hawkins to endorse. Let me say that again: they are flat-out wrong. This is not some matter of opinion where there is no clear answer. It is a matter of logic. And they are wrong about the logic.

 To avoid an error of logic, they might say the following: "There is a conflict between Wheaton's statement of faith and the conjunction of Hawkins' claim with an unconventional philosophy of language that we have no reason to suppose Hawkins endorses." But saying this does not get them very far. It certainly does not warrant termination proceedings.

Let me summarize as plainly as I can. Whether there is a conflict between a complex statement of faith and a few social media remarks is a question of logical consistency. In the case at hand, there is no direct conflict. To get such a conflict, you need to combine the statement of faith and Hawkins' remarks with certain additional claims about linguistic reference--philosophical claims about the nature of language that Wheaton (wisely) does not require its faculty to endorse, and which there is no good reason to think Hawkins endorses.

Hence, as a matter of logic, there is no good reason to suppose that Hawkins' remarks commit her to standing against Wheaton's statement of faith. Said another way, there is absolutely no good reason to think, based on Hawkins' social media comments about Muslims and Christians, that Hawkins was in any way questioning or rethinking her allegiance to Wheaton's statement of faith. But surely termination proceedings of the sort Wheaton's provost has initiated call for good reasons.

Admittedly, it takes some clear thinking to see this point. And not everyone thinks clearly all the time. I saw a cartoon recently in which the author tried to argue that it was obvious that Christians and Muslims don't worship the same God. But the whole thrust of the argument was that Christians believe different things about God than Muslims do--including several things that are essential (especially the Doctrine of the Trinity). It is worth noting that no one takes these considerations as sufficient to show that Christians and contemporary Jews worship different Gods--but that point aside, it should be clear from what I have said above that the cartoon's author, like Wheaton's leadership, are conflating two distinct claims:

Claim 1: Muslims and Christians believe very different things about the God they worship (as well as some very similar things, too, of course).

Claim 2: Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.

An argument that establishes Claim 1 does not establish Claim 2. And to get from Claim 1 to Claim 2, you need to introduce additional premises--premises that Hawkins doesn't seem to endorse and isn't required to endorse by her allegiance to Wheaton's statement of faith.

Put simply, Wheaton's leaders (and our cartoonist) are confused. They take there to be a conflict because they are either conflating Claim 1 with Claim 2 or because they think the inference from Claim 1 to Claim 2 is straightforward and uncontroversial, which it is not.

Hence, if Hawkins' public statements about Christianity and Islam really are the basis for the termination proceedings that have begun, the proceedings have been initiated for very bad reasons indeed. But something as serious as initiating termination proceedings for a tenured professor must be rooted in good reasons. Because of this, I hope for more than just that the proceedings end up with a "not guilty" verdict and Hawkins getting to keep her job. What I hope for--at least if Wheaton's reasons for moving ahead with termination proceedings are what they appear to be--is that Wheaton suspends the proceedings as soon as possible and extends to Hawkins a sincere apology.

My reasons for thinking this are implicit in what I've already said, I think. But let me spell it out. As noted above, what Hawkins said would be in conflict with Wheaton's statement of faith only when combined with a controversial set of views about the nature of linguistic reference that Hawkins almost certainly does not hold. It violates the principle of charity to attribute to someone views they almost certainly don't hold in order to fabricate a problem that wouldn't exist absent such an attribution. And it violates basic decency to try to fire someone from their job based on such fabricated problems.

To permit that sort of thing is to open the door to witch hunts. As soon as we allow bad reasons to justify suspensions and termination hearings, we are setting a precedent by which anyone can be subjected to termination hearings based on tenuous grounds. When you open the door to witch hunts, the witch hunters rub their hands together with glee. Accusations begin to fly, and the community becomes infected by paranoia. The spirit of charity and love that is supposed to be the hallmark of a Christian community is lost as members of that community become increasingly motivated by the fear of being kicked out for trivial reasons and trumped-up charges. They begin pointing fingers at others in the hope of deflecting attention from themselves.

It is for the sake of preserving Wheaton's community from the specter of witch hunts that I believe the administration should quickly rescind their actions, admit they made a mistake, and ask Hawkins for forgiveness.

I suspect she'll give it. After all, every sign indicates that she is a Christian, and that's what Christians do.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Guns and Islam: A Philosophical Public Service Announcement

The mass shooting by a pair of radicalized Muslims in San Bernardino fueled two ongoing conversations in this country: one about guns, the other about Islam. And I've noticed that a few of the arguments tossed about in the gun conversation have some logical parallels in the conversation about Islam (and vice versa).

