Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Postcolonialism and Religious Discourse

This may be the first time on this blog that the title is actually more boring than the entry itself. I know, it sounds like the title of a bad graduate-school paper (in fact, I may have written a bad graduate-school paper using that title). But I really do mean for this to be a thoughtful, highly personal piece.

The impetus for this is a comment from a friend on a recent entry here. Ted pointed me to an article in Indian Country Today about the Episcopal Church's repudiation of the "Doctrine of Discovery." My first reaction to the article was that it was interesting, but irrelevant to the life of a 21st-century white Mormon. But with some thought, I saw that this really is the issue that defines the intersection of my religious and intellectual life.

Here's the historical context. At the dawn of the Age of Exploration, as Europeans begin to explore, colonize, conquer, and control large areas of the globe, a new strand of Christian thought emerged. Now, the seed of this is central to the evangelical nature of biblical Christianity--take the gospel to all the world. Once Peter received the revelation permitting the apostolic church to preach to and convert the Gentile nations, Christian spread through Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern Asia. Now, with trade and travel taking merchants and military from Christendom both across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope, a new version of Christianity was born.

Unfortunately, this version of Christianity bears little resemblance to the gospel that I encounter when I read the New Testament. Gone was the emphasis on peace, forgiveness, and meekness, all of which were replaced by a hyper-evangelical misreading of the Apostles' commission to preach the gospel to all the world. Married to incipient capitalism and military might, this colonial Christianity became the grounds for conquest, slavery, and genocide.

As a graduate student working with literary texts from many of the places most affected by colonialism, I found this history to be incredibly troubling. In a moment of spiritual crisis, I turned to the Book of Mormon, reading it not only as scripture, but as a literary text (a trick I learned in a "Bible as Literature" class I took as an undergrad). The experience, while short-lived (I don't think I got past 1 Nephi before the experiment had run its course), was life-altering.

Much of the value of this reading came from Nephi's vision. After seeing the Tre of Life and some of the other elements of Lehi's vision, Nephi is shown much of what befall his descendants through the subsequent centuries. In chapter 13 we get the postcolonial meat: the Great and Abominable Church (which I understand to be corrupt and worldly Christianity of all denominations) is founded, and the Gentiles arrive at the Land of Promise and scourge the descendants of Lehi (the chapter heading even uses the word "colonizing"). Reading this chapter as a postcolonial text made the events of colonization in the Americas not just historical fact, but prophetic reality. This, to me, was the turning point.

A professor at BYU once told me that sometimes God does His work through imperfect--even wicked--people. Such is surely the case with this history. To defend Columbus, Cortez, Coronado, Onate, and others outright is disingenuous, but to see them as part of a necessary process, of bringing the biblical text--corrupted and poorly interpreted as it was--to the Western Hemisphere, as well as eastern Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, makes sense to me. Joining the sticks of Ephraim and Judah was a necessary part of the dispensational events that form the basis of the Book of Mormon prophecies. Even if men who did wicked or shortsighted things were invovled, it was still

As Lehi puts it in his final words to his children, "there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord." Whether I like it or not, that includes slave traders and criminals, racists and persecutors, colonizers and liars, as well as my own ancestors (some of whom undoubtedly may fit into some of these other categories as well). (As a side note, Dad once posed the troublesome question of whether this meant that Africans sold into slavery were brought by the hand of the Lord, and I think this reading answers that with a resigned "yes," which also means that we have to consider contemporary immigration--even of the illegal sort--similarly.)

All of this is then to permit the multicultural, multilingual, dynamic place that is our nation (and, more broadly, our hemisphere) today. If we look at the migration of Lehi's family as the beginning of a long history of cultural displacement--sometimes through violence--we see that the Book of Mormon truly speaks as a voice from the dust--meaning not only that it testifies of the words of prophets who lived ages ago, but also that it witnesses of the very earth upon which we tread. The land in which we dwell carries the histories of colonizations, both ancient and modern, and the foundational text of Mormonism helps us understand the bloody, messy, complicated history of this part of the globe, and through that, a wider understanding of how God works on the macro level to reveal truth to and bless the lives of His children.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


At last week's scout campout, one of the scout leaders posed an interesting question to the boys (running at the end of the pack, I caught little of the conversation, but it caused me to think heavily for a mile or so). He asked the boys what their number one priority would be if they were President of the United States.

It's the sort of thing I'm sure I thought about and cared about deeply hen I was in my late teens and early twenties, but my jaded adulthood has kept me from such thoughts. I'm much less passionate about some of the issues that once got me fired up, and, while I'm still interested in politics, I find myself much less partisan. Probably for the best.

So it took me a while to figure out what I care about, what my priority would be. But I finally came back to what I've been doing all my life, the only real job I've ever had: education.

And I come at this topic with a perspective very heavily influenced by my faith. The other day I was reading in 3 Nephi chapter 6, one of the more breakneck paced chapters in the Book of Mormon. After Nephi seals the heavens and the people repent, they quickly return to wickedness. (It always amazes me when the narrative account moves--in the space of two chapters--from a profound sense of happiness due to the righteous living of the people to their fully iniquitous state.)

