Category: Reflections of the Fall

When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life — particularly human life — such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may “break” a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head.

Erich Fromm was acutely sensitive to this fact when he broadened the definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others-to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line. Distinguishing it from a “biophilic” person, one who appreciates and fosters the variety of life forms and the uniqueness of the individual, he demonstrated a “necrophilic character type,” whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity.

Evil then, for the moment, is the force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.”
― (M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil).

On Sept 26, 2010, a man was discovered hanging in the basement of the D.C. home he shared with his new wife. The man was an ace attorney who had been part of the botched government prosecution against Alaska senator Ted Stevens, and he was now facing a long investigation of his own role in the fiasco. In a fascinating article entitled “Casualties of Justice” the New Yorker magazine detailed the tragedy of Nicholas Marks:

Marsh woke up and went downstairs to the basement. At around three in the afternoon, Bermudez went to check on him, but he wasn’t in front of the television. He had hanged himself near the washer and dryer. There was no note.
Bermudez still lives in the home she shared with Marsh, and his voice still greets callers on the answering machine. “I don’t think I understood the depths of how the allegations affected him,” she told me. “He took his duties and his ethical obligations very much to heart. Even thinking that his career would be over was just too much for him. The idea that someone thought he did something wrong was just too much to bear.”

I find myself quoting pastor and author Tim Keller perhaps a bit too often these days, but this tragic story reminds me of some wise words he has said about work:
One of the scary things to me about this whole approach is that the culture’s approach weirdly enough is supposed to be liberating but it’s actually quite crushing. … But today in our modern culture, your work becomes your identity. How much money becomes your identity. It’s not just what you do but who you are! And that will crush you. (sermon transcript available here).

By all accounts Marsh was a very smart young attorney who had a bright future. He allowed a singular focus on career to become the entire locus of his identity, and when something went wrong it derailed him. This temptation to make an idol of career, to pin godlike hopes on it, is a common temptation, particularly in our culture. This is a tragic mistake. We are of course to work, and furthermore to “work as for the Lord”, giving our best efforts, striving for excellence; work is a good thing, but we shouldn’t let it become an ultimate thing. Our identity doesn’t come from what we do: “Our identity in Christ is received, not achieved.” (Keller)

The article about Nicholas Marsh concludes:

… Although Marsh’s reputation had suffered a severe and largely deserved fall for his actions in the Stevens case, skilled lawyers have rallied from far worse professional disasters. There is every reason to believe that he would have gone on to a distinguished career, and perhaps even to the judgeship he sought. But something in Marsh could not let the official system for discipline play out, and instead he imposed an unfathomably harsh punishment on himself.

Read more at The New Yorker.

Tired of the oversold flights, cancellations, and bad customer service that seem to be an unpleasant part of traveling by air? The airlines, their employees, and executives certainly have the most proximate responsibility over their day to day operations. But they are also dealing with a distant and menacing power that pressures everything they do. Like most of the corporate world, the airline industry is suffused with the infernal odor of greed, which emanates from Wall Street and permeates like a heavy and ever more stifling gas:

Relentless pressure on corporate America is creating an increasingly Dickensian experience for many consumers as companies focus on maximizing profit. And nowhere is the trend as stark as in the airline industry, whose service is delivered in an aluminum tube packed with up to four different classes, cheek by jowl, 35,000 feet in the air.
“There’s always been pressure from Wall Street,” said Robert L. Dilenschneider, a veteran public relations executive who advises companies and chief executives on strategic communications. “But I’ve been watching this for 30 years, and it’s never been as intense as it is today.”

Read it all at New York Times.

An interesting conflict has recently erupted within the hallowed halls of Duke University Divinity School. As I understand it, a renowned professor of Catholic theology, Paul Griffiths, was driven to resign, after daring to question the usefulness and political motives of a weekend workshop on racial reconciliation, to which all faculty were invited.

