Friday, August 1, 2014

Secure the Border

The House Republicans are insistent that we don't have a secure southern border, and that that's the President's fault.

I have to wonder what the Republicans mean by a secure border. Does it mean that no one attempts to cross from Mexico into the United States? That no one manages to sneak into the country without the proper paperwork – from any nation? (While the numbers are much smaller, I seem to recall that there are Polish and Irish undocumented immigrants as well as Mexican undocumented immigrants. Jose Vargas is Philippino and came through Los Angeles airport.)

The federal government employs more Border Patrol agents than ever before. These agents are apprehending high numbers of people arriving at our Southern border without the proper paperwork. The Obama administration has deported at a much higher number than the Bush administration. How do you make the border more secure? What do the House Republicans actually want?

Education in Crisis?

Steven Colbert's guest last night was Campbell Brown. Formerly anchor for CNN and MSNBC, she is now leading a foundation for educational reform.

Campbell's interview was greeted by the rare appearance of protest at the Colbert show. While I don't know much about her educational reform group's aims, there are two dubious assertions that were aired in her interview with Colbert.

First: the educational system is in crisis.

Second: tenure is the root cause of the crisis?

Is the educational system in crisis? The common wisdom is that it is. Our experience in Higher Education – in an institution that has large numbers of athletes from Texas – is that our students arrive unprepared for higher academic work. They can't write a research paper. Their command of the mechanics of the English language, particularly their command of punctuation, is faulty to say the least. Their thoughts tend toward the profane, focused on money and jewelry, sex and drugs. And their sport. Their sport. Sports in general, but mostly their sport.

There is also a racial component in all this, at least there is at our little college. The majority of the kids from Texas who come north to play football or basketball with us are African American. Many of them come from the inner city schools of Dallas or Houston. I'm guessing on this, but I guess that the challenges of education in the inner cities of Dallas, Houston, Chicago, New York are more alike than they are different. These challenges include the mandate to teach everyone who shows up for school; to teach in English even if a third or more of the class are new English speakers; to motivate children who are demonized daily on the evening news as lazy, unemployable, failures; to make academic superstars of kids who have no use for academia.

As a graduate of what could technically be called an "inner city" school in Chicago (albeit nearly 50 years ago) I recall that there was a wide differentiation among the motivations and abilities of my fellow students. I particularly recall one kid who sat either next to me or right in front of me. I don't remember which, all I recall is how he smelled. The class was right after lunch, and he came to class reeking of tobacco. He obviously spent his lunch hour at the Teepee Hut, a burger joint right across Western Avenue, legendary for the thickness of its air at lunch time.

I remember that the smell was missing one spring afternoon, as was the source of the smell. I asked what happened. The rumor was our classmate was caught burgling and went backwards out a third story window, dying on the sidewalk on Chicago's south side. I never knew if that was true or not, but I took it to be truth. I wonder if that classmate was academically motivated. I wonder if he was able to read at grade level (quite possibly. Our High School was what you would now call a "magnet" school and was available only by application). How many others in our High School were behind academically? I don't know, but I suspect that there were some. Other Chicago schools, those deeper in the ghetto, were "in crisis" fifty years ago. Crane, Lindblom, schools on the west side were in difficult straights even then.

Not every Chicago school is in crisis. The suburban schools remain academically strong. Our small town school continues to produce students ready to perform in the classroom and, one hopes, in the boardroom.

Why are some Chicago schools a mess and others working just fine? Why are suburban schools by and large working OK? Why do some small town and rural schools produce capable students, while others do not?

I do not know. I am certain that tenure is not the cause of school failure. I am certain that removal of tenure will not solve the problems of the inner city schools of New York, Chicago, Dallas or Los Angeles.

What will removal of tenure actually do? It will allow new administrators to come into a school or a program and remove those instructors they don't like or don't feel they can work with. This is not a reflection of the competence of these teachers, but a natural function of being a new administrator. You want "your people" in place to implement your policies. Those who are fired will not be given due process. They will be given reasons for their firing, but those reasons will be subjective and often based upon incomplete assessments.

The politically connected will not be fired. The teacher whose parent is part of the school district administration will remain on the job, regardless of their competence. Teaching will become even more difficult and teachers will be returned to the days when they were expected to bring in the coal, go home and stay home after school and not venture into society except for church going at the fundamentalist church of your choice.

The question that I haven't heard raised is "where are the hundreds of super competent teachers who are waiting to get the jobs that the incompetent are hogging?"

