Saint Max, The Mad (Ethics of Disaster Preparedness, Part 2)

American MRE's, picture by Christopher Lin, Creative Commons

American MRE’s distributed after Hurricane Katrina, picture by Christopher Lin, Creative Commons

As Christians, our philosophy if disaster preparedness should align with our philosophy of life: living out the kingdom of God “on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” [Matthew 6:9-13]  Needless to say, this means we can’t just ‘take care of our own,’ even in a disaster.  This contrasts markedly with both the extreme survivalist mindset and with the prevailing, semi-mainstream “prepper” mindset.

“Okay,” you may be thinking, “what is he talking about?  Survivalist?  Prepper?  Come on, now, throw me a bone.  Don’t just toss out these terms without defining them.”

[[I realize that some of you may not care about this topic, but it’s one that I feel strongly about addressing, partly because of my own interests, and partly because of my experiences, and those of my family, immediately following Hurricane Katrina.  Everybody faces the possibility of natural disasters of some sort, and everybody needs to take responsibility for being prepared.  And since one of my goals is to be as honest as possible, I’m going to have to write about this.]]

The survivalist expects (and often focuses on) the PAW, or Post-Apocalyptic World (sometimes called TEOTWAWKI: The End Of The World As We Know It).  They fear and prepare for a semi-permanent interruption of common services (like electricity, government, and law itself) and a breakdown of social order and morality.

What will cause the PAW?  The list of possible causes is as varied as the survivalists are: economic depression, pandemic, sunspots causing a massive EMP (it happened in 1859), government corruption leading to totalitarianism, or even, in the most extreme cases, violent racial conflict.  Unfortunately, white supremacists are often attracted to the survivalist mindset.

To survive in the PAW, the survivalist often prepares elaborate and remote “bug out locations” (BOL), complete with stored food and supplies, methods of long-term food production, significant caches of ammunition, and back-up copies of his preferred firearms (a phrase that preppers and survivalists alike use is “two is one, and one is none,” which is supposedly borrowed from the U.S. Special Forces). You can see the survivalist  mindset in interviews and reality shows as well as discussion forums.

The main problem with the survivalist mindset is that they sacrifice so much of the present life for the sake of the apocalyptic world to come that some of them even hope for the chaos, thinking they’ll come out on top in the coming world, that their place in the social order will be overturned, that their vigilance and sacrifice will finally be vindicated.  It’s a lot like Left Behind that way…

Preppers, on the other hand, focus on realistic, likely disasters.  They tend to be more level-headed, often with practical backgrounds or occupations: current or former military, farmers, mechanics, gunsmiths, etc.  While they often share the survivalists’ lack of faith in the government, they keep it within functional bounds.

They focus on preparing (“prepping”) for things like economic hard times, relevant natural disasters, extended losses of public services (like losing power and water for 3-4 weeks following Hurricane Katrina), and even limited civil unrest (like the violence that happened in New Orleans following Katrina).

Obviously, preppers are easier to relate to than full-on survivalists.  They don’t want any of these things to happen.  They talk about how their “preps” help them in everyday life.  For example, one got laid off and used emergency food stores to cut down his grocery bill and emergency savings to cover his other bills until he got a new job.  Nothing apocalyptic about that.

The prepper mindset can be a little harder to find in the media, but there is one discussion forum that exemplifies it:  despite its frivolous name, Zombie Squad keeps its focus by banning political discussion, religious debates, and any kind of racism.  You’ll find a few survivalists there, but they’re the sane type, so to speak.  Nobody there talks about race wars or rants about how Bush is Hitler and Obama the Antichrist.

The problem that often underlies both outlooks is, to some degree, the problem I addressed when I wrote about Atlas Shrugged.  It’s akin to the spiritual problems so many Pharisees in Jesus’s day and Christians today suffer from.

It’s the self-righteous sense than since I did the right thing, and you didn’t, so you don’t deserve much sympathy or any help.  In other cases, it’s Christians saying on Sunday “oh, everything I own belongs to God,” and on Monday saying “I can’t stand that the government’s taking MY money to pay a bunch of welfare queens and drug addicts!”  In this case, it’s the sense that “my preps will take care of me and mine, and anyone who comes to my door had better step off!”

This isn’t a sentiment that we, as Christians, should be getting behind.  Partly because it’s very possessive and antithetical to the commands Jesus gave us when he was here among us.  Partly because it’s NOT how people actually survive and thrive during natural disasters.

