It is autumn here, and today was a bright blue day with just a few leaves drifting down from the trees. Buenos Aires has many leafy boulevards, and on one of them I encountered an amusing tree, the palo borracho (drunken stick). All of them have the rounding middle.
BA has a distinctively European feel to it, reminiscent of Madrid but more retired. It displays many handsome 19th century buildings alongside more modern examples, there are expensive shops and attractive restaurants, but not so much glass and dazzle. It is a big city but the pace seems comparatively sedate. I don’t know any city that has so many bookshops–filled with books, not cards and gifts. My companion, Esteban Fernandez, tells me that bookstores are not in decline here, even though the Internet is ubiquitous.
It is also very European in its population, in fact considerably more European than Europe. It is a nation of immigrants but all from Europe. You hardly see Asians, Africans, or even dark Indian faces such as are plentiful in Mexico.
Apparently racial homogeneity does not guarantee national unity, however. The day I arrived the Congress was voting on measures that would make the judicial system subservient to the president’s administration; they passed, and the streets near my hotel were jammed with protestors. I am told that the country is deeply polarized between the populist administration, which admires Venezuela’s Chavez regime, and a divided opposition. The country is in something of an economic crisis, with currency controls that make it virtually impossible to do external business. (Though there is a “blue market” exchange, so called because it is not really black. Indeed, our hotel openly changed dollars at the blue market rate, which is about double the official rate. In fact, the blue market rate is published daily.) But crises have happened so many times, people go about their business without worrying more than they have to.
My favorite experience came last night in a bar and heladeria (ice cream store), El Vesuvio, desde 1902. The patrons were not present at the first opening, I think, but close to it–the mean age was 70, it appeared. They were there for the tango–singing, not dancing–and they all knew each other and were having such fun! One after another men and women took the mike and, accompanied by guitar and accordion, sang the tragic stories of adultery and reconciliation. Though it looked like talent night at the senior center, it was musically terrific.
I am in Buenos Aires this week for open ended discussions on God’s Justice, the Bible I am working on. Today I had an unusually interesting conversation with the pastor of a very large charismatic Baptist church. He said that Latin American pastors are reaching the limits of their church model, which is based on fast numerical growth and intense spiritual growth. The problem is that that there is no room for justice in their thinking. “The average evangelical thinks of salvation from justice, wherein really salvation is a restoration of justice. Salvation and justice are inseparable.”
Pastors, he said, are beginning to think about transformation–and about training and equipping a new leadership that can fight against injustice at every level–at home, in society, and of course in themselves.
He mentioned the cautionary example of Guatemala, where 50 percent of the population consider themselves evangelical, but 80 percent are poor; and Nigeria, where 50 percent of the population may be born again but corruption is among the worst in the world. Pastors in his extensive network are realizing the inadequacy of their ministry to transform such realities.
Is such reflection common? I don’t know. I do however have a hopeful sense that some serious rethinking is going on, in places you might not expect it.
Ross Douthat has an outstanding short essay on the media response to Kermit Gosnell, the doctor who killed newborns. He quotes, at length, from abortion rights advocates, and gives them their due. They are right in saying that doctors like this would be a lot less likely to exist if there were easy, convenient access to professional abortion clinics. In a perverse way, restrictions on access actually enable devils like Gosnell.
Where such abortion rights advocates never go, however, is the bloody and physical reality of late-term abortions. They don’t focus on the actual fetuses/babies –one different from the other only by the matter of whether a doctor is operating on them inside the womb or outside. And that, Douthat points out, is what is so awful and compelling about Gosnell’s case.
One might have expected abortion controversies to have dried up long ago. The reason they persist–the reason why abortion is not really accepted after forty years of legal practice–is simply those fetuses/babies. It is very difficult to focus on them and remain free and easy about abortion.
Clearly, we live in a time when people want to go about their sexual business without minding anybody’s moral scruples. Most would rather live and let live and not think about it. Given that strong current of sexual individualism, I can’t see abortion rights really becoming threatened in the foreseeable future. But at the same time, I don’t see the issue quite disappearing, either. We don’t have to think about those fetuses/babies most days. But cases will surface to remind us of them.
This afternoon I overheard a reporter (on “Fresh Air”) who has covered terrorist attacks all around the world. Now he is reporting one in his hometown of Boston. He said it seemed very strange to be covering a terrorist attack in which the victims had Boston accents. It made him think he needed renewed dedication to remembering that every terrorist attack is in somebody’s home town.
We get inured to attacks in strange places. In the same newspaper in which I read of Monday’s attack, another report in the back pages told of a car bomb (in Iraq, I think) that killed 50 people. I imagine that people in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Somalia are not overwhelmed by the deaths of three in Boston.
