Sunday, 19 February 2017

Europe torn asunder after desire to debate

Ian Harris                        10 February 2017                       Otago Daily Times

Secular moderns don’t find it easy to get a handle on the remote theological squabble that exploded in Europe 500 years ago this year, even though its effects are with us still. That’s because the life-and-death concepts so vital to everyone at the time — God, faith, sin, forgiveness, heaven, hell, eternal life, the nature and authority of the church, the Bible — mean little to growing numbers of Westerners today.

The explosion was the great Reformation of church life in Europe. Yet, strikingly, the man who triggered it had not the slightest intention of splitting the Catholic Church asunder: Martin Luther was a model monk and parish priest, diligent in his studies, faithful in his religious observances, concerned for his parishioners in the small east German town of Wittenberg.

Like many loyal churchmen of his day, however, he shared a visceral disgust at the corruption of the late medieval church, uber-rich, uber-powerful, uber-political. For example, Pope Leo X, a cardinal since the age of 13, needed big money to complete the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To raise funds, he authorised the sale of get-out-of-purgatory guarantees. The money rolled in.

The German franchisee was a prelate who, for a handsome donation to St Peter’s, had at 24 become archbishop of two wealthy dioceses and bishop of a third. For this he had to borrow heavily, and Leo helped him to pay off the loan by selling the guarantees, or "indulgences", in German territory. Half the proceeds would offset the multi-bishop’s loan, the rest would flow to St Peter’s.

The church had long seen to it that sin loomed large in everyone’s consciousness and fears of hell were graphic and real. People might repent of their sins but must still be punished, whether in this life or the next — for which the church invented purgatory.

Earlier popes had moved to ease their plight by assuming the power to shorten or even cancel their punishment. After all, hadn’t Jesus and the saints amassed a huge credit balance of good works, a "treasury of merits" they could draw on? It was available to anyone who bought an indulgenceLuther’s prince forbade these transactions in his domain. But Luther heard that some of his parishioners were travelling to a town across the border to buy an indulgence from a travelling monk who, to boost sales, broadened the papal guarantee to include dead relatives.

The monk pleaded: "Don’t you hear the voice of your dead parents crying out, ‘Have you no mercy on us, for we suffer great punishment and pain? From this you could release us with a few alms.’ As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs."

The question "How can I be saved?" caused Luther great anguish, and he was appalled. So on October 31, 1517, he posted on the local church door, which doubled as a bulletin board for Wittenberg’s university, 95 propositions to be tested in debate. In the previous two years he had come to believe with St Paul that putting one’s whole-hearted trust in Christ was sufficient to bring sinners eternal life — and it came from grace freely given, not by punishment beyond death, and especially not by buying it for cash.

Indulgences were a delusion, he declared, and "those who believe they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers." Ouch! Another thesis questioned why Leo did not use his own fabulous wealth to build St Peter’s, "rather than the money of poor believers". Apart from the denunciation of indulgences, though, Luther showed due deference to the pope.

Then they were translated from Latin into German. The new printing presses worked overtime to spread them around. Swirling social, economic and political currents magnified their impact. The theses tapped into wider resentments — church corruption, the torrent of German money flowing to Rome, papal restraints on the German princes’ autonomy. Luther found himself a hero for saying openly what so many were thinking.

The revenue stream from indulgences dwindled, and the church’s focus switched to papal authority. It ordered Luther to bow to authority and recant. Yet, initially, all he had sought was to debate the question: Can the church justify indulgences on the basis of scripture and reason? The cleft widened. Leo branded Luther "a son of perdition" and excommunicated him. Luther publicly burnt the document. A number of German rulers gave him their blessing. Mutual abuse flew and grew. The church in Europe was irrevocably sundered.

A new Europe was being born.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Trump fears terrorists, but more Americans are shot dead by toddlers

Gary Younge                Guardian/UK                 8 February 2017
Gun deaths – intentional, accidental and self-inflicted – dwarf those related to terror. The talk is of secure borders but within the US many live in a state of fear.

Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that since 9/11 not a single American has been killed in a terrorist attack by a citizen from the
countries on this list (of Trumps). The reality is that an American is at least twice as likely to be shot dead by a toddler than killed by a terrorist. In 2014 88 Americans were shot dead, on average, every day: 58 killed themselves while 30 were murdered. In that same year 18 Americans were killed by terrorist attacks in the US. Put more starkly: more Americans were killed by firearms roughly every five hours than were killed by terrorists in an entire year. It is unlikely that scrapping a rule requiring extended background checks for gun purchases by some social security recipients suffering from mental illness will improve the situation.)

One need not downplay the importance of terrorism here. Terrorism is not only murderous. In its ability to spread anxiety and undermine democratic engagement with violence it is also deeply reactionary. Rather than galvanising people around a cause it divides them in the crudest manner possible – on the basis of fear. That’s as true when America kills innocent civilians. But the fear most Americans experience daily isn’t imported – it’s home grown. That’s true across the board, but particularly true for some minorities. Every day seven children and teens are shot dead in the US. Firearms are the biggest killer of young black people and the second biggest killer of all children, after traffic accidents.

