Conceptual Analysis, Thoughts

Abortion: Blame and the Bullying God

Let’s get very clear. The thinking behind anti-abortionists is not so much pro-life as it is pro-blame. This kind of thinking is also driving the support for Donald Trump among fundamentalist evangelicals. While I am sure that there are some sincere people on the pro-blame side who have had their genuine sense of empathy misdirected toward the unborn and away from vulnerable women, such people are merely pawns in the larger pro-blame ideology. I know this because I am from that world and I have heard the sermons that these people hear on a regular basis. They fail to comprehend that their empathy for the unborn is empathy for an abstraction. They can project their own sense of innocence and vulnerability upon the unborn. Pro-blamers never met a fetus they did not love and yet they absolutely hate more than half of the human race. What if we could know that every unborn child aborted in the next ten years would grow up to be pro-choice? Then every abortion denied now would make abortion acceptable in the near future. Would pro-lifers still be against all abortions?

Pro-blame thinking is not concerned with reducing the number of abortions and pro-choice people who think it is are completely missing the point. If it were about reducing actual abortions pro-blame people would be more open to sex education and contraception distribution. The fact that they are not open, means that they are not interested in reducing abortions. Ironically, it is pro-choice people who are more interested in reducing abortions even though they believe that the right to an abortion is necessary for remedying the unjust vulnerability imposed upon women by our society. The reason I believe that pro-lifers are actually pro-blamers is that they are not primarily driven by empathy and connection with life, they are driven by the fear of disobedience. As long as our nation is a pro-choice nation, pro-lifers fear that God will punish us. They base this on their readings of Old Testament scriptures where Israel was punished whenever it strayed from God’s commands. Progressives feed this fear when they also cite such Old Testament scriptures although they cite them to promote justice for the vulnerable. When pro-blamers hear progressives use scripture in this way, they understand the fear of punishment such scriptures invoke far more than progressives do and they interpret the vulnerable as the unborn rather than the stranger, resident alien, widow, or orphan.

Fundamentalists agree with progressives that when it comes to justice, God holds nations accountable, not individuals. As long as our nation is a pro-choice nation, God is going to punish. Evangelicals believe that legalized abortion, “getting prayer out of schools,” and the growing acceptance of homosexuality, are reasons that their quality of life has diminished in the past 40 years. They make less money, have less voice, and internalize less hope. Instead of blaming the rich and false prophets (as scripture often does) they blame what they perceive as the godless idolaters (which scripture also often does). They believe that if our nation can return to an anti-abortion nation, then God will bless rather than punish. In a nation that is anti-abortion, God does not punish the nation for injustice but instead punishes individuals for disobedience. If I have played my part in returning the nation to obedience to God, then I am not responsible for taking care of individuals who are disobedient. If abortions increase and more women die from unsafe procedures, then that is the cost of disobedience. On the other hand, if abortions decrease in a pro-choice nation, they are safe but disobedient and this seems to be a flagrant act of thumbing our nose at God. As a fundamentalist evangelical, I would rather blame individuals for the consequences of their disobedience than live in a nation that thumbs its nose at God. This is why pro-lifers are actually pro-blamers. It is all about the blame game. It is all about fear and wanting to be on the side of the strongest. For such people, God is the biggest bully in the room. In this way, Trump is the incarnation of such a god. Pro-blamers want to be on the winning side. They want to blame and ridicule those who are disobedient to their bullying god, because they want to make sure that their god knows that they are on his side.



Litany for American Christianity

And many of his followers said to him,

“Jesus, we do not want to feed those who cannot feed themselves.”

And Jesus said, “Over my dead body.”

And again, they said, “Jesus, we do not want our tax dollars to provide healing to people who cannot pay their own bills.”

And Jesus said, “Over my dead body.”

A third time they said, “Jesus, we will not welcome strangers or treat illegals as neighbors.”

And Jesus said, “Over my dead body.”

And now they shouted, “Jesus, the least of these get what they deserve.  They reap what they sow.”

And Jesus said, “Over my dead body.”

Then they argued, “We should be more loyal to our nation than to your teachings.”

And Jesus whispered, “Over my dead body.”

And the followers said, “So be it!”

And the case was closed.  And the tomb was sealed.

John Tucker


A Testimony of Absence

If God has an essential attribute, it has to be absence.  God is absent.  I imagine that you might respond to this claim by saying, “No, God is present. Presence is God’s defining characteristic.”  When I say that God is absent, I am not saying that God is non-existent or that you never experience God’s presence in your life.  I am only saying that the context that gives God’s presence its power in your life is a context defined by God’s absence.  Furthermore, I want to suggest that you already know this and probably even agree with it.

