Friday, December 30, 2011

The Race We Are Still Running

Today, two tweeps I regularly derive enjoyment from - Bomani Jones and John Stansberry - showed how far we have to go in America on the matter of... no, not "race relations" (that's too limited a point of focus), but on the matter of understanding the larger reality of race as it affects attitudes, perceptions, and the whole of society. The point of this brief commentary is not to weigh in on what both men think about Cameron Newton. Read their linked articles above. It's similarly pointless to render a verdict on their assessments of the extent to which the "black quarterback" label is limiting social progress - you need to wrestle with what Mr. Jones said in his piece.

What I'm here to talk about is the long-distance race we are still running in America on issues pertaining to race. As Bomani Jones would tell you, for all the progress we've made on race in 50 years, racism is still quite prevalent in this country, anything but a fringe reality or a merely marginal presence on the national landscape. While gains have been made here and there in the course of time, they haven't brought us to a point where Americans enjoy both harmony and true understanding in relationship to "The Other," to people with identities different from our own. The Obama presidency and the issue of immigration have shown how uncomfortable Americans remain when dealing with a subject that cuts very deep and owns a central place in our young nation's history. The reality of our nation's prison system offers powerful testimony to the fact that race remains a source and manifestation of profound injustice, proving that we are hardly a "post-racial" society. No matter what you might think or believe about race, it shouldn't be hard to accept the claim that we - as Americans - have not "solved" questions of racial and ethnic identity. This stuff gets under our skin (and our skin color, as it were). One must keep that point firmly in mind before going forward here...

John Stansberry (@LonelyTailgater on Twitter) made two basically correct points in his piece above: 1) Things are better for black quarterbacks today than they were in 1978; 2) It is very tricky for racial minorities to talk about their own groups or members of their own groups in ways that are less than flattering. Those are two correct-enough assessments, and there's nothing to lament in Stansberry's ability to make those identifications.

The question becomes, what should be taken from those identifications?

One conclusion I certainly would NOT reach is that Jones - @bomani_jones on Twitter - is being a race-baiter or someone who is casually overstating the extent to which Cam Newton has been besieged by racist attitudes.

One can be a No. 1 NFL Draft pick and still encounter racist sentiments. Social progress on race can advance over the course of 33 years (a third of a century) and still fall far short of where it needs to be... even to the extent that racial matters stir the blood so easily in public forums. Stansberry was speaking on a very immediate level in his analysis, but he then chose to see Jones's piece in a similarly confined context. Jones was speaking on a much broader social level, targeting the persistence of prevalent racist attitudes in the football world and trying to point out - correctly - that we haven't figured out. He wasn't zeroing in on Newton's draft status but was instead trying to do what a good citizen does: Point the way to the larger truth instead of allowing society to settle for the simpler answer in a more limited context.

People might find flaws in the way Jones executed his argument or supported it (I personally think it was structurally sound), but the point I seek to stress is that Jones's intent was and is to bring society to a healthier understanding and awareness of what's really going on. As is the case in politics, one should be able to grow in respect for someone you disagree with if that person is acting on convictions with sincerity and a desire for a larger social good. Disagreement should not be seen as due cause for a parting of ways; misunderstandings should not be viewed as grounds for attacking other people or assigning negative motives to them. Disagreements, in short, are best handled when they're left as merely disagreements, differences meant to be talked about and fleshed out in the fullness of time. When disagreements are seen as unacceptable positions, opposing sides - on one issue, on a whole host of issues, or in various sectors of life (sports, church, government, medicine, etc.) - are pulled far apart, thereby maintaining a fractured environment in which social divisions only deepen and various communities have little incentive to see life through the prism of "The Other."

It is this social division - the perpetuation of an us-against-them mentality - which limits the ability of men and women to make even greater strides in our dealings. Bomani Jones's attempt to speak to a larger truth and John Stansberry's misreading of Jones's motives show us that it is so incredibly difficult to get any two Americans to arrive at a shared place of understanding on race. When I use the phrase "shared place of understanding," I'm not saying that we should all see issues the same way. I'm saying that we should allow a critique of racial issues or attitudes to be seen as an honest attempt to bring about social improvement and call people to be better... not as "race-baiting" or the self-interested pushing of  buttons to elicit strong responses and gain heavy internet traffic (and hence, more money or publicity).

No matter what you think about Cam Newton, I think it's fair to say that the young man is not an easy figure to analyze without generating a strong response. Newton was immersed in a controversy at Auburn which gained sustained national attention (the controversy didn't involve wrongdoing by Newton himself; the point is that it touched a national nerve). Newton's "When the devil be messin', God be blessin'" comment also captured the attention of many Americans. He won the Heisman Trophy and has maintained a place in the spotlight, most recently for his stellar play on the field. If anyone with the national profile of Bomani Jones were to tackle Cam Newton, plenty of people would react. It's unfortunate that anyone would view Jones's article as an attempt to stir the pot and create trouble. Viewing the piece as an attempt to challenge the national conscience - especially within the innards of the football community - offers a far healthier and more productive way to view Jones's essay. Being able to engage him in thoughtful dialogue would then offer anyone - including Stansberry - a chance to understand Jones's views in greater detail. The assignation of motives without (and removed from) a process of questioning makes the storm of criticism against Jones counterproductive. Being open to the merits of what Jones has to say is the attitude which can enable healthy conversations about race to unfold in this country.

There's one other way in which to cultivate a climate that's conducive to the continuation of healthy conversations about race: Not calling a disagreer or opponent "racist" unless the reality is blindingly apparent beyond all reasonable doubt.

I do think that Jones's fiercest critics - those who assign the race-baiter label to him - are demonstrating a very impoverished view of race and racial tensions; accordingly, Jones's detractors reveal how hard it is to establish a nourishing, illuminating conversation about race free from suspicions about ulterior motives. However, having a poor understanding of racism doesn't make a person a racist. In fact, the very point of writing with such studied intelligence and precision on race - as Jones does - is to call the larger society to a greater awareness of racial tensions. Racism - like other sins - can be fully considered "sinful" to the extent that the person manifesting it understands larger truths and can make important distinctions as a citizen. Without broad and expansive knowledge, a person can't quite "own" his or her sins because that person can't be seen as a purposeful, intentional actor, someone guided by his/her own initiative. The fully knowing person - the person who SHOULD know between right and wrong - is the person guilty of racism. If one were to have this Cam Newton conversation face-to-face for 60 minutes and not break new ground, perhaps one could then be in a position to view an opponent through a dimmer lens. A few tweets and linked articles, however, do not provide enough basis for being able to say that another person is genuinely racist (and all that the R-word implies).

Many Americans are fatigued by conversations about race. They are tired of running. Yes, we still need to have conversations; yes, our society still isn't close to where it needs to be; yes, we can't think we've arrived at a post-racial paradise; however, in order to reach those who disagree with us, we have to understand where they live. We have to understand that fatigue exists, which means that it has to be dealt with and accounted for. Calling someone a racist merely tells that person, "I have no faith in your views and no respect for your place in this national conversation." The critique might perhaps be true, but in the absence of a face-to-face conversation or (at the very least) a genuinely extended dialogue which transcends six or eight tweets on one afternoon, it's not going to bring more people to the conversation table.

There are problems which need to be talked about in the wake of today's writings by Bomani Jones. I don't think John Stansberry understood very well what Jones had to say, and I am confident in saying that Stansberry should not have assigned motives to Jones; he should have instead asked questions before deciding to write what he wrote. Moreover, if he was still upset at Jones, he should have held his tongue instead of getting into a Twitter fight.

