Category Archives: Commentary

New Bill of Rights App!

From the National Archives comes this cool new app, Congress Creates the Bill BoR Appof Rights, for the iPad (h/t Don Drakeman). Pretty neat for learning all kinds of things about the history of the drafting of the Bill of Rights, with markups and other fun stuff. Here’s a description:

Explore the proposals, debates, and revisions that shaped the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Why did the U.S. need a Bill of Rights? How did Congress produce the Bill of Rights? What would it be like to participate in the process? Dive into these questions and more with this app from the U.S. National Archives.

Where the Queen Prays in Scotland

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Crathie Kirk

As everyone knows, Scotland votes tomorrow on whether to remain part of the United Kingdom. In Scotland last Sunday, Queen Elizabeth made a statement most have interpreted as a commentary on the situation. Scots should think very carefully about the future, she said.

I’m sure the Queen meant that Scots should vote “No.” How could she have meant otherwise? What interests me, though, is that she made the statement after services at Crathie Kirk, a parish of the Church of Scotland. In fact, she regularly worships at Crathie Kirk when she’s in Scotland, at her Balmoral estate.

Now, Queen Elizabeth is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican communion. The Church of Scotland is not Anglican, but Presbyterian. Relations between the two churches are cordial (though they have not always been so), but the Queen is not a Presbyterian. She’s an Anglican. So why does she regularly worship in the Scottish Kirk? Are there no Church of England parishes near Balmoral? Couldn’t she fly in a vicar from London?

As far as I can tell, this arrangement is one of those historical accommodations that have ripened into custom. The Treaty of Union of 1707 — the treaty Scots may overturn tomorrow — requires the British Monarch to preserve the Church of Scotland. The Monarch takes an oath to that effect upon accession to the throne. Sometimes the Monarch attends meetings of the Church’s General Assembly. Usually she sends a representative.

It’s thus quite natural for British Monarchs to feel that, whatever their official role in the Church of England, they have a place in the Church of Scotland as well. In the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria caused a scandal when she received communion in the Church of Scotland, but she maintained that as the country’s — that is, Scotland’s — Queen, she had every right to do so. Since then, every reigning Monarch has worshiped at Crathie Kirk.

So, there it is. In England, the Monarch is an Anglican; in Scotland, she prays with the Presbyterians. How very British. I mean that in a good way, and I use the term advisedly. After tomorrow, it may mean something else.

A Little Political Theology Courtesy of Benjamin Franklin

From his “Petition of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery,” presented in the House of Representatives on February 12, 1790:

The memorial respectfully showeth,

That from a regard for the happiness of mankind, as association was formed several years since in this State, by a number of her citizens, of various religious denominations, for promoting the abolition of slavery, and for the relief of those unlawfully held in bondage. A just and acute conception of the true principles of liberty, as it spread through the land, produced accessions to their numbers, many friends to their cause, and a Legislative cooperation with their views, which, by the blessing of Divine Providence, have been successfully directed to the relieving from bondage a large number of their fellow-creatures of the African race. They have also the satisfaction to observe, that in consequence of that spirit of philanthropy and genuine liberty which is generally diffusing its beneficial influence, similar institutions are forming at home and abroad.

That mankind are all formed by the same Almighty Being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness, the Christian religion teaches us to believe, and the political creed of Americans fully coincides with the position.

The Cynical Mr. Cruz

This week in Washington, a major conference took place on the persecution of Mideast Christians. The conference brought together Christians from around the region, including many church hierarchs. Many of the attendees had experienced Islamist persecution firsthand. The overarching theme was unity, and the overall purpose was to raise awareness about what Christians in the region are going through.

On Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) addressed the gathering. Rather than focus on the plight of Christians, the subject of the conference, he decided to take the opportunity to lecture the crowd on its failure sufficiently to support Israel. After saying his purpose was to highlight the suffering of Christians, he abruptly and unaccountably segued to the story of Israel’s founding in 1948. “And, today,” he continued, “Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state.” At this point, some in the crowd – some, not all – began to boo and tell him to “move on.” Instead, Cruz dug in, accusing the crowd of being unchristian and consumed with hatred for Jews. “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews,” he told the crowd, “then I will not stand with you.” And he left the stage.