When I was in college, I embraced philosophical atheism because I thought the atheist philosophers had better arguments and that the theistic philosophers were grasping at straws in order to justify a belief they wanted or needed to keep.  In those days, I suggested that an atheistic alternative is necessary in order for faith to exist.  Put another way, for any supernatural or miraculous claim, there has to be a natural or non-miraculous explanation in order for faith to exist.  Otherwise, a belief in a miraculous claim is not an expression of faith, but an assertion of fact.  Some religious people tend to talk this way about their faith, “It is a fact that Jesus was raised from the dead.”  But even within these circles, the resurrection of Jesus occupies a different place in their language than “2+2=4” or “the sun rises in the morning.”   I think that even the most committed fundamentalist would have to admit that people, including fundamentalists, accept the latter two examples in ways that they do not accept the religious claim.

It is because religious claims are different from factual claims that brings God’s absence into focus.  I would suggest that the very idea of revelation, so important in the history of Christian thought, is a response to God’s absence.  If God were present no one could claim to speak for God and no one could claim a unique channel of communication with the divine.  The very notion of inspired scripture or orthodox belief is based on the assumption that God is not present to speak for Godself.  Prayer, as it is popularly conceived, is also predicated on the idea that God is absent.  If God were present, prayer would not be our form of communication.  I think that our entire religious way of conceiving God, even God’s presence, is constituted on the fact that God is absent.

If God is absent, God is also silent.  When you scream into the whirlwind like Job, you get silence.  After all, that is the effect of what God said to Job in the story.  What God said to Job could have been communicated with silence but that would have hindered the desired dramatic effect of the scene, and it is a drama, not history.  When Jesus calls from the cross, he is met with silence.  How else would we expect God to respond?  If God responded with presence and voice then everything we think about God or faith would disappear.

This brings me to the final piece of evidence that God’s fundamental attribute is absence or silence.  That piece of evidence is present in eschatological or apocalyptic hope in the Last Judgment.  The idea that God will come into history at some point in the future and speak judgments on human beings only makes sense if God is not doing those things in the present.  If God is here now, then there is no need for God to come in the future.  If God is speaking judgment now then there is no need for God to speak judgment in the future.

I realize that some progressive Christians will respond that they do not believe that God is literally coming at a future time to make judgments.  They will say that they believe God is always and already present.  Again, this is a religious attitude that only makes sense as a “religious” attitude if there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.  If God were present we would not need progressive Christianity to proclaim it.  There are scriptural and traditional examples of God’s presence being presented as absence.  In addition to Job and Jesus, there is Elijah’s experience in 1 Kings 19:12 and the psalmist’s anguish in Psalm 13.  Christian mysticism, when it does not lapse into a confused religious version of skepticism, also expresses  God’s absence through the idea of dis-satisfaction.  The only concept of God that satisfies the conditions of faith is a conception that is satisfied with dis-satisfaction.  To be completely satisfied with one’s concept of God is to insist that God is present and vocal in ways that leave no room for dis-satisfaction.  Of course scripture and tradition are also replete with stories that supposedly demonstrate God’s presence in ways that would seem to eradicate absence.  I cannot help but think that this is because human beings are notoriously unhappy with dis-satisfaction.  Not only is this craving for satisfaction a basic misunderstanding of faithfulness, it is the traditional definition of and the continual motivation for idolatry.


Us and Them

John Tucker

*I am not a professional linguistic philosopher.  I am not sure what I think about most of what I read about linguistics.  I have found George Lakoff stimulating, especially his book “Metaphors We Live By (Co-Authored with Mark Johnson).”  I am also indebted to Ludwig Wittgenstein and his insight that the meaning of words is determined by how they are used and in what context they are used rather than by previously agreed upon definitions.  

There are many different “us/thems” in our world today.  As an Alabama football fan, I am part of an “us” group that would include many “thems” if we were talking about anything else.  We may cheer the same football team, but many of my fellow Alabama fans are on what I consider the wrong side when it comes to race, gender, sexual orientation, taxes and healthcare.  I am part of other “us” groups as well.  In this essay, I want to consider two different “us” groups where I supposedly have membership.  The groups are “citizens of the United States” and “members of the United Methodist Church.”

Nationalism is on the rise. Fueled by the election of our current president, many of our fellow citizens have formed a group that I would not consider joining.  To me, they are a “them.” They would call me the same thing.  In the United Methodist Church, there is a denominational purity movement calling itself the Wesleyan Covenant Association that I would also consider as a “them” in contrast to my “us.” I am not going to talk about bridging the gulf that lies between these particular “us/thems.”  Instead I want to talk about what constitutes my “us” in a way that I have not heard articulated elsewhere.

Truth be known, I have more in common with progressive minded Buddhists and atheists than I do with Christian fundamentalists or Wesleyan Covenant associates.   We may all talk about Wesley and Methodism and scripture but my “us” group tends to use these words in different ways than the “them” of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  I am tempted to call these words homonyms.  The sentence, “The baseball pitcher drank from a pitcher of water,” is an example where the homonym is pitcher.  I would suggest that this is a similar sentence, “The Wesleyan Covenant Association honors a scripture not present in scripture.” Whatever the case with our word usage, the fact remains that I feel like my progressive kinfolk in other faith or no faith traditions are closer to me than some of my denominational kinfolk in United Methodism.