The problem began when he responded to an email circulated by a junior faculty member, Anathea Portier-Young, which sang the praises of the upcoming workshop: “Dear Faculty Colleagues, On behalf of the Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Standing Committee, I strongly urge you to participate in the Racial Equity Institute Phase I Training planned for March 4 and 5. … Those who have participated in the training have described it as transformative, powerful, and life-changing. We recognize that it is a significant commitment of time; we also believe it will have great dividends for our community. Please find the registration link below. Details about room location will be announced soon.”

Professor Griffiths apparently rolled his eyes and fired off a provocative, sarcasm laced email that exhorted his colleagues not to “lay waste their time”:

“I exhort you not to attend this training. Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty. When (if) it gets beyond that, its illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show. Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual. (Re)trainings of intellectuals by bureaucrats and apparatchiks have a long and ignoble history; I hope you’ll keep that history in mind as you think about this instance.

We here at Duke Divinity have a mission. Such things as this training are at best a distraction from it and at worst inimical to it. Our mission is to thnk, read, write, and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste. This training is a waste. Please, ignore it. Keep your eyes on the prize”

Almost immediately he was in hot water with his Dean, Elaine Heath, who fired off her own email, praising the upcoming Racial Equity training and warning all faculty:

It is inappropriate and unprofessional to use mass emails to make disparaging statements–including arguments ad hominem–in order to humiliate or undermine individual colleagues or groups of colleagues with whom we disagree. The use of mass emails to express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.

The Dean then insisted on a meeting with Griffiths in which he would not be allowed a representative, and he declined, prompting sanctions that include restriction from faculty meetings and no access to research funding.

Subsequently, the junior faculty member, Dr Portier-Young, lodged a complaint of harassment against Griffiths, via the University’s Office for Institutional Equity (OIE). He is accused of “use of racist and/or sexist speech in such a way as to constitute a hostile workplace.”

More information is available at the New York Times and elsewhere. The initial breaker of this story, and principle source of leaked documents is the blog The American Conservative.

This story has begun to reverberate around the web as an example of an ongoing purge of conservatives from higher education, though I’m not sure whether Professor Griffiths fully fits the mold of “conservative” based on other controversial stances alluded to in the New York Times piece. I also see this being mentioned as a parable of the chilling effect of “social justice warriors” on free speech and academic freedom, and this is certainly disturbing. It should be noted that Professor Griffiths wasn’t actually fired, or directly pressured to resign; he could have fought on for his right to express his opinion, rather than quitting and publicizing the emails. Still, he seems to have accurately described the situation when he criticized the far Left’s “illiberal and totalitarian tendencies.” It is dismaying what an intellectual straitjacket one must wear in academic circles just to survive.

Reflecting further on the express purpose of divinity schools, which is to train pastors, it is also dismaying to consider the potential spiritual wreckage of rampant political correctness. How many intellectually and spiritually eviscerated seminary grads are emerging from places like this and being foisted upon the churches of our land?

The tragic and mysterious demise of a beloved child star is still under investigation. Erin Moran was adored by millions as “Joanie” in the 1974-84 sitcom “Happy Days”, and its spin off show “Joanie Loves Chachi”. The web is full of stories today about her troubles following the end of her sitcom TV family.

One lesson to learn here is that fame and stardom don’t guarantee a good life or a happy end. Those who reached out to her have said that she rebuffed their attempts. Paul Peterson, a former child star and child-actor advocate, has been quoted as saying, “Erin had friends and she knew it. Abandonment was not the issue… We did our best with the resources available to us, but it was a very dark room. Some don’t find the light switch in time.” (Fox News). Her inner demons apparently included hard drinking, and it was partly drinking and partying that led to her becoming destitute.

Also, there appear to have been issues with her husband. People magazine reported in 2002 that “Moran later married Steve Fleischmann, a Walmart employee, in 1993. The couple moved into Fleischmann’s mother’s trailer in Indiana so Moran could act as her caregiver.” On the surface this might appear to be a compassionate act, but a 2013 public altercation reported by a tabloid calls this into question:

Steve was so angry he stormed out of the bar, and an intoxicated Erin hurled insults at him, like “Get the hell out of here, you big crybaby! Go home, crawl into bed and suck your thumb as you cry yourself to sleep, you mama’s boy!” (National Enquirer)

If this incident truly happened then it raises a question whether she may have been the victim of a “MEM”, or a “mother-enmeshed man”. (Of course this would be but pure speculation here).

