Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Messages of Gratitude from the Desert (and for it, Sort Of)

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

For years, our family has had a "Thanksgiving Tree" tradition. We write on cut-out leaves something we are thankful for, then hang them on a "tree" of dead branches, and on Thanksgiving Day, we share them all. Since we've saved these leaves over the years, I can look back at mine, and there are several constants. Among other things, it seems that at this time of year I regularly feel gratitude for changing seasons, for frost on the grass, for fall foliage, for the smell of the earth after a November rain. It wouldn't be wrong to sum up one of the main themes of these leaves simply as: I am thankful I don't live in a desert.

Despite the faith community I am a lifelong member of having achieved its first full development on the edge of America's Great Basin Desert, that attitude is, I think, probably somewhat woven into modern Mormonism as well. I lived in Utah for five years, as an undergraduate and graduate student at Brigham Young University, and was happy to leave it for many reasons, not the least being the six months out of every year where the dominant natural color everywhere I looked was a dull brown. While its proximity to the Wasatch Range and its canyons, alpine meadows, and ski slopes may make it easy for the Mormon faithful gathered in the heavily urbanized corridor from Ogden to Provo to forget that they live in a desert, the order of ordinary life there also serves to push that awareness ever further away from everyday awareness. Maybe that just means that living in Salt Lake City is similar to living in Last Vegas or Phoenix or any other urban agglomeration located in an arid place--but I suspect there's more to it than that. 

Rather, I think the lived experience of American Mormonism itself has become thoroughly suburban, or even urban, perhaps as profoundly shaped in its assumptions about spiritual life by post-WWII suburban developments as American evangelical Protestantism has been. This shift towards stereotypical "urban" spiritual characteristics--pragmatism, individualism, flexibility, diversity--has arguably threatened something essential about the Christian faith, but such an argument is rarely heard among American Mormons, who, for the most part, see the practices and opportunities of urban modernity as simply a new challenge to integrate into their faith life. The idea that my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, needs to maintain the old tradition of separate farming communities--much less flee to the desert in order to preserve its collective relationship with God--is an idea that has long since been forgotten in pursuit of creating perversely well-watered suburban gardens and golf courses in Utah. That is, assuming it was ever believed by more than just a handful of cranks in the first place.

Still, those cranks may have a point, and they put my thankfulness for having avoided what I see as the harshness and empty openness of the desert (so different, to my mind at least, from the openness of the Kansas horizon, which is always distant but never empty) into question. That the desert speaks to some people--or, perhaps more accurately, opens some people up to a still and small voice they perhaps need to hear--is not news to me. A thoroughly urban and cosmopolitan friend of mine has written about the starkness of the Utah desert, and how he experiences something "profoundly stirring and deeply right" when he stands "awed by beauty and unspeakable vastness," "feeling impossibly small," during his visits there. I can't say I've ever had such an experience--but among my faith tradition more than a few others have. Gene England saw the desert as a place of covenant, calling the Mormon faithful to live up to the hard standard of peace. Nathan Nielson reminded us that the enchantment of the stark desert escapes our every attempt to package it, whether for visiting tourists or just ourselves. Perhaps most famously, Terry Tempest Williams saw the whole 20th-century history of Utah Mormonism as a tale of violation and rebirth in the desert wilderness, and in so doing gave voice to a Mormon environmentalism which was only ever implicit in decades past.

As wise as some of those writings are, though, none of them reproach me in my perhaps misbegotten anti-desert gratitude as do the Desert Mothers and Fathers. For these ancient mystics and hermits--whom I've been reading a fair amount of lately, as part of an effort to become more familiar with the early Christian church--the idea of the desert as a hard, demanding gift, a necessary and subjecting and purifying gift, is absolutely central. That language alone--a language of subjection and purification--isn't at all typical to the very modern rhetoric of the LDS Church, so it's not surprising that these early Christians saw things very differently from the way desert-dwelling Utah Mormons do. (And, to be clear, it is radically different from the faith language of the overwhelming majority of practicing Christians of all stripes in America today as well.) But that different perspective has been haunting me over the past months, and among other things, making me rethink the whole project of gratitude I see among my fellow Mormons.