I think these parallels are worth pointing out in the service of our collective effort to be more consistent thinkers--a kind of quick Public Service Announcement of the sort philosophers are especially suited to offer. If you don't care about logical consistency, feel free to ignore what follows (and be ignored in turn by those who do care). But if you care about consistency, then here are some things you might want to think about.


Suppose you think along the following lines, as many advocates of gun rights do:

"Most gun owners are law abiding citizens who don't kill innocent people. Therefore, when it comes to the problem of innocent people getting killed, guns aren't the problem."

If you think that, then as a matter of logic you should accept the following reasoning:

"Most Muslims are law-abiding citizens who don't kill innocent people. Therefore, when it comes to the problem of innocent people getting killed, Islam isn't the problem."


Suppose you think along the following lines, as many advocates of gun rights do:

"Even if we were to grant that taking away all guns would make our society safer, you can't justify such a policy on those grounds alone because people have rights. We have to protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners even as we aim to keep ourselves safe from the criminal ones."

Setting aside the fact that no political leader is talking about taking away all guns, if you accept this reasoning, then as a matter of logic you should accept the following reasoning (which, unfortunately, refers to something that a current candidate for President is seriously talking about):

"Even if we were to grant that closing our borders to/deporting/tracking all Muslims would make our society safer, you can't justify such a policy on those grounds alone because people have rights. We have to protect the rights of law-abiding Muslims even as we aim to keep ourselves safe from the criminal ones."


Suppose you think along the following lines, as many advocates of gun rights do:

"Even though some gun owners occasionally kill innocent people, it doesn't follow that gun owners are the enemy. Most gun owners would never do such things, and so we should treat them with respect, focusing our outrage at the individuals who actually commit these crimes."

If you think along these lines, then as a matter of logic you should accept the following reasoning:

"Even though some Muslims occasionally kill innocent people, it doesn't follow that Muslims are the enemy. Most Muslims would never do such things, and so we should treat them with respect, focusing our outrage at the individuals who actually commit these crimes."

(I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of the parallel arguments here. Feel free to share any that occur to you in the comments section.)


In each of these cases, you may be tempted to respond along the following lines: "But wait! There's more to the story! While most (gun-owners/Muslims) aren't violent or dangerous, there's something about (guns/Islam) that contributes to the problem even so, something that is present in the one case that doesn't apply in the other."

But if you say that, you have conceded that the reasoning in both of the parallel arguments is unsound, because there is more that you need to know in order to draw the inference made in either argument. If you think Islam is a problem even though most Muslims are peaceful and law abiding, then you can't logically hold that guns aren't a problem just because most gun-owners are peaceful and law abiding (and vice versa).

In general, if you think the reasoning in one case is incomplete and unpersuasive, you should think the reasoning in the other case is likewise incomplete and unpersuasive. And so you should reject the argument in favor of something more nuanced.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

I Fixed It! Gun Slogan Edition

I don't pretend to know how to solve the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Even if, in theory, our country would be safer if far fewer people had guns and guns were much harder to acquire, the reality is that the guns are already out there in huge numbers. And the gun culture in the US pretty much ensures that any attempt to forcibly reduce the number of guns that are out there would be met with entrenched resistance--not just political resistance but other forms, in some cases armed resistance that could magnify bloodshed in this country rather than reduce it.

It seems to me that some policies make sense, even if they don't make a huge dent in the problem: closing the gun-show loophole, instituting mandatory training and licencing for gun owners, registering guns and keeping track of ownership in something like the way we do with cars.

But while I don't have a clear sense of how to solve the problem, I do know that certain slogans don't help us to think clearly and carefully as we collectively pursue a solution. So I've decided to correct a few of these problematic slogans. Here goes:

Slogan 1: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people."

Correction: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people--but they frequently do it with guns, at least in the US, since guns are one of the most efficient tools for killing people and they are readily available. Since guns are tools specifically designed to kill things, they make it so much easier to quickly and efficiently (or accidentally, in the case of careless owners and toddlers) turn a living human being into a corpse."