What are we speaking of? A mother enmeshed man is the human wreckage left of someone raised by a narcissistic or otherwise domineering mother. A MEM is a man who in many ways is “married to mom”–some of these ways are obvious (particularly if she still calls the shots) and many are much less so (manifesting perhaps as emotional distance, or difficulty with trust). Such a man may be emotionally eviscerated and still controlled by the first great relationship of life–the mother-child relationship. (This can happen to daughters also). By the way, full disclosure here, it hurts me to speak of this, because I may have a whiff of this in my own life, my own marriage.

If you are in a relationship with a MEM, or if you are a man who feels that this may be you, then seek professional help. A helpful 2007 book on this subject is When He’s Married to Mom: How to Help Mother‑Enmeshed Men by Kenneth M. Adams.

Of course, we at this site would remiss if we did not advocate much prayer. And if you are in a covenant of marriage, the closer each of you grows in your relationship to God, the further and dimmer will be the other troubles, and the easier it will be to set healthy boundaries and overcome dysfunctional influences.

If it seems like certain viewpoints on college campuses are being enforced with a zeal that is almost religious, that’s because they are. Even as Christian student groups have been getting booted off campuses, a new and intolerant religion has been rising, complete with zealots and a rigid dogma.

NYU Psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has been studying the phenomena. In an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, associate editor Bari Weiss discusses Haidt’s view that it is natural for humans to create “quasireligious experiences” out of secular activities. This is having the downside of wreaking havoc on intellectual freedom and freedom of speech, and ultimately releasing students into a workforce that they are ill equipped to handle.

These believers are transforming the campus from a citadel of intellectual freedom into a holy space—where white privilege has replaced original sin, the transgressions of class and race and gender are confessed not to priests but to “the community,” victim groups are worshiped like gods, and the sinned-against are supplicated with “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”.

Unfortunately, this can also lead to violence. True believers are agitating to purge dissenting viewpoints and punish those who violate the norms.

“What we’re beginning to see now at Berkeley and at Middlebury hints that this [campus] religion has the potential to turn violent,” Mr. Haidt says. “The attack on the professor at Middlebury really frightened people,” he adds, referring to political scientist Allison Stanger, who wound up in a neck brace after protesters assaulted her as she left the venue.

The article is worth a read.

In a shocking study published in 2015 by Princeton University economists Ann Case and Angus Deaton, it was shown that mortality has been mysteriously rising for an unexpected swath of the populace, high school educated whites. The authors of that earlier study have further elaborated on their work, as reported today in the Wall Street Journal:

Driving the uptick are increases in “deaths of despair”—from drugs, alcohol-related liver diseases and suicide, as well as a slowdown in progress against death in middle age from heart disease and cancer, the nation’s biggest killers, wrote Anne Case and Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, her husband.

By the numbers we are looking a tragedy of proportions that would spur the nation into a froth if we were talking about terrorism victims, or casualties of a battle. Questions naturally arise: Why this is happening, and what can be done about it? Here are my initial reflections.

Globalization is partly to blame, as it has brought wage stagnation and loss of manufacturing jobs to middle class workers without a college degree. However, this disaster is not purely economic, but is also associated with social disintegration:

Those changes have come along with trends such as a decline in marriage, more temporary relationships and children out of wedlock, and a rise in social isolation that have made life less stable, they said.

Looking at the age cohort graph it is startling to see how abruptly things changed, beginning with the Baby Boomer generation, a group who really revolutionized society. Poverty–grinding and crushing poverty–has existed for whites before and after the 1960s. It exists for other racial and ethnic groups. Somehow, people have been able to cope better at other times. They had something that is missing now.

