Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Hotel Rwanda's Paul Rusesabagina: not just an "ordinary man"

As I work on my chapter on Christ's descent into Hell for my book on the Crucifixion, I am reading books about evil. I have just finished one that I highly recommend in a very particular way.

When I was in St. Louis for Holy Week, Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager whose story was told in the movie Hotel Rwanda, came through on a tour for his new book, An Ordinary Man. More than a thousand people overwhelmed the public library facilities where he spoke. I was fortunate to be able to attend and to obtain an autographed copy of the book, which narrates the story of the Rwandan genocide in Paul Rusesabagina's own voice.

I plan to post my reflections in several different installments, but from the very first I would like to say that of all the many books I have read about the Rwandan genocide, this one tells it in the clearest, most direct, most accessible way. Mr. Rusesabagina has a unique voice. His reflections are simple on the surface and easy to grasp, but his wisdom runs deep. I believe that this book should be made required reading for the upper grades of high school. The young readers will be gripped in spite of themselves by the story, which is easy to follow, but most important, they will be challenged by his analysis of group-think and his simple appeal to say no when all those around you are going insane. Since that is what he himself did over and over and over for three months at the daily risk of his life, his little book has the weight of unassailable authority.

His title, An Ordinary Man, was carefully chosen, yet it is deceptive. He wants to emphasize his ordinariness. "I am just a hotel manager," he keeps saying. He wants us to understand that ordinary people can make a difference. He is appealing to his readers to stand up and resist evil as he did. At the end of the book he lists others, not well-known, who also saved lives. In the final analysis, however, the numbers of people who did not resist and who actively participated in the killings numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

The fact is that Paul Rusesabagina is not an ordinary man. There were influences in his life that made him wiser, stronger, more honest, more perceptive, more courageous than most people. I plan to write about these influences later, but right away the primary one should be identified and that is Paul Rusesabagina's father. He had had no schooling, but his moral fiber made him the most respected man in their village, and he taught his values to his son. "My father was my hero," writes Paul.

As Mothers' Day approaches, a widely sentimentalized commercial holiday, we need to lift up the role of the father in our own culture where fathers (if they are present at all) are noticeable largely for cheering on their sons unreservedly in one of the most primitive forms of group-think: the athletic team. Paul Rusesabagina's father would have found this inconceivable. The point for him was to do your best and to excel, yes, but always with utmost respect for all participants whether on your team or not, and never to betray your best self by participating in anything dishonorable. All through the genocide, Paul Rusesabagina was thinking, "What would my father have me do?"

What were the Duke lacrosse team members thinking? Why have none of them come forward? Where are the fathers?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

David Brooks, for better and worse

"The liberal's favorite conservative," he's called (I can vouch for the description). His op-ed column about the Duke lacrosse scandal, called "Virtues and Victims" (you can read it below) is superb and found a wide readership around the country. Brooks on personal morality and masculine leadership is unbeatable.

Then two days later his column was deplorable. Why? Because he took the opportunity to compare the Iraq occupation to the Exodus? Well, not really, though-- as some letters to the editor pointed out-- it was a flawed analogy. The real reason, as unfortunately no letter-writers pointed out, is that he described Exodus at length without any reference whatsoever to God. In his view, the spunky Israelites got themselves out of Egypt.

This sort of Bible-reading is far more common than most people realize. In fact, most people are so clueless about the real meaning of the Bible that they just assume it is one book among many about human religious striving, human spiritual successes and failures. God is either non-existent, absent, inactive or impotent.

Those who lead congregations, Bible studies, Sunday Schools, and other Christian groups need to be aware of this widespread tendency and be ready to mount opposition to it. The Bible is about God.

Here is the "good" David Brooks column:

Virtues And Victims
By David Brooks
New York Times, April 9, 2006

All great scandals occur twice, first as Tom Wolfe novels, then as real-life events that nightmarishly mimic them. And so after ''I Am Charlotte Simmons,'' it was perhaps inevitable that Duke University would have to endure a mini-social explosion involving athletic thugs, resentful townies, nervous administrators, male predators, aggrieved professors, binge drinking and lust gone wild.

If you wander through the thicket of commentary that already surrounds the Duke lacrosse scandal, the first thing you notice is how sociological it is. In almost every article and piece of commentary, the event is portrayed not as a crime between individuals but as a clash between classes, races and sexes.

''This whole sordid party scene played out at the prestigious university is deeply disturbing on a number of levels, including those involving gender, race and the notion of athletic entitlement and privilege,'' a USA Today columnist wrote.

''The collisions are epic: black and white, town and gown, rich and poor, privilege and plain, jocks and scholars,'' a CBS analyst observed.

The key word in the coverage has been ''entitlement.'' In a thousand different ways commentators have asserted (based on no knowledge of the people involved) that the lacrosse players behaved rancidly because they felt privileged and entitled to act as they pleased.

The main theme shaping the coverage is that inequality leads to exploitation. The whites felt free to exploit the blacks. The men felt free to exploit women. The jocks felt free to exploit everybody else. As a Duke professor, Houston Baker, wrote, their environment gave the lacrosse players ''license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech and feel proud of themselves in the bargain.''

It could be that this environmental, sociological explanation of events is entirely accurate. But it says something about our current intellectual climate that almost every reporter and commentator used these mental categories so unconsciously and automatically.

Several decades ago, American commentators would have used an entirely different vocabulary to grapple with what happened at Duke. Instead of the vocabulary of sociology, they would have used the language of morality and character.

If you were looking at this scandal through that language, you would look at the e-mail message one of the players sent on the night in question. This is the one in which a young man joked about killing strippers and cutting off their skin.

