Checkmated In Humiliation

Anyone who has spent any time in Paris, kicking around alone, eventually has their own special Paris. That’s why Hemingway called Paris a Movable Feast – to be young and poor in Paris in the twenties was his Paris. But that’s not everyone’s Paris. Miles Davis had a different Paris in the late fifties, his Paris, spending his time there scoring Louis Malle’s first flim – described by one jazz critic as “the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep.”

That’s the Paris of dark streets in the rain, and his torrid affair with Juliette Gréco was also a special case, but then everyone has their own special case. It’s a matter of what speaks to you. Two decades ago now, each year it was the same room at the Hôtel Madison with the full-on view of the old church across the street where Descartes is buried, the hotel where Camus put the finishing touches on L’Étranger – his famous novel of the absurd. Paris is where people try to figure out what it all means, and it all may be absurd.

That’s in the air in Paris. A few years ago, when Camus would have turned one hundred, in the American Scholar, Jerry Delaney offered this regarding Camus’ 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus:

The opening lines begin with what Camus called the first and most urgent of questions: If the world has no meaning, why live? If life is pointless, why not end it? Logic would favor suicide. Or so it would seem. But Camus quickly points out that absence of meaning is not why people commit suicide. People who commit suicide already have meaning in their lives. What they don’t have is a life. They commit suicide because they have no dignity, no self-respect, no pleasure, no honor, no value. They are checkmated in humiliation, without the minimal elements of a satisfactory existence.

Camus concludes with a startling statement: “Life will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.”

The idea stops us on the page; we have to think about that. Camus is saying – by inference – that the things that make our life worth living are in our own hands. Forget about God. What people need is not an abstract benediction but concrete means to live with dignity and self-respect.

Nothing could be clearer. Suddenly it was Paris again, standing at that hotel window, Camus’ window, with the view of Descartes’ tomb, puffing the pipe – they don’t let you do that any longer in Paris hotel rooms by the way – thinking of how the world seems to have been drained of dignity, and self-respect, and pleasure, and honor, and value, at least for most everyone who isn’t at the top, and maybe for them too. Everyone seems to have been checkmated into humiliation in one way or another, or is working on checkmating others into humiliation.

That’s the game now, particularly in politics, particularly in American politics. Camus would get it, and walk away, but we can’t do that. We have to live here, and while Camus always focused on the proper and honest response to the innate absurdity of the human condition, and the honorable thing to do next, those of us who are not philosophers simply wonder how it came to this. When did American politics, always a bit absurd, as politics are everywhere, become this fully absurd?

That’s not an existential question. That’s more of a practical question, but now, don’t forget about God. He (or She) may have walked away long ago, leaving us on our own, or may have been entirely imaginary anyway, or will forever be mysteriously unknowable, but God can still be useful. God can be useful in checkmating others into humiliation. God can be a political weapon.

Peter Wehner shows how:

The scandals, jagged-edged judgmentalism and culture war mentality that have enveloped significant parts of American Christendom over the last several years, including the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, have conditioned many of us to expect the worst. Which is why the annual meeting of the convention this week was such a pleasant surprise.

The convention’s newly elected president, the Rev. Ed Litton, barely defeated the Rev. Mike Stone, the choice of the denomination’s insurgent right. Mr. Litton, a soft-spoken pastor in Alabama who is very conservative theologically, has made racial reconciliation a hallmark of his ministry and has said that he will make institutional accountability and care for survivors of sexual abuse priorities during his two-year term.

“My goal is to build bridges and not walls,” Mr. Litton said at a news conference after his victory, pointedly setting himself apart from his main challenger.

Mike Stone said that racial reconciliation and that sexual abuse stuff was bullshit. Jesus doesn’t care about that. Jesus stands with Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump:

Tensions in the convention are as high as they’ve been in decades; it is a deeply fractured denomination marked by fierce infighting. The Conservative Baptist Network, which Mr. Stone is part of, was formed in 2020 to stop what it considers the convention’s drift toward liberalism on matters of culture and theology.

Ruth Graham and Elizabeth Dias of the New York Times describe the individuals in the Conservative Baptist Network as “part of an ultraconservative populist uprising of pastors” who want to “take the ship.” They are zealous, inflamed, uncompromising and eager for a fight. They nearly succeeded this time. And they’re not going away anytime soon.

They view as a temporary setback the defeat of Mr. Stone, who came within an eyelash of winning even after allegations by the Rev. Russell Moore, the former head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, that Mr. Stone blocked investigations of sexual abuse at Southern Baptist churches and engaged in a broader campaign of intimidation.

Trump showed the way there years ago. No investigations. What some call sexual abuse is really manliness. Move on. And racial reconciliation is just another way to attack totally innocent White folks. Tucker Carlson says so:

The issues dividing the convention are more political than theological. What preoccupies the denomination’s right wing right now is critical race theory, whose intellectual origins go back several decades, and which contends that racism is not simply a product of individual bigotry but embedded throughout American society. The concept argues that historical patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions, and that the legacies of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow still create an uneven playing field for Black people and other people of color.