Naturally, domestic crises always seem most significant to us. An accident in which my brother got killed inevitably would strike deeper than an accident in which eight people I have never met lost their lives. We care more about those closest to us. I don’t think we can or should help that.
We can, however, try seriously to grasp the nature of other people’s losses.
I haven’t quite forgiven the Spanish professor who, on 9/11, lectured his American students in Barcelona (including my daughter) to the effect that America had it coming. Even in the more moderate form of British intellectualism, I don’t like reading that America overreacted in a vengeful manner. In other words, I feel strong distaste for heartlessness when it’s directed my way.
Maybe, though, I should rethink the way I react when I read stories from Afghanistan.
I was so pleased when I heard from an old friend, Joy Fargo, that she had read Birmingham and was introducing it to her book club. May her tribe increase! Having searched the internet for book club questions, she wrote her own and passed them on to me.
Here they are, in case you are interested:
- Where were you in 1963 and how aware were you of what was happening in the Civil Rights movement?
- How does the opening scene in the bus set the tone of the book?
- The author uses alternating narrators to tell the story. How does this affect your understanding of the events of the book?
- How would you describe Chris, the main character? Was he believable to you (taking into account the year this happened)?
- What qualities do you see in Dorcas? How did you respond to this character?
- What is the significance of the names the author chooses for the main characters: Chris Wright, Dorcas Jones, Rev. R.I. Wriggleshott, Charley (the guy from the bus)?
- Dorcas keeps asking Chris why he is there. Why was he there? What role does her questioning play in the development of the story?
- What was accomplished by Chris’ trip to Birmingham (both in regard to the Civil Rights movement and in his personal life)?
- Chris’ wife Linda wanted him to stay in Berkeley and just fight injustices there. Do you think that would have been a better choice? What role does Chris’ wife play in this story?
- Does the book describe a different “black sexuality” and “white sexuality”?
- How do you feel about the portrayal of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement? According to what you know, were they honorable? Do you think the portrayal was fair?
- How would you describe the intersection of the Civil Rights movement and the Christian faith?
- Birmingham describes a black community that had varied responses to the Civil Rights movement. Which do you think was most idealistic? Realistic?
- If you had been in Birmingham in 1963, how do you think you would have responded?
- What injustice today might move you to action?
I’ve been struck by Genesis 18, where Abraham engages God (who stops by for a meal) on his plans to judge Sodom. Abraham is not exercised on his own behalf, but for all the innocent people who will suffer in Sodom’s downfall.
Most of us fret about justice for ourselves, not other people.
Abraham asks God perhaps the most impertinent question in the Bible. “Far be it from you to do such a thing–to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (18:25)
That’s quite a question to ask God.
And here’s a question I have to ask myself: When did I last complain to God about the suffering of innocent people?
It’s always a pleasure to hear from appreciative readers, but it’s a very special joy to get a letter from those I deeply admire. Eugene Peterson and his wife Jan gave me permission to quote this response to Birmingham:
We read this book together over the past two months and feel we have been immersed in a distant world that we had only known previously through the public media.
Jan was born in Birmingham and grew up with a few black playmates. Eugene grew up in an almost completely white world. He only knew one black person, who later became the best man in their wedding. Our only experience with Martin Luther King was listening to his “I Have a Dream” address at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
Which is to say that the world of racial discrimination and violence was almost entirely “black and white.” Tim’s novel introduced us to the enormous complexity introduced by the “movement”–moderate whites, moderate blacks, militant whites, militant blacks, the KKK, fearful blacks, naive idealistic whites. Narrated through the alternating first-person voices of a young black woman, Dorcas, and a young white man, Chris, the tension builds page by page.
We both feel that for two months we experienced the closest thing to being there without being there.
A very interesting column from David Brooks. He salutes gay marriage as a lone modern indicator of people voluntarily seeking to bind their freedom in commitments.
“Once, gay culture was erroneously associated with bathhouses and nightclubs. Now, the gay and lesbian rights movement is associated with marriage and military service. Once the movement was associated with self-sacrifice, it was bound to become popular.”
Gay marriage is thus a conservative victory, in his telling, and he wonders whether it will lead to a trend. ” Maybe we’ll see other spheres in life where restraints are placed on maximum personal choice.”
You may know that I have a long-time interest in Sri Lanka. Today I got the following report from a friend there:
The attacks on Christians doing evangelism has really intensified. Many house prayer groups in homes of believers have been asked to stop. There are attacks on churches. A group has arisen which has taken it upon themselves even using force to protect Sri Lanka which they are saying belongs to a certain ethnic group and a certain religion. They have published a document on the so-called threat to Sri Lanka and listing dangerous organisations. We are in that list. Much wisdom is needed. Pastors are living with much fear. They are also hitting Muslim targets.Please pray for us.