Category Archives: Commentary

On Old Age (and Ezekiel Emanuel)

In a much-discussed Atlantic essay, “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” Ezekiel Emanuel — physician, public commentator, and prominent supporter of the Affordable Care Act — argues that we’d all be better off if we died at 75. That way, we would escape the debility and indignity that accompany old age and avoid being burdens to our children and other loved ones. And we would have the solace of not outliving our productivity. After all, he writes, “by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.” Emanuel has no plan to commit suicide if he reaches 75, he says. But he plans to reject all medical treatments, even routine ones, that go beyond the palliative.

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He Knew

Emanuel rightly mocks “American immortals” who seem to believe they should (and maybe will!) live forever. And, in a culture like ours, which values youth and professional achievement virtually above everything else, his argument has a kind of plausibility. I’ve had 25 year-old students tell me they already feel over the hill. Why linger on into your eighties or nineties, when your best days and accomplishments are far behind you? Plus, society would save lots of money if people stopped seeking medical care at 75.

Nonetheless, there’s a serious flaw in Emanuel’s thinking. Strength, health, creativity — these are good things, but they are not the only things that give life meaning. From a Christian perspective, for example, the point of life is to express gratitude to and love for the Lord, and this we can do at any age. In the fullness of time, God will call each of us; until then, we have to try our best. There’s no point rushing Him.

Not everyone believes this, of course. But one needn’t be a Christian, or a religious believer of any kind, to appreciate that old age has some things to offer. “For old men who are reasonable and neither cross-grained nor churlish find old age tolerable enough: whereas unreason and churlishness cause uneasiness at every time of life,” said the pagan Cicero (above). And one needn’t be a religious believer to see that the elderly may still have much to contribute to us, even if they are weak, sick, and no longer able to write symphonies.

In a lovely response to Emanuel, my friend, John McGinnis, explains this, offering his own parents as an example. John does a much better job than I could, so I’ll just quote him:

But youth and good health do not measure humanity. Millions in diminished health enjoy life, being with their relatives, laughing at old movies, even just sitting in the breeze and sunshine. And their relatives and friends enjoy being with them. Indeed, they may find in the elderly’s struggle with aging an inspiration and a reaffirmation of life. In caring for the frail, weak and sometimes woebegone, they may also expand their own sympathies and express some small measure of gratitude for the debt of a good upbringing that can never be fully repaid.

That is certainly my experience watching my parents age well past 75. I have never admired my father more than when at the cusp of ninety he faces down his own infirmities and cares for my mother who has Parkinson’s disease. And although much is taken from my mother, much abides—her concern for others, her delight in reading new novels and rereading old ones. Emanuel argues that in seeing the decline of those we love, we may forget our happy memories of them in their years of vigor and achievement. But those memories do not need to summoned at particular times, because they infuse my being. In any event, the most valuable memories of all are not defined by physical wellbeing but by spirit and character. For so many people beyond 75 the forging of character continues and the power of their spirit at their end will instruct us by example at our own.

For one important thing, though, Emanuel is to be commended. Most of us do our best to ignore our mortality and the questions it raises about how we’re living our lives. As Pascal observed long ago, people will do pretty much anything to distract themselves and avoid thinking about it. That’s not wise; even a long life goes by so very fast. Every writer knows the benefits of deadlines: they force you to concentrate and get serious. Well, Emanuel says, he’s given himself a deadline.

One More Word on Ted Cruz and Christians

Senator Ted Cruz responded yesterday to writers who criticized his needlessly provocative remarks at the recent In Defense of Christians Summit earlier this month. He suggested that his critics didn’t care about Christians — their real target was Israel. His evidence? None of his critics had ever expressed concern for Mideast Christians before:

Then, among one particular community, which is sort of the elite, intellectual Washington, D.C., crowd, there has been considerable criticism… A number of the critics, a number of the folks in the media have suggested, for example, that my saying what I did distracted from the plight of persecuted Christians.