What upset many members of the Conservative Baptist Network was a nonbinding 2019 resolution approved at the convention’s annual meeting stating that critical race theory and intersectionality could be employed as “analytical tools” – all the while acknowledging that their insights could be subject to misuse and only on the condition that they be “subordinate to Scripture” and don’t serve as “transcendent ideological frameworks.”

This could be a useful tool to look at banking practices and whatnot. Everyone, calm down:

Late last year, the Rev. J. D. Greear, who preceded Mr. Litton as president, tweeted that while critical race theory as an ideological framework is incompatible with the Bible, “some in our ranks inappropriately use the label of ‘CRT!’ to avoid legitimate questions or as a cudgel to dismiss any discussion of discrimination. Many cannot even define what CRT is. If we in the SBC had shown as much sorrow for the painful legacy that sin has left as we show passion to decry C.R.T., we probably wouldn’t be in this mess.” (The Southern Baptist Convention was created as a result of a split with northern Baptists over slavery. In 1995, the convention voted to “repent of racism of which we have been guilty.”)

In his farewell address as president last week, Mr. Greear warned against “an SBC that spends more energy decrying things like CRT than they have of the devastating consequences of racial discrimination.” And another former president of the convention, the Rev. James Merritt, said, “I want to say this bluntly and plainly: if some people were as passionate about the Gospel as they were critical race theory, we’d win this world for Christ tomorrow.”

But that 1995 vote was all wrong! Slavery was good! Blacks really are useless! Jesus said so, or Tucker Carlson said Jesus said so, or something!

This won’t end well, and then add this:

What is ripping through many Southern Baptist churches these days – and it’s not confined to Southern Baptist churches – is a topic that went unmentioned at the annual convention last week: QAnon conspiracy theories.

Dr. Moore, who was an influential figure in the Southern Baptist Convention until he split with the denomination just a few weeks ago, told Axios, “I’m talking literally every day to pastors, of virtually every denomination, who are exhausted by these theories blowing through their churches or communities.” He said that for many, QAnon is “taking on all the characteristics of a cult.”

Bill Haslam, the former two-term Republican governor of Tennessee, a Presbyterian and the author of “Faithful Presence: The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square,” put it this way in a recent interview with The Atlantic:

“I have heard enough pastors who are saying they cannot believe the growth of the QAnon theory in their churches. Their churches had become battlegrounds over things that they never thought they would be. It’s not so much the pastors preaching that from pulpits – although I’m certain there’s some of that – but more people in the congregation who have become convinced that theories are reflective of their Christian faith.”

Wehner is alarmed:

According to a recent poll by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, nearly a third of white evangelical Christian Republicans – 31 percent – believe in the accuracy of the QAnon claim that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” White evangelicals are far more likely to embrace conspiracy theories than nonwhite evangelicals. Yet there have been no statements or resolutions by the Southern Baptist Convention calling QAnon “incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message,” which six SBC seminary presidents said about critical race theory and “any version of critical theory” late last year.

So this is war and God is the weapon, and Wehner ends with this:

The Christian faith has far too often become a weapon in the arsenal of those who worship at the altar of politics. Rather than standing up for the victims of sexual abuse, their reflex has been to defend the institutions that cover up the abuse. Countless people who profess to be Christians are having their moral sensibilities shaped more by Tucker Carlson’s nightly monologues than by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Perhaps without quite knowing it, many of those who most loudly proclaim the “pre-eminence of Christ” have turned him into a means to an end, a cruel, ugly and unforgiving end. And this, too, is not quite what Jesus had in mind.

But then Wehner is a boring mainstream be-nice-to-people Presbyterian. What does he know?

And then there are the Catholics. Jason Horowitz, the New York Times’ Rome bureau chief, covering Italy and the Vatican, covers this:

Pope Francis on Saturday put a founder of the European Union on the track to sainthood, told Roman deacons to take care of the poor and met with a top prelate who once defended him against wild allegations by the Vatican’s former ambassador to the United States.

But the most telling thing he did was stay quiet about the extraordinary vote by America’s Roman Catholic bishops to move ahead – despite the warning of the pope’s top doctrinal official – with the drafting of new guidance that conservatives hope will eventually deny communion to President Biden for his support of abortion rights.

These particular American Roman Catholic bishops want to hurt Biden, and Nancy Pelosi, and all Democrats. Get them all out of the Church. It’s the abortion thing, but more a general principle. Jesus was a Republican. The Roman Catholic Church should be Republican. The pope can help get Trump reinstated as president in August. That’s what the pope should do.

The pope sighed:

The pope said nothing, church officials and experts said, because there is nothing else to say.

The divergence of the conservative American church from Francis’ agenda is now so apparent as to become unremarkable, and Vatican officials and experts said Saturday that the pope’s silence also underlined just how unsurprising the American vote, made public on Friday, was to the Vatican.

He knows these people:

The deeply conservative American bishops conference has already flouted a remarkably explicit letter from the Vatican in May urging it to avoid the vote. It has disregarded years of the pope’s pleas to de-emphasize culture war issues and expand the scope of its mission to climate change, migration and poverty.