The Baby Boomers came of age at a time of postwar prosperity, when manufacturing blossomed and the “American Dream” came to include a good paying job, suburban houses with TVs in every room, multiple cars, and mostly the optimistic sense of permanent upward mobility. The old cohesive forces of family, community, and church were simultaneously dealt a body blow–for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of a short essay–thereby kicking aside a crucial support needed later when the “Dream” proved to be illusory.

But the problem goes deeper than merely lacking social support at a time of greatest need. A Sunday School teacher of mine was fond of saying that each of us has a “God-sized hole” that only God can fill, though in God’s place we try our best to fill that hole with other things–idols of our own devising. This may be part of the problem. Making an idol of work and a particular kind of lifestyle can only shatter you when those things are yanked away. Christianity doesn’t call people to be rich and successful, nor does it endorse the heretical view that wealth and status are the guaranteed symbols of a life blessed by God. Success that is merely an external papering over of an existential void will only be an illusion. It is like Jesus’ parable of the two builders, where the house built on the sand eventually collapses.

Work success and the illusion that this provides–take it away and what is left? A life that is not integrated with God at the center will be more likely to yield to identity crises. There will be a tendency toward loss of community, and fragmentation of relationships. It may be the culprit behind that overwhelming despair that is driving the suicides, cirrhosis deaths, and drug overdoses.

Of course, this is a lot of conjecture. It would be interesting to drill down deep into the data to see exactly what going on in the spiritual lives of these victims of despair. Only God knows.

Whatever the reason for this despair, it suggests a tremendous need for assistance, assistance that is not merely economic, but existential. This is a mission field. This is a wake up call to Christians reach into that void with God’s love.

Rachel Dolezal now styles herself Nkechi Amare Diallo. The white civil rights activist and former NAACP leader had lied about her past, claiming to be African American, which allowed her to rise to become a lecturer in Africana studies at Eastern Washington State University, and president of the Spokane chapter of of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She lost both of these positions, and gained a heap of notoriety, when she was outed by her estranged parents in 2015 for passing herself off as black. (Subsequently, investigations have suggested that 8 hate crimes she alleges to have been perpetrated against her when she was living in Idaho are also fraudulent).

Defiant to the end, Ms. Dolezal has borrowed from the debate about gender identity, insisting that race isn’t purely biological, but can be chosen.

For her part, Diallo is doubling down on her insistence that she is “transracial” — a woman who is the product of two white parents but identifies mentally, emotionally, physically and culturally as black. “I feel that I was born with the essential essence of who I am, whether it matches my anatomy and complexion or not,” Dolezal told The Guardian earlier this week. “I’ve never questioned being a girl or woman, for example, but whiteness has always felt foreign to me, for as long as I can remember. I didn’t choose to feel this way or be this way, I just am. What other choice is there than to be exactly who we are?”

Read more at NPR.

Ms. Dolezal now has taken to heart the idea of “making a name for yourself”, and has legally changed hers to something else. She feels that this name reflects her true self. Identity trumps biology. Biology is therefore something malleable, to be altered, rather than accepted. We are self made.

Christians believe that we are not self made, but rather that our identity comes from God. Of supreme irony here is that Ms Dolezal’s new West African name means “what God has given.”

This is so true:

It seems to me that for a large proportion of people, particularly people on the political Left, pseudoscience has become a secular religion, complete with creation myth, demons and ultimate salvation.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of pseudoscience on the political Right, too. But often that is motivated by adherence to standard religious philosophy, the idea that the Bible is the world of God and that anything that contradicts it cannot be allowed to be true. On the Left, where many abjure religion, quackery has become the new religion.

Read it all at: the skeptical OB.

Recently, Canadian leader Justin Trudeau, and to a lesser extent U.S. President Obama, were soundly criticized for statements that seemed to lionize the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.   Trudeau stated:

“It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President. Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation. While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for “el Comandante”.  (You can read the entire statement here).

His warm words have sparked parodies on Social Media, mockingly praising Hitler and Osama Bin Ladin. For example, “Osama Bin Laden was certainly a controversial figure, but his contribution to airport security is unparalleled”, and “Today we mourn the death of Jeffrey Dahmer, who opened his home to the LGBTQ community and pushed culinary boundaries.” One of my favorites is “We mourn the passing of Henry VIII: A man who always kept his head, while all around were losing theirs”.

