“I wasn’t built to follow your rules”

Looking at it from the outside, I might call that a design flaw.  I’m sure she wouldn’t call it that.

It may be that the woman who tossed this line at the hospital security guard, didn’t actually mean it.  As seriously as the sentiment was meant,  the expression of the sentiment gave no leeway at all.  I was’t any part of the action, but I was so close to it that the woman turned to me and invited me to be join in.  Several times.  So I was at the right distance to think about what she might have meant.

Maybe I should say at this point that I have been interested in causal attributions since grad school.[1]  Without any active effort at all, I maintain in my mind a set of categories about what sort of explanation is being offered.  Or more often, is being presumed.

I am used to hearing people say (or imply) that they can not do something or that they will not do something. [2] or that something in the environment prevents them, or that the reward is not great enough, or that they really shouldn’t.  Of all these, the argument from “essential structure” is the sturdiest.  In these days where identity is so fraught and is such a large part of public discourse, “It just isn’t me” is extraordinarily powerful.

That might not be what the angry woman meant, but it is, in fact, what she said, which makes it worth something.

Your Rules

There are two really prominent elements in her statement  “These are your rules, not mine” is the first.  The guard’s point was that they are THE rules.  They were not his, although he had some responsibilities related to seeing that they were followed.  They were the hospital’s rules, and therefor binding on them both. [3]

There is a notable level of alienation connoted by “your rules,” if it implies that I should not be bound by them.  Consider some of the possibilities.  “Your rule says that I can’t ride the bus without paying a fare.”  Currently, it is “Your rules say I can’t ride the bus without wearing a face mask.”

“Not built that way”

This second part of the objection is harder to see clearly, but I think it is more fundamental.  To see how fundamental, you have to see what else it could have been.  I think we can pass over the “built” phrasing as if it implied a builder, who might, presumably, have something to say about how she was built.  But we don’t dare pass over her claim that she could not follow the rules.  Could not.

The argument from fundamental design—or, most often, in adults, from core identity—is that the design precludes compliance.  That means it is not something she could choose to do.  The guard’s orders presumed that she would do what he was asking her to do.  Her response presumed that she could not.  It would be fundamentally incompatible with her personhood to comply with the rule in question.

I don’t think she meant any of that and I don’t think she was aware of any of it.  My reason for writing about it is only that I have gotten accustomed to hearing causal attributions as if they were one of a set.  That means I hear the reasons that are not being chosen as well as the one that is being relied on.

This woman could have said that she did not have the skill to do what was being demanded of her.  She could have said the didn’t understand.  She could have said the demand was illegitimate. [4]  She could have said it was untimely.  She could have said that she would require assistance.

I referred above to my long term interest in the kinds of causal attributions people use.  Here is the point in my account where I get to use that idea.  Ir there are five possible causes that could be given (there are of course, many more) I hear all five of them.  I hear the one that has been chosen and I notice the four that have not been chosen.  And I say, “Hm.  She didn’t use 2, 3, or 5.  I wonder why not.”

This woman did, in fact, say that the demand was illegitimate.  She said that it was a public building and that she was a member of the public.  The guard rejected that on factual grounds (it was not a public building) but that didn’t change things for her and he didn’t expect that it would.  So she went back to her go to attribution, which was “I am not built to…”

My attention to this might be a little unusual.  I maintain that the way reality is created and presented matters along with what the reality “is.”  The explanation this woman relied on—and, I would guess, frequently relies on—matters a great deal.  It shapes the conceptual environment in which we all live.  It is the conceptual equivalent to releasing toxins into the air supply that we all use.

The use of such a pathetically poor attribution might actually be a plea for help although I am sure this woman would say it was not.

[1]  Causal attributions are assignments of cause.  This is what caused that to happen.  The action to which a cause was attributed here was the woman’s principled refusal to obey a rule of the hospital.

[2]  The “can not” form is usually better because it is better accepted.  The risk is that is you keep on saying you cannot do something, you may eventually believe yourself.

[3]  There was a minor, low power, scuffle over whether she, as a member of the public, had a right to be in a public building.  He had to inform her that it was not a public building; it was owned by Providence Health Systems, who had the right to make the rules.  She didn’t care, and he didn’t think she would.

[4]  Had she been a black woman, for example, who was objecting to a rule that was not being applied to whites, she could be claiming an illegitimacy based on her racial identity.

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How to grieve

Let’s start with how bad a title that is.  If you chose to read this because the title rubbed you the wrong way,  welcome.  Let’s talk.

In my reading about the process of grieving, I see a lot of emphasis that “there is no right way to grieve.”  I appreciate the sentiment, but it is clearly wrong.  There are ways of grieving that make everything worse.  Those ways are not a “right way to grieve.”  

What the people mean, I think, by pushing the “no right way to grieve” is that there is not a single clearly defined way to grieve that everyone should follow.  That’s true, of course, but is that the problem we are facing?

What is the disease for which this is the cure?

As I said, it seems to me that there is a lot of emphasis on this these days.  The idea is iterated and then reiterated.  It is as if someone thinks that there is an upsurge of belief in the “one right way” theory.  I don’t think there is.  I haven’t seen, heard, or smelled it and I have been paying attention.

What I think is more likely is that it is an artifact of our hyperindividualization.  There is scarcely any way that sharing a common attitude can be represented as better than opposing what is shared.  “Mine and mine alone” is the high ground.  My feelings are unique; no one has ever had them before.  Consequently, any help I might require with my feelings also needs to be unique.

The grief I feel is, for instance, quite unlike the grief you feel or, as a matter of fact, the grief anyone else has ever felt.  The right way to grieve, for me, needs to be invented (not accepted) and it needs to be tailored precisely to my own individual nature.

This leads us to reject as helpful models, the experiences of others.  “You just don’t understand me” used to be portrayed as the lament of a teenage girl.  As it becomes more popular, it is being made a principle of interpersonal relations.

