Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The strong, the weak, the sadistic - and the Lord

It was a real eye-opener years ago when I read John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion and came to understand why we find so much cruelty and callousness among Calvin's intellectual and spiritual descendants. Calvin's teaching is well-reasoned and profitable in many ways - any Christian should read it - so why is its fruit often so bad?

One dead fly ruins this perfume: Calvin didn't see the difference between weakness and sin. He kept blaming our wrongdoing on our weakness, quite contrary to the Bible, which says, "When I am weak, the power of Christ rests upon me." And that should be obvious, because when you look around the world, you notice it's the strong, not the weak, that slaughter millions and do really big crimes. You don't get genocides from hookers or from alcoholics lying on the sidewalk. The United States, from the Pilgrims and Puritans on up, has always been a self-righteous society that has admired toughness, despised weakness, and prided itself on individual achievement. Nobody seems to wonder whether what is achieved necessarily makes us better off - that is to say, doing more justice, loving mercy more, and walking more humbly with our God, who can be frustrating to walk with at all, since he frequently fails to get much done, with stopping all the time to attend to people beaten and left lying on the side of the road.

Time magazine drove all this home to me in a fresh way last week, discussing why residential institutions for people with disabilities so routinely engage in beatings, torture, sexual abuse, and even murder - and the state and federal regulators don't care. I'm 60 years old, and in the past 50 years or so that I've paid any attention, I've never seen such people care.

The Time article referred in particular to the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a psychologist randomly divided a group of volunteers into guards and prisoners for a two-week experiment. The guards grew so sadistic, and the prisoners so traumatized, that the experiment had to be stopped after six days.

What I found especially shocking was that a big reason the psychologist had to stop the experiment was that he found himself identifying with the guards and despising the prisoners. He forgot that he was a psychologist and not a prison superintendent, and was impatient with an academic colleague that confronted him on the fifth day with some problems. It is clearly built into us to identify with the strong who oppress and to despise the oppressed and figure they deserve whatever is done to them. Certainly no one wants to listen to them.

This sheds more light on something that has puzzled me ever since Chino Valley Unified School District dragged me into the education industry. People often get elected to school boards because they want to do something for kids, and pretty often because they're not too happy with what has happened to their own kids or to those of their friends. And then almost without exception, they become the enemies of kids and their parents, identifying with the district administration that wrongs those kids and parents and forces them into due process hearings or even federal court. They cover up shocking abuses and willingly persuade themselves of the most brazen lies from superintendents and other administrators. Many kids are killed in school each year, because the murderers have been allowed to get away with dreadful abuses for a long time before. Countless kids, including my own, are severely traumatized, and the perps can depend on the support of their school boards, unless enough public exposure makes that impossible. When legislation is proposed to protect kids against abuse, you can count on the school board associations to lobby Congress and legislatures to kill it or water it down so that it's actually worse than nothing, as happened in 2009. In the eyes of the average school board, the perps, not the kids, need protection. A board member that will stand for kids against the district administration is a very rare creature, whatever he may have been like before he got on the board.

And then the California Department of Education (CDE) doesn't care, and some other state education agencies are even worse, being intent on making it look as much as possible like the districts are doing their jobs. For instance, the law requires that they survey the parents to see what they think of special education. They take care to ask only those parents that will say they're happy, never making the surveys available to anyone with a complaint, and CDE knows all this and approves. So everybody is happy, since only those that are happy are invited to offer an opinion. Did they learn their chops from the People's Assembly of the Syrian Arab Republic?

In contrast, Psalm 41 says, "Blessed is he who considers the poor. The Lord will deliver him in time of trouble. The Lord will preserve him and keep him alive; he will be blessed on the earth."

It's simple: what we do to the helpless, God will do to us when we're helpless, and humility is knowing that, some time or other, we will be in the place of that institutionalized special ed kid that no one wants to hear about. And whatever I want done to me then, I'd better do it to others in that position today.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Psalm 109

Psalm 109 is one of the imprecatory, or cursing, psalms, along with Psalms 69, 137, and several others. They make people pretty twitchy, because they're quite toughly worded, so folks find all sorts of ingenious ways to explain them away.

Jesus and the apostles were very comfortable with them and quoted them often, so if we're going to follow Jesus and follow the teaching of the apostles, we'd better get to like them, too, instead of trying to explain them away.

I was reading Psalm 109 last week, and I noticed that the key to the whole thing is in what we do with the first four verses, which read like this:

O God of my praise, do not be silent!
For they have opened the wicked and deceitful mouth against me;
They have spoken against me with a lying tongue.
They have also surrounded me with words of hatred,
And fought against me without cause.

Here I recalled Luke 18:9-14, in which the Pharisee prays with himself saying, "Thank God I am not like other men." If you read these first four verses in that spirit, knowing that they apply to someone else, everythig else in the psalm will come wrong, but the problem is in the reader, not the psalm. If we recognize our own behavior in these first four verses, like the tax gatherer saying, "God be merciful to me, a sinner," then everything else comes right. Haven't I done all these bad things to other people myself? I can read Psalm 109 and see the sort of thing I have to depart from in my life, before I want it judged in others, and then it makes great sense.

It's very much what Jesus taught concerning the woman caught in adultery. Sure Moses taught to put such sinners to death, but only if you've repented first yourself, and by then you show mercy on a fellow transgressor. That's a lot different from being OK with his transgression. There are people that are OK with adultery, but Jesus was not, even though to the Pharisees it looked like he was.

Moses also taught that those that worship idols are supposed to be put to death,but if God had put the idolaters to death at the time of the golden calf in the wilderness, those guys around Jesus that wanted to put the woman to death would not have ever been born so that they could make that case. They were standing against their own lives.

Sitting in Beaumont last night and waiting for the school board meeting to start, I was reading Psalm 85, and saw much the same thing. Psalm 85 begins with a prayer for God to turn away his anger, to cause it to cease. I noticed that it doesn't make a lot of sense to pray that way unless we're aiming to turn away from our own anger, to cause it to cease. If I seem to be running into a lot of God's anger in life and I don't like it, maybe it's time to fall out of love with my own anger against other people.