Here was the view this morning from the window of our very pleasant apartment in Cambridge, MA. The gray horizontal strip in the middle is the road, the white mounds are cars, and the chair in the foreground is a parking spot that was saved before today’s snow. Fortunately, I don’t need to drive anywhere, so the snow has been memorable with being too great an inconvenience.
Here’s an essay of mine in the new issue of National Affairs that tries to chronicle and assess the Detroit bankruptcy now that it’s over.
The first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke are a bit like a Broadway musical: every few verses, someone seems to break into song. Mary’s song comes first, followed by songs and verse from Zechariah (John the Baptist’s father), the angels proclaiming Jesus’s birth, and finally Simeon, who is at the temple when Jesus is presented.
As I prepared for a Sunday school class on Mary’s song last Sunday, I was reminded that all the singing isn’t the least bit accidental. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God’s people regularly respond with song at moments of great deliverance. Moses sang the song of the sea after Israel crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 15); Hannah, who had long been barren, sang a song of exultation when she presented her son Samuel to the Lord; and David sang a song of praise after he was delivered from his enemies (2 Samuel 22).
When Mary, having been told by the angel that she would give birth to “the Son of the Most High,” greets her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth exclaims “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1: 42). These words echo yet another Biblical song. “Most blessed of women be Jael,” the prophetess Deborah sings in Judges 5: 24, praising the woman who drove a tent peg through the head of the commander of an army that was oppressing Israel. Mary helped to crush evil in a very different way than Jael. As Jesus’s mother, she contributed to the fulfillment of the prophesy in Genesis 3 that the offspring of Eve would “bruise [Satan’s] head.”
This context explains why Mary’s own song is full of verses that might otherwise seem incongruous. Mary says that God “has shown great strength with his arm” and “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” (Luke 1: 51). These words sound more like a battle cry than like the rejoicing of a newly expectant mother. But they come straight from the tradition of Biblical songs of deliverance. Mary borrows from Exodus 15 (e.g., “Your right hand, O Lord … shatters the enemy” in Exodus 15:6) while subtly adjusting the language from human to spiritual warfare. As a devout Jew living in a largely oral culture, Mary knew the earlier songs well, so it was only natural, in this most supernatural of moments, that she would burst forth in verses of praise.
It seems fitting that our worship services tonight will be filled with hymns and songs, since we will be celebrating the greatest deliverance of all, the deliverance that began when a little child was born.
Pete Wehner has a really nice post on suffering here, with some kind words on the chapter on suffering in True Paradox.
Pete Hileman, who runs a wonderful legal clinic in an underserved area of Philadelphia, recounted his conversation with a co-worker about Ferguson in a recent letter to his supporters. (The subject line of the letter was “Am I a Racist?”) I found the exchange extremely helpful, and asked Pete if I could post it. The remainder of this post is Pete’s description of the conversation:
“Ever since the grand jury verdict was announced in Ferguson I have been struggling with my views on race. Jaimee was really upset with the decision, and after the long Thanksgiving weekend we had a chance Monday to talk about it as a staff. It was an honest, open and healthy discussion. I shared that I had grown up in Abington in the 60s during the race riots and recall that school was closed because someone got stabbed in the bathroom. Jaimee gave me her heart felt perspective as the descendant of slaves. I am the descendant of lawyers and judges. We are one in Christ, but she is a black urban Christian and I am a white suburban Christian. Is it possible for us to see it the same way? We moved into a mostly African American neighborhood 9 years ago and we have great neighbors who really watch out for us. My next door neighbor trains Philly cops and he explained to me what Officer Wilson should have done, and it became clear that if he had been there, this wouldn’t have happened. Police shootings happen, all too often. But when are they racially motivated? What part of our criminal justice system is still racist? What would a truly blind justice system look like?
I struggle with my knee jerk reaction to defend the police officer, and to look at Michael Brown as a big scary bully. Jaimee helped me understand that he is someone’s son and brother and friend and can’t be judged by the bully appearance on that video. He is not a demon. He did not want to die. I tend to believe the officer’s story, but my neighbor can’t imagine why he would have shot so many times. Getting out your gun is the last of the 5 stages of engaging someone on the street. We have had some break-ins at our house, and our neighborhood has had a lot of robberies and burglaries. Police arrested two kids across the street who had shotguns. I’ve seen terrifying violent rumbles on the subway and on the street. A white cop was shot by a black man at our local Dunkin Donuts not long after we moved in. The assailants are mostly black men. Can I even say it? Jaimee explains the dynamic of being raised as a black young man in the city. Elijah Anderson wrote a classic book called The Code of the Street, which is a bit dated but explains the causes of violence in our neighborhoods where Michael Brown lived. I guess the bottom line is that I just can’t ever know what it is like to be a black man. So I have to take my friend’s word for it when they tell me that they experience discrimination every day.