I’m out of space for now, but I’ll talk about that later.  In my next post on this topic, I will tell the story of how my hometown dealt with the aftermath of Katrina.  It didn’t involve massive rioting and gunfights with police, so it didn’t get on the national news, but it is a more important story than what happened in New Orleans.

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An Open Letter to President Obama and Governor Romney

Mural of Picasso's Guernica

Mural of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica

President Obama,

I appreciate your concern for the poor and marginalized Americans.  I appreciate your hope, your ability to inspire America with your speeches and ideas.  I thank you for ending the previous administration’s use of torture.

Governor Romney,

I admire your business acumen and your ability to work with both parties.  I admire the health care program you instituted in Massachusetts, and look forward to your ideas for national-level reforms.

But I worry about both of your souls.  President Obama, you have instituted an undeclared drone war against Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that has left as many as 168 children and teens dead.  Drones have attacked funerals, private homes and even markets.

Predator Drone launching Hellfire MissileAnd the definition of “militant” used in publicity about the strikes – anyone of military age who was in the area of the strike – is frankly deceitful.

The people of these villages live in fear, suffering death, destruction, poverty, terror, and amputation, and for what?  For every real militant these drone strikes kill, we’re certainly driving someone else into the arms of the Taliban.

This is unconscionable, and I frankly shudder to think that any professing Christian could so coldly terrorize towns and villages.  We’re exposing them to their own little 9/11’s, day after day.  And I tremble to think that my tax dollars fund this horror.

President Obama, Governor Romney, one of you will be President of the United States for the next four years.  One of you will make the decision to continue this unconscionable practice or end it.

I will not be voting for anybody who supports this barbarism.  President Obama, if you stop this and promise to never do it again, I will vote for you.  Governor Romney, if you reverse your position and promise to stop these strikes, I will vote for you.

Otherwise, I will vote for a third party candidate who comes out against these atrocities or refrain from voting, as a protest.

Meanwhile, I will pray for both of you, that God may grant you wisdom and compassion, and that he may show you more mercy than you have shown others.

The Farmer’s Wife (Complementarianism, Again)

Farmer and Wife, Irving Rusinow, 1941

Farmer and Wife. Photo by Irving Rusinow, 1941

A farmer’s wife is a farmer, not a housewife.  I know that because my maternal grandparents were farmers.  There was a division of labor, of course, but it wasn’t some philosophical self-conscious complementarian structure, but a legitimate division of labor.  Pa Clarence didn’t know how to sew, and Nanny Jet couldn’t fix or maintain a tractor, for example.  But the men and the women all picked crops (as did the boys and the girls, once they were old enough).  Both cooked, at least some: Pa Clarence made the best biscuits I ever ate (and he took the recipe to his grave).  Nanny Jet was the cornbread champion, and their chicken and dressing was a kind of joint effort, using his biscuits and her cornbread, though she prepared the dressing itself (a recipe that has been passed down to her daughters, and, through Mom, to me … but Katherine makes it better than I do).

Yes, men and women were different.  Men and women are still different, though changing times have revealed some of those differences to be cultural constructions, rather than biological conditions.  Perhaps in the future, even more of the differences between men and women will be revealed as nothing more than socio-cultural artifacts.  The gospel will endure, even as it endured blue stockings, suffrage, and industrialization, as it survived the birth of pantsuits, career women, and birth control.

The difference between a farmer and his wife and a 21st century complementarian is this: the farmer and his wife did what they did because it worked.  They were raising crops and livestock and children, and their life was in the land.  Every year, they planted their livelihood in the ground in an earthy leap of faith that most of us have never had to take.  They didn’t have time to theorize from their wealthy, government safety-net supported, megachurch attending, paid by a seminary or church, privileged position.  This wass as true of first century farmers and shepherds as early twentieth century farmers.

The complementarian movement isn’t returning us to some pre-industrial idyll.  At best, it’s sanctifying the white-upper-class privileged gender roles of an idealized 1950’s.  At worst, it’s dragging us back to old Greco-Roman house codes.  Some complementarians, like Douglas Wilson, Steve Wilkins, and George Grant, have even ventured into slavery apologetics.