Primarily, there is the fact that our language of counting one's blessings is almost always an enumeration of the positive: I am blessed with this or that or this other good thing, and for them I am duly grateful. That is definitely not the approach reflected in all that has been recorded of these desert monks long ago. Instead, their approach is that of the tax collector in Luke 18:13; for them, gratitude was primarily a negative expression of abasement and unworthiness. In the words of Abba Or, "In my own opinion, I put myself below all men"; in the words of of Abba Matoes, "Now that I am old, I see that there is nothing good about me"; in the words of Abba Anoub, when asked "What is integrity?" answered "To always accuse oneself." Consistently, across hundreds of sayings, these mystics suggested that they had pursued a life of solitude and suffering in the desert because they understood the best route to recognizing the love of--and their dependence upon--God to be that which separated themselves from the temptations posed by material accumulation, accomplishment, and security. To truly not judge others as Jesus commanded, to be one of the "pure in heart," meant to remove from one's life any basis for judging oneself or anyone else as deserving of any reward, whether it be good health, a remunerative occupation, supportive family and friends, or even sufficient goods, to say nothing of luxuries. The praising of God's goodness through the listing of blessings is replaced by the pleading for God's mercy in the context of sinful deprivation, which the humbling reality of desert existence hammered home daily. Abba John the Dwarf summed it up well: "Do not pay attention to the faults of others, and do not try to compare yourself with others, knowing that you are less than every created thing."

It is easy for modern-day Christians, particular those of a restorationist tradition like Mormonism, to dismiss all these folks as kooks at best, apostates who have gotten Christianity entirely wrong at worst. And I happily agree that there are ways in which I see their extreme asceticism becoming an idol in itself, particular in the way their insistence upon solitude--Abba Poeman: "Have the mentality of an exile in the place where you live"--runs against the very community-building hope which Jesus said His grace would always attend to. But some of these desert truths seem powerfully true to me, all the same. In particular, my own intellectual gifts and educational blessings come in for probably much needed disparagement, with these monks reminding me that a humble person is always willing to confess ignorance before the ways of God (Abba Anthony: "Abba Joseph has found the way, for when asked to explain the Scriptures he has said: 'I do not know'"). And some of the stories of genuine pastoral consideration and care which these sayings include are both beautiful and, I think, perhaps more reflective of the ways of the human heart than is often the case in stories whose context is a suburban cul-de-sac or citified congregation. But sure, just as the desert is a place of extremes, so are most of these sayings.

Perhaps it isn't surprising that the few signs of moderation found among these determined souls generally come from the women monks, the Desert Mothers. Amma Theodora warned that "neither asceticism, nor vigils, nor any kind of suffering are able to save," since demons, which neither eat nor drink, are not impressed by fasting, nor by separation from the world, since they live in the desert too. Amma Sarah observed that one should not condemn those who give alms for the praise of others, like the Pharisee mentioned in the same scripture above, because even if such acts are "only done to please men, through them one can begin to seek to please God." Perhaps the most well-known Desert Mother, Amma Syncletica, strikes this tone often. Not that she was at all ambivalent about her choice to pursue a life of solitude and suffering; she was actually rather contemptuous of the "many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and thus are wasting their time," and noted that being "a solitary in one's mind" was a matter of personal discipline, not circumstance. But she did not deny that people in urban circumstances, far away from the desert and "living in a crowd"--whom she called "seculars"--could also achieve the sort of balanced commitment which recluses like herself sought. She thought it was unlikely, since "immoderation cohabits with...the freedom of the city," but it wasn't impossible. Ultimately, one just has to be sensitive to just what kind of vocation God is calling one to; as she is recorded as saying:

Not all courses are suitable for all people. Each person should have confidence in their own disposition, because for many it is profitable to live in a community, and for others it is helpful to withdraw on their own. For just as some plants become more flourishing when they are in humid locations, while others are more stable in drier conditions, so also among humans: some flourish in the high places, while others achieve salvation in the lower places.