When I first read the story, I shook my head at Cruz’s naiveté. Rightly or wrongly, Israeli policy towards Palestine is a sore point for many Mideast Christians, not a few of whom are Palestinians. Some Christians have been forced by circumstance to reach accommodations with Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, two foes of Israel. And, although Israel does not persecute Christians – it would be obtuse to suggest it does – many Christians in Israel feel that they are not particularly welcome, either. There are repeated reports of kids defacing churches and harassing Christian processions in the Old City of Jerusalem, for example. It would be convenient to blame these incidents on Islamists, but the perpetrators typically turn out to be students from ultraconservative yeshivas. And there are complaints that the government is quietly trying to push Christians out by denying building permits, professional licenses, etc. William Dalrymple’s classic book about Mideast Christians, From the Holy Mountain, details these complaints.

This week’s conference was not the place to discuss all this, and the organizers clearly wished to avoid criticizing Israel. In fact, the conference wasn’t about Israel at all. So, most attendees were stunned by Cruz’s comments and embarrassed at the reaction to them. Why interrupt a conference about Mideast Christians to talk about Israel’s struggles, a subject bound to divide people? It’s worth repeating, not everyone booed Cruz. Some in the crowd applauded him.

As I say, my first thought was that Cruz had been exceptionally inept. How could he fail to anticipate that he would derail the conference by taking this line? It seems, however, that he had the episode planned. Before giving the speech, Cruz met with the editorial board of the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, which then ran an obligingly alarmist account of the upcoming event with the headline “Cruz Headlines Conference Featuring Hezbollah Supporters.” Apparently, the whole thing was a setup, a farce to make Cruz look good with his base and shore up his credibility as a pro-Israel hawk. Mollie Hemingway has the evidence over at The Federalist.

People will move on from this sad episode, and the good work of the conference in raising the plight of Mideast Christians will no doubt bear fruit. But what are we to make of such a man, who hijacks an event focused on the suffering of a mostly forgotten group of people, sandbags his hosts, preens self-righteously, and deliberately provokes an ugly reaction to score political points? No doubt, Cruz and his staff will trumpet his brave conduct in standing up to bullies. In fact, what he did was humiliate the powerless, and there’s another word for that than brave.

US Rescues Turkmen in Iraq; Christians Still Waiting

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Help for the Turkmen (LA Times)

This past weekend, the United States intervened to rescue some 15,000 Shia Turkmen trapped in the northern Iraqi city of Amerli. ISIS, the Sunni Islamist group, had besieged the city for three months, and residents were without electricity and running low on food, water, and necessary medical supplies. So, on Saturday, American planes dropped more than 100 bundles of emergency supplies to the Turkmen. British, French, and Australian military aircraft also dropped supplies.

While this was going on, American planes struck ISIS positions outside the city. According to a Pentagon spokesman, the airstrikes were necessary to support the humanitarian assistance operation underway in Amerli, and to prevent ISIS militants from attacking civilians. The airstrikes caused ISIS to withdraw, which allowed Iraqi military units, as well as a Shia militia group, the Badr Organization, to retake Amerli. The participation of the Badr Organization is problematic, since the group is thought to be responsible for massacring Sunnis in the past.

Obviously, this is a very significant action by the United States. For a country that says it does not with to appear sectarian – this was the excuse Condoleezza Rice once gave for not doing more for Iraq’s Christians – the United States has now publicly allied itself with one of the three major factions in Iraq’s sectarian struggle, the Shia militias. This fact will not escape Iraq’s Sunnis. Perhaps it was a necessary step, given the threat of a massacre in Amerli. But it certainly will not seem neutral in the Iraqi context.

But I would like to focus on a different matter. The US has now intervened to rescue 40,000 Yazidi refugees on Mt. Sinjar, and 15,000 Turkmen refugees in Amerli, from the threat of genocide. Good. But genocide also threatens more than 100,000 Christian refugees, whom ISIS has forced from their homes with only the clothes on their backs. These refugees now live in appalling conditions in camps around the city of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan. Christian NGOs, as well as the UN and the International Red Cross, are providing humanitarian assistance. So far, the US has not lifted a finger. As long it is sending help for the Yazidis and the Turkmen, it would be nice if the US did something for the Christians as well.

BBC Essay on the Armenian Church in Myanmar

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Photo from the BBC

From the BBC’s News Magazine, here’s a lovely essay, “The Last Armenians of Myanmar,” about a small Armenian parish church, St. John the Baptist, in the capital city of Yangon. The Armenian community built the church in 1862, when the country was still known as Burma, and the city as Rangoon.The Armenians had come to Rangoon in the 18th century from Iran, by way of British India, following the trade routes.They established close ties to the Burmese monarchy, which donated the land for the church in the center of the city.

