Whose Sacrifice

Today is Memorial Day in the US. Its origins lie at the end of the Civil War as a way of remembering soldiers who died in service from both the Union and Confederate forces. Since then, it has expanded to include all members of the armed forces who have died in service to the US.

It wasn’t completely strange to hear an advertisement on an evangelically-aligned radio station wave the patriotic flag. What was strange, though, was a particular sentence in this ad. The narrator spoke, ‘On this day we remember those whose sacrifices have enabled us to worship him’. The ‘him’, of course, is a reference to Christ. However, it is theologically wrong to say that one (even an American!) would not be able to worship God or Christ without the death of members of the US military.

If any sacrifice enables Christians to worship God or Christ, it is the sacrifice by Christ. The deaths of people enlisted with the military do not enable people to worship Christ any more than sacrifices made by diplomats to negotiate peace treaties between the US and another country. The service members are representatives of the US armed forces working for the interests of the US government. Yes, their deaths should be remembered but not as being somehow theologically significant.

This kind of contamination of theology in evangelical circles with a flavour of American civil religion is nothing new. However, it highlights the emptiness of evangelical political theology. This kind of marriage between theology and civil religion has replaced the disavowed study of theology in evangelicalism.

Active and Reactive Programming

Now that I’m knee-deep in doing programming work daily, I’ve come across two different ideal mindsets, which I find parallel Nietzsche’s opposition of active and reactive forces. I’m limiting this description to third party developers because it is most obvious in these cases.

The first mindset comes close to Nietzsche’s active forces whereby the replacement and deprecation of older functionality is seen as a good thing. Some open source ecosystems are rife with active programming (WordPress comes to mind). Every time WP makes a new major release, third party developers are quick to adopt the new methods as well as drive the WP core development to improve its code base. In WordPress’s long life, I have rarely seen major developers complain of change (at least for very long). In general, third party WP developers generally are aware of what is changing in the next major release, so their programming is performed with an eye to future growth.

The second mindset, which echoes Nietzsche’s reactive forces, wants to conserve older functionality regardless of its idosyncratic ways. The deprecation and replacement of these older methods are always contested — so much that a significant number of third party developers refuse to support new major releases until after they have been released. In my experience, the Joomla community is full of reactive programmers. Third party developers regularly cry foul with nearly everything Joomla core developers do (e.g. the six-month release cycle, removal of legacy code, etc).

I have had experience with some third party developers who were in the process of rewriting their code to fit better with Joomla 1.5, a release which had already been around for over a year. During this period, Joomla core developers switched to the six-monthly release cycle (and, in fact, had released two versions before this third party group released their rewrite). When I was involved with the group, I had suggested to take a more active mindset in the rewrite and embrace the newer features of Joomla. Their lead developers, on the other hand, chose to build off of Joomla 1.5 and fix problems with newer Joomla releases as they cropped up. Now, Joomla has two major releases — 2.5 LTS and 3.0 STS — and their rewrite project works on 2.5 only because they have copied functionality deprecated in 2.5 and removed in 3.0 by the Joomla core developers (e.g. JParameter). As a result, they will have to look at rewriting large portions of their codebase in the next year as 2.5 is replaced by the next LTS release.

The reactive programming mindset is full of ressentiment, especially towards the core developers who do not develop their code with the offended third party developers’ code in mind. It tries to reverse the relationship between core and third party. However, it also makes third party code less efficient because they often duplicate newer core functionality. In the Joomla example, the Joomla core developers created a small function, jimport(), that would check to see if a file was already included and include it if necessary; this worked similar to the internal PHP’s __autoload() functionality which was introduced in Joomla 3.0. However, the third party group decided to ignore jimport() most of the time and, instead, use an if(class_exists)) {require} line. Every time. Their code is littered with this under the presumption that it is faster than jimport(). I once questioned this since class_exists() is not the fastest method when doing numerous times on every load (if ($array[$key]) is faster in the long run).

In the end, then, active programming in third party developers embraces core progresses and is more able to keep up with the core release cycle, making it easier for new users to understand. Reactive programming, on the other hand, holds back existing users from keeping up with core releases (the eternal question of ‘does this third party code support the new core code?’). This same mindset was seen when PHP deprecated and ended support for its 4.x series — hosting providers were caught with their pants down as they had to scramble to upgrade their servers to PHP 5.x or, worse, force users to stay on the 4.x series while users’ applications dropped support for the deprecated PHP 4.x. This only produces more ressentiment and makes it more difficult for developers — both core and third party — to focus on writing and improving their code. Instead, developers are caught dealing with non-issues and/or playing catch-up in a game of power which is weighted against them. Just as PHP application developers will not stop PHP from dropping 4.x or releasing 5.5, so too will third party developers not stop core developers from dropping functionality they have deprecated/replaced or producing new functionality that suits their development goals.

Reactive programming is the one of greatest examples of consumer mentality in which third party developers perceive themselves as the consumer of the core application and must always be treated as right by core developers. Rarely do they realise the difficulties which they are causing for no real reason other than to attempt a hostile takeover of the power structure of the core development team without wanting to participate in that structure. Instead, they see themselves as manager-consumer in control of the developer-worker in a grand delusion of power.

