Sin and Evil

It is a very religious term, but it’s not, in fact, a Christian term, which is one of the oddities of so many people who are self-professed Christians using the term.

St. Augustine, the great Christian theologian, fought battles with other religious figures in his time, like the Manicheans, who stressed evil so much that nothing was left to the proposition that God is good. The idea that God is good is a fundamental proposition of Christian theology.

There’s apparently a reluctance on the part of Christians to use the word “sin” in the public square—they’re much more likely to use the word “evil.” Using the word “sin” might remind Christians that this is something that can be overcome with God’s help, and there’s grace even for the biggest sinners if they find Jesus in their hearts. You can’t be irredeemably evil from a Christian theological perspective, because then there would be no salvation, and no role for Jesus. “Evil” is much more of a secular word than a religious word. “Sin” would be the religious word.

–Alan Wolfe, interviwed by Emma Green.

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Another actual quote from our president:

Mick Mulvaney is here, and Mick is in charge of a thing called budget. I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you are throwing our budget out of whack. We spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico, and that’s fine. We saved a lot of lives. If you look at the — every death is a horror, but if you look at a real catastrophe like Katrina and you look at the tremendous hundreds and hundreds of people that died and what happened here with a storm that was just totally overbearing. No one has ever seen anything like that. What is your death count?

PUERTO RICO GOV. RICARDO ROSSELLÓ: Sixteen.

TRUMP: Sixteen people certified. Sixteen people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people and all of our people working together. Sixteen versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everyone around this table and everyone watching can be very proud of what’s taking place in Puerto Rico.

–transcript from Vox.

For what it’s worth, the official FEMA death toll from Katrina is 1,833. “Very proud,” indeed.

The deceptive allure of binary choices

Coates writes that since among working-class Americans, 61 percent of whites—but only 24 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks—supported Trump, only “whiteness” can be the culprit. But why did any percentage of working class blacks and Hispanics vote for Trump? Do they also secretly harbor white-supremacist viewpoints? Did they too inherit the all-powerful white heirloom? Or is it possible that all of these groups were motivated by a variety of factors, not least among them a visceral and uncompromising dislike of Hillary Clinton?

Beware the deceptive allure of binary choices that masquerade as arguments. Coates’s failure to imagine complexity in human motives yields the assumption that such complexity cannot possibly exist.

–Chloé Valdary, There’s No Single Explanation for Trump’s Election

Abundance within limits

In any consideration of agrarianism, this issue of limitation is critical. Agrarian farmers see, accept, and live within their limits. They understand and agree to the proposition that there is “this much and no more.” Everything that happens on an agrarian farm is determined or conditioned by the understanding that there is only so much land, so much water in the cistern, so much hay in the barn, so much corn in the crib, so much firewood in the shed, so much food in the cellar or freezer, so much strength in the back and arms — and no more. This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies. Within accepted limits, these become necessities. The agrarian sense of abundance comes from the experienced possibility of frugality and renewal within limits.

This is exactly opposite to the industrial idea that abundance comes from the violation of limits by personal mobility, extractive machinery, long-distance transport, and scientific or technological breakthroughs. If we use up the good possibilities in this place, we will import goods from some other place, or we will go to some other place. If nature releases her wealth too slowly, we will take it by force. If we make the world too toxic for honeybees, some compound brain, Monsanto perhaps, will invent tiny robots that will fly about pollinating flowers and making honey.

–Wendell Berry, The Agrarian Standard

Judge Roy Moore and American Christianity

In an interview conducted by Jeff Stein for Vox, one of Alabama’s Republican senatorial candidates, Judge Roy Moore, attempted to clarify his view of the relationship between the American Constitution and Christianity:

But to deny God — to deny Christianity or Christian principles — is to deny what the First Amendment was established for. You see, the First Amendment was established on Christian principles, because it was Jesus that said this: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and render unto God the things that are God’s.” He recognized the jurisdiction the government does not have — and that was the freedom of conscience.

If you were a complete atheist, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim, or whatever, you have freedom in this country to worship God and you can’t be forced otherwise. That’s a Christian concept. It’s not a Muslim concept.

