Category Archive: Politics

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April 17, 2006

Learn English?

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Every now and then, especially in connection with the current controversy about immigration here in the United States, I hear someone say that all immigrants should have to learn English. No English, no immigration. “If they’re going to come to our country,” someone might say, “they should have to learn to speak our language.”

Really? Why?

It certainly would do nothing to preclude terrorists from immigrating. If learning English were a requirement for immigrating, learning English would be one of the first things a terrorist would do.

So what is the reason (in people’s minds) for this requirement? Do immigrants need to learn English so that they can communicate? What if all the people they want to communicate with speak their own language? If you spoke and understood nothing but Dutch, for instance, you could still get along pretty well if you lived, say, in Neerlandia, Alberta, where a high percentage of the people in the community speaks or understands Dutch.

Do they need to learn English so that they can understand the laws of the land? Well, no. You can learn the laws of the United States by reading a translation.

What, really, is the point of requiring immigrants to learn English? I just don’t understand it. More than that, it seems to me that such a requirement would be not only unnecessary but also unjust.

Elderly people often have a very hard time learning a new language; in fact, elderly people tend to revert to the language of their childhood anyway. Making learning English a prerequisite for immigration would mean that you’d have to tell a man that he can’t sponsor his elderly mother to come and live with him and his family unless she first learns English, which isn’t likely to happen. Is that righteous?

Mentally handicapped people would not be able to meet this requirement. But then, neither would a lot of people. Lots of people aren’t good with languages. And lots of people don’t have the time, money, or opportunity to take classes.

The requirement for immigrants to learn English, then, it seems to me, would preclude a lot of elderly people, mentally handicapped people, developmentally challenged people, and other people who don’t have the ability, time, money, or opportunity to learn English from immigrating to the United States. Which is to say that it would also preclude many people who are needy or poor from immigrating, not because they wouldn’t be good citizens, not because they wouldn’t work hard, but simply because they can’t afford English classes or aren’t good with languages.

Again I ask: Is that righteous? Is it merciful? Is it necessary? What’s the reason people keep proposing this strange requirement?

Posted by John Barach @ 12:46 pm | Discuss (0)
May 25, 2004

Andrew Sullivan

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In his recent editorial for Time, Andrew Sullivan expresses his dislike of the recent declarations made by some bishops in the Roman Catholic Church:

It has — amazingly — been forty-four years since a Catholic ran for the presidency of the United States under one of the two major party banners. And how things have changed. In 1960, John F. Kennedy had to persuade Americans that he was not too Catholic to be president. In 2004, John F. Kerry has to persuade the Catholic bishops that he is not too American.By “too American,” I mean the sense that religious faith is a personal matter, that it can be sealed off from public life, that it doesn’t dictate political views on any one issue or another. But with the issue of abortion, that is exactly what some in the Catholic hierarchy and conservative grass-roots seek to challenge. These orthodox Catholics believe that no public official can be openly Catholic and support the right to a legal abortion, which the Church regards as a moral evil of the highest order. The distinction between someone’s private view of the morality of abortion and their public stance about its legality is a distinction without a difference, they argue. Until now, that has been simply a rhetorical assertion — and certainly one well within the rights and duties of the bishops. But in the last few years — accelerating fast in the last few weeks — orthodox forces are demanding more stringent action — that pro-choice politicians not simply be publicly reprimanded but barred from receiving Holy Communion, the central, unifying act of Catholic worship.

Sullivan may be correct: For many Americans (and Canadians) religion is private; it isn’t political — and Sullivan likes it that way. He rightly recognizes, too, that what is sometimes called “fencing the table” is necessarily a political act: some people are allowed to partake of the Eucharist and others aren’t; some people are members of the body and others aren’t.