Comment: The slogan above trivializes the killing power of guns. But the first step in responsible gun ownership is to respect the deadly potency of these weapons. Just as with cars, a gun in the wrong hands is a tragedy waiting to happen. It is recognition of this fact which inspires us, as a society, to train would-be drivers and test and license them before we let them operate a car unsupervised. Promulgating slogans that obscure how dangerous guns are is a bad idea if we want to come up with sound public policies and encourage private responsibility.

Slogan 2: "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns."

Correction: "If guns are regulated such that everyone who purchases a gun (even at a gun show) is required to undergo background checks designed to block those we all agree shouldn't be entrusted with a gun, everyone will still have access to guns, but those who can't get them legitimately will have to rely on the black market and so will be guilty of a crime for which they can be arrested--meaning law enforcement will have a legal basis for taking action in cases where, had the guns been available for legal purchase, police hands would be tied until the guns were actually put to use in tragic ways."

Comment: Outlawing guns is not seriously proposed, nor is it politically feasible in the US. Arguably, it's also unconstitutional. More careful regulation of gun sales to keep guns out the hands of "outlaws" will, in a perfect world, mean that outlaws won't have access to guns but law-abiding citizens will. In our less-than-perfect world, "outlaws" might still get them from the black market. But if they do, they've committed a crime. And that magnifies the options that law enforcement has for preventive action.

Slogan 3: "The surest guard against tyranny is a well-armed citizenry."

Correction A: "The surest guard against tyranny is a military with a conscience."

Correction B: "The surest guard against tyranny is an informed and engaged citizenry with a conscience."

Comment: If the US government decides to impose tyrannical rule, armed citizens won't have much of a chance against the US military. Really. They'll get slaughtered. If the government decides to turn its formidable coercive power against its own citizens, our best hope is that our military, made up of our own young men and women, will say no.

But of course, tyrannical regimes tend to know that soldiers won't happily start shooting their own. They know that their power depends on the obedience of the soldiers who kill for them, and that these soldiers come from the very communities the tyrants want to control.

That's why tyrants are much more sneaky and incremental. They use ideological indoctrination and propaganda that plays on our fears and insecurities, selling their repressive system bit by bit as an essential means of promoting safety. They'll be especially interested in winning the allegiance of those who are most angry and most well-armed. They do this by pandering to these groups and carefully directing their fear and anger towards scapegoats who are blamed for everything that's wrong with the country. Pretty soon, the well-armed citizenry has been absorbed into the tyrant's forces and is kept busy herding Muslims into concentration camps (or something along those lines).

But if we live in a society that refuses to be sucked in by these us/them ideologies, a society whose citizens stand for human rights without discrimination and who keep themselves informed about current events and engaged in political life, then these indoctrination tactics are far less likely to work. Tyranny will be stripped of one of its most tried-and-true strategies for taking control.

In short, reasoned discussion about guns requires each of the following:
(a) Appreciation of and healthy respect for the lethal power of guns.
(b) Recognition that the choice is not between unrestricted access and a ban; the aim, instead, is to find a regulatory scheme that reflects the kind of balance between public safety and individual rights that is in play with automobiles.
(c) Setting aside naive fantasies that large-scale gun ownership is an effective safeguard against tyranny, and replacing it with the more realistic view that our best guard against tyranny is a citizenry committed to fairness and human rights and politically aware and engaged in our democratic processes.

Monday, December 7, 2015

When Your Muslim Neighbor Preaches Peace, How Will You Respond?

Today I saw a video of a Muslim poet expressing his distress at the appropriation of Islam by extremists. It highlights in a helpful way the points I was making in my previous post, and so I want to share it here. Take a couple of minutes to watch the video.

Religious traditions, Islam included, are complex phenomena with rich histories and sources of authority. Depending on what one identifies as essential, these complex traditions can be used to underwrite extremism or to support peace and justice.

So how should we respond to those who endorse the message (shared by the Muslim majority) that is expressed by the poet in this video? Should we support and encourage them in their fight to reclaim Islam from the extremists? Or should we say, as some do, that the truth about Islam is what the extremists teach, and this poet is an inauthentic sellout?

Every time Islamist extremists perpetrate a new horror, there are those in the West who call for moderate Muslims to denounce them (as if they aren't already doing so). Here we have a poet who is denouncing them with passion and eloquence. Should we respond to him by sifting through the complex tradition of Islam to find every element that is at odds with his peaceful vision? Shall we make certain that there is no way for moderate Muslims to win, nothing our Muslim neighbors can do that will not spark our hostility?

Or should we, perhaps, reach out to him and those like him in a spirit of love and say, "You are my brother"?

