Monday, August 27, 2012

Cutting the Wives Out of Ephesians 5

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Ephesians 5:21

Yesterday, the twenty-firstSunday in Ordinary Time, the second reading at Mass was the famous (or infamous) excerpt from St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians about husbands and wives. This was the second reading that we selected for our wedding, so obviously, is one we like. So I was annoyed yesterday when the shorter version of it was used.

I generally dislike using the shorter versions, since the longer ones often give more content as well as context. I just don't like "cutting it short." I dislike using the shorter version of this reading in particular, because it seems to cater to mainstream culture's idea of "political correctness" in omitting the verses about wives, but skipping to the way that husbands ought to love their wives. As good and important as it is to read the latter verses in the passage, "Husbands, love your wives...," I think it is important to supply the full context. The whole passage goes together to describe a situation not of male dominance, as many like to think, but one of mutual cooperation and self-giving, things at the heart of a marital relationship. Why do we want to cut half of the equation out?

In a discussion about the reading, a good friend of mine clarified and helped me understand why it can sometimes be reasonable to use the shorter reading of this passage. When the second reading is not going to be addressed in the Homily, it was explained to me, it is sometimes decided to shorten this particular reading from Ephesians because of the widespread misunderstanding of the verses.

It makes some sense that one might desire to draw attention to these particular words of Paul only if they were intended to be explicated more fully. There are so many misunderstandings about this reading that presenting it without giving it full attention satisfies neither the importance of Paul's words on the topic, nor the curiosity of the listeners. It is not enough just to want these words spoken and proclaimed. They must be presented and offered together with their explanation, and with an understanding of what the reception of the verses may be, prior to the understanding of the explanation.

I still fear, though, that the omission itself can too easily be misconstrued, and in such a way as to almost perpetuate the very animosity that about the verses that is sought to be quelled. While we do not want people to hear the passage and come away saying "I can't believe what the Church is saying in that reading," at least after hearing it someone may seek to find out why they are really there try to find out what they mean. In omitting the verses I think it should be feared that people may observe, "Look at the previous verses that they left out— that confirms that Paul was wrong about that."

Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”...  As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
John 6:60; 66

This Sunday, the Gospel reading was a continuation of last Sunday's' Gospel in which Jesus tells his Disciples about eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Eucharist. This Sunday continues when some of them respond, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" and some of them left and stopped following the Lord. To the disciples who first heard Jesus's Eucharistic words, the idea of eating his flesh and drinking his blood was nearly impossible to comprehend. It was probably as shocking as some people today may find Paul's words, as writers atthe NCR point out (1). To some people today, the concept of the Eucharist still is difficult to comprehend. But when something is important, we try to understand it. We keep trying to have it explained to us, and keep trying to understand just a little bit more each time.

The same should go for many other things we can find in scripture, including Paul's words to the Ephesians. When we learn something that seems not to make sense to us, do we dismiss it, or do we try to understand it? When hearing something makes us say "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" we ought not be the ones who simply walk away in denial and unbelief. If we do that, we will never understand.

(1) Tom and April Hoopes, "Advice for Wives and Husbands," National Catholic Register.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sterilizing Africa: The New White Man’s Burden

In 1899 Rudyard Kipling penned, “White Man’s Burden” (1) in which he exhorted the European to conquer and colonize foreign lands like Africa for the good of the inhabitants.  In his opening stanza, he wrote:

            “Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child...”

The non-European people’s were only “half-devil and half child,” who needed to be instructed by their superior civilized betters.  Though the poem has a heroic ring, the phrase has come to mean a justification of conquest and colonialism for the good of native peoples.  Most today would reject—or at least profess to reject—such an attitude, that sees it as the white man’s burden to civilize his heathen, third world brother. 

Recently, however, various groups have called for a new white man’s burden, though they do not use the expression.  Led by people like Melinda Gates, secular foreign aid agencies, and even the government of China (2), have called on first world countries to again take up the White Man’s Burden and spread “civilization” to Africa in the form of contraception and sterilization.   Like European colonizers of old, arriving in Africa, professing the superiority of Western values and culture and the backwardness of African life, western secularists arrive on the dark continent professing to civilize Africans by means of pills, IUDs, and sterilization. 