As its title suggests, the essay has a wistful, elegiac tone. Hardly any Armenians remain in Myanmar today– most departed for Australia after World War II – and the parish gets only a handful of worshipers on Sundays. But the situation is not altogether grim. Faithful parishioners continue to maintain the church lovingly– photos of the interior make it look Victorian and vaguely Episcopalian – and the liturgy is said every Sunday by Fr. John Felix, a South Indian convert from Anglicanism. The choir continues to sing the hymns in classical Armenian.

There is hope that two things will work to preserve the building. First, as Myanmar opens to the world, international tourism is increasing. As one of the the city’s principal historic landmarks, the church should benefit. Second, the church has become the focal point for the small Orthodox community in Yangon, not just Armenians:

Already diplomats, business visitors and tourists from a range of Orthodox countries and churches – Russian, Greek, Serbian – occasionally swell the numbers at St John the Baptist, the only Orthodox church in Myanmar’s biggest city.

A new worshiper here, Ramona Tarta, is Romanian, a globetrotting business woman, publisher and events organizer who has lived in Yangon for the last few months.

“My faith is very important to me. Wherever I am in the world, I seek out an Orthodox church. But I was about to give up on Yangon. I thought it was the only city I’d ever lived in which had no Orthodox place of worship,” she complains.

She chanced across the Armenian church when driving past, and believes that with a little promotion, this historic building – and the tradition to which it bears testimony – could have a more secure future.

There’s a lesson here. Many of these Orthodox Churches have been out of communion for thousands of years. Formally, they are not supposed to worship together. But at the ends of the earth, and surrounded by people for whom these sectarian differences mean nothing, Christians somehow manage to cooperate. A hopeful example of practical ecumenism that Christians everywhere should keep in mind.

“Creedal Discrimination is Still Discrimination”

A very interesting essay in Christianity Today on the author’s experience at Vanderbilt with its “all comers” policy. One feature of the piece that struck me was how such policies end up flattening out beliefs or creeds as such. Readers may remember that another policy like this was the subject of the complaint in CLS v. Martinez some years ago. The terrible problem that these policies seek to remedy seems to be that people have distinctive beliefs. The policy’s aim seems to be to compel all associations to reflect certain core commitments, which in turn destroys their own distinctive creeds, thereby demolishing what is special about them in the first place:

In writing, the new policy refers only to constitutionally protected classes (race, religion, sexual identity, and so on), but Vanderbilt publicly adopted an “all comers policy,” which meant that no student could be excluded from a leadership post on ideological grounds. College Republicans must allow Democrats to seek office; the environmental group had to welcome climate-change skeptics; and a leader of a religious group could not be dismissed if she renounced faith midyear. (The administration granted an exception to sororities and fraternities.)

Like most campus groups, InterVarsity welcomes anyone as a member. But it asks key student leaders—the executive council and small group leaders—to affirm its doctrinal statement, which outlines broad Christian orthodoxy and does not mention sexual conduct specifically. But the university saw belief statements themselves as suspect. Any belief—particularly those about the authority of Scripture or the church—could potentially constrain sexual activity or identity. So what began as a concern about sexuality and pluralism quickly became a conversation about whether robustly religious communities would be allowed on campus.

In effect, the new policy privileged certain belief groups and forbade all others. Religious organizations were welcome as long as they were malleable: as long as their leaders didn’t need to profess anything in particular; as long as they could be governed by sheer democracy and adjust to popular mores or trends; as long as they didn’t prioritize theological stability. Creedal statements were allowed, but as an accessory, a historic document, or a suggested guideline. They could not have binding authority to shape or govern the teaching and practices of a campus religious community.

The Death of the Divine Augustus

blessedToday is the 2000th anniversary of the death of Caesar Augustus. For anyone who has ever seen it, the Divine Augustus will always be associated with Brian Blessed’s portrayal of him (left) in the BBC adaptation of the wonderful Robert Graves novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. And so, to commemorate the day, here’s a snippet of dialogue, on a law and religion theme, which captures the charming, cynical urbanity of the series. For those of us nerds of a certain sort, it’s a real guilty pleasure. I’m sure the whole thing is available on Netflix. Watch it — or, better yet, read the books!