We are a diverse group, and of course we’ve met many many wonderful black men and woman. Their faith is especially deep, and rich, and precious. It drew us to this work. The gospel makes the difference, so that is what we offer people. And a good church. We all need that, Michael Brown and Officer Wilson. And now the choking case in Staten Island and the boy shot in the park in Cleveland. The issue is not going away – we want to do something about it. So we do expungements, and see lots of black men who have turned their lives around. We help them with their custody cases so that they get a chance to be good father’s to their children. I was part of a Fatherhood Initiative and gave a Fathering book to a new client and he read it and enjoyed it and gave me a book to read.
So we are all learning, and struggling, with our sin, to live by faith.”
Benny Tai, one of the original leaders of the Hong Kong protests (featured in a long Wall Street Journal interview last summer), is a law professor at Hong Kong University whose expertise includes Constitutional law and, interestingly, training for civil servants. While I was in Hong Kong last month, I had the great privilege, thanks to a mutual friend, of meeting him in his tent in the midst of the protests in the Admiralty section of downtown Hong Kong. His tent is a large structure—somewhat like the tents people rent for graduation parties and the like—that serves as a command center, complete with televisions and ten or twenty people milling around.
When I walked up to the tent, wondering if I was in the right place, Benny and several people around him jumped up and walked over to meet me. I felt pretty impressed with myself at first, thinking that my reputation must have preceded me (as we used to say). Later that day, I learned the real reason I was instantly recognized: my friend had sent a text to Benny, telling him I was on my way and that he should be on the lookout for someone who looked like a tourist.
Two things that Benny said when we talked keep coming to mind as the situation has deteriorated in Hong Kong in the last week or so: he repeatedly emphasized how fluid the situation is—that it could suddenly shift in any direction—and he also emphasized his particular interest in dispute resolution.
This morning’s newspapers suggest that Benny is playing precisely that role. The student leaders who have been the principal face of the movement this Fall seem to have boxed themselves into a corner: by insisting that they will not settle for anything else that complete democracy in the election of Hong Kong’s leader, a demand that it’s impossible to imagine China agreeing to, the students do not seem to have left room for a compromise that might be acceptable to everyone. With frustration growing even among supporters as the protests continue to snarl Hong Kong’s streets, Benny seems to be encouraging to students to back off, at least a bit, in the hope of averting further violence.
My friend John Inazu, a law professor at Washington University who is spending this year at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, posted an interesting little essay (here) last week on the relationship between law and violence. He draws on a classic article by the late Yale law professor Robert Cover. Cover’s article begins with one of the most famous lines in twentieth century legal scholarship: “Legal interpretation takes place on a field of pain and death.”
I had lunch yesterday with Randall Collins, a Penn sociologist who has written extensively about the “micro-sociology” of violence. (Our mutual friend Dave DeHuff, who runs the faculty-staff fellowship group at Penn, brought the three of us together). I would highly commend Randall’s blog essays, articles and books on these issues under any circumstances, but especially with the turmoil in Ferguson and Hong Kong.
I was particularly struck by two of Randall’s insights. The first is that violence is less likely when a protestor and police officer encounter one another face to face. Although a protester’s natural inclination is to flee, fleeing actually is often more dangerous than a face to face exchange, at least if the exchange could be kept relatively calm. It’s much harder to attack someone when you see them face to face. This seems to me to reflect an implicit recognition, even in the most hostile of circumstances, that each of us is made in the image of God and is therefore precious.
Randall also pointed out that when protesters damage or destroy property, they usually target property in their own neighborhood. This may explain the seeming incongruity of protesters damaging businesses that serve their own community, which often seems counterproductive. But protestors tend to feel most comfortable in their own neighborhood, and their neighborhood is they place whose injustice upsets them most.
During my visit to Beijing last week, a Christian professor at one of the universities I visited pointed out a sign posted on a little square near the campus. The sign had a small list of prohibited activities, the most prominent of which was “no religious activities permitted.” When I asked the professor if he found this public reminder of the government’s discomfort with Christianity discouraging, his reaction surprised me. He said the sign had exactly the opposite effect for him: it reminded him that there must have been vibrant religious activities on the square in the past and could well be again in the future; otherwise no one would have felt the need to exclude them.
The following day another Christian scholar told me that the recent trend of “derecognizing” Christian ministries on American college campuses—most prominently, at the California State colleges and universities—has emboldened the Chinese government in its restriction of religious freedom. If the United States restricts religious expression, the reasoning seems to be, there is less basis for criticizing China’s limits on religious expression. The campus access debate in the U.S. obviously has almost nothing in common with China’s restrictions on religion. But the suggestion that the campus access controversy may have implications in China underscores just how great the stakes are in our growing debate over whether to protect pluralism in the United States.