Friday, May 7, 2010

Non-Responsive Government; Communal Alienation; I See the Stars; Rabbinic BS-Meter; Animal Life

1. Samuel C. Hyde, Jr., Pistols and Politics: The Dilemma of Democracy in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes, 1810-1899, pages 68-69:

Numerous bills exempting slave property from taxation and appropriating state funds as remuneration to owners of slaves convicted of crimes secured passage in the legislature and from local government…In supporting bills of this nature, the piney-woods legislators demonstrated their fealty to the planters and concomitantly reduced the state funds available to improve the quality of life of the plain folk. In February, 1850, the legislators from the piney woods voted against a bill to establish free public schools statewide. The measure would have substantially increased funding for existing public schools and would have provided for the creation of new ones at a time when parish superintendents of education relentlessly bemoaned the absence of state support for education. The annual report of Henry Duncan, Livingston Parish superintendent of education, illustrated the deplorable status of public education in Louisiana and the increasing tendency to see government as abusive rather than ameliorative. According to Duncan, “the funds apportioned to this parish will hardly keep a school three months, and parents think they are oppressed, that they have to pay their taxes and receive no benefit of any importance from it”…

Throughout the 1850s the pattern of neglecting the needs of the plain folk in the Louisiana legislature continued with the passage of bills unfriendly to their welfare. These bills ranged from the removal of restrictions on rates of interest money lenders could charge to conservative governor Robert Wickliffe’s program to reduce the amount of state expenditures in support of “objects of an educational and charitable nature.” Collectively, these bills and others of a similar disposition served to make life more difficult for Louisiana’s plain folk. In combination with the planters’ increasing control over the economy in the piney woods, these measures frustrated the plain folk’s efforts to enjoy their fair share of the prosperity occurring in this period.

These quotes stood out to me because they touch on political debates over the role of government, which have challenged the United States for more than two centuries. Should the government do more in the domestic sphere, or should it do less? Should it try to “spread the wealth around”? And could antagonism towards big government be rooted in a feeling that government is not responsive to people’s concerns? When people pay taxes and don’t believe they’re getting their money’s worth, even as they experience the harsh hand of government, can that fuel an anti-government backlash?

I’m also reminded of the importance of voting. I know, the political system is corrupt, but if we don’t show up to make known our policy preferences, somebody else will take our place, and the results may not be pretty.

2. Erhard Gerstenberger, Psalms, Part I with an Introduction to Cultic Poetry, page 127:

Psalm 27 is unusual in its strong emphasis on confidence (vv. 1-6, 13). This stress is apparently intended to strengthen “natural” bonds between the sufferer and God, before entering the petition to be delivered to Yahweh. The so-called songs of confidence seem to have played much the same role in complain ceremonies as vv. 1-6 did (see Psalms 23 and 62). If my structural analysis is accurate, then, the psalm as a whole served the needs of afflicted persons, aiming at reintegrating them into the community.

Psalm 27 appears to be an individualistic Psalm, in which an individual expresses confidence in God. I love v 10, in which the Psalmist affirms that, even if his parents were to forsake him, the LORD would take him up. Indeed, much of the Psalm is about alienation from one’s community, as the Psalmist contends with cruel enemies and false witnesses. Yet, the Psalmist finds his strength in the LORD. Joel Osteen once commented on this Psalm that, even if everyone on the face of the earth rejects you, God accepts you. My predicament hasn’t gotten that far, but it’s good to know that, no matter how alienated I can become from other people, God is still there to be my strength.

But, ironically, Gerstenberger says that this individualistic Psalm aims to reintegrate the alienated sufferer into the community. Maybe that’s because the sufferer is singing this Psalm in the church of his day, whether that be the temple or his local cult, alongside others who are seeking the face of the LORD. It’s good to know that, even when I feel alienated, I’m not alone in my alienation, for there are other lonely folks with problems who look to God for help. I may or may not be able to interact with them effectively—though I do try to show them that I care through online prayer boards. But I feel a bond with them in the sense that we both have problems and desire wholeness.

3. Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, page 255:

Aristotle went so far as to declare the spectacle of the starred sky to be one of the two origins of religion (the other being dreams…)…

Jonas mentions this in the context of the ancient religious tendency to honor astral bodies. There’s something about the astral bodies that makes us feel small. This is especially true when we look at a starry sky. And it’s understandable why people worshipped the sun. Its brightness can blind us, and it’s responsible for the life of plants, which nourish us. Deuteronomy 4:19 warns the Israelites against worshipping the sun, the moon, and the hosts of heaven. And yet, even monotheistic religions often appeal to these heavenly bodies to buttress their own claims. “Have you ever wondered who made all these stars?”, some Christians ask non-believers when they witness. Or Christians may testify, “Even when I was a non-believer, I would look up at the stars and conclude that there must be a God.” The Bible itself affirms that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19).

I think of the Lion King, when Simba, Timone, and Pumba are looking at the stars at night. Simba says the stars are lion kings who have passed away. Pumba says that they are burning balls of gas, which evokes Timone’s laughter, even though we the scientifically-educated viewers know that Pumba is correct.

Does science take the mystery and beauty out of nature, leading us to regard it with less awe? I have to admit that Simba’s explanation bedazzles me more. And yet, even in the world of reality, the stars are larger than our planet, and they’re so far away. Many of them are larger even than our sun! They still can make us feel small in the vast universe. But what is their point for existing? Are they just there?

4. Richard Sarason, A History of the Mishnaic Law of Agriculture: A Study of Tractate Demai, page 137:

But he is not believed, either for stringency or for leniency, if he claims to sell wine that is four or five years old. We assume that he is exaggerating in order to make a sale, since, in any case, he will not remember the exact age of the wine or its exact status with regard to tithing obligations.

The rabbis had a good BS-meter!

5. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, page 50:

The impurity system [of P] pits the forces of life against the forces of death, reaching an ethical summit in the blood prohibition. Not only is blood identified with life; it is also declared inviolable. If the unauthorized taking of animal life is equating with murder, how much more so is the illegal taking of human life? And if the long list of prohibited animals has as its aim the restriction of meat to three domestic quadrupeds, whose blood (according to H) must be offered up on the altar of the central sanctuary, what else could the compliant Israelite derive from the arduous discipline except that all life must be treated with reverence?

This interested me, in light of Ken Pulliam’s posts: The Christian Delusion: Chapter Nine–The Darwinian Problem of Evil and More on Animal Suffering. Why do animals suffer? Many Christians respond, “the Fall”, but that doesn’t fly with eveybody because of evolution, the fossil record, and the integral role that animal death plays in the circle of life. Some say that Satan caused the state of affairs in which animals suffer. Other Christians argue that the deaths of animals are not overly important and may have existed before the Fall, since humans are made in God’s image, whereas animals are not. Yet, Isaiah 11:6-9 predicts a time when animals will be at peace with each other and will not hurt or destroy.

I’m not sure why animals suffer, but I appreciate that, even though the Torah commands animal sacrifices, it did so while pushing the Israelites to respect life—to realize that the shedding of blood was a serious thing. Even when one kills an animal, he is snuffing the life out of that creature. One minute, the creature is breathing and reacting to the world. The next minute, it’s a lifeless corpse. There’s something serious about that.

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