Developing his theme of contrast between Christianity and Islam, Moore claimed this:

There are communities under Sharia law right now in our country. Up in Illinois. Christian communities; I don’t know if they may be Muslim communities.

But Sharia law is a little different from American law. It is founded on religious concepts.

To recap: the U. S. Constitution — the entire basis of the American legal system — is founded on Christian principles, but Sharia law is different because it is founded on religious concepts.

Also, when Stein challenges Moore to elaborate on those communities allegedly living under Sharia law, Moore replies, “I was informed that there were. But if they’re not, it doesn’t matter.” Because why would anybody care about things like verifiable evidence for  bold claims about a key issue?

Moore’s most basic claims about the legal relationship between religion and the U. S. Constitution are self-evidently contradictory and incoherent. By the way, Moore is a former chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court. And if you believe the polls, he’s about to be the Republican nominee for Jeff Sessions’s old Senate seat. In practice, this means that the people of Alabama are very likely to make him their next U. S. senator.

This is significant to me only as a barometer of the degree to which not-insignificant portions of the electorate are eager to embrace patent fruitcakery, so long as it is sufficiently white and sufficiently bigoted. As a Christian, I feel that it’s more significant to me because I hate that people like Moore too often symbolize my faith to people on all sides of the front lines in America’s culture wars.

Many on the right hasten to offer apologetics for his pernicious balderdash; many on the left hasten to cast all American Christians from the same mold as Moore, because they think that, deep down, he’s merely the most blatant, odious symptom of our unsupportable mass delusion. Judge Moore does not speak for me. To the extent that he represents any historical variant of the rich, multilayered tapestry of the Christian religion, he is representative of those threads tangled together underneath a moldy coffee stain.

And if you think Judge Moore speaks for you, then you are welcome to all the justifiable criticism and caricaturization that inevitably follows when a buffoon who has smeared himself in feces lights himself on fire and sings the national anthem in the public square. It’s an offensive spectacle to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear, and it is to be greatly regretted that the stench will cling to the clothes of all who happened to be present to witness it, regardless of where they happened to be standing at the time.

“They did everything except eat us.”

Every so often, I’m reminded how bad slavery was. Consider: For generations, Americans had the right to own other people as chattels. They could work them, rape them, torture them, and kill them with impunity. Earlier this year, I interviewed George Walker, a nonagenarian American composer. His grandmother was an ex-slave. She had had two husbands. She lost the first when he was sold at auction.

Walker knew this grandmother, very well. She never talked about slavery — ever. Except for one time, when her grandson’s curiosity got the better of him and he asked her about it. She uttered one sentence, only: “They did everything except eat us.”

That is the reality that the Confederates fought to preserve. That is the reality that they seceded from the Union to preserve. Dress it up all you want — states’ rights and all — but that is the core of it.

–Jay Nordlinger, Seeing the Confederacy Clear

Reflect, for a moment, on the fact that someone like Nordlinger has to put up with, as he says elsewhere in his National Review column, accusations of “moral preening” and “virtue signaling” for writing something like this: “I don’t care, frankly. I will not let my hatred of political correctness, and love of tradition, obscure the Confederacy or perfume its symbols. If that makes me a bad conservative — well, tough.”

Let that sink in. I mean, good on Nordlinger for writing that column, good on National Review for publishing it, and good on every other right-wing human being in America who has retained the capacity for moral judgment. But it is profoundly pathetic that Nordlinger can expect to be dubbed a “bad conservative” for acknowledging the plain fact that Confederate monuments are monuments to political evil. This is the reality of Trump’s America in 2017.