In describing this wickedness, Mormon uses some language that I find intriguing. In verse 12, he states that "the people began to be distinguished by ranks," an inequality that always marks iniquity (the etymological roots of the two words are very entangled). But the cause of the inequality is in "their riches and their chances for learning."

The next few verses (I'm especially interested in verses 13 and 15 here) go on to explore the results of this disparity. But the cause--the vastly differing opportunities for education among the people--is what interests me. So, here's my response to the question posed on the hike.

I would radically reconfigure how the federal government supports higher education. Not in terms of mandating what degrees are offered or how programs are run, but in how opportunities for higher education are made available. I would rework the Pell Grant system to address the tuition cost crisis.

(I read recently that when the Pell Grant system was instituted, the grant amount covered somewhere in the neighborhood of 70% of average education costs. Today, they cover closer to 35% of the cost of a degree. Between out-of-control increases in tuition and [not coincidentally] administrator salaries and lagging increases in funding, we've slipped in our support for students, especially for the students who need higher education the most.)

But it's not just about increasing the amount of Pell Grant money available. I some cases, that would make matters worse. (Here's an example. At the college where I teach, tuition is very reasonable--the classes I teach are tuition-free for residents of the local tax district. So many students get money back on Pell Grants. This leads to pretty massive [unofficial] enrollment drops the day after Pell checks are distributed. This then bites the students who fail to pass enough of their classes, as they go on academic probation and often lose their Pell eligibility.)

Instead, what I want to see is smarter funding, attached to both tuition cost and student income. Make not only community college education, but also public and private universities accessible and affordable. Offer students the opportunity to invest Pell money in excess of tuition and book costs in a personal savings plan with matching funds (perhaps at a 2-to-1 ratio) for graduate studies, opening a small business, or buying a home. Or direct any excess funds back to the institution with the stipulation that a) the funds go directly to instruction and certain support services (tutoring, advising, etc.) and b) retention and graduation rates exceed certain rates.

None of this makes for a perfect solution, and there would be all sorts of resistance from administrators, faculty, politicians, and parents. But, I think we need to be, to use my favorite Obama term, audacious in tackling this iniquity.

Monday, July 20, 2009

On Self-Reliance

This past Sunday, the Living section of our local paper featured a cover story on how LDS teachings related to self-reliance are valuable, especially in the midst of a recession. I found the coverage of this important doctrinal aspect of our faith--and its practical implications--to be clear and accurate. It also made me think about how self-reliance embodies a gospel-centered approach to life.

I first began to understand self-reliance several years ago when I served as our ward employment specialist. In many ways I was a horrible failure in this calling--I don't think anyone I worked with got or improved their employment. But I did play a role in developing a self-reliance plan for our ward, which enabled the Bishop to focus our resources on helping needy families and individuals in meaningful, long-term ways. And I believe this was a key part of that Bishop's time in that calling, shifting our ward's welfare work from putting out fires to helping people make lasting changes to move toward being self-reliant.

This has also been a blessing for our family. We worked hard at that time to pay off our credit card debt, and while we have months where this issue recurs, we have enjoyed the freedom that comes from having more of our paycheck available for our own use. The decreased stress and the ability to be of more service to others have been immense blessings.

But I am also impressed by how self-reliance has come to mean more to us than money. We have worked on our food storage and our emergency reserves, we have made changes to our physical surroundings (although the backyard is still a work in progress and source of marital strife at ties), and we have worked to instill in our children a respect for the blessings we enjoy and a willingness to work.

This, finally, is the direction I wish to go as a family in regards to our efforts towards self-reliance. As with any important principle of the gospel, this is not just for us, but for our children. I want them to grow to be wise, happy, hard-working individuals who contribute to their communities. I wish for them to be free of debt, to earn as much education as they can, to find enjoyment in the work they do.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

On the Loyal Opposition

With the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor beginning today, I thought it timely to return to this unique part of American democracy for today's rant. In large part I approach this topic with gratitude for a system in which the deliberative Senate has the opportunity to question the president's nominees to key posts, most especially the Supreme Court.

But I am also bothered by the role being played by Senate Republicans in trying to define the terms of what the judicial branch is to do. The insistence that the courts are to practice what Justice Scalia has called "strict constructionsim" (which he and the other conservatives on the court immediately abandon in cases involving eminent domain, voting rights, and campaign finance) is annoying, as no such philosophy exists or has existed, save in the minds of reactionaries who see anything progressive as inherently degenerate. This is particularly galling, given the disdain with which the right views the judiciary whenever a ruling goes against conservative thought.

This op-ed piece by Senator Jeff Sessions, the de facto Republican voice on the SCOTUS hearings made this argument in a particularly flimsy manner, rife as it is with misinterpretations, generalizations, and contradictions. Let's get to it.

