George Schmidt: Niebuhr’s Realism in ‘Game of Thrones’

game-of-thronesGeorge Schmidt, candidate for the Master of Sacred Theology degree at Union Theological Seminary, has written a complex and fascinating theological analysis of Game of Thrones. I read all of George R.R. Martin’s books in the Song of Ice and Fire series. I loved them and hated them. After reading Schmidt’s essay I think I know why.

When push comes to shove, I usually land in the “faithful, rather than effective” camp. I’m an idealist. If I have to choose between my values and an effective outcome, I generally choose my values. Because life without values is life without meaning — and life without meaning leads to despair and despair separates one from God. (Ask me about this tomorrow and I may phrase that all differently but I think you get what I mean.)

I’m not saying that I avoid effectiveness. I actually value it highly — because if God gives you a job to do, you should do it very well. But the foundational assumption is that the mission is carried out under certain parameters. So when Satan tells Jesus he’ll show him how to turn stones into bread with the implication that Jesus can fill the bellies of all the hungry poor, why doesn’t Jesus do it? Wouldn’t that be a highly effective way of carrying out the practicalities of God’s mission?

No. It wouldn’t. Because turning stones into bread comes with certain requirements. Namely, placing Satan’s name higher than God’s. And one of the foundational assumptions is God is God of all and we shall have no idols before God. Therefore, the means do not justify the end.

So back to Game of Thrones. As Schmidt points out, George R.R. Martin’s books take readers into a pea soup fog between realpolitic, Christian politcal realism ala Neibuhr, and the tragedy of mercy. Read Schmidt’s whole essay, but here’s an excerpt below:

… Placing traditional theodicy aside for a moment, the question after all this misery is simple: Why did Eddard die? At the outset, identifying Eddard’s death as a simple tragedy misses an important point that is often made by Christian realists. Tragedy, as Reinhold Niebuhr observed in The Irony of American History, elicits “admiration as well as pity” for a man like Eddard. We pity him for such a terrible finality while we admire his conviction and compassion for Cersei and her children.

However, tragedy does not account for the way in which, to quote Niebuhr once again, “virtues are vices.” This lack of dialectical thinking, according to which human agency is essentially either virtuous or sinful, is unthinkable in Christian realism. An idealist who quickly classifies an event as tragic fails to take into account the evil that is an “inevitable consequence of the exercise of human creativity”: the evil that is in the good.

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Clarification of Thought: New Gay Marriage Ruling in California

Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker (AP Photo)

This week, in the nation’s first federal trial on same-sex marriage, Judge Vaughn R. Walker ruled that California’s Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriage violates the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantees of due process and equal protection (Judge Strikes California’s Ban on Same-Sex Marriage, Proposition 8).

Judge Walker’s ruling is very important for further study. I found his legal brief to be extremely cogent. Whether you are “for” or “against” gay marriage, it is worth the read to gain deeper understanding in what the state’s interest is in marriage – and how that interest has changed over time.

If you are involved in faith-based political organizing, I would also highly recommend reading the brief. There were more than 1700 religious organizations allied in support of Proposition 8 and the judge makes very clear that their arguments were insufficient when it came to the law. There is much in the case that’s instructive on what is the proper role of religion in society and what is not. It explores the narrow area where church meets state.

If you want to know why gay people want to get “married,” rather than just getting “domestic partnerships” or “civil unions,” the testimonies of the witnesses are very compelling.

If you think that “loving the sinner and hating sin” has no negative repercussions, then read the section on how religion is a leading indicator in hate crimes against gays and suicide by gays.

Below I’m including a series of excerpts that I found worthy of further study. As many continue to weigh, test, study, and form our consciences on this issue, reading this ruling will aid in what deeper clarification of thought. (You can read the original ruling here or scroll to the very bottom.) Let me know what you think.

Religious Beliefs and the State
“The state’s interest in an enactment must of course be secular in nature. The state does not have an interest in enforcing private moral or religious beliefs without an accompanying secular purpose.” – U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker, on unconstitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 (4 August 2010)

State’s Interest in Marriage
“The court posed to proponent’s counsel the assumption that “the state’s interest in marriage is procreative” and inquired how permitting same-sex marriage impairs or adversely affects that interest. [Doc. 228 at 21.] Counsel replied that the inquiry was “not the legally relevant question,” [ID]but when pressed for an answer, counsel replied: “Your honor, my answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know.” [ID at 23.]