A Counter-example

I have a picture in mind of what “doing it right looks like.”  It doesn’t answer all the questions, but it’s a very powerful picture for me.  By 2003, when my wife, Marilyn, died, she and I had been in a book group for twenty years.  It was a really good group.  We chose good books and sometimes discussed them well.  We cared for each other and knew quite a bit about each other’s lives.

“The Bookies,” attended the memorial service the family had for Marilyn at our church, but they really had their hearts set on a picnic in the afternoon.  It would be a picnic where they could remember and celebrate the Marilyn they knew.  Anybody who wanted to remember who Marilyn was among her friends was invited to come, but it was a Bookie picnic.

I will never forget the invitation I got.  They told me they had no way of knowing just how much I would have left after the service and the reception that followed.  I didn’t know either, of course.  So they made it plain to me that the picnic was not for me.  It was for them.  It was going to happen.  And I was invited to come if the earlier events had not completely depleted me.

I loved it.  I didn’t know how I was going to feel?  How could I?  But when all the ceremonies were over, I consulted my feelings and my energy level and saw that I really wanted to go.  So I went.

You could criticize a picnic like this in the way the assumed models of grief were criticized in he introduction to this essay.  It doesn’t open the experience of grieving as something we share.  Or it defines the common experience as a rigid and mandatory set of expectations.  Or it doesn’t give a griever any guidance at all and just leaves him to flounder.  But I didn’t experience it in any of those ways.

First, the picnic was going to happen.  It met their needs—the Bookies’ needs—so they

made some time to celebrate Marilyn as they had known her.  The fact that it was going to happen whether I liked it or not was a great relief to me.  I had already made 50% more decisions that day than I make in a normal day and many of them were highly emotional.  This wasn’t yet another decision to make.

And although the picnic wasn’t aimed at me, it was open to me.  I was invited to grieve along with them about our common loss.  The loss of Marilyn was a particular kind of loss to me, of course, but I also lost what they lost.  I lost a person who read and discussed the books and had good ideas just as they lost her.  I was comforted that that much of our grief was in common.

It allowed me to define at the time of the picnic—not in advance—how separate I needed to be and how social I could afford to try to be.  And really, isn’t that when you will know best what you can do?

Why this is a counter-example?

I could, of course, have rejected the whole thing.  No one has ever felt the unique and precise grief I am feeling.  Therefore, you really don’t “know how I am feeling” and you really shouldn’t impose on me any notion of what would help.  A picnic, for instance.

And if I were a chip swirling around in the cascade of uniqueness, that is what I might have done.  In actual fact, I clung onto the group’s determination to celebrate Marilyn’s life in their own way and at their own time.

And to invite me to come if I could.

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Abraham Lincoln to the Rescue. Again.

I have been thinking, especially during the Trump era, about our democratic political institutions.  Trump and “Trumpism” put a great deal of pressure on these institutions.  Trump offered an alternative model: the authoritarian leader.  To followers of such a leader, he is “our guy” and everything else is negotiable.  Democracy, for instance, is negotiable.

It’s hard to feel strongly about democracy.  It is a set of means; it is not an end.  It is a way of consulting “the people” on matters that affect them as citizens.  You can feel strongly about the people—things like allowing them to vote and counting the votes fairly—or you can feel strongly about some particular outcome.  When you feel strongly about both, there is a conflict.  If you resolve the conflict by supporting the institutions that make democracy possible, you are one of those people who make democracy possible in the U. S.

That’s why I have been thinking about our political institutions.  Will they stand up to the strain?

In the middle of all this, I ran across Abraham Lincoln’s first public speech, which he introduces this way.

As a subject for the remarks of the evening, the perpetuation of our political institutions, is selected.

This introduces Lincoln’s famous “Lyceum Speech,” delivered in 1838 [1] to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.  In it, Lincoln takes the position that now that the glories and passions of the revolutionary era have passed, we are going to have to rely on something else to sustain us.  He chooses “obeying the law.”  That is what his generation can contribute to the republic.

Lincoln is worried that there is coming to be a spirit of mob rule in his time.  In the reference to “mobocracy” in the quotation below, he is providing a jab at the popular support for President Andrew Jackson.  Lincoln was a Whig and Jackson was a Democrat—the other party in the partisan configuration of the time.  “Mobocracy” is just another form of “democracy” (demos = the people) and Jackson was accused at the time of stirring up the common folk.  So Lincoln is getting a two-fer here.  He is arguing against the violence of mobs and also getting a jab in at the leader of the other party. [2]  Here is what he said.

Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocractic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed–I mean the attachment of the People. Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last.

As I write today, it is impossible for me not to note the irony of these remarks by the first Republican president.  I have, still vivid in my memory, the scenes of a Trumpist mob storming the Capitol to interrupt the certification of the Electoral College votes from the 2020 election.

Lincoln refers to “the mobocratic spirit.”  In 1838, that was a jab at Democrats, but now it is the Republicans who are wielding the mob.  The mobocratic spirit is, as Lincoln said, “abroad in the land”

The strongest bulwark of a government constituted like ours—a government based on free and fair elections, he means—is the attachment of the People and that attachment can be “broken down and destroyed.” by this mobocratic spirit.

Whenever “the vicious portion of the population” Lincoln says, shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands [3] and destroy with impunity, “depend on it, that government cannot last.”

That makes sense to me.  There must be legal consequences for that “vicious portion of the population.”  I, myself, would include President Trump in that vicious portion of the population.  Winding them up and aiming them at the Capitol while the votes are being certified seems too close to the destruction and the deaths to be reasonably denied.

But that isn’t really where Lincoln goes from his point about the accountability that the mob must face.  He goes somewhere much more useful.  This is his next point.

And not only so; the innocent, those who have ever set their faces against violations of law in every shape, alike with the guilty, fall victims to the ravages of mob law; and thus it goes on, step by step, till all the walls erected for the defense of the persons and property of individuals, are trodden down, and disregarded.

Mobs are not that good at discriminating those they consider guilty from those they consider innocent.  At one point on January 6, the mob was only a few feet away from Senators, whose offense on that day was to fairly certify the results of the election.  What would the guy with the plastic twist-tie handcuffs have done had the two groups met?