However, I don't think that the above paragraph makes John Stansberry a racist, and Stansberry shouldn't be hit with that label. Can this larger episode be seen as a teaching tool and a timely reminder - at the end of 2011 - that we need to work very hard to generate meaningful, productive dialogue about race? Yes. Does it need to be seen as a defining indictment of anyone? No - not at all.

How do we improve our society? By confronting tough problems. Bomani Jones is trying to do that, even if you might think he's not doing it the right way.

How can we confront tough problems? By talking about them in ways that foster greater understanding and awareness. Therefore, let's view Jones as the public thinker and conscience-raiser he is, instead of tarring him as an opportunist. Jones's critics, in turn, should be allowed to grow - as we all must grow in our lives, which unfold at different speeds - instead of being labeled as racist. Fatigue is part of the American story on race at this point in time; let's then catch a breath, rest our weary minds (fatigue does make us cranky and ornery, after all...), and be charitable in the way we talk to each other.

Let's also use essays instead of tweets to explain ourselves a little more. That would be a nice development to see in 2012, and just to back up my talk, I'll offer this blog site as a public space for anyone who wants to write an essay/extended commentary to unpack important viewpoints.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

An Idea Whose Time Should Have Come Long Ago

So, Mark Cuban is envisioning a Bracket Busters-like event for college football, adding marquee regular-season games to the slate in December. I don't know if the sport needs to add games, but it does need to have TV-friendly regular-season games in December. Such a route is precisely how one can avoid the thorniness of a playoff yet enhance the value of the regular season and promote an ACTUAL "national" champion (as opposed to a merely regional one).

Is this idea new? Not if you've read the Weekly Affirmation at College Football News.

Sherman, the Wayback Machine, please...

 Week Ten: November 5, 2007

Short-Form Weekly Affirmation: Fast Track Gold Club
We begin this week's column with a creative idea that, due to its eminently sensible nature, won't ever be adopted by the powers that be in college football. Nevertheless, it's worth considering.

At a time in our sport's evolution when arguments (BCS or no BCS? Plus-one or playoff system? Four, eight, or 16 teams in a playoff?) are becoming calcified and stale, we need to inject some fresh thinking into the discussion. After spending the past few seasons without an original thought on this subject--due to the need to bash the BCS into the ground--I've emerged from something of a cave and can offer a new proposal that should satisfy college football's various warring factions.

Let's call this the "College Football Flex Plan."

If you follow pro football, you almost surely know that last year witnessed the beginning of the NFL's thoughtful and market-friendly decision to provide a "flex plan" in terms of Sunday Night game selection for NBC's season-long package. The concept is simple and smart: if a given matchup is a stinker, relegate it from Sunday night to Sunday afternoon, where FOX or CBS can pick up the game and assign it to the No. 5 broadcast crew. Since NBC pays big bucks for its primetime-only package, the Peacock is able to select a showcase game for late-season inclusion into its broadcast schedule. This kind of creative and nimble thinking illustrates why the NFL can be so incredibly profitable even while possessing a generally unwatchable product. (Side note: have you ever stopped to consider why an early November regular-season game, Patriots-Colts, was so thoroughly hyped? Could it be because every other NFL team suffers so substantially by comparison?) College football--in terms of satisfying its fans while also adding more integrity to the (still-mythical) national championship selection process--should learn from the NFL and adopt its own kind of flex plan.

Instead of explaining the plan and then laying it out, let's just describe the plan and then explain it.

The "College Football Flex Plan" (CFFP) would involve the playing of ten regular-season games from Labor Day weekend through the second weekend of November, with one bye included for every team. Conference games and established non-conference rivalries would comprise these ten contests. On the third weekend of November, everyone would get a week off. On the fourth weekend of November--usually Thanksgiving weekend--the teams in conferences that play a championship game (ACC, Big XII, SEC) could play their eleventh game. On the first weekend of December, the Big Ten, Big East, and Pac-10 could play their eleventh game, while the SEC, ACC and Big XII stage their title tilts.

Why the vague, cryptic and murky reference to the "eleventh game"? Glad you asked. The eleventh game forms the core of the CFFP, and it addresses the kinds of tensions that are emerging in the 2007 college football season (not to mention most seasons).

If you're a college football fan, you obviously want the two best teams to play for the national title. But in order to get to that point, you also want the deadwood to be cleared away first. You want the best teams in each conference to knock heads before the bowl selection show (or perhaps, in future years, a Final Four and/or plus one system). In other words, you would love for Kansas to play Oregon. You would love for Connecticut to play Oklahoma. The bowl games usually provide the sexy matchups, but in order to determine college football's best teams, you first need to identify--and, if at all possible, succeed in creating--the not-so-sexy matchups that emerge in a given season. The rise of previously unheralded schools such as Kansas, UConn, Virginia, Arizona State, Illinois, Kentucky, Boston College, Hawaii and Missouri (last year, the list included Rutgers, Wake Forest, Arkansas and BYU, but not as many upper-tier schools as is the case in 2007) demands that these teams play each other to separate the pretenders from the contenders. More specifically, these teams need to meet late in the season, when identities have been formed and early-season rust (think of Appalachian State over Michigan, South Florida over Auburn, and Washington over Boise State) is not an issue.

These kinds of games--a college football equivalent of college basketball's "Bracket Buster Saturday"--would occur in late November and early December under the CFFP. The mechanism used to decide the home team in these games could be arrived at in a number of different ways. Perhaps there would be an open drawing; perhaps certain conference matchups would be decided in advance; perhaps TV would carry most of the weight in creating these matchups. At any rate, you'd have late-season matchups involving teams coming off bye weeks. You'd have non-conference games that would be part of the 11-game regular season, but they'd acquire a playoff-like feel. The arrangement would be friendly to television, but it would also be friendly to the fans of the participating schools because they wouldn't be staged at neutral locations. All in all, the CFFP would settle a whole round of arguments at the end of the regular season, which would then make the conference title games and bowl games that much more interesting as well. Moreover, the CFFP--by providing relevant, freshly-arranged matchups at the end of the regular season, would almost certainly create a scenario in which remaining unbeatens would either fall or rise to the top. With this kind of a plan in place, the bowl system could be retained but still produce a more deserving national champion if a plus-one was inserted.

Let's summarize the "College Football Flex Plan" in a simple way: the CFFP shortens the regular season but adds playoff-style excitement; it provides compelling non-conference matchups, but within the regular season and, moreover, at the season's end; it's friendly to TV and fans; it enables teams to compete after a bye week, but not with a ridiculously long (51-day, Ohio State-style) layoff; it keeps the bowl system in place, but it also requires a plus one at the end. All in all, the CFFP provides something for everyone. It's worth looking at... even if the workings of the world suggest that sensible things just don't happen very often in life.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Somber Is The Price We Pay: Christianity, Ethics, And The Response To All Things Bin Laden

The first thing that must be said in this essay is simple: I'm a coward.

I'm a coward because I don't have the guts to be as good as Jesus of Nazareth. I'm a coward because I don't have the moral courage of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or Dorothy Day, my main role models as a person of faith and as someone who knows that human beings are not meant to kill each other. I'm a coward for not going as far as the best souls who have ever guided us when they were robed in human flesh and feelings.

I'm a coward. Let that reality - and it is a reality - frame the rest of this essay and how it is processed on moral and ethical levels.

It's been quite a week for Americans, as we wrestle with the reality and aftermath of Osama Bin Laden's death. Everything about this seminal moment in world history - and it is a seminal moment, even if you believe that Bin Laden was no longer the same threat he was in 2001 - has generated necessary discussions about the human condition.

