September 2007


First, new music out of the Balkans: A Hawk and a Hacksaw and the Hun Hangár Ensemble, in a self-titled EP released a few weeks ago, downloadable here. A Hawk and a Hacksaw is mostly the project of Jeremy Barnes, drummer for the indie-wunderband Neutral Milk Hotel, and later sometimes drummer for Bright Eyes. These days Mr Barnes is making Balkan-inspired music, often in collaboration with folk musicians from the Balkans themselves. And that is a very good thing. On this album AHAAHS is joined by an assembly of Hungarian musicians, who draw upon both traditional sounds from the Balkan peninsula and upon more modern currents. The fusion of the various elements works beautifully, without being forced or otherwise contrived- not an easy thing to achieve in the world of international musical collaboration. Violins, bagpipes, brass, and some other strings whirl and whisper and crash over the series of eight tracks. Despite the EP’s brevity, it feels fuller and longer than those eight tracks would lead you to believe.

A couple weeks ago a friend recommended a Danish movie I had not heard of, After the Wedding, which was in the running for last year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film. In brief, the film unfolds around a Danish expatriate Jacob who runs an orphanage in India, but is summoned back to Denmark at the behest of a wealthy businessman, Jorgen, interested in financing the orphanage and Jacob’s various other projects in India. Jorgen will only give Jabob the money under the condition he comes to Denmark. While there, Jorgen invites Jacob to the wedding of his daughter, where Jacob meets Jorgen’s wife- a wife who, as the viewer quickly discovers, had a presence much earlier in Jacob’s life. The story develops and unfolds from there, and in so doing, not only turns around some stereotyped roles- Jorgen is far from being the typical greedy egotistical businessman, and Jacob is not simply an idealistic aid worker- and raises some rather difficult questions about responsibility and the possibility and morality of directing other people’s lives. But besides these issues, the film is very well done, both in terms of acting and its masterful and often very lovely cinematography. It makes a very worthy addition to anyone’s collection, particularly if yours, like mine, is rather low on Danish-language films…

As promised, here are some of my thoughts- in no particular order- on the subject of immigration, legal and illegal.

1. Scripture and Immigration: From the story of the exile from the Garden on, Scripture is filled with the images of wanderers, exiles, and immigrants. The story of the people of Israel leaving Egypt and coming into the promised land becomes the paradigm or symbol whereby God’s covenant people are instructed to treat wayfarers and aliens, as they themselves were once strangers and wanderers. This ethic of the alien is reiterated by the Prophets, as in Jeremiah, where justice to the alien- and this is, I think, particularly significant for our contemporary situation- is related to justice done to other marginalized people:

Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.

Jeremiah 22:3

Again, a similar ethic appears in Isaiah:

Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Isaiah 58:7

The basic message of Scripture is fairly clear: God places the alien- the wanderer, the refugee- in the category of “the poor,” those who are generally left out by wider society and thus are given special attention in God’s messages lest they be forgotten and treated unjustly. This message of the Old Testament is only amplified by the New Testament, in which the old barrier between Jew and Gentile is torn down. No longer can one argue even that the alien or refugee is necessarily without the covenant people of God, as all can be included in the covenant through Christ. Thus our relationship towards all people of all origins is fundamentally changed.

What does this mean for our stance as Christians vis-a-vis immigration? We are obliged, on the one hand, to treat the immigrant with justice and indeed love, and at a fundamental level I do not see that the distinction between legal and illegal applies to how we treat the immigrant. On the other hand, we are still obliged to respect the law and it of course makes a distinction between legal and illegal. Thus the tension for the Christian is how to reconcile those on a basic, personal level. I personally have yet to encounter a particular situation in which this tension manifests itself; but it is something well worth consideration.

It should also be added that our obligation to treat the wanderer with love and justice does not mandate a particular opinion on immigration: ie open borders or tightly guarded ones. It does mean though that we must demand that all immigrants be treated by the law and its enforcers as human beings, not as objects or abstract entities. I do not see how the average illegal immigrant, who is non-violent and is not depriving anyone of their property, can be classified as a felon; the demonization of illegal immigrants current in politics and popular discourse is simply uncalled for and reprehensible. Now, while I do not think that the Christian tradition strictly calls for one immigrant policy over another, I do think that an honest open reading of Scripture calls for the most humane and open immigration policy possible. This is particularly true when one considers the rampant poverty of much of Latin America, and the fact that is is sometimes a result or aggravated by policies issuing from the US.