And finally, Lincoln solution to the problem—and remember, the problem he has chosen is how to “secure the perpetuation of our political institutions”—is for the citizens of his time to be as passionate about obeying the laws as their forbears were about attaining their independence.

Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. 

There is more, but let’s pause to look at those two.  “Be law-abiding” doesn’t sound too bad.  “Never tolerate [the violation of the laws of the country] by others is a good deal more daunting.  First, it sets us up as judges of the behavior of our neighbors.  People hate to be criticized and especially in the absence of a common and popularly supported moral code, the criticisms seem idiosyncratic and picky.  “Different strokes for different folks” we say, making room for behavior that we, otherwise, would not tolerate.

But the real problem is that attachment to a populist leader like Donald Trump makes “whatever he wants” seem the immediate good and “what democracy requires,” by contrast, thin and remote.  Following the tenets of Trumpism, one may do, out of the demands of conscience, what the Constitution forbids and what the laws punish.

Lincoln’s solution to that problem is grandiloquent, which makes it hard to take seriously, but I am going to quote nearly all the paragraph anyway.  Look at these five specifics.

  • let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children’s liberty. 
  • Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap—
  • let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; 
  • let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;—
  • let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.

That’s Lincoln’s solution.  The particulars are not phrased to make them seem appealing in our time, but they could, perhaps, be abbreviated to this:  Let us revere the procedures that underlie the system we call democracy.  They may seem remote, but they are in fact crucial to “securing the perpetuation of our political institutions.”

“Democracy isn’t easy,” says President Andrew Shepherd, in Aaron Sorkin’s classic, The American President.  “You have to want it bad.”  And in that, Democratic President Shepherd is on the same page as Republican President Lincoln.  Maybe we should take time to notice and enjoy that.

[1]  Nine score and 3 years ago, just to save you from having to count it out yourself.

[2]  He does not mention at all the recent murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy at Alton, Illinois just 80 miles down the road from where Lincoln was speaking.  In the opinion of Professor David Zarefsky, who offers a series of lectures in the Great Courses program (Abraham Lincoln: In His Own Words), this was Lincoln’s way of making Lovejoy’s murder “the elephant in the room.”  Zarefsky reasons that by keeping this recent nearby murder quiet, Lincoln caused the crowd to keep wondering, “When is he going to mention Lovejoy’s murder by a mob?”

[3]  I’ve seen an estimate that 10,000 people made up the “vicious portion of the population” who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021.


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Two Cheers for the Wheaton faculty!

The last time I looked, 284 faculty has signed a statement called  Statement from Wheaton College Faculty and Staff Concerning the January 6 Attack on the Capitol.  See the Appendix for the full statement. Other Wheaton friends of mine grumbled that this statement was not put on the college website or supported in any visible way by the trustees, but I think that is asking a lot.  The faculty are more liberal than any administration of an evangelical school can afford to be and more liberal than any collection of rich conservative trustees will want to be.  From the standpoint of institutional politics, I think it is wonderful that the faculty and staff drafted this, signed it, and published it.

I say good for them (Two Cheers!)  and I speak as a member of the Class of 1959 [1]  I no longer feel at home with the political, theological, or biblical commitments of the college, but I got a very good education there from some superb teachers.

I’m going to take the faculty statement apart a little, just for the purposes of admiring it more analytically.  I hope none of that seems critical.  I am a fan.

First, I notice that amid all the general handwringing, there is a specific confession of error.  These are things they say they have done wrong—have failed to do what is right—that are daring.

The Failure of Evangelicals

This is an important point because it positions Wheaton—“Wheaton” as these faculty and staff see it—with reference to evangelical institutions nationally.  All over the U. S., evangelical leaders either accepted the attempted coup as just or minimized its importance.  Surveys show that self-identified evangelicals support Trump by 80% or more.  The stance taken by this statement distinguishes Wheaton from that stance.  “The Wheaton we know,” says the statement—making special reference to the Christian teachings or ethics that we “submit to” [2]—is not like that. Having said that, they have given the institution itself—not themselves—a place to stand.  It is good to do that first.

Failure of Leaders

“…many evangelical leaders…wittingly propagated lies…or were unduly silent.”  As you can see by all the ellipses, that is an excerpt.  It is the spine of the condemnation contained in paragraph two in the Appendix.  It is, in fact, all of the charge except for a little throat-clearing.  And the cause of their behavior is given as “a lack of courage.”

This is a powerful charge on the merits.  It is always easier to blame someone else, of course, but it is hard to escape the bluntness of “Many evangelical leaders lied.”  The deeper charge is that many were silent.  It is deeper because it puts the condemnation of a president who is hugely popular among evangelicals right at the heart of the ministry of evangelical leaders.  It demands that the standard of “the right thing” be substituted for the standard of “he’s one of us.”  That is a shift that evangelical churches, by and large, have not been willing to make and the writers know that.

Our Failure

The final paragraph is where the power is.  These faculty and staff have established a place for Wheaton—the Wheaton they see and value—to stand to criticize.  They have used that place to condemn evangelical leaders for their lying and their cowardly silence.  At this point, you wonder what else there is to say by way of denunciation.

I want you to look at these four verbs.  Consider each in its own right; consider the sequence. [3]  We repent; we lament; we grieve; we commit.

Of what do we repent?  We repent of “our own failures to speak and to act in accordance with justice.”  I think this is worth saying because of the contribution it makes to the argument, but it is not a strong condemnation.  “Justice” is deeply debated.  “Failure to speak and act” is, accordingly, weak. [4]

Next, we “lament.”  What do we lament?  We lament the failures of the church.  “Lament” is a weak word; it connotes hand-wringing.  But the setting to which it is applied makes it a kind of evangelical molotov cocktail.  The statement laments the church’s failure to “teach clearly” and to “exercise adequate church discipline.”

This is not a condemnation of silence.  This calls on the churches to actively teach justice and also to act justly.  It might call on the members of the church to act justly as well.  Certainly that is the direction “church discipline” moves the argument.