And that’s what bothers Sullivan: he doesn’t want the church to be able to police its own boundaries, at least, not when it comes to politicians and the policies they promote. Sullivan, it appears, wants the church to stick to dispensing advice, which people may then take or leave, not to act with authority. He doesn’t want the church to be the church; he wants the church to be Ann Landers.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:19 pm | Discuss (0)
April 25, 2004

Torture and Eucharist

Category: Politics,Theology - Liturgical :: Link :: Print

In the entry before last, I mentioned William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ. I read the book a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it very much, if “enjoyed” can possibly be the right term for a book on torture.

Torture and Eucharist is based on Cavanaugh’s doctoral dissertation (written under the direction of Stanley Hauerwas). It focuses on what happened in Chile — and in particular, what happened to the church in Chile — during Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990). Under Pinochet’s regime, the enemies of the state — or suspected enemies or potential enemies or, for that matter, people who were not (yet) enemies — were frequently “disappeared” and tortured by agents of the state. Gradually, the church in Chile learned to respond to the state’s oppression.

Cavanaugh begins with a helpful, though deeply disturbing, discussion of torture. Torture, he says, is just as much an attack on social bodies as it is on individual, physical bodies. When you are in pain, you are isolated from others. You cannot focus on past allegiances or future plans; your whole world shrinks to your body and its suffering. As used in Chile, torture is a tool designed to create individuals, to separate people from their attachments to other social bodies, including the church, so that there are only individuals under the power of the state. Torture is a form of discipline, training people to become disciples of the state, actors following the script the state writes.

At first, however, the church in Chile was not able to respond adequately to Pinochet’s oppression. Cavanaugh provides a trenchant analysis of the “New Christendom” ecclesiology promoted by men such as Jacques Maritain, which is still widespread in the Roman Catholic church today (see John Kerry’s comments below) and which seems remarkably similar to what I’ve heard Presbyterians speak of as “the spirituality of the church.”

According to this view, the church deals with man’s soul, with man’s inward, spiritual life. The church may attempt to persuade men of certain moral positions and to shape their consciences, but it has no coercive power and certainly may not get involved in politics. Politics has to do with the temporal, not the eternal. It is physical, not spiritual. It is external, not internal. It isn’t the church’s area of competence. The church should leave that realm to the experts and focus instead on its own carefully circumscribed role, namely, the care of the soul.

As Cavanaugh explains, however, adopting that view entails handing people’s bodies over to the state. “New Christendom” ecclesiology crippled the church in Chile so that she was unable to resist the state’s oppression — and all the more so because the oppressors themselves, including Pinochet and many, if not all, of the torturers, were themselves Roman Catholics. As one bishop said, “To resist an atheist dictatorship is easy; what’s difficult is to resist a Catholic dictatorship” (cited on p. 80).

As the oppression intensified, however, the church continued to care for the suffering people of Chile and drew on itself the wrath of the oppressors for doing so. Over the years, the church began to respond, first by discussions with the leaders of Chile and then more strongly, through public protest and, most importantly, through ecclesiastical discipline.

The church began to develop a new ecclesiology, centred on the Eucharist, by which the church is united into a social body, a body which is necessarily political and which is concerned not only with souls but with bodies. Eventually, the church began to excommunicate torturers, policing its own bounds, declaring publicly who is and who is not a member of its body. And as it declared some outside the body, it also intensified its bonds with those inside the body. The Eucharist created solidarity, and that solidarity enabled Chilean Christians to resist the state’s attacks. The church’s discipline, forming people into disciples of Christ united to each other, enabled her to stand up to the state’s discipline.

That’s a fairly superficial summary of Cavanaugh’s book, however, and does not do it justice. I recommend the book highly. Cavanaugh writes well and the book is quite understandable. It is also extremely thought-provoking.

At the same time, I was left with some questions. I’m not sure what role, if any, Cavanaugh would assign to the state. Many times, he talks about what “the state” does or wants to do, and I’m not always sure if he thinks this is necessarily true of all states or not. At times, Cavanaugh (and similar writers) make me wonder what role they think there should be for civil government. Of course, that’s part of the reason Peter Leithart wrote “For Constantine” in Against Christianity.