2. Force and Enforcing Immigration Law: It is currently in vogue to suppose that a massive wall and perhaps a massive military presence on the US-Mexican border will end illegal immigration. The assumption here is employed elsewhere: more coercive, government force, if thrown hard enough against the problem, will solve it. It is the same logic that has governed the War on Drugs for decades now, and will probably continue to be the logic driving the “War on Immigration.” In both cases the thing under assault is an essentially market phenomemon; in the case of immigration however the motivations driving it are usually much more profound and compelling than drug use. The average immigrant isn’t merely seeking personal pleasure or a quick high; he is seeking a living, an escape from dead-end economic situations. In many cases his personal desire for self-preservation and advancement is compounded by a similar desire for his family. The US has and will probably continue to be the strongest attraction for people in such a situation. Against this powerful dynamic many in the US propose essentially only force, and lots of it, as the corrective. For the problem of illegal immigrants already here, again, force alone is offered as the solution. Yet experience should demonstrate to us that mere force is rarely a truly succesful instrument, and it usually involves unjust and downright inhuman means for its completion.

Next week: The problem of assimilation, and Christ, the Church, and multiculturalism.

First, a question: if the President of Iran isn’t to be allowed a visit to the World Trade Center site because of his suspected ties to terrorism, then why is the President of the USA allowed to visit, when there is nothing left to suspect about his direct involvement in a massive act of terror- for if invading and destroying an entire country doesn’t amount to terror nothing does- upon an entire nation? Not to mention the shameless manipulation of the events of 9/11 to sell wars of empire- something not even President Ahmadinejad, for all his perfidery (and while he’s not the loomng Antichrist the rightists here would have us think, he’s not a benign wonderful guy either, by any means, as Akbar Ganji below could attest). However, while there should be absolutely no need to say this, neither Iran nor President Ahmadinejad or any Shia groups anywhere had anything to do with 9/11. Really. I wonder, though, how long it will be before the propogandists here in the US start trying to convince us otherwise? Judging from the reaction to Ahmadinejad’s proposed visit, perhaps it’s already started…

A more encouraging piece, this one from the Iranian political dissident Akbar Ganji: Conservations with Akbar Ganji. Here are a few excerpts- maybe it’s just me, but it seems his politcal philosophy is strikingly libertarianish in its tone. His words certainly apply to more places than just Iran:

One of the features of a fascist regime is that it completely suppresses all civil society and creates a society with one voice, but it’s only one of the characteristics of a fascist society.

It’s a system where you need to have a widespread political party. Culture is completely reduced to advertisements and propaganda, education is reduced to propaganda, and many other features in economy and politics. When you suppress civil society you reduce people to small particles and they become dissolved in a solution in the society. They have no characteristics of themselves, of their own. In the time of Stalin you had the opportunity to suppress all civil societies and the only voice to be heard was Stalin. You had the one-way radio and all you could hear was Stalin’s voice.

… A market economy allows you to create institutions separate from the government. A totalitarian regime, or a fascist regime, requires that all economic aspects of life must be controlled by the government. The Communist economies have all been defeated. No one is going after Communist economics, and even all Social Democrats today defend a free-market economy. Once the free-market economy enters a society, the occurrence of fascism and totalitarianism become impossible. But at the same time, you can still have authoritarianism and despotic regimes.

*

If a regime closes all avenues of resistance and opposition there will be no other way except revolution. No one can plan for a revolution. A revolution in such conditions occurs naturally. When we speak of revolutions we speak of classical revolutions in the classical term. Classical revolutions want to change the economic, social, and political structure of the society. Such a thing is impossible and it’s immoral, meaning that you can never achieve such a goal, but you will create a regime of fear. But you can change a regime in a non-revolutionary way. First, we don’t want to change the whole thing but we just want to bring democracy, great freedom, through democratic means, through peaceful means, through civil disobedience.

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{Interviewer} The Bush administration and the Congress believe that they can further the processes of democratization by intervening in countries like Iran. What is your take on that?

{Ganji} So far, what’s happened is that they have harmed our democratic movement rather than helping it.

In what ways?

When you pursue such radical militaristic methods, you give an opportunity to your opposition to grow in a radical way. When there is a crisis, the first thing that gets damaged and gets harmed is democracy. What happened after 9/11 in the United States? Civil liberties, were they strengthened or were they weakened? Today they claim that they have arrested terrorist suspects in England. Have they actually increased security or reduced it? When you face dangers and crises, civil liberties go down and security measures go up.