As bizarre as that seems in this day and time (paleo-confederate?  Really?), it really is the natural, logical conclusion of God-ordained male dominance.  After all, the passages that teach women to submit are always located near passages giving slaves the same instruction.  The Greco-Roman households Paul wrote to were ruled by men, with wives having more status, but no more freedom or authority, than slaves.  Paul’s admonitions to mutual submission upended the heart of this one-sided power-structure, but in the interest of civil peace, he urged Christians not to flout the laws and customs of his day.  Twenty centuries later, we can do better.

They quote Paul, but they recreate themselves in the image of Ward Cleaver and seek to forge women into the image of June Cleaver, using the Bible as a hammer and tradition as an anvil.  They claim tradition, but in truth, lack all authenticity.  Past social arrangements were based on physical and economic necessities.  Past social arrangements made survival possible.  They may not have been just, but they were necessary.  This?  This is the retrograde fantasy, a dangerous escape from modernity.

Wrestling the god of the Gut, Round Two

Burrito - Photo by Ernesto Andrade, Creative Commons

Photo by Ernesto Andrade, Creative Commons

It’s been 10 days since my “Wrestling the god of the Gut” post, and I thought I’d give you an update on how the match is going.

Let me tell you a little about myself: I’m a southerner, which basically means I’m a natural carnivore.  My two favorite food groups are meat and more meat.  I love deep-fried barbecue pork ribs so much I’ve got breading for skin and barbecue sauce for blood (yes, such a food exists, and yes, it is absolutely as good as it sounds).  I love to eat, but I don’t really like to cook.  And I really love going out to eat with my honey-bunny wifie … in the south, where carne is king.

You’d think that finding cruelty-free meat wouldn’t be so hard in such a meat-obsessed place as southern Mississippi, but nope.  Apparently, folks around here either don’t know or don’t care what’s done to their burger, bacon or chicken while it’s still breathing.

It’s probably innocent ignorance.  We see the cattle grazing on the hills as we drive up Highway 49, and we think the beef we buy locally comes from them.  But it doesn’t; it comes from massive factory operations in the midwest.  Getting meat from the nearby fields involves either tracking down the meat guy at the farmer’s market (easier said than done), or buying a cow and having it slaughtered (hope you have a big deep freeze).

I’ve found some beef and pork at Winn-Dixie.  It’s not local, but it’s pasture-fed, without crates or cages.  I’ve also found free-range eggs, though I can just as easily get those at the farmer’s market (the egg guy’s always there).  It’s expensive, though, and I still haven’t found free-range chicken for any kind of affordable price.

So I just decided to eat less meat.  And I found out I feel better when I’m not eating meat.  It’s crazy, but living on eggs, cheese, grains, fruits, and veggies has been a real boon.  I can even eat sweets again without feeling too bad.  I really only missed meat for the first week or so, and now I’m kind of “over it.”  Maybe this is a phase, too.  Or maybe I’ll be a full-on-vegetarian by year’s end (Nanny Jet’s chicken and dressing recipe does not count, by the way).

It’s funny, because I used to use meat (especially a big hamburger) to give me a boost when I was sick or feeling crummy.  Now, I’m largely avoiding meat, and I feel better than I should.  I had a bad headache yesterday, and I really thought about defrosting some of that free-range beef and medicating with a hamburger.

But my wonderful wifie thought of fixing my Five-Layer Bean Burritos of Doom recipe, and sure enough, it worked.  It actually filled the role that all-beef burgers used to fill.

I’m not 100% sure what my big point is here, except maybe that God has taken my first tentative steps toward reducing the cruelty my consumeristic existence causes, and He has blessed them beyond what I’d ever expected.  I’m excited to see where He’ll lead me next.

Where Atlas Shrugged Went Off the Rails

Reconstruction of the 1895 Montparnasse Train Derailment by Andre Engels, Creative Commons

Reconstruction of the 1895 Montparnasse Train Derailment. Photo by Andre Engels, Creative Commons

The truth is, it’s been years since I read any Ayn Rand, and, like most Americans, I could safely ignore her … until now.  Because now, the Republican Presidential nominee has selected a Vice Presidential candidate who’s a big fan.  Granted, Paul Ryan is distancing himself from Rand (in part because she’s an atheist, and he doesn’t want to sully his very real Christian conservatism, and in part because of pressure from the Catholic Church). But as late as 2005, he addressed The Atlas Society.  Whether or not he believes in her philosophy, Paul Ryan has brought Ayn Rand back into the public discussion.