The Future of Here

I’ve decided that a site overhaul is needed. Unless I stumble across something else, I’ll be moving things to Drupal. It’s not that I particularly like Drupal over WordPress, but rather what I want to accomplish for this site will be executed more easily in Drupal. This is partially because my day job is developing custom websites using Drupal (though we do use WordPress and Joomla frequently), so I have a better feel for how to twist Drupal to my liking (e.g. a fully responsive, dynamic layout with media queries, swipe functionality, and Retina support). My plan is to organise the site with a few different content areas/types:

  • General page (like WP)
  • Blog post (like WP)
  • Academic Work/Publication
  • Development project
  • Media (like the Now Reading bit in the sidebar)
  • Question bank (for me only, but to generate tests for classes)

Historically speaking, this will be the fourth iteration of this site. It began as a phpBB forum back in 2003. Then, it transitioned to Joomla (well Mambo before Joomla forked from it) with a phpBB forum for comments. Then, it moved to WordPress (and a relatively obscure and separate phpBB forum for development chatter).

Individualised Subjects

There is a trend in America — and likely elsewhere — to decontextualise events like the mass shooting last week by turning the perpetrator into a completely autonomous, loner, mentally disturbed, ‘sinful’ individual. I’ve heard this from both religious and non-religious people over the weekend. However, I’ve begun to wonder about such a move — especially the last one (the ‘sinful’ part). In discussing this with ministerial figures, they were quick to differentiate ‘killing’ (especially that ‘sanctioned by God’ in the HB/OT) and ‘murder’. For him, at least, there is a prior commitment to accept the literal (well, literal in English at least) wording of the Biblical texts as being directly from God and, therefore, to reject seeing the language of ‘divinely-sanctioned murder’ as political insertions by religious and political leaders of the time. This person was also quick to declare the actions and life of the shooter as ‘sinful’ as a result of his final act. Yet, I wonder if the share of ‘sin’ extends far beyond simply the act of shooting children in a school room. Ignoring the additional argument that ‘guns don’t kill people’, I want to explore the ‘sins’ of the community which far outweigh the shooting of American children.

First, while the shootings occurred in Connecticut, the American military has been involved with an ongoing campaign of murdering people indiscriminately in Pakistan. This includes children just as innocent as those in American elementary schools. When this fact is brought up in conversation, most people shrug their shoulders as if it is an inconsequential number (as is attributed to Stalin: ‘if a person kills a dozen, it is a tragedy; if five million, a statistic’). Interestingly, there was another mass killing on Friday in China. While this did make mention in the news, it was lost soon after in the deluge of speculation about the latest shooting in the US. Apparently, it is only newsworthy to the media when American children are gunned down by posthumously ostracised ‘individuals’.

Secondly, there is the looming question of gun control. This shooting — like the many before it — has rekindled the debate regarding gun control. There is a liberal knee-jerk reaction every time which shuts down this debate in the name of ‘respect for the victims’ — as if it would not be respectful to discuss a way of preventing further instances. It is a myth to say that outlawing handguns and removing them from public access will not affect how ‘criminals’ can acquire weapons — as if there is a gaping hole in the government’s oversight of its borders whereby guns flow freely. I believe the issue stems from an American romance with the Wild West in which laws were suggestions and ‘individuals’ could interpret ethics and legalities by the gun. For these people, outlawing guns would be a tragedy because they think by giving a person a gun, that person is empowered as a defender, equipped with deadly force, trained as sharpshooter, and prepared to become a vigilante at a moments’ notice. Never mind the fact that the overwhelming majority of mass shootings are not stopped by average citizens with guns (and in fact, those who have tried to do so have become part of the body count) but by people who are actually trained and prepared to deal with mass shooters (i.e. the police and military). In other words, the general American romance with the mythological Wild West is one in which lawmakers and upholders of the law are also individuals decontextualised from their positions as government employees. They are freed from the constraints of the legal system and community mores in order to protect it. The same could also be said of the military. This kind of liminality makes the individual somehow superior to the urbanites who rely on civil services. It also implicates the desire to return to a post-civil society in which laws are relative to the individuals who are the sole and final arbiters of law (a la Judge Dredd).

Third, there is a meta-narrative which develops around each of these shootings whereby the assailant is a mentally unstable individual who must bear the complete guilt, shame, and sin of his actions against a ‘tight-knit’ community. Time and again, the police and the media work together to sell the story of the lone gunman who had serious signs of mental instability and was able to acquire (legally!) numerous weapons prior to his assault on the community. Rarely, if ever, does the ‘tight-knit’ community actually see the warning signs of such an individual, yet they are quick to excuse their own lack of care (how ‘tight-knit’!) for the assailant. In other words, if the assailant is an outcast of the ‘tight-knit’ community, it is mutually decided between the person and the community.