As someone who, as our collected Thanksgiving leaves from years past testify, has pretty much always, ever since escaping Utah, been appreciative of a course that hasn't involved living in high and dry places, and has been grateful to witness the changing of seasons from fertile and flat places all through the rest of my adult life instead, I need to keep this reminder of the variety of God's creation, and the variety of humankind's relationship to God's creation, in mind. It's not the most important lesson I take from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but it's a valuable one all the same. Particularly during a time of thanksgiving, it's probably a good idea to think less about whatever bounty we think God may given any of us, and more about how God's love is always there, calling out to us, demanding a response from us--even, or perhaps especially, in the stark, sometimes psychologically immense and emotionally gaping absence of any particular bounty whatsoever, which too many face, every single day. 

Personally, I'm not sure I've ever heard that call, nor do I think I've ever felt any desire to listen for such a call, across the desolate, demanding, desert spaces which my church fled to and made blossom like a rose (partly and at some environmental cost). But I'm thankful to those, both anciently and today, who have turned away from living in the crowd (sometimes only briefly, sometimes for a lifetime), gone into the mountains and deserts, and shared with me what they heard. It's not a warm and light message of gratitude that I've learned from them; more often a harsh and intimidatingly direct one. But among the great fecundity of God's creation and the diversity of those who hear and respond to and seek to live in accordance with His word, it's a word of thanks, I think, all the same. As Job supposedly said, whether the Lord gives (like in the wide, rolling fields of Kansas I've come to love) or the Lord takes away (like in the haunting, sterile vistas of the Utah desert which some weirdly adore), "blessed be the name of the Lord."

Saturday, November 21, 2020

The Anti-Federalists Were Right About Trump (and Many Other Things as Well)

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Gillian Brockell, a talented writer and researcher for The Washington Post's history blog Retropolis, interviewed four esteemed historians and scholars of the Constitution, about what, if anything, the Founders had to say about the possibility of a President of the United States who refuses to concede an election, contests the results to the bitter end, and then, when the results are clearly and finally against them, simply rejects the results and insists upon staying in office. Their answer? As the historian Sean Wilentz of Yale University sums it up: “No, the Framers did not envisage a president refusing to step down or discuss what should be done in such a situation. There’s obviously nothing in the Constitution about it.” Jeffrey A. Engel of Southern Methodist University expands on that a little:

"[The Founders] couldn’t fathom two things: a person who had become president who was so utterly lacking in classical virtue that they would deign or dare to put their own interests above the unity of the country. And the second thing is, I think they couldn’t fathom how any president who would so vividly display disdain for the unity of the country, and mock and undermine the legitimacy of American democracy, why that person [wouldn’t have] already been impeached and removed from office.”

Fortunately Brockell did sufficient research so as to be able to add in her article, at length, comments from one of the Anti-Federalists who opposed the Founders' constitutional creation, the anonymous Pennsylvanian known as "An Old Whig." This concerned citizen presciently wrote:

To be tumbled headlong from the pinnacle of greatness and be reduced to a shadow of departed royalty, is a shock almost too great for human nature to endure. It will cost a man many struggles to resign such eminent powers, and ere long, we shall find some one who will be very unwilling to part with them. Let us suppose this man to be a favorite with his army, and that they are unwilling to part with their beloved commander in chief....[A]nd we have only to suppose one thing more, that this man is without the virtue, the moderation and love of liberty which possessed the mind of our General [Washington]-- and this country will be involved at once in war and tyranny....

