Friday, November 16, 2007

A Civil Agitation

So, is civility a Christian value or a taming of Christian values?
The louder and coarser the public discourse becomes the more frequent come the calls for a return to civility. A piece in this morning's Post notes that an "elegant woman of patrician bearing" asked John McCain the other day about how he would "beat the bitch." Some folks are jumping on McCain for not chastising the woman about her public rudeness.
Perhaps it's time for the political classes to reread George Washington's rules for civility; although I'm not sure what to make of this one, the beginning of rule #27: "'Tis ill manners to bed one more eminent than yourself ...". (OK, I believe that must have been a typo on the web version, but it's worth considering as a general rule for civility nonetheless!)
Of course, reading George's rules -- typos notwithstanding -- should serve as a reminder that the lack of civility in public political discourse is nothing new under the sun.
Indeed, I suspect that calls for civility are sometimes nothing more than the protests of the privileged and powerful when their privilege and power are called into question. Speaking truth to power sometimes sounds rude.
As Frederick Douglas put it, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."
Even when one speaks the truth in love, when it is spoken to power on behalf of the powerless, it will be interpreted by some as a breach of civility.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Daily Agitation

An agitation for today: can one be a “policy realist” and call oneself a Christian?
This question popped into my mind riding the Metro home from Capitol Hill this afternoon. I was down there scouting sites for the March 7 Christian Peace Witness for Iraq. I was talking with a police officer on the steps of the Capitol, remembering a time, not that many years ago, when one could simply walk up those steps which today are fenced off and watched over by machine-gun totting guards. I was thinking, “well, I suppose that is the reality of our time.” And then wondering, “are we called to something completely beyond realism?”
I suppose, for the moment, that “Christian” is more readily understood than “policy realist,” although perhaps not.
Policy realist was initially a term of art in Cold War American foreign policy used to describe those who believed in “the need for military power and political will to maintain friendly alliances to contain Soviet expansion” (in the words of James H. Billington writing in Foreign Affairs). University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer says, “Realists basically believe that states are interested in gaining power, either because they’re hardwired that way or because it’s the best way to survive, and they don’t pay much attention at all to values.” Indeed, he argues that “there is not much place for human rights and values in the Realist story.” (Like so much theory from the place, it makes me proud to be a Chicago alum!)
While policy realism as a school of thought may be a relatively recent phenomenon, the idea traces its intellectual roots back to The Prince, where Machiavelli wrote, "It appears to me more proper to go to the truth of the matter than to its imagination...for how we live is so far removed from how we ought to live, that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done, will rather learn to bring about his own ruin than his preservation."
The idea of calling oneself a Christian dates back a bit further, although the notion that Christianity consists of intellectual assent to a given proposition about the identity of Jesus – for example, I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son our lord – may be no less modern than Machiavelli. That is to say, Jesus of the gospels seems far less concerned about people having a precise ontological understanding of himself than with whether or not people were willing to follow him on a way that was – whatever else is may have been – utterly committed to nonviolence.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Stones Still Speak

If these were silent, the stones themselves would cry out loud ...

Witness for peace at Lafayette Park in front of the White House. Sunday, Nov. 18, 5:00 p.m.

A liturgy of peacemaking including the laying of stones at the gates to the White House representing the Iraq War dead. Their voices have been silenced; the stones themselves will bear witness.

The time has come to break silence!!

"Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. ... Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us."

-- Martin Luther King, Jr. "A Time to Break Silence"

This gathering is being convened by a group of metro-DC area clergy and laity in response to the call to commitment from the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq -- the group that put together the peace witness at the National Cathedral last March. I hope some of you can join us in front of the White House this Sunday, and on the third Sunday of each month until the occupation ends. Peace. See listing.
(If the weather is too nasty to gather in the park we will meet at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The notice will be posted here Sunday afternoon.)