Let me pause briefly for a little political setting of the scene.  Most American political issues are matters of balance.  This is obscured by the rhetorical practice of raging against the extremes of either side.  Who’s for autocracy?  Who’s for anarchy?  These are silly slogans.  The real argument is how much power should be exercised over whom at what level for what purposes.  How much support should be given farmers?:  What responsibility for balanced accounts of events should be required of the media?  Where should the bulk of the burden fall for ameliorating the damage done by an increasingly erratic climate?

So it is good to lament the failures of the church, but what, exactly, should they teach about our politics?  And how will “church discipline” be brought to bear?  I have never, in a lifetime of listening to evangelical rhetoric, heard this argument posed.

For what do we grieve?  Here, the risky step taken in “lament” is powerfully expanded.  We grieve “over the inadequate level of discipleship that has made room for this type of behavior.”  We are considering here not what the church might consider doing in the case of failures in the cause of justice.  We are considering here leaving no room for such failures.  

In this picture, the resources of Christians and of Christian churches are so fully engaged with X that there are no resources left to spend on injustice and deceit.  “Leaving no room” is very aggressive.  Bad behavior is crowded out by good behavior.  There is no question that that works at the individual level on goals that are clearly defined and for which resources are available.  But what is X?

In a religious context, you could oppose sin to righteousness.  That gives us the rhetorical questions that echo the set on anarchy and autocracy.  Who is for sin?  Who is for righteousness?  But this is not a religious context; this is a political context.  This is a context where most of the issues are issues of balance and emphasis as the examples of farmers, media, and climate establish.  Rhetorically, the political goal of any congregation could be “justice.”  But this is not rhetorical.  This has to do with church discipline and a life so fully committed to “justice” that the congregation has no room for “injustice.”

What on earth?  What in heaven?

To what do we “commit?”  Well…“We commit ourselves to a more faithful witness in our callings as the faculty and staff of Wheaton College.”  This would be much more aggressive if it applied to the church, as the previous three verbs have done.  But this applies to themselves, so although the level of interaction is even more intense, the playing field is small.

And what is the more faithful witness?  Slowly the trial balloon begins to come back to earth.  Faithful witness requires “discernment in civic engagement,” and a “communication of the truth.”  That doesn’t seem so bad.  Who is against discernment?

Notice that it also commits them to demonstrate the connections between love and justice..  I wish them well with that.  I myself believe, as does Reinhold Niebuhr, that “justice” is as close to love as one can come in the pursuit and use of political power.  You could argue, I suppose that love for unjustly treated people requires that you work for justice for them.  That would work. But love here is a private motive.  You can always do that.  Justice is a public standard, the character of which will always be in contention between two parties, even two parties of good faith.

I think we will have to do more.  But I am nearly overwhelmed that the faculty and staff of my alma mater have done as much as this.  Good for them, I say.  “Two cheers!”

[1]  As the class song says, “We’re the class of ’59/In all things we really shine.”  Not advanced poetry but if you sing it loud enough in the right setting, it works fine.

[2]  I think their choice of the verb “submit” jumps out in that statement.

[3]  As you see, I am leaving out “pray” from the series.  It is theologically crucial, of course, but it gets no grip at all on political critique, unlike all the others.

[4]  Although it is possible that in that setting the use of a religiously powerful word will resonate.  It is the first word of Jesus’ ministry, for instance, and it has lately been interpreted more cognitively than emotionally.  “Repent” has come, in church circles, to connote “changing your mind,” rather than just feeling sorry.  The Greek noun metanoia, which is commonly used in sermons, literally means “to change your mind.”  That might be the implication the drafters of the statement were hoping for.


Statement from Wheaton College Faculty and Staff
Concerning the January 6 Attack on the Capitol

The January 6 attack on the Capitol was characterized not only by vicious lies, deplorable violence, white supremacy, white nationalism, and wicked leadership—especially by President Trump—but also by idolatrous and blasphemous abuses of Christian symbols. The behaviors that many participants celebrated in Jesus’ name bear absolutely no resemblance to the Christian teachings or ethics that we submit to as faculty and staff of Wheaton College. Furthermore, the differential treatment displayed by those with a duty to protect in their engagement with rioters who trespassed on the Capitol grounds illegally, when compared to recent protests over police brutality in D.C. last summer, illustrates the ongoing reality that systemic racism in our country is tragically and undeniably alive and well. These realities are reprehensible. Our Christian faith demands shining a light on these evils and the simultaneous commitment to take appropriate action.

In the days and weeks preceding January 6, many more leaders, including many evangelical leaders, could have spoken truth to the disillusioned supporters of President Trump—diminishing the prospects for violence and bolstering the witness of Christian love and the call for justice in our civic life. Some did. However, many wittingly propagated lies, or were unduly silent in a just cause. Our Christian faith demands greater courage. 

We repent of our own failures to speak and to act in accordance with justice, and we lament the failures of the Church to teach clearly and to exercise adequate church discipline in these areas. Moreover, we grieve over the inadequate level of discipleship that has made room for this type of behavior among those who self-identify as Christian. We pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal to us all manner of idolatry, and we commit to speaking plainly against it wherever and whenever we find it.  We commit ourselves to a more faithful witness in our callings as the faculty and staff of Wheaton College, and will work diligently to provide ample opportunities to show students, as well as the larger Wheaton College and Christian community, how to practice discernment in civic engagement, to demonstrate the connections between love and justice, and to courageously communicate the truth—even and especially when the truth is difficult to hear.

We pray that, in so doing, we will fulfill the Lord’s requirement of us: “To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before our God” (Micah 6:8).

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The Warmth of Flowers

We are having a power outage here at the moment.  I have been going back and forth on the question of whether I should write a little note about Little Dorrit.  I get used to the power of Charles Dickens’ language, especially in his descriptions of social and political hardship.  And then I forget that he can we as sweetly charming as anyone, as he is in this passage.