Questions of how we conduct policy, how we deal with mass-murderers, how we treat inconvenient kinds of lives in manifestly threatening situations are daunting enough. The Bin Laden death has forced us to go even deeper, though: How should we react to the death of a person who committed supremely evil and vile acts? How should we speak of a person who didn't just end roughly 3,000 lives in horrifying fashion, but shattered the hundreds of thousands of lives connected to the unfortunate souls who worked in the upper reaches of the Twin Towers on that September 11 morning?

Nearly 10 full years after 9/11, how should we react - it's a necessary question because it's a matter of heart and soul, the stuff of life at its deepest, truest core, the stuff by which people of faith align their lives and - for the nonbeliever - the internal energy that shapes the society we live in. Maybe the first 24 hours after Osama's death painted a picture in which emotions were too raw and the catharsis was too fresh. Now, though, a full four days after Sunday's "where-were-you-when-you-heard?" moment, we should be able to wrestle with these tensions in earnest so that we can be our best selves and show as much to the world when our inner fiber is tested on a grand scale.

The most basic thing to say about the nation's response to Bin Laden's death - and your own response, whatever it was - is that we all draw a line somewhere. As we swim through life, millions of little experiences over many decades come together to form a larger moral canvas, a fully-laid-out, whole-cloth expression of everything we believe to be good, true, necessary, and paramount in our lives. Decades of encounters, perceived in our own unique way and weighed against the stories we hear from others around us, create a larger flow of life and frame the way we've come to understand the great truths of existence.

There is a finite point I wish to make about all of this, but before getting to that point, one must ask questions on the path to deeper understanding of oneself as a person. We all draw lines in different places, but before talking about those lines, let's at least make sure we're considering all the angles when we start drawing:

Where do you draw the line on war, on special ops, on drones, and on aiding rebel groups or ruling governments in foreign countries? What are the criteria that should (or do, or must) guide these actions?

What is a reasonable cost of war or select missions to take out specific individuals such as Osama Bin Laden? What's the cost in lives that's reasonable? The cost in money? The cost in emotional strain, the divorces of military families, the mental health of soldiers, the spiritual consequence of being given a professional/military assignment to kill another human being?

These questions are not asked in a partisan manner, but in a coldly dispassionate and analytical way. Costs are not just monetary; some things in life ARE worth the great holistic cost. The point is to make sure that we account for the full cost of actions; that's the only way in which we can confidently say that some things are worth doing in any circumstance.

Continuing the questions that must be asked this week: How many other people are there like Bin Laden who should be taken out? What guides that specific kind of decision?

Should these kinds of missions ever be undertaken at all (i.e., should we consider pacifism or not)?

Can torture or extreme methods of attempted coercion (i.e., waterboarding) ever be condoned in an attempt to gain information?

When something like the killing of Osama Bin Laden is successfully carried out, how should it then be seen - as an achievement, a grim but necessary duty, a satisfying triumph over evil, or as another distinct reality not expressed in the three previous options?

Should photos of the dead person (Bin Laden) be posted? What criteria should guide the posting of the photos? How should we view the photos themselves and the decision of whether to post them or not?

These questions are not meant to steer you to one way of being or one course of action, but to merely get all of us to make sure that we all draw our own lines based on highly-developed and fully fleshed-out criteria.

Whether you're a liberal or a conservative or a libertarian; an anti-war advocate or a strong believer in the need for an interventionist foreign policy; a supporter of soft power or hard power; or, lastly, a supporter of defense spending or defense cuts, these are the kinds of questions that have to be wrestled with. Human beings can, do and always will possess different ways of viewing a given issue, but what's unallowable is to arrive at views without a clear, coherent and layered ethical architecture, a finely-developed framework created by decades of living, decades of wrestling with life's most difficult challenges on a soul level or - for the nonbeliever - a deeply internal level of heart and mind. Arriving at a viewpoint through careful work doesn't guarantee correctness or accuracy, but views gained without much forethought do indeed guarantee chaos before too long.

It should be clear that the process of asking so many questions (and they're just a few of the many queries that could be presented to anyone grappling with the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by "Osama Week") is designed to achieve one simple thing: The formation of well-developed criteria for the moral and ethical lines we draw in our lives, lines that - when taken to the policy level and adopted by leaders - form the stance of the United States Government in front of its people and the larger world beyond its borders.

With that having been established, this essay now moves to the person whose life and teachings are supposed to hold primacy for a great many Americans: Jesus of Nazareth.

Cast aside the longstanding debates about whether America is a “Christian nation” by charter and, in a different vein, if America is Christian or secular on a cultural level. What is still beyond dispute is that of religious adherents in America, most profess to be Christian by a wide margin. Moreover, it’s also beyond dispute that some general adherence to Christian religious faith is seen as a general asset in presidential and national American politics. Of course, Jeremiah Wright proved to be thorny for Barack Obama, but that drama from the 2008 campaign was more a matter of casting a cloud over the perceived legitimacy of Obama’s Christianity. It was not an instance in which perceived authentic Christianity was suddenly a weakness.

The point is plain: Being Christian is seen as important in America’s political arena, even though there are large blocks of voters on the Left who are passionately, enduringly atheist, agnostic, secularist, or a combination thereof. Because Christian identity owns such centrality and primacy in our nation’s national life (not necessarily its culture at large, but certainly in politics writ large), it is therefore relevant and necessary to constantly keep the life, example and teachings of Jesus in prominent public view.

Theology is its own sticky wicket, and there are many debates about the divinity of Jesus that will never die (the word choice is not intentional, by the way). However, what’s great about the life of Jesus is that – while immensely layered, paradoxical and mysterious on some levels – he left behind some decidedly unambiguous statements and examples on matters of life and death.

“Those who live by the sword shall also perish by it” – this, mind you, just hours before he would die at the hands of Roman imperial power.

“Turn the other cheek” – no, not a statement of completely passive submission to violence at the hands of another person, but a very intentional and genuinely nonviolent way of aggressively resisting oppression and mistreatment.

“Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you” – this is Jesus’s most difficult teaching by far, but it is a core part of the human Jesus’s message and therefore something every Christian person has to grapple with. It certainly can’t be exempted from the Christian call.

To be clear, “loving one’s enemies” does not mean approving of their actions. Similarly, forgiveness does not mean immediately, reflexively extending absolution or consolation to an evildoer. The repentance of the evildoer and a mutual acknowledgment of the hurt caused by one party to the other are parts of necessary forgiveness. Nevertheless, the call does remain to love the other person, no matter how unattractive or evil that person might in fact be. Jesus sets the bar very high; it’s why he’s Jesus, the only sinless person who ever lived, despite inhabiting the same human flesh and the same biological impulses all of us have.

Realizing the clarity and completeness of Jesus’s identity as an exemplar of vigorous and aggressive nonviolent resistance to the oppression he endured on Good Friday, we – especially those of us who claim the mantle of Christian faith but also those who view Jesus as a great teacher or role model on a solely human level – must at least attempt to square our lives with the life of Jesus. This is when an event such as the killing of Osama Bin Laden brings us in touch with very difficult and messy realities of human life in a context of mass civilization, not the primitive hunter-gatherer societies of prehistoric times when finely-crafted systems of governance had not yet emerged.