[Herod and Augustus are watching a gladiatorial contest.]
Augustus: Herod, what about a little bet? I’ll take the fat one for twenty gold pieces.
Herod: Caesar, it would be against my religion to bet on the life of a man.
Augustus: Oh, really? I would have thought it against your religion to bet on anything.
Herod: Caesar, it’s true: Jews love gambling. But we fear our god more.
Augustus: Which one?
Herod: We have only one, Caesar.
Augustus: I’ve never understood that, it’s quite insufficient. Why don’t you take some of our gods? You know, plenty of people do.
Herod: Believe me, Caesar, the one we have is hard enough to live with.

 

 

Pope Francis on the Crisis in Iraq

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013In an airborne press conference on the way back from Korea yesterday, Pope Francis addressed the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq. In response to a question about the American bombing of ISIS targets, the Holy Father made three important points. One, unfortunately, was not helpful.

First, the Pope said, under Just War theory, it is “licit” for third parties to intervene in order to “stop” the “unjust aggression” by ISIS. Pope Francis emphasized that he did not endorse bombing, specifically, but action to stop ISIS generally. Second, the decision how best to deal with ISIS must be made by nations acting together in consultation, at the United Nations. Consultation is necessary, he said, in order to prevent any one nation–implicitly, the United States–from succumbing to the temptation to become an occupying force.

There isn’t very much danger of the US seeking to occupy Iraq at this stage, frankly. If anything, Americans in 2014 are disposed to avoid the region altogether. But the Pope’s statements are consistent with Just War theory and entirely appropriate. And perhaps Pope Francis feels justified in offering an oblique criticism of the US, which ignored his predecessor’s plea to get UN approval for the 2003 Iraq invasion, and reaped the consequences.

The Pope seems to have gone a little astray, though, in his third point. Responding to a question about religious minorities, including Catholics, he said this:

Secondly, you mentioned the minorities. Thanks for that word because they talk to me about the Christians, the poor Christians. It’s true, they suffer. The martyrs, there are many martyrs. But here there are men and women, religious minorities, not all of them Christian, and they are all equal before God.

Pope Francis is right that minorities other than Christians are suffering in Iraq. And Christians would not object to the idea that God loves all people equally, Christians and non-Christians. But the implication of the Pope’s statement– at least in the way his remarks have been translated and transcribed–is that the suffering of Christians gets disproportionate attention, and that it’s necessary to widen the focus to make sure other groups are not forgotten.

With great respect, this misstates the situation. The danger is not that the outside world pays too much attention to Christian suffering, but too little. The media routinely downplays that suffering, notwithstanding the fact that Christians–as Pope Francis himself recently stated–suffer the greatest share of religious persecution in the world today. As for the great powers, they typically look the other way. The United States, for example, did absolutely nothing to help the 100,000 Christian refugees displaced by ISIS in recent weeks, but sent in helicopters to distribute relief to 40,000 Yazidis.

As I say, the transcript may not fairly reflect the sense of Pope Francis’s remarks. Transcripts do not capture inflections. But many in the media will no doubt seize on the  remarks to justify their comparative inattention to Christian suffering. That would be most unfortunate. Although non-Christians are surely suffering in Iraq, and although it’s entirely appropriate to remember and help them, there is nothing wrong with stressing the suffering of Christians, especially when one is Pope. Unless people speak out, continually, there is a grave danger that Iraq’s Christians will simply be forgotten.

Church of England: UK Ignores Iraq’s Christians

I don’t follow British ecclesiastical politics too closely, but the media in the UK is treating this like a big deal. Over the weekend, the Church of England issued a strongly worded condemnation of the government’s policy of neglect toward Iraq’s Christians. The letter, written by Bishop Nicholas Baines and endorsed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Wellby, makes the same point that commentators in the US, including CLR Forum, have made with respect to American policy: the United States has rushed to help Yazidi refugees, but has done relatively little to alleviate the plight of the much larger number of Christian refugees. According to the Guardian,

Cameron is accused of turning his back on the suffering of Christians. The letter asks why the plight of religious minorities in Iraq, such as the Yazidis, seems to have taken precedence. It notes that, though the government responded promptly to reports of at least 30,000 Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar, the fate of tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fleeing jihadists from Mosul, Iraq’s second city, and elsewhere appears to have “fallen from consciousness”.

Baines asks: “Does your government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?” He condemns the failure to offer sanctuary to Iraqi Christians driven from their homes: “The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK government.”

The Guardian describes the letter as “bitter” and “extraordinary.” If you want to read the letter in its entirety, the Guardian‘s article has a link.