Piece of string? I’m a frayed knot

Piece of string? I’m a frayed knot August 7, 2019

• This is what we evangelical Christian types call a “personal testimony.” And it’s a personal testimony told in the pages of a newspaper because it was never invited or permitted or made welcome to be told in church. Let he who has ears to hear listen (male pronoun deliberate and necessary there).

• That testimony is very much related to this USAToday infographic on “Abortion views by religious groups.” That graphic uses data from a 2014 survey, but it’s not likely to have changed much since these numbers have barely budged over the past generation. The 2014 responses pretty much echo the 2004 responses, and the 1994 responses.

Those findings regarding Catholic and [white] evangelical Protestant beliefs are interesting. Half of American Catholics believe abortion should be legal. A solid third (or more) of white evangelicals believe that too. And, again, those numbers didn’t change during the 1990s, or from 2000 to at least 2014.

That last fact is the astonishing bit when we consider how much time, money, and attention both the Catholic church and every official or semi-official white evangelical institution has spent over the past 25 years emphasizing that opposition to legal abortion is a bedrock, non-negotiable, mandatory cornerstone of their doctrine. Local clergy, media figures, and national leaders of both faith communities talk about this all the time, unambiguously, insisting there is no wiggle room here for any dissent from this foundational, required position.

And yet half of all Catholics and a third of white evangelicals haven’t been convinced by any of that. They’ve heard all the best arguments and all of the repeated assertions and found them unpersuasive.

Go to a white evangelical mega-church and wait for the pastor to intone the usual boilerplate about the paramount necessity of opposing legal abortion and, as he goes on, look to your right and look to your left. At least one of you isn’t buying it.

Look to your right and to your left at a Catholic church when the priest inevitably does this and you’re likely to make eye contact with someone giving you a clear “Here we go again” eye-roll. (The priests at three of the last four Catholic funerals — funerals! — I’ve attended managed to shoehorn in a pro forma rant about criminalizing abortion and each time the skin-crawling discomfort in the room was intense.)

This steady level of massive dissent is even stranger when we consider that both of these groups — Catholics and white evangelicals — have been contracting over this period. One might expect that the departure of the “nones” and the “exvangelicals” etc. would leave a more doctrinaire core that would more strictly adhere to this mandatory dogma. But that hasn’t happened. Half of Catholics and a third of white evangelicals still reject the relentlessly hammered-at message that criminalizing abortion is the only acceptable option, and they still do so despite a generation of perpetual reminders and threats that any disagreement on this matter will result in expulsion from the community.

Here, again, is where many who regard themselves as white evangelical “leaders” will refuse to believe these survey responses. It strikes them as impossible that one third of evangelicals believe abortion should be legal because they’ve never heard anyone they would regard as a legitimate evangelical say such a thing.

Well, duh. Evangelicals aren’t allowed to say such a thing. When you spend massive amounts of time and energy informing people that you absolutely will not be able to handle it well if they say X, they’re unlikely to say X, out loud, where you’ll ever hear it.

Because, again, you’ve made it clear that they cannot trust you to hear it. You’ve made it clear that you will not listen to them — that instead you will seek to punish them for telling you.

And that doesn’t just make it extremely unlikely that they’ll ever tell you what they really think, it also undermines all of your arguments and assertions and insistences. A vindictive, punitive response to disagreement is not a sign you have confidence in the truth of your mandated “stance.”

Anyway, that infographic was part of this fascinating article by Lindsay Schnell, “Jews, outraged by restrictive abortion laws, are invoking the Hebrew Bible in the debate.” That headline isn’t quite apt. The Jewish believers quoted in the article are upset by the criminalization of abortion, but what really has them “outraged” is the way that anti-abortionist Christians are mangling the Hebrew scriptures in order to manufacture the anti-abortion prooftexts that the text itself does not supply.

We’ve noted here that this mangling of the Hebrew scriptures has gone as far as to rewrite English translations of the Bible to make them say the opposite of what they have always said in Hebrew.

N.B.: Schnell includes a quote from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who you should definitely be following on Twitter and also just following in general because she’s a wise leader and following wise leaders is better than following the other kind.

• Following the mass-killings in El Paso and Dayton, former president Barack Obama released a statement sharing his grief over the deaths of so many Americans. The statement concluded with these words:

We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racists sentiments; leaders who demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as sub-human, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people. Such language isn’t new — it’s been at the root of most human tragedy throughout history, here in America and around the world. It is at the root of slavery and Jim Crow, the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It has no place in our politics and our public life. And it’s time for the overwhelming majority of Americans of goodwill, of every race and faith and political party, to say as much — clearly and unequivocally.

This statement angered Donald Trump. It angered Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham and many other TV “personalities” at Fox News. It angered Mitch McConnell and many other Republican lawmakers. It angered Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell Jr. and David Barton. They responded angrily and defensively, certain that they were being singled out and attacked.

That’s revealing. Because read it again. Obama’s very general statement condemning the language of ethnic superiority and racial division does not mention any of them. It doesn’t mention their names or affiliations. It doesn’t single out or attack anyone by name.

Yet here were all of these folks lining up to insist that they had been named and singled out. They rushed forward to volunteer that this was talking about them.

That’s not wrong, but it’s not wrong only because they chose and continue to choose to make it about them.

These folks are all conceding — heck, they’re bragging — that any time someone seeks to unite “Americans of goodwill” they feel excluded and attacked because they know that this is not a category in which they have ever sought to be included.

• And now some good news for people of goodwill. And it’s not even new news: “Stop building a spaceship to Mars and just plant some damn trees.”

A new study … in the journal Science, offers a sliver of hope for the world: A group of researchers based in Switzerland, Italy, and France found that expanding forests, which sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, could seriously make up for humans’ toxic carbon emissions.

In 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s foremost authority on climate, estimated that we’d need to plant 1 billion hectares of forest by 2050 to keep the globe from warming a full 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. (One hectare is about twice the size of a football field.) Not only is that “undoubtedly achievable,” according to the study’s authors, but global tree restoration is “our most effective climate change solution to date.”

So let me again recommend Jean Giono’s lovely little parable, The Man Who Planted Trees. It’s beautiful and one-sitting short. It is both about hope and a source thereof.

There is, however, something of a fairy-tale atmosphere in Giono’s story. The holy fool of the title works his hopeful magic in the countryside and wilderness, and those storybook regions aren’t as accessible or available to most of us the way they were to such a person a century ago in Alpine France. The challenge for us, in other words, isn’t just about paying for a billion hectares worth of acorns. The greater obstacle is that any given billion hectares of land is likely “owned” by some short-term-profit-sucking vampire who’s probably more interested in fracking than in planting trees and who would almost certainly have The Man Who Planted Trees arrested for trespassing.

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