28 April 2005

More shorts

The U.S. propensity to evaluate loudly everyone else's adequacy just rolls right along. Condoleeza Rice's recent visit to Russia provided more examples, including her evaluation of Vladimir Putin's governance:

“Trends have not been positive on the democratic side,” Rice told reporters. “The centralization of state power in the presidency at the expense of countervailing institutions like the Duma (parliament lower house) or an independent judiciary is clearly very worrying. The absence of an independent media on the electronic side is clearly very worrying.” (mosnews.com)

I continue to believe that formal centralization is not the problem with Putin's government; it is the informal bullying tactics behind the scenes that are the problem. Rice is right to express worry about Russia's progress toward democracy, but since the U.S. government is getting fonder and fonder of bullying tactics itself, as Putin is perfectly well aware, our moral exhortations now many not achieve any more than they have in the past.

The sad reality in Russia is that Putin paradoxically has limited amounts (or, perhaps, limited vectors) of almost absolute power in a context of overwhelming government weakness in dealing with the country's problems (summarized rather brutally here by David Brooks in the New York Times**). Unfortunately, most of the Russian public seems to believe that strengthening Putin is the answer to warding off chaos. 

Ironically, the will of the people may be on the side of a rather limited vision of democracy as defined by American ideals. Putin himself knows that the creation of predictability and wealth in the lives of the middle class is crucial, but his complicated, compromised and capricious apparat is all he has to work with. (Hmmm, do I really believe that? "Oh, if the tsar only knew ....") Both Russia and the U.S., in our respective ways, have no apparent ability to reflect on how many eggs we need to break and how many omelettes we get in return.

Allyne Smith, an Eastern Orthodox priest from Des Moines, Iowa, has been leading an interesting series of Wednesday evening classes, "Ethics after Pentecost," at Reedwood Friends Church's Center for Christian Studies. Last week he examined capital punishment in light of Christian faith and worship. Some of the thoughts that came up that evening: 

According to John Howard Yoder and others, the Old Testament "eye for an eye" formulation has the rhetorical nature of an oral recitation, descriptive rather than prescriptive. It urges the fitness of every punishment to redress the disruption caused by the crime. This reflects the rhythm of the ancient worldview, not the legislation mode of the modern world state. The sanctioned execution of a murderer is recognition of the loss of life and rebalancing of that loss, the need for expiation, atonement by sacrifice.

Under the new covenant, however, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God is the one sufficient expiation, once for all, as proclaimed in the Gospel. This sacrifice puts an end to the entire expiatory system, according to Yoder.

For the Orthodox: In the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit is seen as transforming the bread and wine. The Holy Spirit is what forms the people into the Body of Christ, making us in some measure Christ-like. It is unthinkable that, having been incorporated into the Body of Christ, the supreme Victim of state-authorized execution, we could take into our hands the right and power to execute.

Concerning President Bush's words about encouraging a culture of life (even urging us to err on the side of life), it is hard not to think about Texas's record-setting use of the death penalty under Governor Bush. In all the reviews of death sentences, why was it so hard to err on the side of the culture of life, even in the face of pleas from Pope John Paul II?

Allyne Smith claimed that Bush once said that capital punishment's deterrent value was the only justification for its use. If so, the impossibility to prove its deterrent value through statistics ought to give reason to err on the side of life. However, such secular arguments run a distant second for me in comparison to the culture of life in the body of Christ. I would much rather be with my murdered sister Ellen in heaven than go to hell in pursuit of her murderer, and (since it is not up to me) perhaps finding that he was not there.

Forgive me for one more swipe at the political use of the "culture of life" concept. Does anyone else wonder about the jocular defenses of UN Ambassador nominee John Bolton by Bush, Cheney, and others, along the lines that, in essence, most high-level Washington supervisors worth their salt are abusive? Whether or not Bolton specifically is guilty as charged, that is a truly frightening thought, especially when expressed so approvingly. So we see, after all, exactly where the right wing appropriation of evangelical Christianity comes to a screeching halt: when it might actually have said something about being a changed, more gracious people. Yes, you're right, this posting does not exhibit much grace, either.

** Friday morning PS: David Brooks begins his op-ed article, "Mourning Mother Russia" with this statement: "Vladimir Putin gave a bizarre speech this week in which he described the fall of the Soviet Union as 'the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century' and said that an 'epidemic of collapse has spilled over to Russia itself'." (Here's the speech; here's an interesting dialogue on the speech.) I don't think that the speech was at all bizarre; I agree with russiandilettante's Alexei that "the real problem with Putin's address is not its message; the problem is that it is nothing but a speech."

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