Propagandists and apologists for the New White Man’s burden suggest that the move to sterilize African women will help promote women’s health, solve the supposed over-population problem, and empower women.   African bishops have protested that this move is “deeply de-humanizing,” and it is not hard to see why (3).  On the face of it one cannot help but think that women’s health might be better served if the 4.6 billion dollars to be spent on contraception and sterilization were spent instead providing clean sources of water, sanitation systems, medical facilities, and doctors.  Indeed, one cannot easily think of Western claims that Africa is over-populated and that Africa would be better off if there were fewer Africans, without thinking of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  The Ghost of Christmas Present might as well be rebuking the pro-sterilization westerner: “It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. O to hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust” (4).

To the defender of the New White Man’s burden, though, modern Africans are “half-devil and half child,” or worse and here their attitude goes from merely foolish to dehumanizing.  Like a dog that we encourage people to spay or neuter lest there be too many, the pro-contraceptive West (and East) proposes to sterilize Africa lest it should be over-populated.  Worse still, in telling women that to be empowered, they must be sterilized, contraception advocates tell the same women that one thing that is uniquely theirs as women, is a source of weakness. Certainly in rendering herself unable to have children, a woman who contracepts makes herself the equal of a man who also cannot bear children; whether this is empowering, however, is another question. 

If one were to propose a modern updating of Kipling’s poem, suitable to the situation, it might run something like this:

                Take up the New White Man’s burden-
                Allow not Africa to breed—
                Go bind their fertility in exile
                To serve your captives need;
                Sterilize them with pill and device,
                But preach “empowerment” with great guile—
                To your new caught, sullen peoples,
                As yet, unenlightened and wild. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Human Conscience, State Power

At the end of the First Century AD,  as the Emperor Trajan continued the persecution of Christianity, the Roman magistrate Pliny wrote to him for advice regarding that persecution.  Pliny wrote that it had been his practice to interrogate those who were denounced to him as Christians: 

             “I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.” (1)

What is interesting about Pliny and Trajan’s exchange is not only that they wanted Christianity persecuted—they were hardly unusual in that—but one of the reasons that Pliny gave.  For Pliny, Christians ought be persecuted because “whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy... deserve to be punished.”  

Pliny objected to Christianity not only for its beliefs, but for the mere fact that its adherents dared to hold those beliefs when commanded by the state to believe otherwise.  For him, the beliefs themselves hardly mattered—“whatever the nature of their creed”—but what did matter was the stubbornness with which the early Christians held them.  What mattered was that the early Christians rejected the State’s claim that it would tell them what they were free to believe.  What mattered was that they rejected the State’s claim to authority over the human conscience.  

As far as Pliny was concerned, Christianity almost might as well have declared the world round when Rome professed it square, or else preferred rose granite to Rome’s marble.  The point was not only the beliefs themselves, but that early Christians held those beliefs when Rome commanded them to think otherwise.  The agnostic Robert Bolt almost grasped this when he had his hero, Thomas More, on being asked why he held to his beliefs in defiance of Royal authority reply, “because what matters is that I believe it, or rather not that I believe it, but that I believe it.”  As almost 1500 years earlier, King Henry VIII would claim authority over More’s conscience and More would accede no more than would the Christians condemned by Pliny, Trajan, and Rome.  

Why could Rome not tolerate the beliefs of what were then a small minority?  Because Rome would suffer no rival, not even the few followers of a Nazarene carpenter.  When those followers proclaimed that man, executed by Rome, risen, Rome saw a threat to its power. When  they called Him the Son of God, which Caesar said he was, Rome saw a threat.  And when they called the risen carpenter Lord, which Caesar said that he alone was, Rome saw a threat to its power.   

If Christianity is true, then the state may last a thousand years, as Rome did, but man will live forever.  Man, therefore, will always take precedence over the state.  If Christianity is true, then there exists something higher and holier than the state to which a man owes his obedience, his devotion, and his conscience. That was why the Early Christians would not burn incense to Caesar as a god, they bowed to a higher one.  

 This was the threat the a powerful state could not bear, either two thousand years ago or today, whether that state is Rome, Tudor England, Soviet Russia, or Modern America, which has recently claimed authority over the human conscience (2). A powerful state can suffer no rival, but it can make its rivals suffer.  Yet, the reason for which the state would not tolerate the early Christians, and may soon not tolerate modern ones, is precisely the same one for which the Christians continued and will continue to defy the State’s claim to authority over their consciences.  They hold to a higher and holier God than Caesar, or as St. Peter put it when he defied the power of the ruling classes, “it is better to obey God than man.”