I know which choice will do the most to disempower the extremists. And I know which choice the extremists most want us to make.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Religion vs Religionism: The Case of Islam

Predictably, Western responses to the terror attacks in Paris have sparked ongoing discussions that amount to a kind of Western forum on Islam.

I have been actively engaged in some of these conversations. Through those conversations, I've encountered more than once a view that I want to address with some care on this blog. It goes something like this:
"Islam as a religion is bad, but Muslims as people are not. In fact, most Muslims have a basic decency that causes them to resist the pernicious teachings of their faith. But they are capable of displaying moderation only because their conscience and humanity have led them to reject what Islam really teaches. The majority of Muslims are decent people in spite of Islam, while the minority are terrorists because of it." 
A good example of this perspective can be found here. In many ways, the reasoning is similar to the "love the sinner, hate the sin" rhetoric that many conservative Christians invoke with respect to homosexuality. But in this case, it's "I love Muslims but hate their religion." They say it's Islam that needs to be opposed, not Muslims (who are victims of a bad religion along with the rest of the world). They resist the "Isalmophobia" label (just as Christians who condemn same-sex intimacy resist the "homophobia" label), and they generally concede that the majority of Muslims oppose the violence of ISIS and Al Qaeda.

What are we to make of this stance towards Islam?

First of all, I think there is something initially suspicious about defining a religion's essence in terms of something that the majority of that religion's adherents repudiate. But I don't want to explore that issue directly here. What I want to focus on are the serious pragmatic dangers I see in this anti-Islam perspective. I say anti-Islam, instead of Islamophopic, for a reason. I think it is too quick to simply lump this perspective in with more overt expressions of Islamophobia. But precisely because it is less obviously pernicious, I think this view has the potential to do harm in ways that overt Islamophobia can't.

Let me develop my concerns in terms of a distinction I made in my first book, Is God a Delusion? There, I distinguished between religion and religionism. By "religion," I mean a way of life and way of seeing our world meant to offer a distinctive understanding of ultimate reality and a path to orienting our lives in relation to that reality. By "religionism" I mean an ideology of division that uses religious identity markers as the basis for distinguishing in-groups and out-groups and representing them as locked in a zero-sum struggle that allows no quarter.

In other words, religionism sees the chosen group--selected by religious identity markers--as pitted against another group in something like the way racism sees different races as pitted against each other. Any gain for the "other" is a loss for the chosen group (and vice versa). The chosen group has a mission--to usher in the good and the right--whose achievement demands that the other be put down, marginalized, or destroyed.

Most religious traditions have, among the authorities to which they appeal and the historical and cultural resources from which they draw, a range of elements they can use to delineate a way of life and a way of seeing the world. But their traditions also contain elements that can be exploited by those who seek to build ideological communities of hate.

In other words, they contain elements suited to constructing a religion, and elements suited to constructing religionism. This mix of elements is certainly evident in Islam. There are those who will claim that the resources for religionism are especially strong in Islam. I am not expert enough to speak to the relative degree to which such resources are present in different faith traditions, and dwelling on these differences strikes me as a distraction--a way to chest-thump and say, "My faith is better than yours," rather than focus on the more urgent task.

And what is the more urgent task? It is the task of discouraging religionism, of encouraging faith traditions to focus their resources on building a religion rather than an ideology of hate.

This task cannot be pursued without due attention to those features of a faith tradition that lend themselves to religionism. As such, we cannot be naive. We must avoid rosy glasses. We do no one a favor by pretending that features supporting Islam's brand of religionism don't exist, by obscuring them or hiding them under the rug. In my own faith tradition--Christianity--I try to be conscious of how religionism can creep in. It is only by being realistic about the dangers that I can stand against Christian religionism from within.

Likewise, there are many Muslims who are determined to stand against Islamism from within. The vast majority of Muslims attach their allegiance to Islam not to Islamism, to religion not religionism. As such they can, without denouncing their religion, denounce the use of their tradition's resources to cultivate divisive ideologies that motivate terrorism and violence.

Moderate Muslims are committed to opposing Islamism, to attacking it in terms of the very religious resources that Islamism invokes. To the extent that they do so, they are probably the best hope for overcoming Islamist extremism--and certainly the best hope for overcoming it with minimal bloodshed and pain.

If we ignore their efforts, we cannot honor or support those efforts. And it seems to me that honoring and supporting those efforts is utterly crucial.