Let me summarize what I’ve learned from that public discussion:  The belief that Objectivism is morally repugnant is pretty widespread.  Even more widespread is the belief that it’s just too simplistic, assuming rational action in a world where there is simultaneously information overload AND never enough of the right knowledge for ANYONE to make perfectly rational decision.

I’ve probably heard “I thought that was so cool when I was 13” about as often as I’ve heard “that’s horrible/evil/I can’t believe she actually makes a “virtue” of selfishness!”

So I’m going to discuss Atlas Shrugged.  I’ll start by saying that I liked the book.  It was a good story, despite the long monologues.  Heck, the long monologues were actually interesting.  And there were some pretty amazing moments – I won’t spoil my favorite one, but let me just say that it comes when they try to torture John Galt.  I still like that scene.

The question I ask today is not, “Who is John Galt?” but rather, “Where did Atlas Shrugged go off the rails?”  When did the work become morally monstrous, intolerable, unacceptable?

It’s not Dagny Taggart’s sexual liberation, not even her affair with Hank Rearden.  First, let me say: I certainly can never condone infidelity of any kind.  But there is something powerful about a female character who really owns her own body, and exists neither to be controlled by men, nor for their titillation.  It’s even more amazing in a book published in 1957!

And there’s something noble about the way Dagny short-circuits her enemies’ attempt to blackmail Hank Rearden.  He was willing to go along to protect her reputation, but she announces their affair on a broadcast radio interview.  She laughed in the faces of the people who wanted to use her “secret” to destroy a man she loved.  Again, you’ll never hear me approving of adultery, but I really don’t think this is the “big problem” with Atlas Shrugged.

It’s not Ellis Wyatt and Francisco D’Antonio destroying their business assets rather than have them be forcibly nationalized.  Theft by force is robbery, whether it’s a thug with a switchblade or a government with an army.  As governments become more coercive, more tyrannical, and less respectful of human rights, nonviolent resistance becomes justified, even admirable.

It’s not even Ragnar Danneskjold’s raiding.  The Galt’s Gulch bunch were planning a revolution, and Ragnar’s actions were pretty bloodless as revolutions go.  Danneskjold certainly caused less carnage than our Founding Fathers did.  The fundamental problems with Rand’s philosophy aside, Atlas Shrugged is the story of a new American Revolution. Danneskjold was just the Galties’ admiral.

No, the point where Atlas Shrugged goes off the rails (pun intended), the point where “A is A” becomes inhuman, the point where Rand’s great epic becomes a moral monster is…

Eddie Willers.  He is, without a doubt, as self-sufficient, as morally upright (even using Rand’s strict and somewhat twisted morality), and hard-working as any of the Galt’s Gulch bunch. While he lacks their capitalistic genius, he’s faithful, dedicated, and asks that no one be sacrificed for his needs.  Eddie is one of the few characters that objectivists and non-objectivists alike can find admirable.

He’s served as Dagny Taggart’s right-hand man for her entire career.  He’s the Alfred to her Objectivist Batman.

And. She. Leaves. Him. Out. In. The. Chaos. To. Die.

Eddie’s not a “second hander” or a “looter,” trying to take by force.  He’s not a schemer or an enemy.  He’s not even a stranger.  He’s been her right hand all along, and frankly, without someone to back her play, to handle the details, to fill in the blanks while she’s dreaming up new innovations, Taggart wouldn’t have made it where she did.

And. She. Leaves. Him. Out. In. The. Chaos. To. Die.

And he does.  He dies, abandoned by the person whose success he spent his life facilitating.  He’s not a superstar, so he can just … drop dead.  It’s inexcusable.  It’s insurmountable.  It washes away, in a moment, any good that may be gleaned from the novel’s philosophy.

Sure, he wasn’t invited to Galt’s Gulch, and she probably couldn’t have scored him an invitation (not even as her personal assistant), but she could have warned him, could have sent him somewhere out of the way, to ride out the chaos.  But she doesn’t.

And that utter lack of empathy, of loyalty, of basic respect, it’s not the hallmark of a great innovator.  It’s the hallmark of a sociopath.

“Jesus’s Wife”

Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow, The Parable of the Ten Virgins, 1838-1842

Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow, The Parable of the Ten Virgins, 1838-1842

I’m sure by now you have all heard or read about the fourth-century Coptic manuscript fragment that includes a section in which Jesus says, “My wife.”   This has led to fact-checking and theological debate from scholars and clergy, a chorus of “whatever” from average believers, and a humorous hashtag on Twitter.