O Beneficent One, whose door is open to evil ones and to sinners, grant me to enter and see Your beauty while I marvel.

O treasure of blessings, from which even the unjust are satiated, may I be nourished by You because You are entirely life for him who partakes of You.

Cup which inebriates the soul with its draught, and it forgets its sufferings; may I drink from You, become wise in You, and recite Your story.

O You, who ungrudgingly magnify our unworthy race, my word extols beautiful things with Your psalms.

Son of Greatness, who became a little child, grant my feeble self to speak concerning Your greatness.

Son of the Most High, who wanted to be with earthly beings, may my word be raised on high and speak to You.

You, our Lord, are an eloquent word which is full of life and a great discourse which gives riches to the one who hears it.

Everyone who speaks about You is speaking because of You, since You are word and rational mind and conscience.

Neither the thoughts of the soul stire without You, nor do words move the lips except in You.

Lips give no sound without Your command, nor is there hearing in the ear without Your favour.

Behold, Your riches are lavished on those far and near; Your door is opened for the good and the evil ones to come into You.

Everyone is rich in You, and You are enriching everyone without measure; may my discourse be enriched by You with beauty and may it speak to You.

Son of the Virgin, grant me to speak concerning abour Your mother, while I acknowledge that the word concerning her is too exalted for us.

St. Jacob of Serug, Homily Concerning the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, Mary

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I recieved the little volume On the Mother of God in the mail today, and have so far only perused into the first few lines of Jacob’s first homily in the collection. It is beautiful, stirring stuff, like so much else in the Syrian Orthodox tradition- it’s a shame that so little of this tradition ever makes it onto the radar screen of people in the rest of Christendom; apart from St. Ephrem the Syrian, and to a somewhat lesser extent, St. Isaac of Nineveh, “Oriental Orthodoxy” is pretty invisible in the West. Of course, ancient and medieval Christianity, East and West, isn’t exactly household knowledge in the West, even among Christians- which is one of the most tragic things about the state of (post)modern Christendom.

The more I read- and re-read- the Fathers and Mothers of the ancient and medieval Church the fresher and more relevant they sound, transcending the normal categories of “conservative” and “liberal” theology/culture/politics. They embrace text and image, with no hang-ups about art and beauty; reading St. John of Damascus I thought how incredibly wonderful it is to belong to a Tradition that not only embraces art, but celebrates it and sees in it a sacred connection with the Incarnation of God Himself! But anyway, that’s another topic for another time…

I shall post a couple more excerpts of Jacob’s homilies on our Lady as I work through them. I hope you, good reader, will be encouraged to pursue the rich fount of Syrian Orthodoxy and other Oriental Orthodox traditions; there is much to recieve there.

Immigracion! Manos, alto!” We yell, laughing, and the men- Mexicans, maybe Central Americans- inside the unlit dingy room laugh and wave their hands in the air. We- my friend, a local pastor, and myself, two gringos- are on our circuit around town picking up Latino guys to go play volleyball and eat at a church gym. The county is home to a sizeable minority of Latino residents, most of whom- though not all by any means- are men, some single, many with spouses and family back home in their various countries of origin. And there are people from all over the Latin American world, belying the common- and often rather pejoratively uttered- moniker of Mexican; Guatemalans, Panamanians, Peruvians, and others live and work in this once almost exclusively black-and-white Mississippi county.

I enjoy hanging out with the varied assemblage of guys who come, once every week, to play and eat and hang out. A few other gringos come and play, but most of the people there are Latino, and only a few have a significant grasp of English. My Spanish is pretty poor, despite a couple years of Spanish in college, but it’s always met with happy acclaim from the people I try to converse with, and every week I pick up a couple new words for my vocabulary, and usually transmit a few English ones. Lately I’ve managed to move a bit beyond basic personal information and chatter and manage a little humor in Spanish. On occasion I’ll pray in Spanish before we eat, usually the same sort of formula of “Thank you God for our friends and brothers here, and thank you for Your love, and thank You for this food. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” Amen, anyway, is pretty easy to get right in Spanish.

Since most of the guys do not have their own cars, we drive around for a couple hours before hand to pick them up. Most of them live in the poor neighborhoods of town, neighborhoods that interweave and abut the shrinking higher-income blocks with their impressive live-oak shaded late Victorians and neatly manicured lawns. Many share a house with several other guys, who may be connected by blood or a common place of origin, or just happenstance; in some houses the rooms have been further subdivided to accommodate more lodgers, and impromptu businesses- diminutive tiendas, corner (as in corner of the room) barbershops- show up as well. Some can afford air conditioning, others none or very little.

