Friday, January 20, 2006

Last week I received a pamphlet in the mail from the Environmental Protection Agency. On the outside is the rustic scene of a grain farm reflecting off a placid lake below. The title of the pamphlet reads: “CONSIDER THE SOURCE: An Interactive Guide to Protecting America’s Drinking Water.” In the middle of the title is the unmistakable mantra of current U. S. nationalism: Protecting America.

The idea that protecting water is a question of patriotism makes sense. Water is necessary to our food supply, our post-industrial economy, in short, our lives. On the inside of the pamphlet are pictures of the bourgeois life: a child in his soccer uniform drinking from a water bottle, a pregnant mother drinking a healthy glass of pure drinking water while smiling at her toddler, children at a picnic enjoying the good life. The message? The good life requires water. If we want America to be the country of the good life, we better protect our water supply.

But what the pamphlet wants to say is that the so-called “good life” is a threat to the water supply. It tells us that “Runoff from driveways, streets, and yards is the single biggest threat to the health of our waterways.” It reminds us that “67 million pounds of pesticides are applied to lawns every year” and that “230 million tons of municipal sold waste are produced every year.” It tells of the danger of boats and boat marinas, of new construction and the rapid disposal of waste, all threats, it says, to the quality of drinking water.

What the pamphlet really says, then, is that we can have it both ways. We can have the “good life” it shows us in the pictures and still protect the water supply on whose viability the good life is based. Never mind that it also tells us that the good life to which we aspire is built on the kind of economy that necessitates the use of water in ways that are harmful to the water supply.

Now of course, this is just marketing. This is the EPA realizing that they will never win over most Americans with “liberal” rhetoric about the destruction of natural resources. Better to wrap environmentalism in something more palatable, something like American bourgeois nationalism. Whatever works.

The EPA’s pamphlet presupposes that water belongs to all of us—all of us except, it seems, boaters and owners of driveways and lawns and new houses. But to whom does water really belong? Do providers of drinking water underwrite the EPA’s operational or marketing budget? Does this pamphlet benefit someone or some business at the expense of some others and other business? And for the EPA is this acceptable, as long as the businesses they privilege are “environmental friendly?”

As in the classic Polanski film Chinatown, the question of the ownership of water is the real issue. What the EPA realizes, as did Noah Cross (played by John Huston) who decides in the film to kill his partner (and son-in-law) who makes the ownership of water public rather than private, is that water isn’t just an environmental issue. It’s about money; it’s about an economics situated in a given locality or nation-state. The question then becomes a gross tautology: who owns water? That’s easy: whoever owns it!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Why rape is a theological achievement

It has taken me some time to weigh in on a situation that a friend of mine is experiencing. She is a first year divinity student who is infuriated, rightly so I think, that her administration is silencing women who have been sexually harrassed by faculty members. The idea behind their action, it seems to me, is concern for the legal rights of those accused and convicted of the charge.

Now I'm all for forgiveness of sinners. I'm also pro-rapist (not pro-rape) because I am pro-human being. But how can women not be alerted to past instances of sexual misconduct by present faculty (none of whom are actually rapists as far as I know) with whom they will presumably study? It's a difficult situation, made all the more difficult by the fact that we are talking about an institution that is training ministers, an institution that is supposed to embody what it means to be church.

But that is precisely the problem. A divinity school is not a church. It views itself by the rules of the institution, the university, to which it is attached. Instead of dealing with this issue like a church, with all the care for both sides and public forgiveness that entails, this divinity school is proving that it's incapable of being a Christian community: it's just an institution that gives its educational stamp to students who want to work in mainline Protestant churches. It's a factory, not a place where one encounters a Lord.

My friend's situation says to me that maybe the divinity school, or the theological seminary for that matter (which runs by the same legal procedures), is not the best place to train ministers. Rape, sexual harrassment, and all types of sexual misconduct are theological categories for the church, not legal ones. We deal with these sins like we deal with all sins, through prayer, worship, and mutual love for each other. We don't do it by silencing and disclosure agreements.

Are our divinity schools and seminaries perpetuating the historically male-dominated oppressiveness of our culture? Are they even capable of training a new generation of ministers who will keep theological ethics theological? Or are we kidding ourselves?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

On gays, dresses, and Pat Robertson

I was driving through downtown today on my way to class when I pulled up behind an old white Capri with an utterly obnoxious bumper sticker. White letters on a red background told of an equation, one written in eternity, a timeless equation about how things really are. What was this little bit of heaven’s truth? What glorious scientific revolution?



Now I know what you might be thinking. I mean, what should I realistically expect from Pat Robertson and Co.? Besides the fact that governments must now tune into the 700 Club to find out whether crazy old Pat has called for the assassination of another world leader, Pat has been weighed and found wanting in so many cases (e.g. journalistic integrity, basic civil decency, etc...). Why should I care that someone else is stupid enough to listen to Pat Robertson about the nature of marriage and slap a sticker on his broken-down, rusted-out shit-box?
Besides the gut reaction that I want to punch this guy in the face, something about the whole thing did trouble me deeply. Is it a message to gays? A political statement? A religious belief? Slander? A Hate-Crime? Perhaps all of the above? I'm really not sure. All I know is I wanted to run into the back of the car and find out.
Then it hit me--not the car, a thought. I don't know if I've been reading Lacan so much my brain was mushy, but an intriguing question came to me. What exactly did the formula mean? I had been concerned about what would possess someone to listen to and publish such nickle and dime wisdom, without wondering what it is that the sticker actually says, and means. Presumably the formula is intended to mean that marriage is between a man and a woman, but that's not what it actually says. It actually says that marriage is between a stick figure without a dress and a stick figure with a dress and long hair.
Now this might just be semantics, because everyone knows that the figure without the dress is the man and the figure with the dress is the woman. But my point is that we know this because these are cultural constructions about gender which assume that human beings with a penis do not wear dresses and human beings without a penis do. These are not scientific truths about the identities of men and women but gender assumptions about the kind of clothes men and women do and do not wear.
So gays, don't worry: according to Pat Robertson anyone who is the kind of person who doesn't wear dresses can marry anyone who is the kind of person who does. The formula cannot mean what it wants to mean: that marriage between a biological male and a biological female is a given, an eternal truth. It can only mean that marriage is really just the sacred union between a stick and a dress.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

So I was reading a sermon of Tillich's tonight called "Loneliness and Solitude." It's the first sermon in The Eternal Now, which I think I might read through this month. I've had a hell of a time finding a church to attend regularly, so I thought maybe if I started reading sermons again I might find some direction in the matter.

Well, that's somewhat misleading. I read sermons all the time. I am actually working my way towards a dissertation that focuses on New England sermons as primary texts in the construction of a democratic pragmatism in America. But that's another congregation I attend. I'll get to that one some other time.

Now I know that it's passe to be interested in Tillich. Protestant liberalism is dead or dying, just like its god a few generations ago. In fact I picked up a book yesterday that tried to explain why Americans are "fleeing liberal churches for conservative Christianity," as if that was even an interesting question. How much more outrageous, then, to think Tillich might actually have something to say today, in his sermons no less. Aren't they just instances in putting a protestant face on the anxieties of the middle-class, self-reliant, college educated, well bred and read of the 1950s?

Well maybe. But what if solitude really is "the presence of the eternal upon the crowded roads of the temporal?" What if we can get to God from our side? What if, even though we don't naturally seek God or anything like God, we can't help but meet God when we pass him upon these crowded streets? What if church is only a crowd, eating doughnuts and blessing the weather while I'm devouring the sacrament of solitary communion with the eternal?