Only a kind of obsessive monoculture

Ms. Tippett: … I want to take a slight diversion, which I don’t think is completely a diversion, which is your love of science fiction and the way science fiction is in your fiction. And I also love science fiction, and my story is not your story, but I grew up in a very small town and went to Brown, which was like going to a different planet. And you came from Santo Domingo to central New Jersey; it was like a different planet. And for the very first time, when I was reading you, and the science fiction references keep jumping out at me, including “Fear is the mind-killer,” it occurred to me that science fiction is there for people who change worlds. What did you say a little while ago? You were talking, also, about that numinous world that — the sense that there are many worlds within the world. I just kind of wanted to note that. I mean — and it’s not an escape. It’s actually revealing or kind of opening your imagination to vast cosmic possibilities that aren’t immediately reflected in the world around you.

Mr. Díaz: Yeah, well, it could be an escape, but I do find science fiction to be — for me has been an excellent literary technology for understanding our many worlds, for understanding what’s been disavowed about our societies, for understanding our political unconscious. It’s really — science fiction is really good to think, man. And for some folks, the aliens and all the stuff about otherness is just surface titillation. For others of us, it becomes a source for theorizing about real-world alterity and alternate possibilities. And that’s the way I reacted to science fiction, in some ways. For me, science fiction offered the possibility of different ways of being and of ways of possibly overcoming the cage that surrounded us.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and another reference that I feel is kind of in the ether right now is this Whitman line of “I contain multitudes.” It’s come up a lot, lately, and you invoke that in the context of a question about what is America — that there are these multiple Americas. I wonder how your long view of time, your rootedness in the whole sweep of history, of your ancestors, of your people as the ground on which you stand in the present, how that speaks to you about multiple Americas and how to live with this, generatively.

Mr. Díaz: Well, I mean shoot. It’s a question that has bedeviled the New World and bedeviled societies for a long time. I mean shoot, we’ve got the Babel myth at the heart of the Bible, the idea that God struck down humans by making them more diverse. [laughs] Only a kind of obsessive monoculture would think that’s a terrible thing. But, you know, so it goes. I just — when I think about what is required for all of us to live on this planet, it’s going to be the kinds of solidarities and the kinds of civic imaginaries and the kinds of radical tolerances that we’re not seeing. We’re going to have to practice a democracy that we’ve yet to define or even lay down the first four bricks of. There’s nothing about our impoverished political systems, our imagined communities, that is going to be able to hold us together in the face of the coming storm of climate change. We need a lot more than we have. And the fact that so many of us are scared by our multiplicity shows you how much work we have to do.

Our multiplicity is our damn strength. There is no getting around it. People want to make it the danger. People want to make it the problem. No, it’s only going to be the problem if we don’t make it our strength. And you don’t want to be so fantastically reductive, but really, at an operational level, it’s really what it comes down to — either we’re going to embrace humanity and figure out how we can all live together and work together to overcome the damage that certain sectors of us have inflicted on the planet, or we’re not. And I, for one, think eventually there’s — I don’t trust our politicians. I don’t trust our mainstream religious figures. I don’t trust our business leaders. I don’t trust any of the sort of folks who already have power and have already shown us how little they can do for us, and they’re showing us their cowardice and their avarice — I don’t trust any of those people. But I do trust in the collective genius of all the people who have survived these wicked systems. I trust in that. I think from the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible. I believe that with all my heart.

Junot Díaz in conversation with Krista Tippett

This is a fascinating, somewhat confusing exchange. Díaz and Tippett link sf to alterity, and they link alterity to the plurality inherent in systems of democracy. So far, so good. But Díaz alludes to the Babel story to illustrate the notion that humanity has struggled with multiculturalism for millennia. “God struck down humans by making them more diverse.” Hm, okay. If language is a metonym for all diversity, sure. And if scattering people to diverse areas around the globe equals “striking down,” I guess. But then he says, “Only a kind of obsessive monoculture would think that’s a terrible thing.” This is the confusing part. To which “obsessive monoculture” is he referring? Who sees what part of that as a terrible thing?

I suppose that Babel often serves as a kind of metaphor for irreconcilable breakdowns in communication. Fair enough. And we do, I further suppose, generally think of communication breakdowns as bad things. But that’s us: the generations raised to believe in the rightness of democratic politics. Weirdly enough, I wouldn’t take exception to Díaz labeling we 21st-century moderns as a kind of obsessive monoculture. But I don’t think that he’s doing that.