What I find interesting is almost to a person, the people writing those columns have never or virtually never spoken of persecuted Christians in any other context. I have spoken literally hundreds of times all over the country. This is a passion. I’ve been on the Senate floor, and I intend to keep highlighting this persecution. I will say it does seem interesting that the only time at least some of these writers seem to care about persecuted Christians is when it furthers an anti-Israel narrative for them. That starts to suggest that maybe their motivation is not exactly what they’re saying.

For a man who claims a passion for the plight of Mideast Christians, he doesn’t seem to have followed public discussion of the subject. The writers to whom he alludes — Michael Dougherty, Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher, Mollie Hemingway, Matt Lewis, and, I guess, me (my criticism of him at the First Things site was the most widely-read and commented-upon post at the site last week) — have written plenty on the topic. First Things’s Matt Schmitz kindly posted a list of my own posts — 37 of them.

Within a few hours, Senator Cruz had apologized:

It was a mistake to suggest that critics of my remarks at IDC had not spoken out previously concerning the persecution of Christians; many of them have done so, often quite eloquently. It was not my intent to impugn anyone’s integrity, and I apologize to any columnists who took offense. The systematic murder of Christians in the Middle East is a horrible atrocity, and all of us should be united against it. Likewise we should speak with one voice against the persecution of Jews, usually being carried out by the very same jihadist radicals.

OK, I accept — although he still hasn’t apologized for lumping me in with the elite, intellectual, Beltway crowd. But it’s an ugly thing to insinuate bigotry in people who disagree with you, and, on this issue at least, Senator Cruz seems to make a habit of it. Nothing good can come from this, not for Mideast Christians, not for Israel, and not for Senator Cruz. I have an proposal. His critics will stop talking about Senator Cruz if he does. Is it a deal?

Coke on the Virtues of Obedience to the Common Law

Sir Edward Coke was a lawyer, an MP, Attorney General, and Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas of the King’s Bench. He is widely considered one of the fathers of the common law. Here is a fragment of the preface to Part Two of his Reports. I was struck by the terms in which he discusses the common law:

To the learned Reader

There are (sayeth Euripides) three Virtues worthy [of] our meditation; To honor God, our Parents who begat us, and the Common Lawes of Greece: The like doe I say to thee (Gentle Reader) next to thy dutie and pietie to God, and his annointed thy gracious Soveraigne, and thy honor to thy Parents, yeeld due reverence and obedience to the Common Lawes of England: For of all Lawes (I speak of humane) these are most equall, and most certaine, of greatest antiquitie, and least delay, and most beneficiall and easie to be observed; As if the module of a Preface would permit, I could defend against any man that is not malicious without understanding, and make manifest to any of judgement and indifferency, by proofes pregnant and demonstrative, and by Records and Testimonies luculent and irrefragable: Sed sunt quidam fastidiosi, qui nescio quo malo affectu oderunt Artes antequam pernoverunt [MOD trans.: But there are some disdainful types who hate every high calling with which they are unfamiliar, I know not for what reason]. There is no Jewell in the world comparable to learning; No learning so excellent both for Prince and Subject as knowledge of Lawes; and no knowledge of any Lawes, (I speak of humane) so necessary for all estates, and for all causes, concerning goods, lands, or life, as the Common Lawes of England….

Their example [that of the "Sages of the Law"] and thy profession doe require thy imitation: for hitherto I never saw any man of a loose and lawlesse life, attaine to any sound and perfect knowledge of the said lawes: And on the other side, I never saw any many of excellent judgement in these Lawes, but was withall (being taught by such a Master) honest, faithfull, and vertuous.

If you observe any diversities of opinion amongst the professors of the Lawes, contend you (as it behoveth) to be learned in your profession, and you shall finde that it is Hominis vitium, non professionis [MOD trans.: the vice of man, not of the profession].

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.