What I have said about the church I could also say about our nation.  In some ways, I have more in common with progressives in other parts of the world than I do with conservatives in the United States.  When I hear conservatives using the word “patriotism” it sounds just like fundamentalists using the word “faithfulness.”  Both groups are using these words in service to larger conceptual narratives that I regard as evil and dangerous.  They would say the same thing about me and my group.  What this means is that much of what we call “unity” is defined by shared histories and/or shared geographies rather than shared values.  I do not offer any judgment about what that means or should mean, I simply comment on what I take to be an observable fact.

Many of my progressive kinfolk will raise the issue that there should be no “us/them” groupings.  While I applaud the aspiration, I think it is conceptually naïve.  I think that “us/them” distinctions are as necessary for the development of human identities as is the “I/you” distinction.  These distinctions need not always be adversarial, but I am always going to have people with whom I identify and people with whom I do not.  Should we seek understanding? Of course.  Should we insist that we ignore important differences? Good luck with that.  I believe that when progressives try to eradicate the conceptual distinction between “us/them” they are forgetting that the concept of the Kingdom of God (or Kin-dom of God if you prefer) derives its meaning from contrast.  The usage of “Kingdom of God’ occurs when people are living in unjust, non-empathetic, predatory communities.  The usage has no meaning apart from the context of drawing a desired contrast.  Because it is a contrast based concept, it creates an “us/them.”  As Jesus said on more than one occasion, some have ears to hear and others do not.

To clarify the conceptual nature of “us/them” so that it can be separated from visions of utopia where such a concept disappears, consider how human beings learn spatial orientation concepts.  I would imagine that one does not learn the concept “up” without simultaneously learning the concept “down.”  This may be because we are not dealing with two different concepts. “Up/down” may be the name of a single concept of vertical orientation so that one learns both “up” and “down” when one learns either.  The same is likely true for “above/below” and “top/bottom.”  It may be true, though I am not certain, for “right/left” which would be a concept of horizontal orientation (actually, “here/there” or “this/that” would be more analogous with “up/down”).  It would not be true of “east/west” however as that involves learning more concepts than directional orientation.  It might be true of “right/wrong” in that one may not be able to learn how to use the concept of “correctness” without also learning the concept of “incorrectness.”  Again, “right/wrong” may simply refer to a single concept relating to accuracy, measurability or accountability depending on the context.

There are other word pairings that tend to also be learned together but that are not conceptually related and do not stand in opposition to one another.  “Salt and pepper” is probably an example of associated learning though they do not stand in a conceptual relationship like “up/down.”  What unites “salt and pepper” with “up/down” is that they are both learned in a community that trains its members in how to think and talk.  I imagine that “insiders/outsiders” or “us/them” are pivotal to community development and coherence.  Again, this coherence would only arise when contrast arises.  If my “us” is the only group I know, I do not even conceive of my group as an “us.”  It is just the way things are.

I say all of that to say that we live in a world where contrast plays a tremendous role in how we learn to think and speak.  The “us/them” contrast makes it possible for me to call myself a follower of Jesus (in contrast with those who are not), a progressive (in contrast to those who are regressive), and a desired citizen in the Kin-dom of God (in contrast to those who equate Christianity with nationalism or doctrinal loyalty).  The point I am making is that currently, I have membership in communities with titles like The United States or The United Methodist Church and these titles are becoming decreasingly descriptive of the real communities I inhabit.  I do not think I am alone in this experience.


To the Clergy of the Crater Lake District

Wisdom and courage live at different altitudes.  When we are wisest we rise to heights that reveal our common human flaws, the complexity of our connections, and that ethical living is often like handling spider webs with boxing gloves.  From these heights, it is easy to talk about grace and about our common sin.  These heights offer solace and peacefulness.  Like Peter, we would love to remain up where the view is more panoramic and grand.  Because we are now hearing racism endorsed from the highest office in the land, now is not the time for detached wisdom.  Now is the time for courage.

Courage gets its hands dirty.  Courage takes a side.  Wisdom may say that everyone is blessed but courage says, “Blessed are the poor.”  Wisdom may say that everyone is a neighbor but courage names the neighbor “Samaritan.”  Wisdom writes poetry in the mountains.  Courage gets crucified on the roadside.  Wisdom says “All lives matter.”  Courage says, “Black Lives Matter.”  When people are in the wrong they beg for their critics to adopt an altitude (attitude) of compassionate wisdom.  When people are being beaten, we are called to take the altitude (attitude) of courageous empathy.

I do not pretend to know exactly what courage looks like these days.  Many of you are participating in protests or rallies.  Many of you are addressing what is going on in sermons.  I doubt either is sufficient but believe both are necessary.  What you need to know is that I will have your back in whatever ways you choose to “resist evil.”  I do not care if you upset people because you “got political.”   While I hope that our courage is informed by frequent trips to the higher altitude of wisdom, I do not want wisdom to rob us of the courage we need when it comes time to take a side.


John Tucker