Here is the context.  Arthur Clennam, the principal character,  has always been rich and now, suddenly, he is poor and is living in the Marshalsea debtors prison, where Amy Dorrit (Little Dorrit) has lived her whole life until she recently became rich.  Being suddenly poor and dishonored is hard and it makes Arthur ill and barely cogent.

One day, this happens to him.

Beside the teacup on his table, he saw, then, a blooming nosegay: a wonderful handful of the choicest and most lovely flowers.  Nothing had ever appeared so beautiful in his sight.  He took them up and inhaled their fragrance; and he lifted them to his hot head, and he put them down and opened his parched hands to them as cold hands are opened to receive the cheering of a fire.

I like each piece of that.  I enjoyed “inhaling the fragrance;” I enjoyed “lifting them to his hot head;” I enjoyed “opening his parched hands to them.”  That one is my favorite and I want to return to it.

But more than anything I like the order.  “Inhaling the fragrance” is something anyone could have written.  I could have written it.  “Lifting then to his hot head” is surprising.  It isn’t that the flowers are cool; it is that they are beautiful.  Being beautiful, they are therapeutic to his head.  But even that does not prepare us for “opening his hands to them.”  Especially not parched hands.

Dickens is drawing here on a very common experience.  Your hands are cold and you find a fire or even a warm surface and you open your hands to it, multiplying the surface of the skin the warmth can reach.  Everyone has done that.  But Clennam opens his hands to the beauty of the flowers.  Multiplying the skin surface does not address this question or make sense of the response.  Yet we do understand it.

The flowers do nothing for his hands open that it would not do closed.  We could say that he opens his heart to the flowers, and in doing that opens whatever he can.  He opens himself to the flowers and his body follows his lead.

It’s just beautiful writing and I have been enjoying it.  Tonight, I am enjoying it in a blackout.

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The Battle for the Soul of the Rs

A lot of discussion recently has focused on what is being called “the battle for the soul of the Republican party.”  By that, “Trump” or “not-Trump” is seen to be the battle line.  That’s not what it looks like to me.

I would like to start with the question of whether the Republicans want to be a party at all.  Some do; some don’t.  A party is a government of sorts.  A party is a candidate to be THE government and if enough people choose it, they will be.  But a party has a CEO of some sort. [1]  It has legislative functions, whose work we see in the party platform.  It elects delegates to the convention where the nominee is chosen and the platform adopted.  It is all very regular and equitable.  The candidate who hopes to be chosen as a convention delegate competes with others with similar hopes; whoever gets the most votes wins.

A party is defined by its procedures, not by its loyalties.  It is, in that respect, like a government.

But a commitment to procedure does not come naturally to us.  The heart of democracy is “fair, frequent, and competitive elections,” but none of those come naturally to us.  “Fair” does not; “frequent” does not; “competitive” does not.  During most of our history as a social species, we lived in small groups bound together by loyalty to a leader, however chosen.  That…is what is “natural.”

Being governed by someone you don’t even know is not natural.  Allowing “good people” and “bad people” equal access to the ballot box is not natural.  Counting their votes equally is not natural.  And, of course, accepting an electoral result you don’t like is not natural.  For the Republicans, it may no longer be possible.  That’s really what the struggle is about these days. [When I first saved this, I believed it was the true Trump coat of arms.  Now they tell me that the banner says “Never Concede,” so it probably is not the true coat of arms.  It is funny, though,]

In a democracy that operates by competition between parties, allowing the winner of the competition to govern is necessary.  Those of us who live in such a political system need to find a way to transcend what is most natural to us and to trust the outcome of the competition.  You can see that struggle and that achievement in the concession speeches of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mitt Romney, and John McCain.  You can see its glaring failure in the failure of Donald Trump to make a concession speech at all.  He was not able to transcend the limitation that is most natural to us—tribalism—and accept democracy.

What do you have when you cannot affirm democracy?  You can’t have a party.  At most, you can have a person-centered organization, something like a clan or like the old mob.  And if the nation has, where its two major parties used to be, one clan and one party, you  cannot have bipartisan competition.

That’a what “the struggle for the soul of the Republican party” is about.  Some Republicans what to return to their former status as a party; others want to continue their recent practice as a clan.  Marjorie Taylor Greene, for instance, the newly elected Congresswoman from Georgia has aid that the presiding officer the the House should be shot in the head.  Speaker Pelosi got her office by overseeing the election of more Democrats than Republicans in the House and then being chosen by the Democrats in the House to be their leader.  Assassination and the threat of assassination played no part in it at all.  The Democrats are a political party.

Today, the Republicans in the House have to decide whether there really are lines you cannot step over and still be a member of the party.  If it were a clan, we know that there would not be any such limits.  In a clan, you owe complete loyalty to the clan leader [2]  You do not owe any duties at all to your opponents (enemies) or the the processes that would define democratic competition.

Think what that means for party platforms.  No recent American party platform has endorsed white supremacy, Christian supremacy, or nativism.  If the Republicans aspire to return to their former status as a political party, they are going to have to draw some limits for the behavior of their members.  As natural as it might be to call for the assassination of a member of the Democratic party, the Republicans cannot allow it.  Free speech, as a right of every American, doesn’t cover it.

When President Trump was asked about the QAnon sympathies of candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, he said she sounded like a woman who loved her country.  That worked for him as a quip, but consider it as a substitute for democracy.  So…I believe that America truly is a white Christian country and because of my love for my country, I call for the deportation of any non-white or non-Christian citizens?  Really?  In a political party, there are things that “love of country” really does not excuse.  And I haven’t even gotten, yet, to Rep Greene’s allegation that California’s recent wildfires were kindled by a Jewish-controlled laser operated from space.

So I would say that there is not currently a “struggle for the soul of the Republican party.”  I would say that the struggle is about whether the Republicans want to be a party at all.  They were not, under Trump, but there are apparently a lot of Republicans who would like to be a party again and that is what the struggle is about.

[1]  The Chair of the DNC or the RNC is the CEO in the absence of a President (or recent former President) of that party.