Again, let us not be naive or unrealistic. Honoring the work of moderate Muslims does not preclude frank conversations and earnest debates about the challenges of reconciling certain elements of Islam with the values and practices of Western democratic liberalism. Those who respect and honor each other can debate and discuss differences and even offer forceful criticism--because the purpose of such debate and criticism is to help each other grow and pursue the goal of living in community together.

But if we say that all of Islam is the problem, we play into the Islamist us/them division, providing fodder for the narrative that all of Islam is threatened by the West and that the survival of the former requires the latter to be brought low.

If we say that moderate Muslims have betrayed the essentials of their faith, we do nothing to help moderate Muslims in their effort to stand against extremism from within. In fact, we make their efforts more difficult. Instead of honoring them, we label them as sell-outs who don't represent their faith.

And we essentialize the problem of Islamist extremism. We say, in effect, "Extremism is so essential to Islam that there is no way to eliminate extremism without eliminating Islam itself."

Once you have adopted that kind of absolutizing stance towards Islam as a whole--in the face of the majority of moderate Muslims who disavow extremism--you force moderates to rush to the defense of their faith.

At best, you distract them from the task of fighting Islamist extremism. At worst, you fuel the divisiveness that drives religionism, thereby strengthening the extremists and weakening the moderates.

People do not easily give up their religious identities, their traditions, their communities of faith. For people of faith, these things are central to who we are.

It is one thing to invite people to build their identities around those elements of their faith tradition that are about religion rather than religionism, to encourage them to see those elements as what is truly essential, and to celebrate and support the internal efforts of a faith community to fight extremism in those terms. If you do that--if you cheer the message of those who would build their faith tradition around its messages of peace and coexistence--you are not their enemy. Peaceful coexistence is possible (even though you might disagree strongly about many things).

But what if, as an outsider to a faith tradition, you slap the label of "inauthentic sell-outs" on those who would build that faith tradition around peace and coexistence? What if you insist that the "real core" of their faith is its endorsement of us/them extremism?

What if, when confronted with the majority of moderate Muslims, your message to them is this:
"You cannot with integrity be a moderate Muslim. As an outsider to the faith, I understand the faith better than you do and know that it is inherently violent and extremist. If you want to disavow violent extremism with integrity, your only option is to disavow your faith. If you don't disavow your faith, I will conclude that you are lending cover to extremism and implicitly supporting evil." 
If you adopt that view, what are you doing?

You are demanding that they give up their religion.

You are expressing a commitment to wiping from the world something central to their identity.

And when you do that, you help the extremists to construct the picture of zero-sum struggle that defines religionism and feeds cycles of violence. You help to fashion a world in which peaceful co-existence becomes progressively harder to realize.

This is the pathway to spreading the cancer of extremism rather than cutting it out. This is what I fear. This is what I pray we will resist.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Go And Do Likewise: Refugees and the Good Samaritan

Today I saw images from Magnus Wennman's photo project, "Where the Children Sleep." It features photographs of children among the refugees fleeing Syria (about half of the 4 million refugees are children)--images like the two below, each paired with brief stories about the children depicted:

Take the time to scroll through all the images and accompanying narratives. Meditate on their meaning. These children are victims of ISIS and their ilk, victims of extremism and ideological hate, victims of the same agents of terror who attacked Paris on Friday. They are beaten and bloodied, stripped of their homes and possessions, some of them half-dead. They are lying on the side of the road.

And now meditate on these words from Luke 10: 25-37:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
There are victims of terrorist violence lying on the side of the road. We might choose to pass on the far side, frightened by those who say that perpetrators of terrorist violence are hiding among these victims. Perhaps something along those lines inspired the priest: he saw the victim and thought, "The robber might be near, waiting to pounce if I pause to help this poor victim."

There are victims of terrorist violence lying on the side of the road. We might choose to pass on the far side because they're one of "them": Muslims, our enemies, part of an undifferentiated mass of "others" whose lives don't matter to us as much as our own. Perhaps the Levite thought something along those lines: "My life matters more."

"But wait," you say. "There are other reasons to stay on the far side of the road. What if the Samaritan had been traveling with his son? Would Jesus have praised the Samaritan then? Putting his own son at risk for a stranger? We have our own children to look out for. Our first duty must be to them."

I can't tell you what Jesus would have said had the expert in the law offered this "what if." Perhaps we've become better at justifying ourselves since that legal expert crossed paths with Christ. With enough time to meditate on His parables, we're better at coming up with rebuttals.