We may also suppose, without trespassing upon the bounds of probability, that this man may not have the means of supporting, in private life, the dignity of his former station; that like Caesar, he may be at once ambitious and poor, and deeply involved in debt. Such a man would die a thousand deaths rather than sink from the heights of splendor and power, into obscurity and wretchedness....

I would therefore advise my countrymen seriously to ask themselves this question: Whether they are prepared to receive a king? If they are, to say so at once, and make the kingly office hereditary; to frame a constitution that should set bounds to his power, and, as far as possible, secure the liberty of the subject. If we are not prepared to receive a king, let us call another convention to revise the proposed constitution, and form it anew on the principles of a confederacy of free republics; but by no means, under pretense of our public, to lay the foundation for a military government, which is the worst of all tyrannies.

Ah well, hindsight is always 20-20, right?

Thursday, November 19, 2020

On Partisanship and Punishing Politicians

[Cross-posted to Wichita Story]

It would be wrong to say I know James Clendenin. I've met him a few times at different city events. Once I asked him to come to Friends University (where I work) for a candidate forum, during which he interacted with and answered questions from the students--about parking enforcement, marijuana decriminalization, and more--in a smart and open-minded way, and that impressed me. Another time I had nice things to say about his genuinely admirable--and ultimately successful--work to save the Starlite Drive-In in south Wichita. That's not enough to say I'm friends with the man, but perhaps it gives me a little cover when I say: the fact he still hasn't resigned from the Wichita City Council in shame disappoints me--but perhaps that disappointed is at least as much rooted in the structure of our city council as much as in anything relevant to the character of Clendenin himself.

That I think he needs to resign isn't news; I signed on to an editorial which unambiguously insisted on that point two weeks ago. That there is cause for him to resign also isn't news; his involvement in both the false smear campaign against then mayoral candidate Brandon Whipple in 2019, and the subsequent effort to set up Sedgwick County Republican Party chair Dalton Glasscock when that smear was exposed, is well-documented, with supporting audio recordings, so much so that all sorts of local power players--including the political arm of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Representative Ron Estes--have called for everyone involved to resign.

Of the three men facing those calls--Clendenin, Michael O'Donnell, and Michael Capps--Clendenin has done the most hunkering down. Capps, a state representative, lost his position in a Republican primary in August; while he ought to formally resign his office before it officially ends in January, he is already persona non grata with most of the local Republican establishment (and the state Republican establishment too; during the primary election, even former governor Jeff Colyer took the time to let his low opinion of Capps be known). O'Donnell initially wanted to tough it out, rebuffing his colleagues on the Sedgwick County Commission when they asked for his resignation. But when Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett announced that he would open ouster proceedings against O'Donnell, he quickly quit, even before it was confirmed that he's lost his re-election bid and that Democrat Sarah Lopez would occupy his seat anyway. Through all this though, despite condemnations from his colleagues on the city council and the members of his own District Advisory Board, Clendenin has remained essentially silent (save for one short statement that only told us what we already basically know).

It is notable that for Clendenin these condemnations of his behavior have been restricted to exactly that: condemnations, not calls for his resignation. Which is curious. Outside of the aforementioned ouster proceedings (which, according to state law, can be brought against any holder of "either state, district, county, township or city office" should they "willfully engage in misconduct while in office") being considered by the district attorney, no one is talking about invoking any kind of official power of expulsion here, so the comments of Councilmembers Claycomb and Tuttle regarding how the city council has "no authority to remove Clendenin from office" and that "the voters are the only ones who are able to change" Clendenin's position as the District 3 representative are off-point. The county commission agreed to formally request that O'Donnell resign in the face of his obviously unethical and possibly criminal actions; why wasn't our city council willing to do the same for Clendenin? (It's not like they don't have grounds, after all; the city of Wichita does have a code which requires councilmembers to "set an example of good ethical conduct," and the state of Kansas does have a statute which emphasizes that city councils can oblige their councilmembers to adhere to such codes.)

There are lots of possible reasons, of course. Clendenin's fellow councilmembers and DAB members, unlike me, actually personally know the man, and can bring actual personal knowledge to the problem. Maybe they see him as an unfortunate patsy, a good guy who was drawn into a scam by the more Machiavellian O'Donnell and Capps, and thus deserves less shame than the others. Maybe they see him as a councilmember who, whatever his irresponsible actions, has done his legislative work well, and thus shouldn't be pushed to step down if the voters in his district aren't trying to recall him. Maybe they see him as an essential part of maintaining whatever fraught coalitions or divides currently exist on the city council, as Mayor Whipple attempt to push Wichita into more aggressive action in terms of controlling the pandemic we all face (a dilemma certain to continue given the state mask mandate ordered Wednesday night), and they don't want to take the risk of replacing him. Or maybe they just want to wait until DA Bennett decides whether or not to pursue ouster proceedings against Clendenin--even though the county commission didn't wait in O'Donnell's case, and the county and state Republican parties didn't wait in Capps's.

Which suggests to me one additional possible reason, one that I do know something about. Maybe it's because the Wichita city council, unlike the county commission or the state legislature, is formally a non-partisan body, and that leaves less internally empowered to make demands on a fellow councilmember's behavior.

The council isn't really nonpartisan, of course; everyone knows the party affiliation of every person on the council, and it's not hard to see the basic party-aligned beliefs and associations held by the different councilmembers reflected in more than a few actions which the city council takes (particularly, in reference to the above, past votes which imposed a mask mandate in Wichita and then later allowed it to expire, though to be fair the latest such vote, on Thursday morning, one made in support of the county's presumed commitment to enforce for Governor Kelly's latest mask order, actually included a slight 5-2 break against party lines, though Clendenin wasn't one of the switchers). But since the official rule of municipal elections and service in Wichita's city government is nonpartisanship, the fiction is maintained--I think with often undemocratic results. I'm a broken record on this point--I really do believe that partisanship is a necessary part of the formula for making our city government both more responsive and more accountable. But let me suggest a different side to this old argument of mine: the different ways which the different elected bodies which Clendenin, Capps, and O'Donnell are (or, in that last case, were) part of responded to their involvement in this scandal reveals the way that partisanship imposes discipline

Parties, for all their limitations and problems, are effective institutional tools or organizing the interests of voters around electable candidates. But that statement focuses on the voter side, not the candidate side. On that side of the equation, parties are, or at least can be, an effective way for talented, ambitious people to connect themselves to the shifting preferences of voters...and for other, equally talented and ambitious people, to hold one another in line, thereby helping to impose accountability to those same voters. Sometime this is expressed through various organizational procedures available within the party: the withdrawing of privileges or funding or support, or even outright expulsion. But more often it is expressed through providing the sort of internally generated peer pressure that enables people to do the personally difficult thing of calling out a colleague, and demanding they face the music. It is easy, for me at least, to imagine that in the partisan environments of the state legislature and the county commission, that enabling force was contributing factor, while in our non-partisan (and, not coincidentally, given our council-manager system, structurally weak) city council, it may not have been felt much at all.

I have no evidence that my imagination is correct, of course; this is, again, just a suggestion. But is it really such an implausible one? Look again at the Sedgwick County Commission, and be absolutely clear on the relevant partisan stakes. In 2020, the year when Republicans outperformed the polls all across the country, all across Kansas, and all across Wichita, another Democrat was elected to the county commission, by a grand total of 264 votes out over 32,000 cast in District 2, bringing the Republican majority on the council down to 3-2. Sure, solid Republicans like Pete Meitzner and David Dennis and Jim Howell might not be particularly worried about that shift--but is it really likely that none of them are cognizant of the strong likelihood that if the scandal-plagued O'Donnell had resigned after the story of the false smear had first broke in 2019, or even at any reasonable point in 2020, and almost any other Republican was subsequently appointed in his place, that this November their Republican majority on the commission would still be 4-1? And now that all is said and done, that their recognition of this sad result contributes to their being just be a little tired of the man who tarnished their brand?