[2]  The clan metaphor occurred to me several years ago when I was in Scotland and discovered that there is a Clan Donald.  I said to the guide who told me that, “Yes, in America we are learning more about it every day.”


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Forensic Pathology and Bible Study

Since the COVID pandemic hit Portland, I have been doing  unusual amounts of two things: teaching Bible study courses and watching forensic pathology shows on TV.  Eventually, the one had to start affecting the other, and that is what this essay is about.

One of the first I got really hooked on was Silent Witness.  Amanda Burton plays Sam Ryan, a pathologist who is forever at odds with the police.  The police have a really good idea what the pathologist might discover that would strengthen their case.  Dr. Ryan has to keep her own focus very sharp and has to defend herself against the pressure from the police.  If she does that successfully, she will find what is there and not find what is not there, no matter how convenient it might be for the police.

It’s hard to do.  The pathologist is always making judgments about how much bruising there is, by comparison with what might be expected, given the other evidence.  The core temperature determines the time of death, which is crucial for establishing the alibi of some and destroying the alibi of others.  And in the midst of all these people and their legitimate interests to care about, Dr. Ryan has to make the best judgment she can.

The police are always saying something like, “Was this bruise made by a baseball bat?” and Dr. Ryan is always having to say that the bruise is consistent with the kind of bruise that a baseball bat would make.  Or a pipe.  Or a pool cue. “Consistent with” is a good deal less than “caused.”  The police tend to prefer “caused.”

The Bible studies I have been teaching have reacquainted me with all kinds of reasons to find, in a text, things that “need to be there.”  If I am the forensic pathologist in this modest little allegory, the people who are urging me to find something are the police.  They know what their case needs and they want to be sure I find it.  I’ve noticed two flavors of such demands.  The first is what I call “the journalistic fallacy;” the second,” the theology constraint.”  

The Journalistic Fallacy

The heart of this demand is the notion that the biblical accounts we are studying are accounts of what actually happened.  The accounts we have, in other words—the resistance provided by Israel’s judges, the exploits of the prophets, the ministry of Jesus, the growth of the church—were composed by people who were there and who are trying to give us a factual account of what they saw and heard.

I don’t look at it that way.  The sequence I follow can be easily seen in this phrasing: who said what to whom and why?:  Placing this sequence of questions onto a gospel account, I would ask what writer (A) wrote what text (B) with what audience (C) in mind and hoping to achieve what purpose(D)?  For example, I would argue that Matthew (A) identified the scribes in Herod’s palace as “scribes of the people” (B) in the gospel he wrote for his congregation composed of Christians with Jewish and also with gentile backgrounds (C) in order to inculpate the Jewish people in their opposition to Jesus (D).

Now as someone who reads a lot of biblical scholars, I know that every single link of that chain can be challenged; but I like it because it focuses so narrowly on what the passage says.  And when the author announces that his purpose is conversion or reassurance, we emphasize that over simple description.  That’s why we ask about the purpose of the passage and the audience.

The Theology Constraint

The mistake the journalists make is to treat symbolic accounts as if they were factual accounts.  The theology constraint begins on the other side.  There is a point of theology that matters a great deal.  That is why we are sure that this passage—the one we are considering today—does not undermine that claim and in fact supports it completely.  The theological claim defines the area of possible meanings.  The passage could mean anything that falls inside, but it could not mean anything that falls outside. And this is an understanding we bring with us as we begin to study the passage.  It is, in the most literal sense, a prejudice.

Christology is an area where this difficulty often shows up.  People with a very high Christology, people, that is,  who need for Jesus to be fully equivalent to God the Father during his the earthly ministry, will have trouble with some scriptures.  They will refuse to accept passages that presume some weakness in Jesus.  “Surely the passage can’t mean that,” they say, “because they Jesus would be less that God.”  That’s why I call it a constraint.

This is the approach taken by the police in my forensic pathology allusion; there has to be some remnant of poison in the system because otherwise, how can we argue that his wife poisoned him?

I start at the other end.  What does the passage say and, as nearly as we can work it out, why?  The theology will take care of itself.  The passage needs our best efforts.


This whole comparison starts with the forensic pathology shows.  They make the work of the pathologist central and come very close to aligning it with equity, truth, and beauty.  If the shows were designed from the standpoint of the police, we would find pathologists with impossibly high standards for a diagnosis, clearly impeding the cause of justice.   I know I have cheated a little by making my approach—don’t draw any conclusions the text will not support—the star of the show, but I haven’t cheated very much and putting truth before law enforcement seems like a good risk.

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The Diamond Dogs

I like institutions.  

I admire people who can call institutions into being.  I have tried it myself from time to time and I know it isn’t always easy.  Knowing how hard it is, my heart goes out to Ted Lasso, (on the Apple + app) who, though fictional, it as good as they come at institution building.

Here is a description I have cribbed from Frank Hearn [1]

” lnterdependencies are established in the activities carried out by people who depend on one another for the achievement of valued goals”

And, as Hearn says later. 

lnterdependencies must be attachments which invoke personal obligation to others within a community of concern.

In Season 1, Episode 8, “The Diamond Dogs,” Ted creates an institution on the spot.  You can watch him do it—both Phase 1 and Phase 2—by looking for “Ted Lasso Diamond Dogs” on YouTube. Choose the 4:56 version.  But read this post first.

Ted has, for reasons we need not go into here, “lady problems.” To deal with them, he calls
together a very odd collection of “friends.” [2]  Going clockwise around the picture and skipping the first person who is “it” at this session of the Diamond Dogs, you see Nate, Higgins, Coach Beard, and Ted.  Nate was the equipment manager when Ted got there; Higgins was the completely subordinated servant of the owner of the club, who was deeply hostile to Ted at first; then there is Coach Beard, whom Ted brought with him to England from Kansas; and Ted.  These are the Diamond Dogs.

Nate came up with the name and Ted recognized instantly that it was perfect.Now that is a moment to treasure. 