Once human beings developed and grew to their present levels of cognitive and moral awareness, we – as a species - generated moral codes, laws, and various standards for the regulation of peaceable behavior on a massive scale. What Jesus did and taught offers an imposing challenge to the fragile balance of human life in cities and clustered communities. What is under discussion in “Osama Week” is nothing less than a revisiting of all that it means to exist as a global community of almost (now) seven billion persons, on our way to 8, 9, and 10 billion in the very near future. Just how are we to act – and think, and feel, and outwardly emote – on a planet with multiple hundreds of countries, dozens of different races, and an accordingly vast range of languages and lifestyles? This is what it means to be human, and on these bewildering questions, Jesus established his own clear standard.

Because Jesus sets the bar so high, we must then realize – and this is part of why I am indeed a profound moral coward – that almost all of us fall short when comparing ourselves to the carpenter’s son from Nazareth.

The difficult thing to realize about the Jesus Standard and the human standard – including Matt Zemek’s standard – is that on a planet with billions of people and many bad actors, the ideal of complete nonviolence is almost impossible to realistically uphold. Let’s play along with this hypothetical: If an attacker broke into Jesus’s home today, Jesus would aggressively pursue active nonviolent resistance. He would project complete serenity in bearing and appearance but demonstrate moral authority and emotional control of the entire situation. He would express empathy with his attacker yet shed light on the smallness and weakness of what the attacker was doing. The man who exposed Pontius Pilate’s doublespeak and moral cowardice while not insulting the Roman governor would take a similar tack with a would-be assailant. The exact words would be unique to the situation, but the fundamental approach would not waver… not from the one who was supremely righteous (righteous in a human sense; believers would add a divine layer of spiritual truth to Jesus, but again, even for the nonbeliever, Jesus offers the ultimate standard of human conduct) but yet did not resist his death with a show of physical force.

In response to the example and teachings of Jesus, I can only say that I fall short of them. I can only say that any attempt to do violence against another human being falls short of the Jesus Standard. Yet, I do intellectually embrace a way of being that falls short of the Jesus Standard; it’s the gap between pure teaching and realpolitik, between the vision Jesus had for humanity and the realism of living in the midst of a complicated world.

I cannot deny or run away from this: When defending oneself in a house or defending one’s country against a mass-murderer who constantly loomed as a terrorist threat, I can’t say that I’m a full-on pacifist. I can’t. That’s what makes me a moral coward. It’s where I choose to draw the line in my outlook on the world and how to conduct myself as an individual citizen. It’s also where I draw the line in my view of what the United States can and can’t do. Nevertheless, it puts me below the Jesus Standard; it leaves me short of Jesus’s teachings in full.

Where do I draw the line on the questions raised above? Jesus would want me to view every single killing of another person as deficient; at least, that’s true if I take the passion and crucifixion narratives at face value (which, as a Christian, I darn well should). However, I fall short of the Jesus Standard when I say that there are a few people who should be killed. Hitler was one, Bin Laden another, Joe Stalin another, Saddam Hussein another, Pol Pot another. Unrepentant mass murderers who – moreover – are not likely to be replaced by anything or anyone worse than them are the people on this planet (there are only a select few of them) whose deaths would generally benefit their local populations and/or people in other lands who live under the threat of terrorism or death by violent means.

On a matter that’s somewhat (but not completely) related to the killing of terrorists, I oppose the death penalty but believe, as an example, that Jeffery Dahmer was an exception, a person who – without repentance – needed to be put to death because of his…. uhhh… his choice in meats. I hold that there are a few occasions in which it is necessary to do something that fails to meet the Jesus Standard of moral and ethical conduct. These kinds of actions – and the realities attached to them – are called “necessary evils.” They are, in short, the kinds of actions that reflect the gap between the ideal Jesus Standard and, on the other hand, Life In A Complicated, Messy, Violent And Difficult Mass Society On Planet Earth. A helpful way of illustrating this concept is that conservatives are much more pronounced in making divisions between the Jesus Standard and Life In A Complicated World – that’s not wrong or immoral or unethical or anything of the sort; I’m merely saying that’s where conservatives generally draw their lines. My line – like the lines of other generally antiwar liberals – is drawn with a much greater internal insistence on the primacy of nonviolence, even if I know that 100 percent nonviolence is not quite attainable.

I realize there are many other questions and standards to be raised on these issues: For instance, just how does one assess a “mass murderer unlikely to be replaced by anyone worse?” Does the number of people murdered matter, or does the savagery of the deaths caused hold a greater degree of primacy? How does one determine that a person is “unlikely to be replaced by anyone worse?” That’s the detail work we all must do in surveying various situations and making tough ethical and moral choices. The point is that we should wrestle with these things far more deeply than we do; another core point is that Jesus, fully human (whether or not you believe that he is divine), has left us with his own clear way of handling these kinds of problems.

We now arrive at the final portion of this essay, in which – having presented the questions we must wrestle with and then laying down the Jesus Standard – I will attempt to establish the one point I want all of you to retain in some form or fashion: When necessary evils are involved – and Osama Week is nothing if not an extended drama in which we are all forced to confront necessary evils – what we feel is as important as what we do (and what we approve of doing).

Here’s the basic explanation/unpacking of that statement:

When choosing between a clear moral good and a clear moral evil, it is only the act that matters, at least in an immediate sense. Jesus, in fact, taught the Apostles about the person who said he would not do the right thing but then went out and did it, balanced against the person who said he would do the right thing but then failed to actually do it. When a given moral or ethical choice is clear and not that difficult, we can feel torn-up and conflicted inside, battered and buffeted by desires to have an affair or punch an irritating stranger in the face. We can feel hurt, horny or restless. That’s okay, because on that level, feelings are undeniable and unavoidable. We all feel the surge of blood in our veins at times, the desire to gain revenge or satisfy a bodily craving. As long as we don’t act on those urges, we’re morally and ethically fine.

When necessary evils enter the picture, that’s when things get very complicated very quickly.

When killing someone with a weapon… or having an abortion for anything less than the threat to your own life as a biological mother… or divorcing a spouse… or telling a bald-faced lie on a matter of appreciable significance, or something of like nature, one is participating in a necessary evil. The person doing so is not evil as a result, but the person is part of a larger reality of evil. It’s not an evil act for a scared young woman to have an abortion out of fear that she can’t support her child (conservatives might disagree, and I would understand why; however, that’s another discussion for another day…), but the reality of a nascent womb-held life being ended? That’s an evil reality. (Would that we could distinguish between evilness inside human persons and evil realities; evil is a reality or condition more than a characteristic of individuals. People who sincerely try to do good often contribute to evil; this doesn’t make the person evil, but it magnifies the presence of evil in the world.)

Accordingly, when pondering what to do – and what official U.S. Government policy should be – on the matters of extrajudicial killings, torture (waterboarding in particular), the waging of war, and the posting of photos (among many other things), we need to realize that one of our core responsibilities is to make sure that while participating in a necessarily evil reality, we do not become the evil we claim to oppose and despise. Osama Bin Laden was an evil man, not just a person who sincerely tried to do good but wound up adding to the evil of (and in) the world as it is. That’s precisely why I felt he needed to be killed. However, the fact that I supported his killing puts a profound moral weight at my feet, and this is what connects feelings with actions.

Why does it matter how we Americans felt – and how we emoted – in the aftermath of the announcement of Osama’s death? It matters because we participated in a necessary evil. We, the United States, participated in an act that would be unquestionably immoral if done to a 9-year-old girl on a street corner, but which attained a certain measure of morality because the person was instead Osama Bin Laden, mastermind/funder of the 9/11 attacks. That mixture of situational morality and underlying immorality (at least relative to the Jesus Standard) defines a classically necessary evil.