I don't think that the anti-tenure crowd has thought about tenure in this way. They seem to see removal of tenure as a way of making current teachers accountable and willing to work harder. It isn't. We know what makes a great school system and how teachers fit into that – we've had the Finnish example before us and have chosen to ignore it. Great schools take great money and great respect for the teachers who have one of the most difficult tasks in the world. What doesn't help is standardized testing, attacking teachers, and a belief that our schools are in crisis that can be solved by removing protections for the workforce.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ray Rice’s Apology

NBC is carrying the raw video of Ray Rice's apology for beating up his wife.

In the apology Rice says two contradictory things:

"That's not me." "That's not who I am as a man."


"I will have to live with this, with what I've done for the rest of my life."

He seems to want to learn from this, and to make amends for his action. But at the same time he seems to want to distance himself from the beating. If that is "not me" doing the beating, then who is it? And how will he learn and grow unless he confronts whatever part of the "me" it was that did the beating?

The problem with Rice's apology is that he doesn't want to admit that it was him, he is totally capable of administering a beat down to his wife. If you aren't willing to face your demons you aren't going to overcome them. Rice will be forever stuck as a domestic violence "dry drunk," a phenomenon similar to the drunk who is able to stave off drunken incidents for a very long time – but who, when it comes, indulges deeply in their passion for alcohol.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I’ve Been Banned

It's never happened to me before. I've been banned from commenting on a blog.

I have to admit it stings a little, particularly when I think I was quite polite in my comments. The web site is a science based web site "Why Evolution is True." It's run by Jerry Coyne, who, I think teaches evolution at the University of Chicago. He must see himself as the master of all domains, and for some reason he sees me as a very rude person. Here's what I wrote in response to post of his in which he called the Genesis creation stories "allegories."

You are very good with your science, but you're lacking a bit on your understanding of literature. An allegory is a very specific type of figure of speech, much beloved by the monks of the Middle ages. Genesis 1:1 to 2:2 (I think that's where story 1 ends) doesn't qualify as allegory, though it is clearly metaphorical. The second creation account presents a different kind of poetry than the first. Accounts in Psalms and Job present yet another kind of metaphor - the storehouse of the snow is one of my favorite pieces of the Job cosmology. These are metaphors, but not allegories. In the allegory there would be some spiritual equivalent of each element of creation.

I appreciate your desire to take to task those who fail to agree with you, but sometimes you get carried away and attempt to demonstrate expertise you do not possess.

I thought I was being quite polite. Coyne thought it incredibly rude of me to point out that he gets carried away and tries to claim literary expertise he does not possess. Yet he's quite willing to point to religionists who claim biological expertise and laugh at them for misunderstanding science. It seems to me that Dr. Coyne doesn't think there are other disciplines as rigorous as his own, and that he might get some things wrong when venturing into unfamiliar disciplines.

As his defense of using allegory to describe Genesis 1 he appeals to the OED, in which he discovers that an allegory is an extended metaphor. Yes, that's correct. But it is a very specific kind of extended metaphor. Not every mythic story is an allegory. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory. The medieval theologians, beginning with Augustine, were quite fond of interpreting scripture allegorically. But in itself the Genesis text does not function as an allegory. It is a mythic text, a metaphoric text: one could call it an extended metaphor. But it isn't an allegory. That was my point. No one in modern interpretation treats it as an allegory.

It also seems to me that he has a very thin skin if he considers this post as "incredibly rude."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Franklin owned slaves, Dr. Weigl cured Nazis

Thinking further about the issue of theologians (and philosophers) with less than savory pasts led me to be super sensitive to hypocritical sounding insights into the famous and thoughtful and whether or not their less than savory moments disqualify the whole of their thinking.

Watching an episode of "10 Things You Don't Know about . . . Benjamin Franklin" I discovered that Franklin owned slaves. He did see the contradiction between his ideas about freedom and liberty and the owning of slaves, which ultimately led him to be an abolitionist – but the fact is that he owned slaves. Should we then discard the Declaration of Independence – which was written by one slave owner and edited by another?

Listening to Weekend Edition of Fresh Air I heard the story of the amazing Dr. Rudolph Weigl, a Polish doctor who discovered how to create a vaccine to prevent typhus. According to the Fresh Air web site:

As World War II raged, typhus reappeared in war-torn areas and in Jewish ghettos, where cramped, harsh conditions were a perfect breeding ground for lice.

So the Nazis employed Dr. Rudolf Weigl to produce a typhus vaccine. Weigl created a technique that involved raising millions of infected lice in a laboratory and harvesting their guts to get the materials for a vaccine.

The fact that Weigl also supplied the vaccine for the ghetto doesn't matter. He collaborated with the Nazis. Some in his lab, apparently, attempted to sabotage the vaccine sent to the Nazis, but the good doctor would have none of it.