Could terrorists be lurking amidst the sea of refugees, masquerading as victims in order to slip into the US?

Sure. But that approach to piercing our borders would require that they risk their lives on tiny boats, court starvation on the road, sleep on the cold dirt for weeks alongside the weeping children and mothers who are the victims of their own acts of terror. They'd likely be placed in some out-of-the-way community not-of-their-choosing along with their victims, with few resources of their own and little control over whether they are situated with access to their terrorist network or the means of committing terrorism--assuming, of course, that they are still determined to commit acts of terrorism after months of surviving alongside their victims and building bonds of solidarity with them.

They might get in that way. Or they might recruit someone with a clean record who can secure a student visa. As noted in one article, "There are many ways to come to the United States. Comparatively the refugee resettlement program is the most difficult short of swimming the Atlantic." Of all the ways extremists might pierce our walls, this is hardly the most promising. There are so many other ways they might threaten our security.

Of course we must care for our children. But there are children lying on the road.

Of course we should be careful not to needlessly expose those in our care to serious threats. But threats are everywhere. Perfect security is impossible.

In a world with imperfect security, compassion is all the more crucial. The compassion of strangers may be the thing that saves our children in their moments of greatest need. It's certainly the only thing that will save those Syrian children in Wennman's photographs.

Let us not create a world where the vain pursuit of perfect security kills the compassion that is so crucial in a world of dangers.

This does not mean we shouldn't act to secure our communities. But in buying more security, how much compassion should we be prepared to sell for incremental gains? How many victims lying on the road should we hurry past? How many times should we offer rebuttals to Jesus' injunction to "go and do likewise"?

If rebuttals to Jesus are the currency of security, how many are we prepared to offer? A dozen? A hundred? Or--given the number of refugees--four million?

I don't know. What I do know is this: If the story of the Good Samaritan does not apply to this moment, it has lost its meaning.

Friday, November 6, 2015

US Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Marriage, Part 1: An Overview

Recently, my introductory ethics class was considering same-sex marriage. As part of that unit, I typically have them read key sections of the US Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Marriage, "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan."

The reasoning on display in that pastoral letter plays an important role in shaping much Christian opposition to same-sex marriage. As such, I think that any Christian who supports same-sex marriage, as I do, ought to engage with it seriously. Since I haven't done so explicitly on the blog, I thought I'd devote a series of posts to doing that.

This post is the first in that series. Others will follow as I have the time to develop them, which may not be right away. Here, I will simply offer an overview of what I take to be the key features of the views and arguments laid out in the Pastoral Letter, especially as they relate to same-sex relationships.

The Roman Catholic Definition of Marriage

The main aim of the Pastoral Letter is to articulate a Catholic vision of the sacrament of marriage, and to explore the implications of that vision. According to that vision, marriage is " a lifelong partnership of the whole life, of mutual and exclusive fidelity, established by mutual consent between a man and a woman, and ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation of offspring."

The Bishops argue that marriage is not merely a human institution but a divine one, authored by God for two interconnected purposes: conjugal union and procreation. That is, marriage serves to unite a man and a woman in a distinctive kind of bond characterized by mutual self-giving love, a love which culminates in the generation of new life and becomes the context within which that new life is nurtured into adulthood.

"It is the nature of love to overflow," say the Bishops, "to be life-giving." And so marital love is designed by God to produce new life: a child onto whom the love of the parents overflows.

The Bishops maintain that same-sex marriage violates God's purpose for marriage. In fact, they hold that it "poses a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of society, striking at the source from which society and culture come and which they are meant to serve." (By contrast, terrorism only kills people and destroys infrastructure!) To make this case, the Bishops rely on two key premises, what I call the Inseparability Thesis and the Complementarity Thesis.

The Inseperability Thesis

The Inseparability Thesis holds that one cannot separate the two purposes of marriage (loving union and procreation) without doing violence to the nature of human sexuality and the marital union. As the Bishops put it, these two purposes "cannot be separated without altering the couple's spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family."

This inseparability cuts in both directions, according to the Bishops. It's not just that the procreative aim is harmed if mutual self-gifting love is absent between the sexual partners (because children are then brought into the world in less-than-ideal conditions, lacking the stability and overflowing love that conjugal love brings). It's also the case, they think, that conjugal love itself  is undermined if the couple's intimacy isn't properly directed towards reproduction. It is the latter claim that is particularly crucial for making the case that same-sex marriage (not to mention contraception) is unacceptable. Insofar as same-sex couples cannot be procreative, their intimacy cannot be directed towards reproduction. And this, the Bishops maintain, entails that the kind of love they can have for each other is diminished and cannot be of the marital sort.