Tough stuff, yes? Here’s the kicker: Because it’s difficult, and because it falls short of the Jesus Standard, such an action needs to complemented by a very specific emotional and spiritual response in order for its most moral dimensions to be magnified while allowing its least moral dimensions to recede in size and influence.

To illustrate this point, I bring you Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As you might know, Bonhoeffer was a Christian minister who actively resisted Hitler. There is still debate about the specific details of his involvements in anti-Hitler activity, but Bonhoeffer’s words – presented here – illustrate the proper, honorable, noble, moral, and ethical way to handle the realm of necessary evils, actions that are deemed to be necessary for the planet while falling short of the Jesus Standard. Read the above link for a fuller unpacking of Bonhoeffer’s views, but they boil down to this: When performing or participating in a necessary evil, one should not be exultant or regard one’s actions as the height of morality. The words of the just-beatified Pope John Paul II give ballast to Bonhoeffer’s position and stance: “War is always a defeat for humanity.”

War might be necessary – it helped Karol Wojtyla’s native Poland for a time, and World War II, though not supported by everyone (Dorothy Day, one of my spiritual heroes, protested it), did stop the spread of Nazism. However, war's death-bearing reality in itself is never a positive for humanity. World War II’s undeniable success on a fundamental level does not obscure - and must not be allowed to obscure - the fact that a broken world is what gave rise to it. The failure for humanity is not that a bloody war stopped Hitler; it’s that Hitler was able to gain enough of a global foothold in 1938 and 1939 that he and Mussolini (and Hirohito) became such large-scale threats to other nations and continents.

The point is plain: War, even when necessary, is part of the evil of reality. Participating in war or doing war-like things is not the summit of Christian virtue – Jesus submitted to death rather than lash out at his oppressors with physical force and violence. Therefore, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about killing Hitler, he did not ascribe supreme morality to his intentions. We might not match the Jesus Standard, so the price we pay – the price which Bonhoeffer insisted on paying – was, at the very least, not being joyful in the process of participating in a necessary evil.

We don’t get to gloat. We don’t get to cheer. Not when falling short of the Jesus Standard as we make the necessary calculation that We Live In A Complicated, Messy And Broken World.

We can kill a select few people, yes, but we don’t get to regard such actions as the height of morality or virtue. Not when a necessary evil is involved.

We can say that Osama Bin Laden’s death is a net-plus for the planet, as President Barack Obama basically did in his Sunday night address, but no, we don’t get to regard the event as an achievement, a sign of something to be PROUD of, as Obama then did with these words:

Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.

The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.

Those words strongly suggest – if not outrightly indicate - the kind of occasion that is worth celebrating, like a space shuttle launch or the attainment of some new frontier, some higher vista, of human accomplishment. No, when one participates in a necessary evil, that kind of language is not allowed. Falling short of the Jesus Standard – in the best of the moral tradition affirmed by Bonhoeffer – can be viewed as necessary when life becomes wrenchingly complicated and messy, but it cannot be viewed as party-time or an occasion for joy.

You might think that we should kill even more people than Osama or just a literal handful of people; I can respect that view even though I would disagree with it.

You might think that torture should be allowed if it can deliver high-value targets or information. I understand that view, even though I would even more vigorously disagree with it.

You might – heck, you almost certainly do – draw your line of morality and ethics in a place different from mine. There’s nothing wrong or problematic about that. We’re different, each and every one of us, and while we strive for consistency in the application of our principles, we will always make certain exceptions here and there. The disagreements between conservatives and liberals or (as has been shown during Osama Week on matters of national security) between pro-Obama and anti-Obama factions are nothing other than a product of the fact that people draw lines and locate points of emphasis in different places. That’s fine, and that will always be the case. However, regardless of where you stand on these and any other issues (foreign or domestic) that involve necessary evils, it is incumbent upon you – upon all of us – to realize that we must be somber, sober and distinctly non-celebratory as we participate in, support, or react to such actions.

Somber is the price we pay for doing necessary things that are part of the evil of reality. That’s what it means to be a human person who wrestles with matters of morality and ethics, especially from a Christian standpoint and especially as a citizen who has to think through the implications of his actions, positions, AND personal emotional responses to events. That’s the one thing I want to leave you with.

Now, a brief postscript on the above point as I conclude this essay:

Why does this matter, beyond any reasons that have already been stated?

If a nation – a larger community of people represented by its government and, most centrally, President Obama - is truly sober and somber in response to the killing of Osama Bin Laden or another person with a similarly blood-stained record, the rest of the world takes notice. Not the fervent anti-Americans, but most of the world. That stuff matters in terms of national security and creating a better balance of life on this planet.

It matters for this reason too: If our leaders – who do have to participate in necessary evils – regarded their actions with the moral temperance and seriousness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, they would, first of all, commit far fewer atrocities because of a dogged insistence on not creating any more evil-in-reality than absolutely necessary. If one claims to view war as something that should only be used as a last resort, or if one similarly claims that torture is allowable only in a few select circumstances, one is accordingly forced to create standards for the use of each of those necessary evils and, as a result, ensure that they are viewed as tactics/measures that need to be carefully limited so as to not produce any more evil than necessary.

Therefore, if one displays happiness or overt satisfaction in the aftermath of sanctioning war or torture (which, solely for the sake of argument, MIGHT be deemed acceptable under certain circumstances in the eyes of some persons), one is thereby expressing – not just within one’s being but to the outside world as well – an enjoyment of such actions that is not consistent with a desire to limit their use/frequency/prevalence to the fullest possible extent. There’s a reason we get upset when we see other people in other nations cheering a given death. There’s a reason why select targeted killings aren’t viewed as moral progress by other antiwar advocates: The killings for which the U.S. Government is responsible are more than select; they’re more than just the three or five or seven people (no more than 10 on the planet if we applied a strict standard) who might deserve “mass-murderer-take-him-out-now” status.

If our society – and the leaders our society produces – possessed a Bonhoeffer-based acknowledgment of the impoverished nature of necessary evils in comparison with the Jesus Standard, we would not allow necessary evils to spill into unnecessary (and therefore morally unacceptable) evils. If we, like Bonhoeffer, acknowledged that even necessary actions will fall short of the Jesus Standard and therefore should not be viewed as the summit of virtue, we – as a collective society – could release the photo of a dead Osama Bin Laden knowing that said release was not an act of “spiking the football” or “holding up a trophy” but, in complete contrast, an act of owning our necessary evil and grimly accepting the cost of our action: the killing – necessary, but unfortunate – of another human being.

Somber is the price we pay. Sober is the response to the human cost when necessary evils are involved. No, this is not concern-trollism or thought-policing or emotional nannying. This is the stuff of life at its deepest core, of human grappling at its most complicated spiritual and emotional centers.

As a Christian, I end by wishing that the peace of the Crucified And Nonviolent Christ be with you all.

Matt Zemek

Verily and Undeniably A Moral Coward Who Falls Short Of The Jesus Standard By Miles

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Bracket As I Think The Selection Committee, Not Matt Zemek, Will Shape It

Pretty simple - this is not the Zemek-endorsed bracket, but the bracket I think the Committee will create.

I think Harvard and USC should be allowed into this year's field at the expense of Penn State and Clemson. I also think Notre Dame, not Duke, should get a No. 1 seed. At any rate, I don't do this the way Joe Lunardi and Andy Glockner do, so my opinions really aren't worth a dime (or anything beyond). I do this because I love it and because it's a part of my life. I can't spend Selection Sunday without putting out one projected bracket.