Fourth, the meta-narrative of ‘tight-knit’ communities is made to decontextualise the location from its embedded-ness in a city. Newtown, CT, for instance is a suburb of Danbury and part of the greater New York City region. Columbine is a suburb of Denver. Oftentimes, these ‘tight-knit’ and ‘non-city’ communities are part of an urbanised landscape. However, this decontextualisation is done to fabricate a fantasy of a Wild West town in which legal systems are superfluous and all the citizens of the town are as closely connected as can be without being related.

To speak, then, of the ‘sins’ of the shooter is misleading at best. Had the community been as close to its fantastical utopian narrative as it claims to be, the event of violence which actually occurred would not have happened. The ‘sins’ of the community may be that of the narcissist whereby nothing and nobody is of a concern except for the ‘tight-knit’ community which has a bad history of excluding people who do not fit the orthodoxy of the community. Adam Lanza, for example, was a stranger in his own community, alienated by the very narratives which construct Sandy Hook and Newtown as ‘tight-knit’ communities. If that is the case, then his violence was more than just violence for the sake of violence but also a cry of desperation for the community to see its narcissistic reflection. To put this in terms of ‘sins’, Adam Lanza was the sacrificial scapegoat by which Newtown and Sandy Hook can continue their ‘sinful’ practises of alienating those who live within their borders. Please do not misinterpret me here: yes, Adam Lanza shot and killed dozens of people; however, it is short-sighted to blame him as an individual for the sins of the community which produced him as the alienated individual.

The Living Word

In my experience, evangelical Christianity seems enamoured with the belief that it is ‘biblical’ in ways that other groups are not. Generally, there is an implicit vitriol for Catholicism (as well as mainline Protestant groups such as the Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church USA) which are seen as somehow not ‘biblical’. It is as if ‘the Bible’ is a static, unchanging document which can be understood fully without plumbing the depths of its roots, contexts, and history of transmission (to name but a few elements!). However, I have become fairly sceptical of such language because ‘biblical’ is almost always encoded and encapsulated with a pre-existing structure of beliefs. It’s amazing that ‘biblical’ in today’s context almost always means a brand of conservative American evangelicalism which believes women are ‘equal but different’ (meaning they can serve the congregation as, say, ‘children’s pastor’ or ‘worship leader’ but not as ‘pastor’), same-sex marriage is an ‘abomination’, and baptism must be done only to adult-ish converts fully immersed in water (and sometimes even with a specific language without which the baptism is somehow invalid). What many of those who purport a ‘biblical’ Christianity don’t realise is that it meant something completely different two hundred years ago (women couldn’t serve, full stop), four hundred years ago, and so forth. Eight hundred years ago, ‘biblical’ Christianity meant either western Catholicism or eastern Orthodoxy depending on where one lived.

So, let’s assume that ‘biblical’ Christianity means some kind of adherence to some ‘broad stroke’  concepts and/or principles which can be interpreted through some systematic approach to the biblical texts. Which approach? There are many; and throughout history, there are many different methods and interpretations which can be seen as plausible — some even contradictory or mutually exclusive. However, even if we take the bigger assumption that there is only one ‘ultimate’ set of principles (and all the others are classified in terms of acceptable deviations which is often none). Even within the Bible, that which is considered ‘scripture’ is frequently recontextualised for new meanings and interpretations. There is a slew of good scholarship (e.g. Brevard Childs’s The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture) which show how Christianity over two thousands years has recast just one of the biblical texts over time. Other scholarship has shown how, within the collection of biblical texts, intertextual relationships have modified or recontextualised older texts (e.g. Richard Hays’s Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul). I bring these up not to suggest that the biblical texts can be absolutely anything as in some sort of relativism, but rather there is a  degree of give and play in the interpretation of those texts.

However, this wiggle room in the practise of interpretation is rendered mute by the evangelicals who speak about the ‘obviousness of scripture’. For them, not only is there a single interpretation to the text, but the current one must have always been the only interpretation (even when the history above shows otherwise). This also ignores the great amount of work which goes into producing a translation of the texts which render them in contemporary language. By ignoring this process, adherents to this practise construct an artificial ‘Bible’ through which their own beliefs and traditions are masked as being directly handed down by God, through Christ, the original disciples, and early Christianity.

Interestingly, the problem does not end there. Instead, many evangelicals who speak about ‘biblical’ Christianity include Judaism from its beginning through the Second Temple period. For some evangelicals, even the Jewish figures in the HB/OT were closet Christians who believed in Christ, a triune God, and so forth. However this is done only by exploiting the terminology of ‘Judeo-Christian’ and reading early Judaism as a thoroughly Christian venture which just happened to have been called Judaism. In other words, there is no double identity  of Jewish-Christian to mediate in the early Church (e.g. the first disciples), but a single identity of Christianity made double through a virtual colonisation of Judaism. To put it bluntly, then, ‘biblical’ Christianity is nothing more than the same oppressive Christianity of history masquerading itself as some kind of new development which has recovered some imagined ‘golden era’ of the past which is no more ‘biblical’ than the other Christian groups which are cast as failing to be ‘biblical’.