On Friday, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted in a large majority at an often-bitter virtual meeting to begin drafting guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist. That guidance could become a vehicle for conservative leaders in the U.S. church to push for denying communion to prominent Catholics like Mr. Biden who support abortion rights.

That’s all Democrats. Excommunicate them all. No, this is going nowhere:

The public silence at the Vatican on Saturday, the officials said, also reflected that the pope and his top officials remained confident that the American conservatives would never actually pass such a doctrinal declaration on banning communion.

Church law says for that to happen, the bishops’ conference would need either unanimous support, which is essentially impossible, or two-thirds support and the Vatican’s approval.

“It’s not going to get to that point,” said one senior Vatican official with knowledge of the thinking inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the church’s doctrinal watchdog. “It’s inconceivable.”

But there’s this:

The greatest threat posed by Friday’s vote was to the unity of the American church itself, and not to Mr. Biden and other Catholic politicians who supported abortion rights.

The vote to go ahead and draft new guidance on the issue guarantees that it will stay in the political bloodstream, and grow only more potent as the American bishops’ doctrine committee works on the guidance ahead of a planned November meeting.

And officials and clergy close to Francis worried that the communion document could be used as a wedge issue to get Republican voters to the ballot box, as much as to put Catholics in the pews.

Both those worries seem odd. Attacking Biden may not put millions of more Catholics in the pews. And what? Vote for Trump in 2024 because the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says so, and says the pope is a fool? They know better than that:

Several experts said that ultimately, they expected a document that strongly asserted the importance of the Eucharist, one of the most sacred rituals in Christianity, but that would reflect the pope’s concerns and not explicitly call for denying communion to Mr. Biden and other influential political and cultural figures who support abortion rights.

The feeling in the Vatican is that the status quo will prevail, and that discretion on communion will be left to individual bishops. Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington has made it clear that he will not deny the president communion…

But there remains among Francis’ allies in the Vatican a concern that the conservatives who dominate the conference will use the rite of communion as a political weapon, setting a bad global precedent for the politicization of a church that Francis wants to keep above the fray.

He has other concerns:

On Saturday in the Hall of Blessings in the Apostolic Palace, Francis reasserted his priorities. When a group of Roman deacons asked him what he wanted from them, he responded, “humility,” and urged them to put themselves “at the service of the poor.”

As the deacons left the meeting and walked out onto St. Peter’s Square, several said that they had never heard of an Italian priest denying communion to a politician for any reason and that there was a clear divide between politics, which belonged in Parliament, and faith, which belonged in church.

“We’ve never sent a person away from communion,” said Rafaelle Grasso, a deacon at a parish in Rome. “It never ever happens here.”

Something odd is going on elsewhere:

Throughout much of Europe and Latin America, it is essentially unthinkable for bishops to deny communion to politicians who publicly support abortion rights. John Paul II famously offered communion to Francesco Rutelli, a former mayor of Rome and candidate for prime minister who supported abortion rights.

“Almost all of the bishops of the world at this moment look at the United States church,” said Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Francis, “and wonder, ‘What is going on?’”

Who knows? But none of this is new:

Francis, on the papal plane in September 2019, acknowledged the sharp opposition he has faced from conservative Catholic detractors in the United States. Presented with a book that explored the ties of conservative American bishops to a well-financed and media-backed American effort to undermine his pontificate, Francis responded that it was “an honor that the Americans attack me.”

Asked in another flight to expand on the sustained opposition he faced from Catholic conservatives in the United States, Francis said, “I pray there are no schisms,” adding, “But I’m not scared.”

Friday’s vote showed that not much had changed. Those ideologically driven American bishops “are still against him,” said Nicolas Senèze, the French Vatican reporter who had presented Francis with his book, “How America Wanted to Change the Pope.”

“They are still against the reform of the church that Francis wants and they still continue to be on the same political agenda of the Republican Party,” he added. “The American church is as divided as the people of the United States.”

But there’s no Holy Roman Catholic Wholly Republican Trump Church just yet:

In November 2020, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, whom Francis has repeatedly declined to elevate to the rank of cardinal, wrote a letter warning Mr. Biden that his position on abortion rights created a “difficult and complex situation.” Support for abortion rights among prominent politicians “who profess the Catholic faith” the archbishop wrote, “creates confusion among the faithful about what the Catholic Church actually teaches on these questions.”

The archbishop then formed a working group on the issue. On Inauguration Day, Archbishop Gomez greeted the new president with a long statement warning that “our new president has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils.”

The Vatican, on the other hand, sent a congratulatory telegram urging the president to pursue policies “marked by authentic justice and freedom.”

Justice and freedom do matter, to some people. Others simply want to humiliate those who irritate them. Camus suggested that the desperate commit suicide because they have no dignity, no self-respect, no pleasure, no honor, no value. They’ve been checkmated in humiliation, without the minimal elements of a satisfactory existence, because this is an absurd world. Here in America, that’s just politics.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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