Cavanaugh strongly dislikes “Constantinianism” and “Christendom” and wants to maintain that the church isn’t an alternate polis. But, as Leithart and others have pointed out, that is exactly what the church is (though not exactly in the sense Cavanaugh has in mind).

In Philippians 3, for instance, Paul says that the church’s “commonwealth” (politeuma) is in heaven. The church is a colony of heaven. It is a city within the city, a colony within the (Roman) colony of Philippi, with a calling to colonize its surroundings, advancing faith in the gospel, which is the good news that Jesus (not Caesar) is the true Lord and Saviour.

I appreciated much of Cavanaugh’s discussion of the Eucharist. I have to admit, though, that I can’t make head or tail out of some of the things he says. For instance, “the earthly Eucharist is the eternal action in time of Jesus Christ” (p. 223). I don’t have a clue what “eternal action in time” means, but it seems vaguely Platonic. So, for that matter, does Cavanaugh’s discussion of secular vs. Eucharistic time, in which he says that “secular” time is linear and Eucharistic time is … well, I don’t know, but not linear somehow, because it entails past, present, and future all at once. Perhaps it’s just because I’m new to this sort of Eucharistic theology, but I found this approach hard to grasp.

I am also not convinced by Cavanaugh’s claim that the church doesn’t excommunicate but merely recognizes that someone is self-condemned and has put himself outside the church by his actions. That approach seems weak. Indeed, it seems to me to smack of some of the same kind of gnosticism Cavanaugh is striking at throughout the book, because it implies that the church merely recognizes what people themselves have done; she doesn’t have the power to effect something by excommunication. But Paul speaks of the church’s discipline as actually doing something, changing someone’s status, putting someone outside (1 Cor. 5).

On the whole, though, I found Torture and Eucharist very profitable, not only for its analysis of what happened in Chile, but also for its analysis of torture as a disciplining anti-liturgy and of the Eucharist as a counter-politics whereby we become more and more the body of Christ, a body which must be guarded by excommunication. Again, in spite of my questions and reservations at a number of points, I highly recommend this book.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:16 am | Discuss (0)
April 6, 2004

Kerry’s Catholicism

Category: Politics :: Link :: Print

Today, in the College library, I glanced through the April 5 issue of Time and came upon an article by Karen Tumulty and Perry Bacon entitled “A Test of Kerry’s Faith.”

I confess that I really have little interest in American politics, but I do have a growing interest in political theology and especially the political character of the church, an interest fostered most recently by William Cavanaugh’s fascinating Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, about which I’ll say more later.

For now, let me just mention that Cavanaugh is quite critical of the view that the church’s role is “religious,” while the state takes care of “politics.” The church, therefore, isn’t competent to address political issues, but should leave them to the experts.

Interestingly enough, that very issue is what this Time article addresses. In the article, an official at the Vatican is quoted as saying:

People in Rome are becoming more and more aware that there’s a problem with John Kerry, and a potential scandal with his apparent profession of his Catholic faith and some of his stances, particularly abortion.

The Archbishop of Boston, where Kerry is from, apparently believes that the church does have authority to discipline members who use their office to promote things the church is opposed to, though it appears that, at this point, he may be leaving it to the politicians’ own consciences:

O’Malley has said that Catholic politicians who do not vote in line with church theology “shouldn’t dare come to Communion.”

And Kerry’s own response?

I don’t tell church officials what to do, and church officials shouldn’t tell American politicians what to do in the context of our public life.

The church deals with “religion,” apparently, and politicians deal with “public life,” which suggests that the church has nothing to say about the way people behave in their public lives.

But that answer, even though it may have the support of men such as Jacques Maritain, is itself an attack on the church and on her God-given authority.

The question is not whether the church ought to rule the country. The question is whether the church is itself a social body, a body with the power to excommunicate, a body authorized by God to declare who is a member and who is not according to the Word of God, who doesn’t turn a blind eye to sins one commits in connection with “public life”?

It will be interesting to see what happens, if anything, in the case of John Kerry.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:20 pm | Discuss (0)

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