The envelope, please (without the sites of specific subregional pods - that's Glockner territory! :-)


1 Ohio St
16 Play-in: UNC Asheville/Alabama State

8 Washington
9 George Mason

5 Temple
12 Virginia Tech

4 Syracuse
13 Princeton

6 Vanderbilt
11 Colorado

3 Louisville
14 Bucknell

10 Villanova

2 North Carolina
15 Akron

WEST (Plays East in Final Four National Semifinals - One Half Of Bracket)

1 Duke
16 Hampton

8 Missouri
9 Richmond

5 W Virginia
12 Illinois

4 Kentucky
13 Belmont

6 Georgetown
11 Mich State

3 San Diego State
14 Indiana State

7 Old Dominion
10 Tennessee

2 Notre Dame
15 Boston U


1 Pitt
16 Play-in: UTSA/UALR

8 Utah State

5 Texas A&M
12 FIRST FOUR: Georgia/Clemson

4 Wisconsin
13 Morehead St

6 Xavier
11 Memphis

3 Purdue
14 Long Island

7 Cincy
10 Gonzaga

2 Texas
15 Northern Colorado


1 Kansas
16 Santa Barbara

8 Florida State
9 Marquette

5 St. John's
12 FIRST FOUR: Penn State/VCU

13 Wofford

6 Arizona
11 Butler

3 Florida
14 Oakland

7 Kansas State
10 Michigan

2 Connecticut
15 St. Peter's

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Politics Is Local, Sex Is Personal… But The Implications Are Profound

An Essay On Everything, Not Just Brandon Davies and BYU

It’s quite ironic that in my double-life on Twitter, the account ostensibly devoted solely to college sports (and nothing else) became the account that has forced me to “out” myself to a readership I wanted to shield from my political and religious views. When I comment on sports at @MattZemek_CFN, I have always wanted to make my comments solely about sports, leaving politics out of the equation. Yes, in my columns for College Football News, I have injected (and will continue to inject) politics into the equation at times, but I’ve done so only when I’ve felt it absolutely necessary to make an important point with a maximum amount of impact. Now, however, it seems that it’s pointless to maintain the division between Twitter accounts. The Brandon Davies-BYU story has made such segregation virtually impossible.

Please pull up a chair, then, and make sure you have a good 30 minutes of free time before you read this essay. If the Davies/BYU story and its myriad implications are to be discussed in an adult manner, a few 140-character tweets certainly won’t suffice. Moreover, confining this issue to premarital sex or out-of-wedlock births would also fail to do justice to the real center of this conversation: life, and more specifically, how it can be lived in full.

If you are pressed for time, or if you’ve been moved to think about BYU’s honor code (as it pertains to premarital sex, not caffeine or other matters of lesser import) in a deeper way and want outside reading to inform your evolving perspective, may I suggest that you read about the life of Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement in depression-era New York on May 1, 1933. The Long Loneliness is Day’s powerful autobiography. Love is the Measure, by Jim Forest, is regarded as the definitive biography. In 2003, Rosalie Riegel collected remembrances of Day in the book Dorothy Day: Portraits By Those Who Knew Her. It would satisfy my curiosity to know how many of you have even heard of Dorothy Day, because in many ways, she forms an important root of this larger conversation about sex, the healthy society, and the flourishing of the human person.

Let’s give the (very) short story about Dorothy Day for those not interested in further study: She grew up as a radical journalist, a communist and anarchist. She drank and partied wildly with other writers in big-city environments during the heady times that marked the first quarter of America’s 20th century. She had an abortion and would not have lived very long on the BYU campus – let’s put it that way. However, the birth of her first child in many ways shocked her and created a wellspring of powerful feeling that led her toward Roman Catholicism, away from the beliefs of friends and – over the course of the following decades – her foremost lover, Forster Batterham. (This is a clue to the title of her autobiography, The Long Loneliness.) Day’s life encompassed quite radical and seemingly counterintuitive positions; she acquired the appearance of a liberal protestor on economic and foreign-policy issues, but she grew into a quite orthodox Catholic whose style and manner of worship cuts against so much of the prevailing liberal sentiment against organized religion. Day, as a Catholic, was an immensely complicated person, and that’s the jumping-off point to my story and the deeper layers of context behind L’Affaire (or affair?) Davies.

No, Catholics don’t have a monopoly on truth… or evil… or complexity. It’s the same for any group (Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, anyone). However, what I can say as a Catholic myself is that Catholicism doesn’t fit neatly into one political or ideological framework. The same Church that is staunchly opposed to abortion is just as adamant in its support of illegal immigrants. The same Church that presided over decades of abuse of minors in multiple continents is supportive of labor unions. The same Church that has undeniably presided over profound persecutions in its long and tortured history is also the same church that inspired Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and prophetic modern-day voices such as Richard Rohr and Ronald Rolheiser, my foremost spiritual guides and a pair of men who would (I dare say) make a lot of secular lefties think that maybe religion can still be done well after all. Catholicism is a complicated realm, and it’s because I inhabit it that the Brandon Davies story absolutely requires a delicate, multi-layered unpacking.

Let’s now step back on a number of levels and see this story in its fullness: In many ways, the overarching theme of this piece – for people of all faiths and viewpoints, all races and creeds and ways of life, all ideological and political worldviews, and all forms of intellectual architectures – is that one act/statement/effort in one realm of human activity cannot be so easily equated with a larger opinion/verdict/attitude toward other realms of life. Last night’s Twitter rant – like the productive discussions that followed it – was still necessarily limited by time and space, not to mention Twitter’s snack-size method of content delivery. Here is an extended attempt to do justice to all the responses I received last night… responses that transcend the narrow context of Brandon Davies with one woman in one relationship.

The first thing to appreciate about the BYU honor code (and the strong reactions it has generated) is that it needs to be separated from the Mormon Church at large. Similarly, the behavior of Brandon Davies needs to be separated from BYU’s larger purpose in instilling the honor code in the first place. This is where last night’s discussion became fragmented and ran far afield. Let’s now try to arrive at a better understanding of each other and – more importantly – progress as human persons who have different life stories and – hence – unavoidably different perspectives on what it means to live a full and well-ordered life.

The individual act of having sex outside of or before marriage can be done well, faithfully, and honorably. Was Brandon Davies’s behavior inherently or objectively wrong? No, it wasn’t and isn’t. I don’t get (or have) the right to make that call. Similarly, I don’t get to say that premarital sex is objectively or inherently wrong. It could very well be that Davies and his girlfriend have established a relationship built on solid ground. None of us – critics or supporters – truly knows, but if indeed a young man and woman express their sexuality with care and delicacy, surely no wrong or harm is being committed.

The foremost tension point in this particular discussion is that a truly flourishing society should involve the free choice of the best and most ideal behavior, behavior conducive to social goods. As you can see, there are two components to that sentence: free choice and ideal behavior. The Brandon Davies story is understandably (even rightly) sensitive and contentious – we all saw how much critical mass the story acquired on Twitter last night, and how quickly it surged to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness – because it so powerfully exposed deeply-rooted tension points in American society. Without assigning views or outlooks to any one political or religious group, it can be said that there are considerable strains of thought in America that are fighting for centrality and primacy. One such strain is the libertarian strain, in which the individual person, unfettered and fully autonomous, should choose for his/her own life course. Another strain holds that the common good is the foremost goal of society and that, given our dependent nature as human persons, our institutions and laws should facilitate communal flourishing.

Are you beginning to sense the larger reasons why the BYU honor code has all of us talking and has formed such a profound outpouring of necessarily emotional (but thoughtful and soulful) commentary?