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Four Bad Arguments in Favor of Same-Sex Marriage

Ours is an age that often thrives more on emotion than by reason, more on cliché than rational argument, and more on hot insult than cool logic.  On the question of same-sex marriage, which should especially demand careful thought, proponents are apt to assault opponents with cliché, emotion, and insult.   Here are four popularly used bad arguments and some brief answers.  

A. Those who oppose same sex-marriage are just as bigoted as those who opposed inter-racial marriage.

Answer: This argument is flawed on several grounds.

First,  it compares a person who does not want a black man to marry a white woman to a person to does not want a man to marry another man.  In the latter case, the difference is far greater than in the previous case.  For instance,  the opponent of inter-racial marriage accepts that a white man may marry a white women, but objects to a black man doing to.  Hence, the difference between the acceptable partner and the unacceptable one is on the difference between a black man and a white man, which is not very  substantial. 

On the other hand, the opponent of same-same marriage allows that a man may marry a woman, but objects to a man marrying another man.  In this case, the acceptable partner for a woman is not the difference between a black man and a white man, but the difference between a man and a woman, which is clearly a more substantial difference.  Hence, the comparison fails.  

Second, Francis Beckwith has pointed out a more serious failure with this argument.  Bans on inter-racial marriage were a novelty, having no basis in common law and requiring new laws to defend those bans.  Those who opposed inter-racial  marriage did so because they recognized that the purpose of marriage, inherited from common law, included the procreation of children and development of a family unit. Opponents of inter-racial marriage, with the goal of enforcing racial purity, sought to introduce a new condition to marriage that had no basis in prior common law or custom.   They recognized that men and women of different races naturally had the ability and right to marry each other and wished to introduce a new conditional (same-race) to prevent this.  Opponents of same-sex marriage, however, recognize precisely the opposite, that two men do not naturally have the right or ability (from nature, common law, or custom) to marry (1).

B. Homosexuals were born with their desires, so we should consider them morally acceptable.

Answer: This argument confuses explanation with justification.  C.S. Lewis said that “explanation by cause is not justification by reason.”  That a person was born with same-sex sexual desires may (or may not) explain why a person is attracted to a member of the same sex, but it does not therefore justify action based on that attraction.  Some scientists think that there is a gene that predisposes some people to alcoholism, but while this may help explain why some people become alcoholics, it does not for that reason justify their alcoholic behavior (2).

C. Practicing homosexuals do not hurt or affect anyone else, so they should be left alone.

Answer: This argument seems to run like this:
1. We should not care about what anyone else does unless its affects us.
2. Same-sex practice does not affect us.
3. Therefore, we should not care about same-sex practice.

The problem here is that both assumptions in the argument are patently false.  If my friend becomes an alcoholic and even claims that over-imbibing of drink makes him happy, should I simply shrug my shoulders and conclude “well, his drinking is not affecting me, so I should not care”?  I would be a very poor friend in this case.   But if there is good reason to think that same-sex marriage is harmful, either because it consists of disobedience to God’s plan for human sexuality or because it entails harmful behaviors and consequences, then we should oppose the practice of homosexuality (3).

Second, it is far from obvious that the normalization of same-sex relationships will not affect the rest of society.  As same sex relationships are normalized, those opposed to such relationships on grounds of religion or conscience will be compelled to violate their beliefs and support such relationships.  This has already happened in some cases (4).

D. If two people love each other, they should be able to be together.

Such a claim seems to reduce love to sexual attraction and ask, “if two people are sexually attracted, then they should be able to be together.”  But this is far from obvious and seems clearly wrong.  That a married man feels sexual attraction for a woman other than his wife and even professes himself in love with this woman does not justify his acting on claim that he is acting “for love.”   Real love will seek the best for the other person.  An man with AIDS may “love” an uninfected woman, but if he really loves her, he would never be with her since he would care too much for her well-being.  Since there is good reason to think that homosexual practice is harmful (3), it is an attraction that one should not act on.

(1) Francis Beckwith addresses this in greater detail here:

(5)  For an interesting series of responses to a few other objections to same sex relationships, see the philosopher JP Moreland, here: