Friday, September 30, 2005

Mark Twain's and Bill Bennet's Racism

Years back when I was a grad student at Michigan State, there was this huge liberal professor who wrote a column in the college paper. One time he wrote a sarcastic attack on racism. It was a clever use of irony and I recognized it immediately as such. However, a superficial reading of the column could give a stupid reader the impression that he was endorsing racism.

It was embarassing, because he got into big trouble when the Usual Suspects in the Racism Business jumped up and denounced him with anger and passion.

Maybe you've read that racist tract, Huck Finn, but Mark Twain. The author makes liberal use of the dreaded N-word as he describes the wise black slave Jim and the underclass Huck and their interactions with a menagerie of white fools.

Today, Mr. Bill Bennet is being condemned by the White House for making some kind of racist statement. I've heard the remarks in context. And I've heard others condemning stipulate that Mr. Bennet is not a racist.

In logic there is the notion of a reducio ad absurdum argument. A reducio argument follows this pattern: "If you believe 'a' then some absurd thing follows." For example, "If murdering Jews is a good then, then Hitler is a saint."

Perhaps the White House critics of Mr. Bennet will now accuse me of numbering that murderous tyrant among the saints.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Sabbath Keeping

I was with a group of friends and the topic of Sabbath keeping came up. Grand Rapids has a lot of Dutch Reformed folks and they treat Sunday like a Sabbath. You know, that commandment right after misusing the name of deity and honoring parents. But the Hollanders go hog wild and may make you wear a green "L" on your chest if they catch your mowing your LAWN on Sunday. (OK, they won't, but they are intense about such things. And the Scarlet Letter allusion is probably unclear, either. I should delete that last sentence.)

One friend complained that his father enforced rules about Sunday behaviour that seemed inconsistent. He could shoot hoops in his driveway, but he couldn't go down to his neighbor's and play a game. Other stories of Sunday rules were exchanged the general tenor of which was bemusement at the oddness of divergent standards of conduct.

This eventually reminded me of a story that my philosophy teacher, another preacher's kid, told about how HIS father kept the sabbath long ago: The family would sit quietly reading in the living room until Father would nod off, and then Mother would pull out her knitting and the kids could listen to the radio or otherwise occupy themselves while Father napped.

It sounds intolerably strict. But it WAS consistent. My friend's father and my philosophy teacher are roughly the same age and have both been Baptist pastors of note. So, I imagine some kind of generational process is going on. I think the previous generation rejected Strict Sabbath Keeping of the '40s and relaxed things a bit in the '70s. But that commandment is still around in the '00s. And WE'VE got to figure out what to tell OUR kids.

Loosening things up didn't evoke gratitude (because the kid never had to live under grampa's stricter standard), but it did evoke frustration at the inconsistency of the looser standard. The parent thinks his kid has it "a lot better" than what he had to put up with. But the kid doesn't appreciate it because the looser standard just moves the boundary, but it's still a boundary. And it's inconsistent, to boot!

I think the issue, the real issue, is in understanding God's Commandment. If you're the kind of guy who works 24x7 and never takes a break, you're not reflecting the Sabbath part of God's character. Something has to be different on Sabbath. But what is it?

My work calls upon me to sit in front of a keyboard (when I'm lucky on my deck) in a comfortable chair and write software. I love to write software and I think I'm good at it. Conversely, I got quite sweaty this afternoon digging a trench alongside my deck. That's not my day job and it was work, too. But I've done other things that make me sweaty that I thought were fun. They're not work. Can I do those non-trench-digging sweaty activities on Sunday? It's not simple. Jesus said that Sabbath was made for man, not vice-versa. Thus I think my relaxation and recreation is a legal Sabbath activity.

But I think that this line of thinking, "can I do this or not?" misses the point and falls into the Pharisee trap. You keep God's law not as a means to stay out of hell, but because of what kind of person lawkeeping makes you into. The ten commandments are a reflection of God's character. If you think someone who consistently acts like that is a fuddy-duddy, you really don't want to go to Heaven, because you'll find the place intolerable because the center of attention, God, is just like that. (And you don't want to be saved from your sins, just their penalty.)

My church meets on Sunday and it stresses is that the worship service is a particular time and space where the body's intention is to fellowship with God. Sabbath is an extension of that. The whole day should be lived mindful of God. Indeed this is like every other day, but this is a day to do so without the cares of work.

This results in an ethic that seems even more incoherent. The basketball game with the neighbor is legit provided it's a mindful-of-God game, but isn't if its not. I suppose that means you'll have to call your own fouls.