For starters, we have the tired argument against empathy, of which more later. Sticking to the Joe-the-plumber-style GOP talking points, Sessions states that empathy "says that justice should not be blind, that it should not be based only on the law and the Constitution, but that it should take a judge's own personal and political feelings into account." Ignoring the fact is always the case that a human judge is influenced by his/her own subjectivity, Sessions seems to argue for an automon-type approach to the judicial process. This, of course is interesting, given the highly emotional nature of right-wing positions on issues ranging from abortion ("baby-killing!" they shout) to immigration ("stealing American jobs!" they cry).

Sessions follows this with (to use the terminology of classical rhetoric, a la freshman comp classes) an appeal to pathos, when he asks "if you or I step into a courtroom, shouldn't we be able to do so with confidence that we will get a fair day in court no matter our background, experience, or politics — and no matter the background, experience, or politics of the judge?" Failing to acknowledge that historically the vast majority of judges have been old white men, often ruling against women, minorities, and the poor and disenfranchised, Sessions appeals to equality, but only inasmuch as it applies to people who are--ethnically, culturally, and socially--like him.

To accomplish this, the Senator refers (predictably) to the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Ricci case. As if confirmation to the Supreme Court required one to have a perfect batting average vis-a-vis the Court, Sessions argues that Sotomayor's lower-court ruling on the case places her outside of the national mainstream on issues of racial diversity and affirmative action. In summarizing the case, Sessions says "Eighteen firefighters, one of whom suffers from a learning disability, studied for months to pass the city's promotion exam. They did. But the city junked the results because they didn't feel the outcome met the appropriate racial quota. Sotomayor sided with the city and even denied the firefighters a trial." Besides the use of the inaccurate term in describing the legalities of the case ("quotas"), Sessions makes a plea here for the very quality he derides--empathy.

If we are to expect, value, and even demand equal treatment for both parties, the fact--so often cited by conservative pundits in referring to this case--that the plaintiff "suffers from a learning disability" and made great sacrifices to study for this exam is entirely irrelevant. Clearly what we see in this fallacious argument is politicking at its worst. To base a claim on a constitutional value that one then disregards when it is convenient, to oppose a highly qualified nominee simply because that person's ideology is contrary to one's own, to vilify a moderate as a radical while ignoring the radical nature of one's own position in the (hopefully) vain attempt to shift the political spectrum--all of this is to perpetuate the win-at-all-costs Rovian politics that sullied the Bush administration and led to intellectual hollowness of the GOP and its current exile from the national political landscape.

On second thought, let's hear more from Senator Sessions. I'm sure it will only make Judge Sotomayor and President Obama look that much more impressive by comparison...

Monday, July 6, 2009

Reflections on Independence Day

The Sunday closest to Independence Day has always been an odd moment for me. I like the national anthem as much as anyone else, but singing all three verses while standing up is a bit wearisome. And America the Beautiful gets crazy in the last verse: "Thine alabaster cities gleam/ Undimmed by human tears."

This is complicated even more when the conservative politics of many members influences patriotic sentiment in ways that I am not always comfortable with. Suffice it to say that I have gritted my teeth at times on the first Sunday of July.

That's why I was so pleased with this Fast Sunday. The testimonies were focused on the gospel, not the cultural aspects of Mormonism that can be problematic. I was especially touched by the closing prayer and how the good brother who offered it gave thanks for this nation, a land of freedom in which the gospel could be restored and then taken to all the world. In a succinct and heartfelt prayer, this man summarized the essence of gospel-based patriotism.

Over the weekend I read this blog entry at BYU's Religious Studies website, and I find it an insightful way of viewing the past holiday and the implications for Latter-day Saints. The entry gets at my own pet peeve, the tendency we have to replace genuine patriotism and love of country with demagoguery and nationalism, and I appreciate the warning tone.

I see this issue a lot like parenting. I don't love my children because they are better than another person's children, but because they are mine. We love our country not because it is better than Spain or Japan or Kenya, but because it is ours, and because we have an obligation to constantly make it better.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

To Do Lists

Over the last few years I have experimented with a number of different to-do list tools. I've used index card lists, Outlook's tasks feature, Freemind, My Life Organized, Google Calendar, Remember the Milk, Now Do This, and several combinations of these. And I'm still working on a system that I can easily transfer among the half-dozen computers I use (fours of which I use on a daily basis).

Earlier this week I read this piece from Slate, in which the author reviews a (seemingly arbitrary) handful of web-based to-do list tools. I find these reviews to be useful, but that utility is limited by the fact that the author's criteria for choosing a tool are different than my own.

So, in the spirit of the article, here's a request for some feedback. What kinds of tools do you use, and what are their advantages and limitations? And, given the following parameters, what suggestions do you have for me?

I need/want a system that has the following characteristics:
  1. Web based, preferably with an offline/export feature
  2. Visual (either nesting hierarchies, mind mapping, or color-coding)
  3. Expandable
  4. Flexible (I want to be able to move tasks from one category to another easily, or to take a sub-task and promote it)
  5. Deadline/calendaring
  6. Free (I don't want to pay for a tool that I fear will become obsolete in a year)
What do you think?