God’s reason for scattering the people is that if they succeed in building their city and its tower to heaven, then “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” There’s not much elaboration there. I’m confident that theologians over the centuries have spilled much ink and hot air over why God really confused humanity’s languages or the myriad things the story signifies. On the most basic level, it simply seems that God did not think it good that humans find nothing to be impossible, and it’s worth meditating on why God would place barriers in front of people reaching for radical possibilities of self-definition and agency.

This kind of meditation is something sf is really good at. And one might even generalize that stories modeled on the story of Babel tend to emphasize the hubris, avarice, and cowardice of leaders who want to place themselves on the same plane as God at the expense of common people and the natural world.

That still doesn’t help me understand which “obsessive monoculture” Díaz refers to or precisely why invoking the Babel story helps us understand why it would view multiplicity as such a terrible thing. Perhaps he meant nothing more than to imply some sort of intrinsic correlation between the Bible and fear of the Other. But, you know, so it goes.

 

“My imaginary life was very white.”

I grew up loving epic fantasies, and almost all of them were written by white men. With white, mostly male, casts. When you’re a kid, you don’t always think about what that means, but you do as you get older. I was deeply immersed in Chinese culture in my community and my family growing up, so how come when I was writing fiction as a kid, all my stories were about white people? Even though my personal life was incredibly diverse, my imaginary life was very white.

–Marjorie Liu, from her recent interview in The Atlantic

Committed to the label

I asked both Barber and Pope of Brigham Young what their thoughts on American politics are now that Trump has been in office eight months.

Pope argued in an email that there has been too much emphasis on polarization and not enough on partisanship.

While elites — elected officials and party activists — are ideologically polarized, the best the general public “can manage is a kind of tribal partisanship that does not really reflect the content of the elite discussion,” Pope wrote:

Citizens pick a team, but they don’t naturally think like the team leadership does. And when Trump tells Republicans to think in a new way, lots of people happily adopt that new position because they were never that committed to the old ideas anyway. They’re just committed to the label.

–Thomas B. Edsall, Trump Says Jump. His Supporters Ask, How High?

The valence of the bloody heirloom

An analysis of exit polls conducted during the presidential primaries estimated the median household income of Trump supporters to be about $72,000. But even this lower number is almost double the median household income of African Americans, and $15,000 above the American median. Trump’s white support was not determined by income. According to Edison Research, Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class. Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent. Hillary Clinton’s did, in states as disparate as Florida, Utah, Indiana, and Kentucky. From the beer track to the wine track, from soccer moms to nascardads, Trump’s performance among whites was dominant. According to Mother Jones, based on preelection polling data, if you tallied the popular vote of only white America to derive 2016 electoral votes, Trump would have defeated Clinton 389 to 81, with the remaining 68 votes either a toss-up or unknown.

Part of Trump’s dominance among whites resulted from his running as a Republican, the party that has long cultivated white voters. Trump’s share of the white vote was similar to Mitt Romney’s in 2012. But unlike Romney, Trump secured this support by running against his party’s leadership, against accepted campaign orthodoxy, and against all notions of decency. By his sixth month in office, embroiled in scandal after scandal, a Pew Research Center poll found Trump’s approval rating underwater with every single demographic group. Every demographic group, that is, except one: people who identified as white.

 

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” Trump bragged in January 2016. This statement should be met with only a modicum of skepticism. Trump has mocked the disabled, withstood multiple accusations of sexual violence (all of which he has denied), fired an FBI director, sent his minions to mislead the public about his motives, personally exposed those lies by boldly stating his aim to scuttle an investigation into his possible collusion with a foreign power, then bragged about that same obstruction to representatives of that same foreign power. It is utterly impossible to conjure a black facsimile of Donald Trump—to imagine Obama, say, implicating an opponent’s father in the assassination of an American president or comparing his physical endowment with that of another candidate and then successfully capturing the presidency. Trump, more than any other politician, understood the valence of the bloody heirloom and the great power in not being a nigger.

–Ta-Nehisi Coates, The First White President