Just wait – the landscape of immense social and cultural fragmentation is only beginning to be outlined.

All of the above tensions get multiplied by a factor of 1,000 when one then realizes that the foremost competing strains of America’s three spheres of life – the cultural, the spiritual, and the political – get turned in different directions depending on the relevant institutions involved. When the center of a public debate is a religious institution, the American Left and the American Right, by and large (not every lefty or every righty, but a predominance thereof), acquire one very distinct set of views. When the center of public debate shifts to a governmental institution or outlet, a very different set of views emerges. It is something of a generalization, I admit, but generalizations – like clich├ęs – do indeed possess a certain amount of truth at their core. So it is in politics, culture and spirituality.

Liberals and conservatives in America see institutionalized churches and governments in very different ways when said churches and governments exist and/or agitate beyond an intimately local level. Just a little bit of reflection and observation should lead anyone – Left, Right, or Center (or beyond those frames of political labeling or understanding) – to the not-very-controversial conclusion that liberals (secular or religious) will generally view the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church with the same levels of antipathy that American conservatives will generally reserve for the Federal Government. Whereas liberals will (again, it’s a generalization, but one with a fundamental amount of truth) angrily tell Church and Government to “get out of my bedroom,” the conservative will tell Government to “get out of my wallet and my workplace.” Whereas liberals have a deep distrust of institutionalized religion, conservatives – especially religious ones – worry that Christianity (in particular) is losing a foothold in this country. On a number of fronts, liberals and conservatives might share the same distrust of Church or Government on a national (even global) scope and scale, but the roots and reasons for such suspicion will often be diametrically different.

I, for instance, think Barack Obama’s a horrible president because his use of predator drones makes him a war criminal, a man guilty of excessive force in violation of international law and the specific prohibition of disproportionate force. (His courting of and obedience to the likes of Wall Street power brokers and life-destroyers Larry Summers and Robert Rubin also damns him in my eyes.) Conservatives intensely dislike and disapprove of Obama with just as much vigor as I do… for reasons that are 180 degrees different. Same disapproval; entirely different reasons. This dynamic quite definitely exists with Americans’ attitudes toward churches and governments. What we reserve our anger for; what elicits our strongest responses; what commands our moral center differs markedly from person to person, and the Church-Government split illustrates this most profoundly.

Having established this broadly-outlined parameter, let’s appreciate why the Brandon Davies story is so unavoidably tangled and messy. Let’s now try to sift one argument from another, and one verdict here from one verdict over there.

The BYU honor code fails in that it restricts free choice on a certain level. That point is not in dispute. Then again, when a person such as Brandon Davies freely chooses to submit to that code knowing full well the consequences of premarital sex if he were to engage in it, it’s not as though free choice is being completely eroded.

The BYU honor code was stringently enforced in this case, eliciting the reasonable and heartfelt response from some quarters that there’s no room for forgiveness, mercy or redemption. That’s a valid point. BYU is aiming to promote ideal behavior, but those of a certain libertarian viewpoint (not all forms of libertarianism, mind you, but some) are making the understandable claim that Brandon Davies – like any young person – needs to be allowed to learn and grow from his own sexual choices. It’s not as though sexual behavior and expression can be uniformly enforced and regulated in mass society. It is indeed true that good theology – Christian or any other religion – demands that choices be free. Without the free choosing of virtue, virtue doesn’t really exist. “Conscripted or forced virtue” is an oxymoronic statement. That point is not only reasonable; it’s valid and weighted with real-world truth. Jesus did not force people to act in certain ways; he strongly challenged and encouraged the people of his time, but he didn’t hold people at theological gunpoint. If you are a critic of the BYU honor code, the stringent nature of its enforcement, and of my defense of BYU for this subset of reasons, you’re making the right response. You’re offering the best and most salient criticisms under the sun.

Now, with that having been said, let’s balance the discussion. Rightly noting the deficiencies of squelching human agency and autonomy – especially in the realm of something so powerfully personal and intimate as sexuality – should not lead one to then say that BYU’s honor code and its enforcement are creating a net-negative effect in the larger stream of culture. Hundreds of thousands of abortions (if not millions; I’m using very conservative numbers as a starting point) take place in America each year. No, I’m not trying to start an abortion debate here; I’m merely noting that more than a few abortions occur in America. Whether you support abortion rights or not, it should be nearly unanimous (I know one Twitter follower who disagrees with the following statement…) that the reality of an abortion’s occurrence is a sad event… no, not (universally) in the sense that a woman had access to the abortion procedure, but sad in the sense that, at some point, a pregnancy acquired the dimensions of a crisis or burden and not the dimensions of a joyful reality, of a life about to be brought into the fullness of existence and with a good chance of flourishing. (Remember, human flourishing should be kept in mind as the ultimate goal of all of this…)

In some cases, an abortion occurs because of rape. In some cases, biology interferes and causes a threat to the life of the mother, as was the situation in that noted Phoenix incident at St. Joseph’s Hospital (the place where I was born in 1975) which caused Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted (the kind of bishop that gives Catholicism a very bad name and justifies all the secular-liberal gripes with the Church) to severely overreact and paint the Church as the raging hypocritical monster it often is on matters of sexuality.

In some cases, an abortion occurs because a woman just doesn’t think she can provide for her child. In some cases, an abortion occurs because the biological father runs away. Whatever the reason, something sad, something lamentable – not cause for moral judgment, but something simply to weep about (as John’s Gospel 11:35 reminds us) – takes place. Very simply, then, BYU – for all the ways in which its honor code militates against the free choice of a life course and of the behaviors that give shape to it – is trying to promote that other part of the well-lived life and the well-ordered society. The free choice part might be lacking, but BYU is aiming to enshrine and establish ideal behaviors in our society.

Please, secular liberals reading this essay, can we agree on this much? Can we agree that hard sociological data and empirical statistical evidence point to better life outcomes for two-parent households (not straight two-parent households; different issue!!!!!), in-wedlock births, and stable marriages? Can we agree with Christian conservatives (and former basketball star A.C. Green, who was laughed at and scorned more than admired for his public pronouncements on this subject) that abstinence is a generally good thing?

Look – as a liberal Catholic (a self-described “Vatican 3” Catholic who is very much in favor of a substantial overhaul of Church procedures and practices, and whose favorite pope is John XXIII, aka Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli; look him up), I’m not only aware of institutional Church hypocrisies, outrages and sins committed against (and in the name of) sexual morality; I condemn them in the strongest terms possible, to the extent that I am fully in favor of substantial reforms in the Church. (Women priests? Yes. Allow birth control at the immediate/night-of/morning-after level? Yes. Those are highly unorthodox positions for a Catholic to take.)

Moreover, beyond specific issue positions – and this may surprise those of you who engaged me in discussion last night – I would not argue with anyone who claims that the institutional Catholic Church no longer deserves to be taken seriously on matters of sexual morality. Given that the Mormon Church – which, at its highest institutional levels, shares a fundamental conservatism with the Vatican – worked very hard to enact Proposition 8 (the anti-gay marriage measure) in California, I don’t regard the Mormon Church as a foremost authority on sexuality, either. (Polygamy is a separate issue that’s beyond the ability of this discussion to either contain or meaningfully address. Just note that I’m aware of its presence as a complicating factor here for a lot of readers.)

However, as the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth, to say that institutional churches and church structures should not be taken seriously DOES NOT MEAN (yes, it needs to be in caps because of the degree of emphasis I’m injecting into this point) that the core principle pushed by a belief system is wrong or deficient.