I am a member of a Bible study group at my church; the group has the extremely odd name, “2 Dudes and a Bible.”  Here is how we got that name.  A friend of mine was dissatisfied with the group we had both been attending.  It was not serious at all about studying our scriptures. [3]  And my friends said, “Why can’t there be a real Bible study.”  I said, “There can be.  Let’s start one.”

I talked to the Director of Christian Education about it.  She thought it was a great idea, but if she was going to reserve a room in the church for us, she would have to have something to call us.  It had not occurred to either my friend or me that we would have to be called anything, so I hadn’t thought about it at all.  The Director, in a moment of frustration, burst out, “Well we can’t just call it 2 Dudes and a Bible!”

The name hung in the air between us.  As I think back on that moment, I picture the two of us looking at it, at the name, suspended in the air over her desk like a thought balloon.  I think we both knew as the sounds of the name sank in that it would be—would have to be—the name of the group.  There are nine of us now, but we are still 2 Dudes and a Bible.  Like the Diamond Dogs

So although Ted Lasso is a master of institution-creation and I just had a lucky break, I do know how to celebrate his achievement, which is today’s topic.  So the Diamond Dogs were created in Phase 1.  In Phase 2, Roy comes to the coach’s office with “lady problems.”  Coach says he knows just what to do and dials up the Dogs.  They all come in in a matter of moments, each taking the position he took in Phase 1.

They come up with a solution quickly and inaudibly.  Ted says something, then Nate, then Higgins and Ted sees that the problem has been solved.  The solution has not yet been articulated, but it exists clearly in the minds of the Diamond Dogs.  It is so clear that Ted’s instructions to Coach Beard are just “Take it home, Coach.”  So coach puts in words what he knows to be the group’s solution, “Grow up.  And get over it.l”  And Ted raises both arms in an American football signal for “touchdown.”

Roy is not happy.  He utters a familiar vulgarity and stomps out, but the Dogs know they are right and begin barking or howling or baying or whatever dogs do of the kind they think they are.  During which Ted is panting enthusiastically like a happy dog on a hot day.  What the solution is, we are not sure; how they reached it, we are not sure; how they recognized that they had instinctively acted as an institution—as Hearn defines it—we are not sure.  But the celebration is automatic, coordinated, and perfect.

And in the middle of all of it there is an acute attention to language used and references made, like “All that Chandler Bingin’ aside…” for instance.  Nate remarks, “S’Wonderful,” and Ted says, “Oh, nice shout out to the Gershwin brothers there.”  Ted pretends to be making the case supporting Roy’s jealousy, but in fact, is all ironic and Nate says, “Oh, he means the opposite.  I  love it when coach does that.”  Roy says, “I can’t control my feelings,” and Ted responds in way over the top mode, “Well, then by all means, let your feelings control you!”  And Higgins says, “Oh….he’s doing it again.”

These are the sensitivities of a well-established group that has been together for awhile and has learned to appreciate the subtle quirks.  Excerpt we know they haven’t.  This is their first really convened meeting.  The ease with which they function is just another put on.

It is an institution functioning at its best with no reason at all why it should.

[1]  Moral Order and Social Order (1997) who, in this quotation, relies on John Braithwaite (1989) as he describes “communitarian interdependencies.”  It is in this sense that I am using the word “institution.”

[2]  If you get anywhere near Ted Lasso, you are a “friend.”

[3]  I will say on their behalf that that was not what they were trying to do.

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The (Former) President’s 1776 Report

Former President Trump convened a body of writers to produce a new version of American history.  He didn’t give them much time to do it.  They were appointed thirty-three days before the inauguration of President Joe Biden and it was published before inauguration day.

Still, it didn’t take as much time as it surely would have had there been any historians on the panel.  The chair was President of Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn. [1]  The members included a conservative professor from Vanderbilt Law School, some of President Trump’s former domestic policy advisors, and some conservative activists.  No historians.

If you are reading a document, especially one that is going over events that have been written about a great deal before, it is helpful to get some idea of how this particular version is different from its predecessors.  We will look at three ways.

The first is the goal statement, which is clearly stated in the Conclusion.

Among the virtues to be cultivated in the American republic, the founders knew that a free people must have a knowledge of the principles and practices of liberty, and an appreciation of their origins and challenges.

We know now that “liberty,” as it will be defined in this document, is the value to be maximized and that a knowledge of its “principles and practices” will be the means by which this will be achieved.  This is referred to later in the conclusion as “an authentic civics education.”  It is a kind of education that will enable us to love our country as we should.

The second is embedded in the Table of Contents.  My eye was caught first by Section IV of the pamphlet;  this section is called “Challenges to America’s Principles.”  Five such “challenges” are named in particular.  In order, they are:  Slavery, Progressivism, Fascism, Communism, and Racism and Identity Politics.”   The principle evoked here is the you are known by the company you keep.  Three of the challenges are directed to political systems as such.  The three are Fascism, Communism, and Progressivism.

Progressivism was prominent in the campaigns and in the presidencies of Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.  Its being listed along with Communism and Fascism calls immediately to mind the question of just what it is about “progressivism” that merits such company.

As the third look at this pamphlet, let’s examine what it is about “progressivism” that has aroused so thorough a rejection.

In the decades that followed the Civil War, in response to the industrial revolution and the expansion of urban society, many American elites adopted a series of ideas to address these changes called Progressivism.

The first shot across the bow is this:

“…the political thought of Progressivism held that the times had moved far beyond the founding era, and that contemporary society was too complex any longer to be governed by principles formulated in the 18th century.”

This is rebutted by a quote from Republican President Calvin Coolege

We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.

The second shot—closer to the waterline than across the bow— is this.

Progressives held that truths were not permanent but only relative to their time. They rejected the self-evident truth of the Declaration that all men are created equal and are endowed equally, either by nature or by God, with unchanging rights. 

Instead, Progressives believed there were only group rights that are constantly redefined and change with the times. Indeed, society has the power and obligation not only to define and grant new rights, but also to take old rights away as the country develops.

