Another Week Ends

1. A pretty obvious place to look for the dynamics of law and grace is, […]

CJ Green / 9.4.20

1. A pretty obvious place to look for the dynamics of law and grace is, well, the law. In a recent story from Mother Jones, Samantha Michaels describes a program designed to curb gun violence in cities with high murder rates. Operation Ceasefire identifies people who are at risk of shooting someone or being shot; rather than subduing them with further insecurity and punishment, the program pairs them with a life coach and other social services:

Oakland tried and failed to implement Ceasefire twice before, in 2007 and 2011. In 2013, at the behest of pastors and other residents, the city rolled out Ceasefire for a third time, but with a twist: The program would scale back its emphasis on law enforcement and focus, through life coaching, on helping participants develop positive relationships with mentors who grew up in similar neighborhoods as they had.

It’s working. Between 2011 and 2017, the number of shootings in Oakland dropped by more than 50 percent. Meanwhile, arrests have declined, and officers are solving more murders than they once did. Police departments in New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Washington, DC, have sent officials to observe the city’s alternative model. “What Oakland’s doing is certainly the Ceasefire strategy, but it’s a very evolved version,” says Mike McLively, an attorney at the San Francisco–based Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Life coaches, clergy, and victims’ family members all play important roles in reaching out to at-risk men. 

The program hasn’t been without failure; with so much at stake, it would repeatedly revert to law enforcement, then fizzle out. But as one pastor reflects,

some men turned to guns because their schools, the police, or adults in their lives hadn’t protected them. The question city leaders needed to ask now wasn’t whether these men were ready to change. It was, McBride realized, “Were we ready to be in a deep relationship with them? Were we ready to commit resources to them? Were we ready to transform society in a way they could belong to it?” […]

City officials also started to think differently about how they offered services to the program’s participants. Giving someone a phone number to call for job training wouldn’t cut it. Now, life coaches, some of whom came up through street groups themselves, would build relationships with the participants, an addition to the program other cities hadn’t tried. They’d sit down with the guys and see if they wanted help with any immediate needs, like avoiding threats from a rival gang or finding housing. But the coaches’ main goal would be to spend time with the participants and build trust, even with men who were still involved with a street group or didn’t want a job. “Just because you aren’t motivated in the beginning, it doesn’t mean we give up on you,” says Haywood, who has been working as a life coach for eight years. “It’s not just a Monday-through-Friday, job-related thing. It’s deeper than that.” The life coaches work with people even if they’re still involved with crime, and they don’t share any information with police.

Beautifully, another pastor describes the effect of their work this way: “It’s like counting the apples in a seed.” The rewards aren’t always immediate, in other words, but they are plentiful. Michaels goes on to describe a trusting relationship between a life coach and a program member. It’s the definition of grace in practice.

2. An excellent one from the Spectator, where theologian Theo Hobson concisely synthesizes the conflicting strands of religion, politics, moralism, and racism. His claim is thus: “The current resurgence of debate about racism shows that we still need the concept of sin. Seriously, sin? Yes.” Explain!

[W]hen secular movements ape religion, they create something narrower than the original. By putting huge emphasis on one form of immorality, the BLM movement creates a dubious division between the pure and the impure. It implies that people who are free of racism, either because they are its victims or because they ardently side with its victims, are morally superior in a general way. This is where old-fashioned religion is crucially wiser: it says that we are all sinners, even if we zealously uphold this or that aspect of morality. Even if we do no discernible outward harm, we are prone to wrongdoing, we gravitate to it. Our hearts are not pure. In theory at least, this realism dampens the zeal of religious moralists: it reminds them that they share the same sort of impulses that result in the immorality they condemn in others.

To the BLM zealot, this sounds evasive and complacent. Saying that, on some level, we are all guilty is just a way of saying that nothing much needs to change, isn’t it? No actually: a quick glance at history shows that most of the main abolitionists and anti-racism campaigners simultaneously believed that racism was a sin and that they themselves were sinners. Isn’t that a contradiction? No, because they saw sin as wider than any particular moral evil. They saw slavery and racism as manifestations of human sin that must be opposed, but also saw that the root cause of the problem would stubbornly remain, for human beings are greedy, proud, tribal, and hungry for any claim to supremacy that is available.

I think that this is still the only really coherent approach to racism. We need the language of sin to make sense of it.

What Hobson calls “normal liberal morality” is concerned with identifying a law—what should and shouldn’t be done—and trying to abide by it. Sin, by contrast, is evenly distributed, residing at the heart-level; surface-level misdoings are mere “manifestations” of a deeper ill for which secularism does not have language.

It is naive of the BLM zealot to say that we must be definitively anti-racist, and it leads to an ugly self-righteousness: we will be tempted to prove our goodness by accusing others of evil. And it is naive of the affronted conservative to deny that he or she carries any significant trace of racism or to pretend that all the fault lies in the excess of the zealots.

3. In the category of “aping religion,” Whole Foods would like you to know that they are green “missionaries,” and that buying their products will make you whole. Finally!

Further chuckles can be had at the Reductress, which humorously reports, “‘Sorry to Put All That On You,’ Says Woman to Therapist”:

After walking into her therapist’s office and going on and on about all her problems for almost an hour, Shera Mackey turned to her therapist, Dr. Alana Sidney, and apologized deeply for putting all of that onto her.

“So sorry to put all that on you,” she said, seemingly misunderstanding the service for which she is paying. “I know it’s a lot.”