But the remark that brought the most clarity came in a single sentence comment from a poster known only as Eric:  “Maybe I’m off here but doesn’t Jesus refer to his wife (aka his bride, aka the church) quite frequently?”

Indeed He did.  Matthew 9:15.  Matthew Ch 25.  Mark 2:19-20 (same statement as Matthew 9:15), Luke 5:34-35 (ditto),  and, if you count the Revelation to St. John, five more places.  That I could find with a quick search or remember off the top of my head.

What embarrasses me is that I didn’t think about it until I read Eric’s comment.  We are (collectively) the Bride of Christ.  It’s an insanely powerful image, one that (especially as a guy) is almost impossible to get my head around.  I don’t know about any of you, but I think I don’t spend nearly enough time praying and meditating on the really strange, glorious truths of our Lord.

So, yeah, whenever the fragment was written, and whoever wrote it (maybe Dan Brown found a time machine), we already know Jesus has a wife.  And that wife is us.

Crazy, eh?

Sold! (Wrestling the Angel of Consumerism)

X-Box 260

This is my X-Box. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

My longtime friend Paul, a preacher, responded to my last post, and I think what he had to say was important.  He pointed out that it’s not just the ministers that are responsible for consumerism and massive spending in American churches.  In my experience, he’s right.  Sure, there are the occasional music ministers who spend $10,000 in lighting for a Christmas musical for a church with 250 members.  But most of the time, it’s actually the congregation that controls the purse strings.

It’s the congregation that votes “yes” on gaudy church palaces.  It’s the congregation that says “yeah, let’s spend $5 million to move from the city center to the ritzy suburb.”  They’re not saying “we have no responsibility to this city or to the poor,” well, not out loud, but their actions sure look like it.

[I hadn’t actually meant to imply that it was the preachers’ fault, but I can certainly see how it looks that way.  Using the term “ecclesiastical bling” was probably my main mistake.  It serves me right for putting an attempt at wit above accuracy:  that path leads to Ann Coulter territory.]

The truth is, we’ve all been soaking in consumerism our entire lives.  Even the 116 year old woman can’t remember a time when producers sought to fill needs, rather than manufacture wants.  Newspaper ads as far back as the 1890’s sold health and beauty aids of various types, using loaded language to make people feel insufficient without the products.

Of course, the media of transmission and frequency of contact have increased.  With smart phones advertisements can reach us even when we’re not in front of a television.  And their message is, uniformly, you are not good enough without our products.

The truth is, we’re all so deeply permeated by consumerism we don’t even realize it.  I’m thirty-seven years old, and I only recently realized how much I let piddling earthly wants pull me around.  And I think most people don’t even bother to consider it.  We may tithe, but we don’t push the church to use the tithe wisely.

Thunder may strike with me quoting John Piper, but he’s right: for most middle-class American Christians, giving only the tithe is robbing God.  I’d add that giving the tithe and encouraging the church use it selfishly is also robbing God.

But we’re so sucked-under by consumerism that we don’t even see our own selfishness.  My wants are so often so piddly – a new video game, a new movie, a new (or more accurately, an old and interesting) gun for my collection, a nice meal out.  And all of those are fine, until I count up how much I spend per year on stuff I won’t even care about in a few years’ time, and how little of my income goes to things that are, in some way, eternal.  I get mad at myself. And then I think that our churches are doing basically the same things, and I get mad at everyone.

It’s stunning to think of people in countries who live on $2000 a year, who don’t have clean water, whose children have no opportunity to go to school and improve their material situation.  Many times we turn away, because the images are too graphic, the damage too gruesome, and that’s understandable.  I have to praise World Vision for accentuating the good that can be done, rather than manipulating people’s sympathy with pictures of dying infants.  They tend to take the long view anyway, and guilt isn’t a long-term motivator.

I can’t ask anyone else to go where I won’t, so I’m going to take a first step.  Like many people in my generation, I have multiple video game systems, some quite old, some relatively new.  I’m going to put one of them (my Xbox 360) on Craigslist, and donate whatever money it brings to World Vision.  It’s a relatively small amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but the act of sacrificing one of my luxuries may be healing.

Growing up in this consumerist haze, we get addicted to so many things before we’re even old enough to know it.  We’re all like bulls with rings in our noses, led around by small men, by peddlers who sap our strength and freedom.  But like bulls, we are strong enough to break free, if we can bear the pain.