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Richard Killmer: Why Torture is Wrong

blackwater1Torture is an assault on human dignity — both the dignity of the victim and the inflicter. While the Obama administration has worked hard to try to reverse the abhorrent policies of the Bush administration on torture, there’s still a long way to go. The Guantanamo detention camp is still functioning. The “black sites” are still hidden and functioning around the world under shadowy CIA-leadership. Rogue dictators and militias still brutalize the innocent. In other words, the insidious underside of human sin is still dismembering people and their families in hidden cells around the world.

Richard Killmer, former head of the National Council of Churches, was profiled in the digital edition of U.S. News and World Report this week. Killmer now heads up the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a leading coalition of faith groups in the U.S. trying to dismantle the torture policies. Killmer was interviewed by Alex Kingsbury in the article The Morality of Torture. This is a great piece to distribute in your church bulletins. It’s short and to the point. It appeals to political conservatives and liberals – and has Bible. Here’s a quote:

Before 9/11, there was national consensus on the illegitimacy of torture. After all, it was President Reagan who made the country a signatory in 1984 to the United Nations Conventions Against Torture, which both banned the practice and called for universal jurisdiction for its prosecution. But the events of the intervening years have changed the nation to the point where Killmer’s message is now that of a radical. “I don’t know what has gone so wrong,” says Killmer, sitting in his modest office across the street from the Supreme Court. “Whatever the political or security issues are, they don’t change the basic moral fact that some things are always, always, always wrong.”

Read the whole article here.

More Healthcare: Leading U.S. Catholic Newspaper Stands With Sisters on Healthcare

hcr-is-pro-lifeIn more late-breaking news, the nation’s leading Catholic newspaper the National Catholic Reporter, released an editorial backing the passage of the current health-care reform bill before Congress. “Congress, and its Catholics, should say yes to health care reform,” states NCR.

This move aligns NCR with thousands of Catholic sisters and millions of lay Catholics (see Catholic Nuns Pick Up Where Bishops Fall Down) , but puts it at odds with U.S. Catholic bishops, who said earlier this week that they could not support the current bill.

We do not reach this conclusion as easily as one might think, given the fact that we have supported universal health care for decades, as have the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Health Association and other official and non-official organs of the Catholic church. There are, to be sure, grave problems with the bill the House will consider in the next few days. It maintains the squirrelly system of employer-based health care coverage that impedes cost reduction. Its treatment of undocumented workers is shameful. It is unnecessarily complicated, even Byzantine, in some of its provisions. It falls short of providing true universal coverage.

Nevertheless, NCR sees passing healthcare reform as a giant step forward in correcting a failed system and putting the country on the right track for continued improvements. NCR acknowledges that much of the heated debate as we get closer to victory will be around the abortion issue.

All sides agreed to abide by the spirit of the Hyde Amendment, which for more than 30 years has banned federal funding of abortion. But the Hyde Amendment applies to government programs only, and trying to fit its stipulations to a private insurance marketplace is a bit like putting a potato skin on an apple. Pro-choice advocates could not understand why a government that currently subsidizes abortion coverage through the tax code should balk at subsidizing private plans that cover abortion in the insurance exchanges the bill establishes. They have a point. Pro-life groups understandably worry that opening the door to federal funding of abortion, even indirectly, risks further encroachments on Hyde. They have a point, too.

NCR also addresses the diverging opinions this week between the pro-passage stance taken by Catholic Health Association and Network, a Catholic social justice lobby representing more than 59,000 Catholic sisters and the anti-passage stance taken by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. I appreciated NCR delineating the different roles each sector plays.

[The Catholic Health Association] actually knows how health care is provided at the ground level. The USCCB’s inside-the-beltway analysis is focused on possible scenarios, many of them worst-case scenarios. The U.S. bishops’ conference is right to worry about such things and the sisters are right to put those worries in perspective.

In the final analysis, NCR reiterates that the current legislation is not “pro-abortion,” and there is “no, repeat no, federal funding of abortion in the bill.”

What is being debated is not the morality of abortion but the politics of abortion, concludes NCR, and there is plenty of room for honest and respectful disagreement among Catholics about politics. Amen to that!