The Complementarity Thesis

The Complementarity Thesis holds that men and women are designed by God to complement one another in a distinctive way, such that when a man and woman form an intimate partnership there is a natural fit, a way in which they complete each other. Male and female are, according to the Bishops, "distinct bodily ways of being human" that have personal and spiritual implications (since the body cannot be separated from the rest of the person). The result is "two distinct yet harmonizing ways of responding to the vocation to love." 

And these two ways of being  human were "made for each other," created by God to suit each other uniquely "as partners and helpmates." The idea is that there is a distinctive kind of union that is possible only between a man and a woman because of how men and women are differentially designed. And according to the Bishops, the conjugal union simply is this distinctive kind of union--and hence is not possible at all for same-sex pairs.

Key Concessions

In the course of developing their case, the US Catholic Bishops make a couple of important claims that I will call "key concessions." I call them concessions because they express strong moral intuitions that Catholics don't want to give up, but at the same time they create prima facie problems for the arguments sketched out above. In a sense, they are concessions to human decency, made because of human decency, even though they create some difficulties for their position. Typically, Catholic thinkers treat these as soluble problems: while they might appear to generate contradictions, this is only an appearance, one that evaporates when the right distinctions are made.

The concessions are these:

1. The Infertility Concession: Infertile heterosexual couples can have marriages that are in no way defective, but are fully valid and complete. The Bishops recognize that some married couples who learn they are infertile "may be tempted to think that their union is not complete or truly blessed." The Bishops reply that this is a false impression. "The marital union of a man and a woman is a distinctive communion of persons," they say in response. "An infertile couple continues to manifest this attribute."

2. The Gay and Lesbian Dignity Concession: The Church stresses that "homosexual persons" have a "human dignity" that needs to be treated with "respect, compassion, and sensitivity." Implicit here (and explicit elsewhere in Roman Catholic writings) is the acknowledgment that a homosexual orientation is not a perverse choice but a discovered condition--that just like a heterosexual orientation (or a bisexual one, for that matter), a homosexual orientation is a feature of a person's lived reality that they cannot ordinarily change. Although Catholics teach that homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered," what they mean by this is that it is a kind of disability in the way that blindness and deafness are. In this respect, it is like infertility: an unchosen feature of one's life that one can't wish away but must live with. This is why, in general, the Catholic Church urges gays and lesbians to pursue celibacy and "chaste friendship" rather than attempt a doomed heterosexual marriage (doomed insofar as a homosexual orientation would thwart the unitive end of such a marriage).

The first of these is a concession to the human needs of infertile couples. It is one thing to face the often difficult challenge of infertility, something else to be part of a religion that would dissolve your marriage over it (or forbid you from marrying in the first place if they knew about it in advance).  A Church that did that--that barred you because of some disability from pursuing your human longing for conjugal love and life partnership--would, we might say, be rather monstrous, certainly not a Church that seeks to faithfully live out Jesus' ethic of love.

Likewise for the second concession. It is one thing to discover that you are gay, something else to be part of a religion that vilifies you for something you can't help, casts you out and refuses to offer you a place of dignity.

Hence, I think it is quite clear that the Catholic Church should not back down with respect to either concession. They should insist that infertile marriages are fully valid. They should insist that gays and lesbians have a human dignity that demands respect. Were I feeling hyperbolic, I might say that failure to do either of these things would "pose a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of the Christian love ethic, and to the Catholic Church's claim to represent the love of Christ in the world."

But although the Catholic Church thinks these concessions to decency are wholly compatible with their broader argument about same-sex marriage, I think, on the contrary, that they are not. Together with other considerations, I think these concessions help expose some very fundamental problems with the Roman Catholic conception of human intimacy and sexuality.

More significantly, they highlight that an impulse born of love has only been incompletely carried through. Jesus' call to love has the power to shatters walls, to break down calcified ideas that get in the way of love's fullest expression. But sometimes love hits walls of resistance and only succeeds in making cracks. But the cracks have a trajectory.

Likewise, the concessions above have a trajectory. If we follow them, I think we will see that what Christian love demands is something more than what these concessions allow.

I will begin exploring why I think this in subsequent posts.