If the country will need to be redefined and to change with the times, there will need to be people to identify the new needs and to propose the necessary changes.  Who will these be?

By this account, they will be “credentialed managers, who would direct society through rules andregulations that mold to the currents of the time”

By this means, Progressives:

“created what amounts to a fourth  branch of government called at times the bureaucracy or the administrative state. This shadow government never faces elections and today operates largely without checks and balances. The founders always opposed government unaccountable to the people and without constitutional restraint, yet it continues to grow around us.”

These characterizations account for why “Progressivism” is listed along with Fascism and Communism as “challenges to America’s principles.”

It is interesting to me that it is the “principles” rather than the practices, that define the America that is to be cherished and admired by its citizens.

Also that it is individuals, not groups, that are to be the beneficiaries.  In that regard, I note that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments deal with groups (former slaves) and the 19th as well (women), and I can only wonder whether a principled opposition to “progressivism” would have insisted that these liberties be restored one person at a time.  It seems impracticable, but perhaps not all slaves deserved their freedom or all women the right to vote.  These are the groups, after all, who “voted wrong” in the 2020 election.

I notice that Progressives rejected the notion that “all men are created equal.”  I gather that the key to that is that being “created equal” means that they have “unchanging rights.”  That would mean, among other things, that those rights cannot be expanded.  But if the rights of “all men” can be expanded over the original notion—if, for instance, you don’t need to be a white male property owner to vote—where will it all end?

And finally, the shot that tries to sink the ship outright, there is the question of the “administrative state.”  The charge against the administrators is that they are not elected.  I ask you, in response, to try to imagine the regulatory apparatus of the United States being operated by Senators and Representatives.  Only.  No delegation.  That position must have been taken by someone who has never read, or possibly never held, the Federal Register and noted the process by which proposed changes in the rules are published and held open for criticism and opposition.  Do the true patriots who produced this document really want to see the administrative burden of an advanced economy in the hands of Senators and Representatives?  Only?

Concluding Observation

You might want to take a look at this document for yourself.  It is very attractive.  And there are, at the end, questions you should ask.

Good luck.

[1]  Hillsdale College, their mission statement says, “maintains ‘by precept and example’ the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith.”

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Please have your mask on for us

“Please have your mask on for us.”

That’s what they say at the Starbucks Drive-through where I get my coffee in the morning.   I really like it and I’d like to think about it a little today. [1]

I would like to take just a paragraph to try to make myself believable.  I am more aware of the nuances of language than anyone (else) I know.  I don’t listen attentively in any way that implies effort; I just hear a great deal.  And then sometimes I reflect on what I have heard, disassembling it to see why it worked or why it didn’t.  And since I do that as a matter of practice, I am not surprised that I did it again this morning. 

[This from an article by Kaila Mathis in Adweek]

Even early in the morning in the dark drive through lane, there is a context to consider.  Here are some elements of that context.  For me, it’s dark and it’s early and I have not yet spoken or heard a human voice.  I am ready.  For Starbucks, there is the question of how a company that was designed to be what Howard Schulz, the founder, calls “a third place” can adapt.  [2]  It isn’t a “place” at all, in that sense, when it is only a drive through.  So, in some meeting somewhere, the question was raised, “How can we be as much like Starbucks as possible using only a drive through lane?”  The answer they came up with is what I experience every morning.

The barista gives his or her name.  The one I hear most often is named Nicoletta. [3]  She wouldn’t say her name if I were at the counter because I would be able to see her name tag, but out in the dark, talking to a post, it helps to have a name.  It suggests that there is a person in there and if I have his or her name, I can use it.  And I do. [4]

Then there are the finely crafted words, like “What may I get started for you?” [5]  And the other things that go with taking the order and suggesting that it could very easily be a larger order than the one you had in mind.  Those are the same as the at-the-counter words.

But we’re are in the middle of a pandemic and all of the baristas and many of the customers wear masks.  Not all, apparently, because the last line of the pitch is, “Please have your mask on for us.”

Point one:  There is no “and.”  That’s important.  It is not part of the order-taking.  The “and” would connect them; they don’t want them connected.  This is another kind of matter.

Point two:  “Have” is not “put.”  That might be because they don’t know whether you have a mask on or not.  I don’t know what they can see from inside.  But is probably because “put” implies that you are not wearing one.  A lot of people are not in a place by that hour where they want to be told what to do.  I am one of those.  “Have” establishes the condition they want me to be in by the time I get to the window, but it makes no judgment about whether I have one on at the moment.  Good choice.

Point three:  “For us” is a reason for the customers to be wearing masks.  This is a point that was lost entirely on several Republican members of the House of Representatives, who, being hidden in a small space with Democratic colleagues, refused to wear masks because they were sure they were not carriers.  You don’t wear a mask for you; you wear a mask for everyone else.  At Starbucks, that’s “for us.”

In short, a lot of very good things are packed into that last line.  My experience with Starbucks over the years is that those things don’t happen by accident.  Local adaptations are allowed, especially in in-person settings, where deviating from the script is an indicator of relationship, but by and large, “the Starbucks style” is in place from one store to another and from one region to another. [6]

It’s just good work.

[1]  It is things like this that made me want to start a blog in the first place.  It is true that I have been distracted by politics recently, but I would like to do more like this one.

[2]  It is a not-home, not-work, place.  They were designed to be like that and will be again, I am sure, after the pandemic is over.

[3]  I heard it as Nicola the first time and I addressed her that way as I gave my order.  She came over to the window, where I was paying for my coffee, to correct me.  “It’s Nicoletta,” she said, pointing to her name tag.  I really liked that.

[4]  And for the new or the forgetful, who don’t give a name, I say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”  Very often, when the name comes, there is a chuckle (or a giggle) behind it.

[5]  There are three distinct elements in that one that I could celebrate one at a time if that line were the subject of this post.

[6]  I was not surprised to hear, in Vancouver B. C. the same greeting I would have gotten at my Starbucks in Portland, had the Portland version not been tailored to fit the continuing relationships I had there.

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