Would we, under any circumstances, dismiss Weigl's vaccine? Or the work of any scientist working for the Nazis who happened to discover something true and useful for humans (or animals or the environment). Of course not.

Why then do we have qualms about the theology conveyed by the human and frail vessels that are Luther, Yoder, Tillich? If they have any truth to tell us, it is true regardless of their negative associations.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor?

Fred Clark, who blogs at has raised the interesting question of how we should approach theology of those whose lives seem to betray their thought. In his post A Whiskey Priest is Not the Same as a Nazi, Clark discusses the moral failings of Paul Tillich and John Howard Yoder, referencing a post by Roger Olson, also on Does it matter to their ideas that Tillich was a womanizer and Yoder an abuser? Does it matter that Luther advocated the slaughter of the peasants in the peasant's rebellion – suborned the bigamy of Philip of Hesse – wrote some nasty anti-Semitic tracts late in his life? What seems to be Clark's conclusion is:

Did Luther's anti-Semitism "affect" his theology, or did his theology foster his anti-Semitism? Yes, both. Did George Whitefield's slave-owning shape his otherworldly revivalism or did his otherworldly revivalism rationalize his slave-owning? Yes, both.

The assertion that the three nasty events highlighted in Luther's biography either "affected" or were "fostered" by his theology of the radical grace of God needs more than just the bare assertion to make it a convincing argument. Each of the events that are normally thought of as negatives in the Luther canon are, in fact, understandable in historical context. The anti-Semitism, for example, is more a product of Luther's old age, creeping senility and disappointment that the Jews did not wish to convert to his Evangelical view of God. The bigamy of Philip of Hesse needs to be seen in the context of Luther's political situation in 1539, probably more so than the context of the Reformation discovery.

The Peasant's Revolt is probably the incident that most closely derives from Luther's theology. Luther was not, despite the way we want to paint him, a radical modernist. He was a relatively conservative social thinker. Even while he acknowledged the justice of some of the complaints of the peasants, he found that he could not justify open rebellion against the princes – that the scripture did not allow for violent uprisings against secular authority. It was after touring the areas effected by the peasant revolts –and I think after meeting M√ľntzer – that Luther came to encourage the princes to treat the rebels as dogs and beasts and to kill them without mercy. Not a nice position, but not one we can't understand.

Nor is it a position we must adopt if we call ourselves Lutheran and admire, even find ourselves guided by Luther's theology.

First, as Lutherans we owe nothing in the way of fealty to Luther per-se. We are a confessional church and confess that a number of documents of the 16th century are foundational for our understanding of the Gospel. Only three of them are Luther's works – the Smalcald Articles, and the Small and Large Catechism. The rest of Luther's works are influential on contemporary Lutheran teaching more or less. Many clergy have Luther's works on their library shelves. Some have even read them. Luther's biography and theology are still part of seminary curriculum in both ELCA and Mo Synod seminaries. But how Luther is treated and how his theology is treated in relation to the theology of the church will, I'm sure, vary from seminary to seminary.

My seminary experience was that Luther was treated as a genius, as a speaker of the Word of God, and as deeply flawed human being. We read Roland Bainton's biography and Erickson's Young Man Luther. We did not gloss over the three major "flaws" in his career as a reformer, but came to see them as part of who Luther was. Because we are a confessional church, we didn't feel the need to swallow Luther's works "feathers and all." We looked for the insights that continued to ring true.

I think that's what we ought to do with Yoder, with Whitefield, with Tillich – as well as the Neibuhrs, Barth, Braaten, and all the rest.

My confirmation Pastor was a massive influence in my life. A Germanic "Herr Pastor" of great dignity of purpose, he demanded of the congregation and we – mostly – did what our Pastor thought best. But he was a horrible bigot. And he had a hunger for pornography. I'm sure he excused these flaws and reconciled them with his Christian faith (or more likely just ignored the porn and didn't see his bigotry). But he taught me the catechism in a way I've never forgotten, a way that has been sustaining. He instilled in me a love for liturgics without the fussiness that so often accompanies liturgical pomp. He also instilled a genuine desire to be a lifelong learner – and gave me a strong figure to rebel against. I'm grateful for all that, even while I know his bigotry is not of the Kingdom.

Last Sunday we read the parable of the Wheat in the Weeds. There Jesus admonishes the disciples to let the wheat and weeds grow together and let God sort out what's good and what's worthless in our lives and in the life of the church. For the subject of what we do about theologians with checkered biographies and inspiring theologies, it seems to me that we must let the wheat and the weeds grow together – discerning as best we can the weeds in their thoughts and their lives.