You would say that the person who felt free to send this message to his buddies had crashed through several moral guardrails. You would surmise that his character had been corroded by shock jocks and raunch culture and that he'd entered a nihilistic moral universe where young men entertain each other with bravura displays of immoralism. A community so degraded, you might surmise, is not a long way from actual sexual assault.

You would then ask questions very different from the sociological ones: How have these young men slipped into depravity? Why have they not developed sufficient character to restrain their baser impulses?

The educators who used this vocabulary several decades ago understood that when you concentrate young men, they have a tropism toward barbarism. That's why these educators cared less about academics than about instilling a formula for character building. The formula, then called chivalry, consisted first of manners, habits and self-imposed restraints to prevent the downward slide.

Furthermore, it was believed that each of us had a godlike and a demonic side, and that decent people perpetually strengthened the muscles of their virtuous side in order to restrain the deathless sinner within. If you read commencement addresses from, say, the 1920's, you can actually see college presidents exhorting their students to battle the beast within -- a sentiment that if uttered by a contemporary administrator would cause the audience to gape and the earth to fall off its axis.

Today that old code of obsolete chivalry is gone, as is a whole vocabulary on how young people should think about character.

But in ''I Am Charlotte Simmons,'' Wolfe tried to steer readers back past the identity groups to the ghost in the machine, the individual soul. Wolfe's heroine is a modern girl searching for honor in a world where the social rules have dissolved, and who commits ''moral suicide'' because she is unprepared for what she faces.

Many critics reacted furiously to these parts of Wolfe's book. And we are where we are.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Men's "helmet sports" and the Duke lacrosse team scandal

The recent statement by the chaplain of the Duke University Chapel, Sam Wells, is noble in its humane thoughtfulness and ethical intelligence. You can find it by clicking on "Resources."

Friday, April 07, 2006

Lacrosse teams, debate teams, Barbara Jordan, Cynthia McKinney, female "gravitas"

Did you ever hear of a debate team gang-raping women? What is the matter with these football teams and lacrosse teams, and what is the matter with their coaches? "Boys will be boys?" What a craven excuse for genuine masculine leadership, mentoring, teaching.

These thoughts are occasioned not only by the recent highly-publicized incident at Duke University, but also by a stunning hour-long NPR broadcast two days ago about Barbara Jordan. Are your children and grandchildren looking for heroes? Don't let them be satisfied with basketball players and hip-hop stars. Tell them about Barbara Jordan, for whom the Constitution of the United States was a decree straight from heaven.

She was raised in the New Hope Baptist Church in Houston, where she was expected to spend the entire day on Sunday. You might think that sounds like drudgery, she said, "but it was very important for me and it remains important today." Who were her major childhood influences? Her father and her grandfather. She spoke, with her signature eloquence, about the expectations they had for her, and the standards they held her to. She was "not self-effacing," she said with a chuckle; "if my grandfather was going to tell me to be my own person, I was going to get out there and be it." But this was not some program of "self-expression." Intensely hard work and dedication were called for. The self-confidence gained from her father and grandfather were essential to the ascendancy of a dark, large woman, because lighter-skinned, petite black girls were generally more favored. She arrived at all-black Texas Southern with a supercharged work ethic and the good fortune to find herself in the care of famed debate coach Tom Freeman (an African-American original, to judge from his interview on the program-- he still coaches debate teams today). Freeman's young black men and women won matches against universities all over the country. Freeman said later that beating Harvard was like winning the World Series.

Barbara Jordan was trained as a star debater by Freeman. She was always a superb speaker, but was not able to formulate positions on the spot, to rebut, until she had had four years under his tutelage. From Texas Southern she went on to Boston University (historically welcoming to blacks) for a law degree, and then back home to Texas and the House of Representatives where LBJ took her under his wing and pushed her into key positions over the objections of aides. She was only a freshman member of Congress, but already her fellow Representatives were seeking her advice and counsel. It was not long before she was catapulted into stardom.

It was the year of Watergate, and Barbara Jordan was the junior member among 38 Congressmen on the House Judiciary Committee. The whole nation was watching—in bars, at coffee breaks, in store windows—while the committee debated whether or not to investigate the President. The members gave speeches in turn, beginning with the senior members-- 38 speeches. Barbara Jordan was last. Providence arranged it so that she was on during prime time. As soon as her sonorous voice emerged from her imposing frame, the nation was hooked. "If God were a woman," Bob Woodward reflected, "that would be the voice." In the space of twenty minutes, she became history professor to the nation, the voice of the Framers redivivus, the conscience of America. And because she stated so clearly that "We the people..." had not originally included her, a black woman, but now did, she symbolized both the struggles and the triumphs of every American who had known repression. Once she had finished, Dan Rather remembered later, there was no doubt, once she had finished, that there would be an investigation. Nixon resigned two weeks later.

She became an instant celebrity. People mobbed her everywhere she went. They loaded onto her all their hopes and dreams, said Rather. She was a genuine phenomenon. Her subsequent illnesses and premature retirement and death (ten years ago on the day of the broadcast) feel like an incalculable loss. Indeed, it could be argued that whereas Martin Luther King's death assured his place in history because his great work was done and (as the mural at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery depicts him) flights of angels sang him to his rest, the deaths of Malcolm X and Barbara Jordan appear to this day to have been cruelly out of synch. At least, that is the way it seems to me. All indications were that Malcolm was changing radically in his outlook and was moving to become one of the most excellent influences on young black men that America would see. As for Barbara Jordan, had she lived in health, she could have been a model of female power that would have dwarfed Margaret Thatcher, let alone Katie Couric (whose "gravitas" credentials are being questioned). We desperately need some one like her in politics today. How dismayed she would be at the posturing of Rep. Cynthia McKinney! There is no one of Barbara Jordan's heroic, unimpeachable stature -- of any color or either gender -- presently in view anywhere.