Catholics who are aware of the Church’s recent history (in Church terms, “recent” means the past three or four centuries) know that the intense and polarizing disagreements about sexuality in the Church stem from Pope Paul VI’s 1968 birth-control encyclical Humanae Vitae (this is another thing to look up if you really want to learn about the tension points at work in the Brandon Davies/BYU honor code story). Talk to priests about this (I have), and you’ll get lots of different reactions, but the consensus is that the papal letter beautifully expresses the highest ideals of what human sexuality should be and can potentially become, all while failing to allow for the messy parts of human sexuality that demand common-sense measures, measures which can prevent out-of-wedlock births, crisis pregnancies, and all the truly worrisome outcomes that either lead to abortions or to lives brought up in disadvantageous positions (poverty, single-parent households, undereducated households, divorced/fragmented households, etc.). The failure of Humanae Vitae is in many ways the failure of organized religion over an extended period of time: It espouses a truly noble, good and beautiful set of beliefs and ideals on paper but fails to supplement that vision with an accordingly appropriate dose of realism about human behavior on a mass scale; the result of such a gap between theory and reality, between theology and real-world policy, is in so many ways the gap that’s being exposed in the BYU-Davies episode.

Yes, large-scale church structures have a great deal to answer for (and repent for, and apologize for, and make amends for). Yes, to briefly detour from sexuality and broaden the critique even more, religion – through its extremist manifestations across multiple faiths – has caused a great deal of harm throughout the centuries. (One should add that since religion is ostensibly supposed to be dedicated to the project of bringing humanity closer to God in relationship, the sins committed by religion carry a sting worse than the sins of governments; this is a source of legitimate liberal angst and fury that conservatives need to be aware of. The woundedness of liberals who either grow up atheist/agnostic/secular or become ex-Catholic/ex-Christian/ex-mainline-churched individuals is one of the core reasons for our immense politico-ideological divide in America. If this unavoidably painful reality was ever addressed in cross-boundary conversations over a sustained period of time, our nation would heal. I guarantee it. Alas, this is a different discussion for a different day… gotta wind this puppy up.)

HOWEVER… all the sins of organized, institutionalized religion do not mean that the reality or necessity of institutionalized religion should be lowered in the public’s estimation. Much as the debate between “big government” and “limited government” is a false one, so too is the debate between “institutionalized/organized religion” and its absence. We don’t need a certain size of government; we need good governance from leaders who are competent, skilled, ethical, moral and virtuous. We don’t need to sustain the current structure and the attendant moral rot (with all its latent hypocrisy) of Pope Benedict and all the other enablers of sexual abuse over the past 40 years of Vatican machinations, but to argue for sweeping reform in institutional Catholicism should not be seen as tantamount to saying that the Church’s sexual teachings are completely baseless and without merit. Critics of the Mormon Church should keep that same distinction in mind. These and other churches are trying to promote wise, sober, responsible behaviors that lead to life in full, life that has a maximum chance of flourishing, life that is birthed in contexts where two people have arrived at a firmness and strength of commitment; a place of appreciable financial security (not total, but appreciable); a mutual sharing of enduring values; and a fully considered, ripened, multi-textured love that will enflesh the Scripture which says, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I (Jesus, God incarnate) in the midst of them.”

There are clear value-negative actions and realities to decry in this world: Violence, abuse, thievery, fraud, hypocrisy, and so forth. Churches – including Catholic and Mormon institutions – have plenty to repent for, but while the institutions and the organized structures suffer (because they’re led by imperfect beings, just like you and I), the need for coherent religious teachings doesn’t cease to exist. Nor does the need for good leadership in these churches, and for good people of faith to model their creeds in the best and most life-affirming ways possible.

The Mormon Church does a number of things that I, as a Catholic and (separately) as a liberal – disagree with. This doesn’t mean the promotion of abstinence from premarital sex is wrong. The Catholic Church does a number of things – including, even especially, in the realms of sexuality and gender – that I strongly disagree with. This doesn’t mean that the promotion of abstinence from premarital sex is wrong, a net-negative or even value-neutral policy/aim/goal. (And no, in case you’re wondering, the U.S. Federal Government has no business using money to promote abstinence…)

I’ll wrap this up with, ironically enough, a sports reference that will hopefully provide a proper parallel through which to frame this larger discussion as you carry it with you in your own circles. In American culture, fans often reserve their worst critiques and their most vigorous outpourings of both intellectual and emotional energy for teams that lose championship games. The 1990s Buffalo Bills are a punching bag and have been as much for 20 years. The 1980s Denver Broncos and 1970s Minnesota Vikings acquired similar reputations to the point that their fans preferred to lose in the conference championship round so that they wouldn’t have to endure another Super Bowl loss. This dynamic holds true in many other sports; I dare say, virtually every sport. “Second place is the first loser” and its cousin statement, “(Player/Coach X) can’t win the big game – he’s pathetic!”, have acquired enormous centrality and primacy in our sporting discussions over the past few decades. Being second-best – which, in the narrow confines of on-field sports performance, is undeniably positive in almost every instance – is viewed by a preponderance of public sentiment as negative.

As I tell readers of my college football columns who bash coaches that lose in BCS bowl games or BCS championship games (Frank Beamer and Bob Stoops come to mind), “If you really want to rip someone; if you really want to identify a lack of quality in on-field results, rip the teams that truly underachieve. Rip the UCLAs, Clemsons, Pittsburghs, Ole Misses, Texas A&Ms (post-R.C. Slocum and Jackie Sherrill, of course) and Arizona States of the world. Put Virginia Tech and Oklahoma 70th or 80th in your queue of criticisms.”

In other words, don’t view what is (narrowly and locally) virtue as sin instead; don’t reserve the balance of your anger for a policy that - in its own small context - is virtuous, even if there’s a large and undeniable backdrop of hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness and intolerance on the part of the (corrupt/rotten/wayward) institution promoting said policy. You don’t have to take institutions seriously when they betray the public trust (Catholicism) or fight for things (anti-gay marriage) you intensely disagree with (Mormonism). You should respect an individual effort/aim when it does indeed try to bring about what is – as any credible sociologist would tell you – a good social outcome: the (never guaranteed but certainly likely) stability of the American family and of children born within it. That’s what BYU’s honor code is about. That’s why the school suspended Brandon Davies, in a larger attempt to educate its students about the philosophy it wants them to buy into and apply to their own lives.

By all means, regard organized religion as guilty of many sins and as unworthy of being taken seriously. Please, though, don’t regard all acts/pronouncements/exhortations of a deeply flawed ecclesial superstructure as flawed (inherently or situationally) just because said ecclesial superstructure IS flawed.

Jesus lived a great and noble life. Do the failings of Catholics and Mormons (and various Protestant/evangelical pastors, many of whom are closet gays and have reinforced the reality of sexual hypocrisy from the pulpit) mean that Jesus’s teachings are less worthy of being followed? Does this point – the center of the Left-Right divide in America on most, if not all, issues – begin to sink in? Maybe it can’t just yet, but I hope that your act of wrestling with this essay (and your attempt to look up the names mentioned periodically within it) will eventually lead you to that place.


POSTSCRIPT: As I arrive at the conclusion of this impromptu essay, generated by the fires of an endlessly layered issue with so many tentacles and offshoots that extend into so many aspects of human life, I realize how little ground I’ve covered. I realize that as much as I’ve written today, there are only so many things one can talk about. You are not only welcome, but encouraged, to continue this conversation. My e-mail is I will be especially free to engage you in further dialogue on Wednesday, April 6, when NCAA basketball (men and women) finally comes to an end. -MZ