In slight contrast, President Obama’s words were more measured, but still a far cry from a realistic appraisal of the monstrosity of Castro’s communist dictatorship:

“We know that this moment fills Cubans – in Cuba and in the United States – with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.”

In Miami, home to much of the Cuban population in exile, those “powerful emotions” were joy and celebration:

It did not matter that it was the middle of the night, or that it began to drizzle. When this city’s Cuban-American residents heard the news, they sprinted to Little Havana. They banged pots and pans. They sang the Cuban national anthem and waved the Cuban flag. They danced and hugged, laughed and cried, shouted and rejoiced. (Read more at New York Times).

These Cubans recall “el Commandante” with a bit less than fondness, after all.  It is estimated by historian Thomas Skidmore that 550 people were summarily executed in the first 6 months of Castro’s reign. Over the years spanning 1959 – 2012, at least 3615 people are documented to have died in firing squads, and 1253 in “extrajudicial killings”, according to Cuba Archive. The Black Book of Communism (available in its entirety at estimates the number of political killings at 15,000-17,000. Between 1950 and 1980 over a million Cubans fled the island, mostly to the United States.  In 1964, Castro admitted holding over 15,000 political prisoners.

A Washington Post opinion piece summarizes some of the disaster brought upon Cuba by this “legendary revolutionary”:

It began with mass summary executions of Batista officials and soon progressed to internment of thousands of gay men and lesbians; systematic, block-by-block surveillance of the entire citizenry; repeated purges, complete with show trials and executions, of the ruling party; and punishment for dissident artists, writers and journalists. Mr. Castro’s regime learned from the totalitarian patron he chose to offset the U.S. adversary — the Soviet Union, whose offensive nuclear missiles he welcomed, bringing the world to the brink of armageddon. Mr. Castro sponsored violent subversive movements in half a dozen Latin American countries and even in his dotage helped steer Venezuela to economic and political catastrophe through his patronage of Hugo Chávez.

Castro should also be remembered as a relentless persecutor of Christianity.  Cuba is officially an atheist state. When he seized power, almost immediately he shut down 400 Roman Catholic schools for teaching “dangerous beliefs.”  Christians were initially denied membership in the Communist Party.  Due to restrictions in building churches, many people met in homes.  Christians were, of course, among the purged. The dissident Armando Valladares, who was locked in a pitch-dark Cuban prison cell for eight years while stripped naked, has recently given his recollections in a Washington Post editorial:

Antagonizing believers is a particular specialty of the Castro regime. To them, faith is especially dangerous, because it kindles the conscience and keeps it burning when enemies advance. “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” were the last words of so many of my friends who were dragged to the shooting wall. Eventually, the government realized this was a battle cry for freedom, one that came from the deepest part of the men they were killing, and one that was only inspiring more men to die faithful to their consciences and to something greater than Fidel Castro. Their executioners realized that an expression of faith was more powerful than the explosion of a gun. So eventually, they gagged them.

Although the Castro regime eventually moderated its stance toward Christianity, and sought the favor of the Pope, still, as recently as 2015 more than 2300 incidents of persecution–arrests, beatings, demolition of churches, and the like–were reported. (Newsweek)

The Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan had a “eulogy” for Castro that should have been a model for Trudeau and Obama:

“Although the death of a human being is rarely cause for celebration, it is the symbolic death of the destructive ideologies that he espoused that, I believe, is filling the Cuban exile community with renewed hope and a relief that has been long in coming. And although the grip of Castro’s regime will not loosen overnight, the demise of a leader that oversaw the annihilation of those with an opposing view, the indiscriminate jailing of innocents, the separation of families, the censure of his people’s freedom to speak, state sanctioned terrorism and the economic destruction of a once thriving & successful country, can only lead to positive change for the Cuban people and our world. May freedom continue to ring in the United States, my beautiful adopted country, and may the hope for freedom be inspired and renewed in the heart of every Cuban in my homeland and throughout the world.”