“No, it’s fine,” her therapist said before Mackey interjected with, “Ugh, I feel so annoying!”

Also the New Yorker clears up the official rules of Pandemic Monopoly:

The objective of this game was originally just to pick a square and stay put until everything blew over. But, due to recent shifts in government messaging, the objective is now to move around the board as much as possible and stimulate the economy without losing property or dying. The game ends when all players have declared bankruptcy OR when the government agrees on an economic bailout. Note: there is no limit to how long this game can be played.

4. For the New York Times, researcher/writer Molly Worthen ruminates on “The Trouble With Empathy.” It’s a topic that, in recent years, has drawn clashing perspectives: on the one hand, politicians “project empathy” to improve their image, while some scholars criticize the very concept, seeing empathy as a form of control and imperialism. “When we attempt to step into the shoes of those very different from us,” Worthen asks, “do we do more harm than good?” While recognizing these criticisms, Worthen argues that the real trouble with empathy is how it’s being standardized, as if it were math:

[T]he colorful classroom posters and the drive for data through “social-emotional competencies” student assessments — not necessarily bad things in themselves — risk reducing our idea of empathy to yet another job skill. The mania for standardized testing that followed the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act has further hampered teachers’ best and oldest tool for developing emotional understanding: the study of literature.

“I really do believe literature is an empathy tool, and reading literature widely can actually make you an empathetic person,” Sarah Levine, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, told me. In many classrooms, the structure of standardized tests, especially multiple-choice questions and narrow essay rubrics, pushes teachers to drill students on finding arguments and literary devices rather than encouraging them to reflect on their own emotional response. “The standardized testing movement reduces literary reading to fact-finding,” Ms. Levine said. […]

Ms. Levine taught high school English on the South Side of Chicago before coming to Stanford. She said that despite the life of privilege she sees around her now, “the danger we’re exposing students to in English classrooms is just as bad for kids in Palo Alto as for kids in Chicago with many fewer resources. We’re teaching them that literature is not for them, because they aren’t a part of what they read. I don’t mean because they feel, ‘I don’t see Black and brown faces in my literature,’ but ‘I’m supposed to write an argument about a motif,’ and not do what kids do outside of the classroom: read and enjoy the experience.” […]

“Empathy extends beyond trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes,” said Ms. Holloway, the student at Oberlin. “Success is not part of that definition, really. The act of listening is a form of that empathy. You’re willing to attempt to understand.” Only by constantly making that attempt — however imperfect — can we learn empathy’s hazards, and its power.

5. Maybe you have mentioned Martin Luther in the course of a casual conversation about the Reformation (we all have these?), and maybe you noticed how different people reacted differently to the renegade monk? Some swoon, some appear disturbed, some squint as if they should have paid closer attention in European History. At the White Horse Inn, John Ehrett investigates various interpretations of Luther and his legacy. Ultimately the divergence of views

likely stems from the reality that Luther was not a systematic theologian, and (similarly) from the fact that his theological views evolved during his lifetime (hence the rise of “Luther studies” as a distinct discipline in its own right). And so, for almost any theological claim one wishes to make, one can probably wrest a passage of Luther from its context and marshal it as support. But that is simply prooftexting — the very hermeneutical approach so often decried in the context of biblical interpretation.

No doubt it is always highly tempting to draft a giant of the Western Christian tradition into one’s distinctive theological or intellectual project. And no doubt there is a distinctly transgressive appeal to thinking of Luther as an oracle of theological truths forgotten (or suppressed?) by the Christian tradition as a whole.

But that is a sentiment that would likely have proven alien to both Luther and those who came after him. Taking them at their word, they sought to be faithful to the tradition they had received against those who were exploiting it — suggesting that they understood their theology as a project of reclaiming the past, not thrusting the faith forward into an unknown future. Novelty, after all, was never the point of the Reformation.

6. Lastly, a thought or two about death.

At Unherd, Giles Fraser reacts to the trans-humanism movement, as well as our own ordinary anxiety about not living forever. He writes,

Martha Nussbaum, in a brilliant essay on why the immortal Greek gods sometimes fall in love with mortal human beings — Calypso with Odysseus, for example — explains that there are certain attractive virtues that the gods, being immortal, are unable to manifest precisely because of their immortality. Top of the list is sacrificial love. What sense can be made of sacrificial heroism, risking one’s life to save another, if one’s life is never really in danger? Odysseus risks everything for the one he loves, even his own death, and that makes him so much more attractive and commendable. And what sense can be given to the motherly love of the immortals, she questions, when there are never any issues about the welfare of their immortal children? Mrs Zeus … would happily and calmly have her nails done as her kids played with matches and the petrol can. […]

When St Paul writes that death has lost its sting, he is claiming that there is a glorious kind of freedom to be enjoyed when one gets beyond the obsessive anxiety of endless self-preservation. For those who have placed the centre of gravity of their lives outside of themselves, then the prospect of one’s own death can never be as it was before. Death loses its sting. […]

My old boss, the priest who trained me to become a priest, died a couple of months ago. An extraordinary man, he once told me — and I completely believed him — that he was totally uninterested in the question of what would become of him after death. That claim made a lasting impression on me, and still seems to be the mark of someone who has been liberated in just the way St Paul described. The more my old boss gave away of himself, the more of his own needs that he abandoned and set aside, the more he seemed to grow into a kind of serenity. And he met death with the same composed equanimity.



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