Few neighborhoods here are exclusively Latino (it’s not unusual to see trailer-parks that are exclusively Latino, however); instead, it’s far more common for half of the houses in a block to be Latino, and the other half African-American. Therein lies one of the smoldering tensions, one that gets relatively little attention in the press (as to why that is, I’ll leave off speculating for now), but is hard to ignore. Why the tensions? Obviously there are considerable cultural differences- differences which are exacerbated by the close proximity of the Latino and African-American poor, thrust into the same neighborhoods and labour markets; this new competition has created a great deal of simmering resentment in the older, established lower-class. Latinos often find themselves easily exploited by the already violent and exploitive sub-cultures that have been festering in poor ghettoized neighborhoods for decades; this tends to increase the sense of group-solidarity already present on both sides and further decreases possibility of cooperation or mutual understanding. But Latinos are hardly only victims- there are various predominately Latino criminal groups operating and exploiting both communities.

As the opening dialogue indicates, some Latinos here would doubtlessly prefer to avoid the INS. I’ve no idea how many of the guys I know are documented, and how many aren’t. I don’t ask- though even if I did I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t be any more knowledgeable for it. It doesn’t concern me, really- but more on that, and the ethical and political questions of immigration, in a later post. I doubt- and please indulge the cliché-ness of this statement- whether Jesus would have concerned himself with people’s documentation status; I for one do not make it a concern, if only because there’s nothing I could do about it anyway. I do know that the vast majority of immigrants’ I’ve been able to talk to are manual laborers; most left a dismal work market in their home countries seeking some sort of employment. Some have managed to do fairly well and get a factory job; far more are employed in the lower rungs of the sprawling chicken industry that dominates the local economy. These are jobs that Dickens would have found worthy of a novel: brooding chicken houses, the size of airplane hangers, filled with thousands upon thousands of steroid-packed chickens- chickens that must be constantly, manually, managed. Latino workers are usually the ones given the dirtiest tasks, cleaning the houses of chicken waste and picking up and burning the multitudes of dead chickens, trampled and suffocated by their drugged comrades.

It’s a strange world, this, I often think as I converse in my halting Spanish: here I live in my middle-class luxury, a relative few miles away from these neighborhoods, while the workers who help hold up the economy I enjoy eat and sleep in crowded compartments, cook in communal kitchens, and go to work long before the sun comes up, in an often hostile society. Globalization, immigration, culture-clash: these are all up-close, personalized, unavoidable issues, brought down from abstract argument, down into a real world that is much grittier, personal, and difficult than political arguments can make out.

*

Next week: meditations on the ethical and political questions raised by immigration. Disclaimer: I’ve no grand answers, a few mostly personal or community-based suggestions, and precious little dogma on this issue. Hopefully the above ruminations have revealed where my sympathies, anyway, lie, for better or ill.

8. When the mind, taking refuge in Christ and calling upon Him, stands firm and repels its unseen enemies, like a wild beast facing a pack of hounds from a good position of defence, then it inwardly anticipates their inner ambuscades well in advance. Through continually invoking Jesus the peacemaker against them, it remains invulnerable.

28. It is impossible to find the Red Sea among the stars or to walk this earth without breathing air; so too it is impossible to cleanse our heart from impassioned thoughts and to expel its spiritual enemies without the frequent invocation of Jesus Christ.

29. Be watchful as you travel each day the narrow but joyous and exhilarating road of the mind, keeping your attention humbly in your heart, reproaching yourself, ready to rebut your enemies, thinking of your death and invoking Jesus Christ. You will then attain a vision of the Holy of Holies and be illumined by Christ with deep mysteries. For in Christ ‘the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ are hidden, and in Him ‘the fulness of the Godhead dwells bodily.’ In the presence of Christ you will feel the Holy Spirit spring up within your soul. It is the Spirit who initiates man’s intellect, so that it can see with ‘unveiled face.’ For ‘no one can say “Lord Jesus” except in the Holy Spirit.’ In other words, it is the Spirit who mystically confirms Christ’s presence in us.

St. Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness

As a perusal of my archives will reveal, I don’t usually write a great deal about my personal life- for one thing, much of it is fairly boring (not that most of what I’ve blogged is exactly riveting) and many of the bits that are perhaps less boring I have no desire for the world at large to know about. Thus I have only occasionally mentioned going-ons with my family. Today, however, the sorts of issues I tend to blog about and my real life intersected in a particularly strong way, and I felt that I had to write about it- since blogging is, after all, more a catharsis than anything else, at least for me.

My father is a major in the Air National Guard, a chaplain, who has been in the National Guard since I was five- he enlisted around the same time as the first Gulf War. Until a few years ago he was not deployed anywhere, and other than annual two-week training and weekend drills it wasn’t a particular evident or obtrusive part of our lives. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 everything, as the politicos like to say, changed. He was deployed for four months in 2005 to an Air Force base on Diego Garcia. This year he has been deployed to Balad Air Force Base in Iraq.

We have known he was going to be deployed for a long time, so when we left this morning to drive to Jackson International Airport it didn’t really feel strange or even particularly emotional. We didn’t talk about the war- my dad and I have only ‘discussed’ the war at length a few times, and since we are pretty solidly at loggerheads on it, we haven’t bothered going at the issue for a while. We certainly didn’t talk about it this morning. Instead, we talked about other things, not that. I did try to instruct him in some basic Arabic words in the off chance he runs across some Iraqis at the air base. We discuss my plans to go to Morocco when he gets back, how much I figure it will cost, that sort of thing. We got to the airport and I parked the car while he checked in- a pretty quick process at Jackson International, which is hardly overflowing with traffic most days.

At the little waiting area before the security check we- my immediate family and my grandparents, who had driven down from Louisville- sat around with dad before he had to go through the line. Joseph- he’s ten- decided he would take out his stress by hitting me in the arm repeatedly.

‘Quit! Look, you want to go buy something at Starbucks?’ I had introduced him to the wonders of hot mixed drinks a few days before, and we thought about getting a chai latte, but were discouraged by the almost four dollar price tag, so we went and sat back down. Which meant more kind of staring down at the carpet. We took some photos- ‘Ha dad, the back of your head blends in with the wall!’ We didn’t really talk much. What are you supposed to talk about before seeing someone off to war? Instead you can look at the floor, watch the guys cleaning the space behind the ceiling tiles. Joseph starts hitting me again. I suggest he go hit the potted plant across the room. Dad runs to the bathroom to change- he had just gotten his official issue t-shirts right before we got the airport, military forgot to ship them to his home base. He comes back. He decides he might as well go on through security, there’s no point in us standing around here, staring at the floor not talking about it knowing it’s all happening anyway knowing this whole thing’s not some damn abstract talking point on the television, that it’s right here, no more putting it off. We stand up and go towards the security line.

We hug, I say something stupid trying to be funny about hiding in the monastery outside Mosul if the whole deal falls apart, and he walks into the line. I can sort of hear the security man checking his ID, then he has to take off his boots. I don’t see my mom and little brother or grandparents, I have to look back and make sure they’re still there. Mom motions to my little brother, whispers, ‘Hug him or something…’ He looks like he’s crying. My eyes are hot and wet now- dad’s taking off his boots and pulling things out of all those pockets. I clutch the rosary beads in my pocket and mutter the Jesus Prayer and stare at the flag in one of the corners. Now he steps through the metal detector, but it goes off- I told him to empty his pockets into his backpack- the guard is checking his pockets, he’s left a digital camera- why can’t he just finish and get through? Finally, he turns and gives a last wave and we don’t see him anymore. Gone. Off to war. That’s it.

We turn to leave. No one really says anything; my grandparents decide to stay and watch the airplane leave, but my mom and little brother and I start walking back the car. I’m hot and teary and angry and mouth under my breath ‘F- the war,’ not wanting my brother and mother to hear me swear and flushing hotter angry at myself, the world, the whole deal, I stare at my feet, not wanting to look at all the normal people walking by untouched by the things whirling all around just beyond sight. I just want to look at my feet and alternate between swearing and praying and feeling blank. We leave the terminal and I fumble in my pockets and discover my dad’s keys. ‘But I don’t guess he’ll need them for a while,’ I say. We don’t really talk anymore for a while, other than, ‘Car’s over here.’ I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything. In the car I’m calmer, mom’s still crying a little. But we laugh at the ridiculous roundabout- in Mississippi!- on the way out, and we’re away, dad off to war, and the whole thing is right there, not a movie, not a newsreel, not a blogger’s commentary. Real life.

Lord have mercy on us.