Implausible or not, the fact remains that, as of this writing, Mayor Whipple and the rest of the Wichita City Council are going forward conducting business alongside a man who helped raise money for a false smear and then, when that smear was exposed, was fully on board, according to his own recorded words, with framing an innocent person for the deed. Perhaps condemning him for his unrepentant attitude is sufficient, or perhaps waiting to see if the DA will present him with a stark choice is also. But O'Donnell's resignation, and Capp's retreat from the limelight, surely happened at least in part because their colleagues--and in both of their cases, their Republican colleagues--let them know that the party no longer had their back. In an environment where parties are artificially hidden, one of the great benefits of parties--the motivation of members to make costs tangible in the choices made by their fellow elected representatives--is muted. Whether that is actually a part of why O'Donnell and Capps no longer wield any political authority on the part of Wichita voters, but Clendenin still does, is something I don't know, any more than I know all that much about Clendenin himself. But as our city continues to move forward through these difficult times, it's something to think about, all the same.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Three Quick Addenda on Civic Friendship on Election Day

Apropos my sermon from a few days ago on the difficulties of civic friendship, three quick thoughts, this Election Day morning.

1) I voted early this year for the very first time this year, as a way to support an advance voting site that was set up on my campus two weeks ago. Thus, this Election Day morning is the first in my whole adult life that I wasn't at my local polling station early in the morning. I felt a need to go down the street anyway, and thank some of the volunteers. They were appreciative of the thanks, but not, it seemed to me, surprised. Election workers, poll observers, really everyone involved in the mechanics of making representative systems work: they may not see themselves as avatars of civic friendship in their commitment to this very ordinary, in many ways very boring work, but nonetheless I think they exactly the low-level, even humble hope which my post ended with. Maybe they're personally religious, or maybe they're not, but one way of speaking of the civic conviction which brings them (and perhaps many readers of this as well) out to volunteer is a kind of civil religion. They really must have--as most of us, most of the time, I am confident, similarly have-- some kind of faith that people can govern themselves, and that people like you and me and all of them can be trusted, whatever the legitimate and even necessary extremities of our different views, to go through the electoral rituals of American democracy, not just overturn all the tables without cause. 

2) I am a profoundly privileged person; I recognize that, though I also recognize that my articulation of that privilege--which mostly has to do with matters of sin and grace--likely does not operate the same as that which most of those who have engaged with intersectionality might assume. The point is, though, I know that I'm blessed and lucky, and that those blessings and that luck are significantly a function of my position in the various communities I am a member of. So having emphasized that, please take what I say here with all appropriate qualification: my experiences with civic friendship, limited as they may be, have convinced me it's an accomplishable goal. Unlike many others, I do not think I have lost any friends over the past four years. Maybe I have; it honestly wouldn't surprise me to learn that my privilege has blinded me to evils that have been done through my friendliness to people of radically different political views than me, my wishy-washy willingness to simultaneous call someone desperately, even wickedly, wrong but also to continue to consider them a fellow community member. If that is true, then I need to repent--but of course, I need to repent all the time of basically everything anyway (as, I think, does everyone else). In the meantime, I continue to have hope that, beyond all my unseen failures, those community connections, even if only performative, will have some real civic meaning, and thus amount to a real, however small, civic accomplishment. Which, honestly, is just another way of expressing a civic faith, a hope for something unseen, which is nonetheless real.

3) As always, "Northern Exposure" got it mostly right. So find the time today to watch this deeply romanticized, mostly inapplicable to most of our civic lives, but nonetheless, I suspect, deeply true story. And let Chris's final words be, if not a guide, then at least a hopeful reminder to us all.