While researching my
book about all the young people who were killed on one random day – 23 November 2013 – every single parent of a black teenager who lost a child that day that I interviewed said they assumed this might happen to their kid. “I didn’t think it would be him,” said one mother. “I thought it would be his brother.” “You wouldn’t be doing your job as a father if you didn’t,” said another.

Many of the areas where these young people live, and die, look like war zones – empty lots, half-demolished houses, depleted infrastructure, militarised policing, potholed roads, boarded-up houses, abandoned churches. But more importantly, they are experienced as such. People (mostly young men) disappear – either to prison or to the grave – leaving a huge gender imbalance. Times are hard, and the informal economy is rife, meaning there are spivs everywhere making an ostentatious display of their wealth. The one major difference is that whereas wars often cement communities as people band together against a “common enemy,” in these areas the enemy is everywhere and, potentially, anyone.

Many of those who insist that, when it comes to terror, one must balance individual rights against collective security, become curiously silent when it comes to adapting their interpretation of the right to bear arms to the issue of public safety.

In 2002
I interviewed the late Maya Angelou about her views on the 9/11 terror attacks. “Living in a state of terror was new to many white people in America,” she told me. “But black people have been living in a state of terror in this country for more than 400 years.”

If the current administration applied just half the zeal to making sure all people in the country feel included and safe as they do to making sure some outside of it feel excluded and anxious, the impact on Americans’ sense of security would be repaid exponentially.

After a judge blocked the Muslim ban over the weekend Trump said that if there was another terrorist attack America should blame him. Between me writing this article and you reading it the chances are another child will be shot dead. Whom, I wonder, should we blame for that? [Abridged]

Gary Younge is the author of
Another Day in the Death of America, A Chronicle of 10 Short Lives

Trump is only finishing what Hollywood and the media started

Waleed Aly                   Sydney Morning Herald               2 February, 2017

For a brief moment, it was almost as if they were people. They were scientists working on new treatments for HIV/AIDS or whose research had helped contain the spread of that Ebola outbreak a few years ago. They were engineers who led NASA deployments of rovers to Mars. They were elderly people banned from returning home after travelling for a family funeral – and others banned from attending the funerals of their American relatives. They were translators helping Western journalists or the US military. They were dog-owners whose pets were suddenly stranded. They were high-school students who wanted only to attend a space camp. They were vets and doctors and musicians. They were Olympic gold medallists and Oscar-nominated directors and actors.

That's what struck me immediately as news of the Trump administration's immigration ban screamed across the world. I'd never really seen Muslims described in that way, and it was frightening just how much it stood out. It was like some lost tribe had been discovered: the previously invisible inhabitants of the badlands that occupy our fears far more than they do thoughts.

Trump's signing of an executive action to bring sweeping changes to the nation's refugee policies is causing fear and alarm for immigrants in the U.S. whose family members will be affected. And frankly, that's why we're here. Something as crude and bludgeoning as this only happens because of the years that precede it. Say what you will about Donald Trump, he is not suddenly afflicted with insanity. He is not the generator of some new malevolent thought. He's building on foundations he hasn't laid. He can only do this because the cultural environment exists to receive it as some version of common sense. He can treat Muslims in a grossly undifferentiated way because that's largely the way public culture has trained us to see them.

That doesn't mean Muslims must always be terrorists – though that is only a semitone from Trump's rhetoric. It's that they must always be defined by their relationship to terrorism. If we're in a tolerant mood, we'll make a series of disclaimers about the "moderate majority" who reject such atrocities. And sure, that's true.

But the trouble is that's not the story of a people. It's not anything really, other than a statement of what someone isn't. In this formulation you can be "not a terrorist", but you can't be something. Not a contributor, not an asset, not even a battler. You can't be complex, nuanced, evolving. You can either confirm or "challenge" a predetermined stereotype, but that's just another way of saying you must prove your innocence – over, and over, and over ...

So it's hardly surprising that – even as the touching stories of those caught up in Trump's dark fantasy were everywhere – the fact of a terrorist attack on a mosque in Quebec City this week barely touched any emotional register. Nothing about the lives of the six Muslims killed, or even of the Trump-loving white guy who killed them, seems to have been worthy of the same treatment. Trump did make his condolences public, but only as his press secretary said the event justified the President's "proactive rather than reactive" steps

It would be wrong to call this a double standard. It's not that we feel an affinity with Trump's stranded travellers that we don't with those killed in Quebec. The truth is we feel little affinity with either. It's just that the former are fodder for a story we're more interested in telling right now. The best way to tell that story has been to discover the humanity of those affected, but the story is really about Trump and his cyclonic presidency. That's the cause of the emotional investment. Were they victims of Obama, or even a right-wing lone-wolf terrorist, they'd be immediately less interesting, less human.

Yes, I take some heart from the parade of Hollywood celebrities, for instance, dedicating their awards-night speeches to standing against what Trump has unleashed. And I take some heart from the thought that finally Muslim stories are being told that actually correspond to their lives, But not too much. Not when few cultural institutions have been as effective at building the most one-dimensional Muslim stereotypes as Hollywood. And not when a media now saturated with disdainful, heartfelt coverage of Trump's chaos, has not even the slightest hunch that it has done so much of the dehumanising work for him.