Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thoughts on Proverbs

We humans, as a rule, enjoy seeing others look bad. Give us a good scandal and even just an embarrassing scenario, and we’re all set. Why else would a race spend so much time and money on the National Enquirer, American Idol, Dr. Phil, Judge Judy, and other venues for public humiliation? Why would fictitious characters, like Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason, be admired for their ability to tease out embarrassing facts about even the most immaterial witnesses? I can’t imagine many things worse than having my love life analyzed by a homicide detective or litigation attorney who’s obviously bored with his job. But one person’s living nightmare is another’s entertainment, and as long as we personally aren’t the target of gossip, we believe everything’s okay.

I wonder if commercialized humiliation desensitizes us to its severity. If we laugh at someone on television, maybe it’s easier to use each other’s deepest, darkest secrets for our own gain. Whether through a well-planned slip of the tongue or well-timed public announcement, knowledge is power, and it can help us boost a case – weak or strong – in our favor. King Solomon warns against doing this. By far, Proverbs is my least favorite book of the Bible, primarily because it’s unclear just how wise sayings are supposed to be interpreted and applied in our lives. (And it’s also partly because early on I realized that I’d be a very “quarrelsome wife”!) But I think that Proverbs 25:7b-10 (ESV) provides a practical lesson:

What your eyes have seen do not hastily bring into court,
for what will you do in the end, when your neighbor puts you to shame?
Argue your case with your neighbor himself, and do not reveal another’s secret,
lest he who hears you bring shame upon you, and your ill repute have no end.

I suppose there are a number of ways to interpret this passage, but I’d like to focus on the third line. The NIV says it even better: “do not betray another’s confidence” (v. 9). That might mean refraining from gossip or settling potentially-embarrassing suits out of court whenever possible. It also would prohibit taking cheap shots at your opponent by revealing information irrelevant to a case brought before the court. There are plenty of opportunities do damage to another’s reputation in divorce cases, paternity suits, and other legal annoyances. However, we shouldn’t take advantage of a single one. In other words, we’re not to mimic the antics found in courtroom dramas. Every precaution should be taken to avoid the needless embarrassment of others.

That’s a whole lot to swallow. To start, maybe we need to ask ourselves why someone’s secret needs to become common knowledge. If we as Christians truly cared about the other person, why expose them? Why intentionally betray their trust? “For their own good” is my paraphrase of a popular answer. The dissenting view begins with a reference to Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42), arguing that people need to hear the awful truth about themselves. This argument has no foundation. Jesus actually follows Solomon’s instruction by talking to the woman one-on-one about her messed up life. He didn’t wait until the well was crowded with other young women collecting water.

The same applies to the times when a prophet condemns a king in the presence of his friends and advisors, or when the apostle Paul refers to the sinful behavior of particular church members in his letters. Those people were accomplices or parties relevant to the situation. No one was hearing anything about which they didn’t already know. They were directly involved somehow, such as in asking Paul how to deal with a rebellious fellow believer.

I don’t deny that there will be times when private information is accidentally revealed. I also don’t deny that there are times when secrets must be shared in public for a problem to be resolved quickly and completely. However, I’m concerned about our own motives for cutting each other down. When winning at any cost is the goal, we justify a “take no prisoners” approach. But that’s easy. Too easy. Having real compassion, however, is a challenge, one that far too many people prefer to avoid.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When the Price Is Too High

I teach basic economics to college freshmen. When the supply and demand model is first introduced in my lectures, invariably there’s a question about those poor souls who are unable and/or unwilling to pay the market-determined price. How can a situation that results in many people going without food, clothing, or cellphones be efficient when it’s clearly not socially optimal?

The same question might be asked about the relationship market (or the marriage market, as the case may be). Depressingly low sex ratios, high rates of male incarceration, and a number of other factors create a society in which women, regardless of race, religion, or socio-economic status, feel pressured to “put out” more than they would like to just to gain a nanosecond of masculine attention. What does it take to bring about a more preferable outcome?

There are a number of ways we can go about to lower the price. Eliminating the competition is one option. During the Middle Ages, many baby girls received a one-way ticket to a convent (to be used when they were grown, of course). Today, Christians admonish each other to give up the search and instead to “be content in the Lord.” Some feminist-leaning academics try to change consumer preferences by reciting all the reasons why men are defective goods. Yet, the end result is generally not decreased consumer demand. Demand stays put, and the only change is that would-be buyers feel guilty about going shopping.

Another option, of course, is increasing the supply. The market is opened up to foreign producers. Women start shopping for men outside their racial, religious, and socio-economic preferences. The requirements of “tall, dark, and handsome” are replaced with “breathing and not currently in prison.” Some women discover that what they thought they didn’t want is what they really wanted all along. Others “settle” with something less desirable. And others still leave empty handed, muttering about the prices. Why? For every new sub-demographic of men considered, its female counterpart is there aggressively bidding up the prices. Instead of finding yourself competing with two women for one man, you’re competing with ten women for three men and pretending that your odds have improved.

By now, dear reader, you’re protesting that I’ve reversed gender roles. However, please bear in mind that every buyer is a seller, and every seller a buyer. For the men, they are looking at high price tags too: their freedom. When an average woman starts singing “Put a Ring on It,” from the perspective of male shoppers, they’re being asked to “cough up a lot of dough” for a product that they didn’t really want. Solitary confinement starts looking really good.

So, we’re back to square one. There are too many men and women left single, unable and/or unwilling to pay the price it takes to find someone special in today’s unregulated market. What do we do about it? Appeal to the suppliers’ consciences, urging them to pass up opportunities to profit and instead provide discounts for low-income buyers? In other words, compel people to enter relationships on unfavorable terms in a spirit of sympathy and self-sacrifice. Men wouldn’t demand sexual favors. Women wouldn’t demand fidelity. We’d have an alternative universe filled with irrational people unmotivated by wants and profit. Any takers? I’m guessing not.

People desire intimate relationships. That’s the way we were made. Unfortunately, romantic attention is more often than not a scarce good. It’s like water in the Sahara. When the price is too high, we’re forced to either pay up or abandon the market for this basic necessity. Is it any wonder why some will risk “life and limb” to “spend an arm and a leg” for it?

This has sad implications for today’s young women. There’s nothing more heart-wrenching than being a perpetual wall-flower in the dance of life. Onlookers – often comfortably attached themselves – just shake their heads in disbelief, watching girls making unwise exchanges: (unprotected) sex for brief attentions. Yet, given the current state of things, this behavior is rational. They are freely paying the going rate – perhaps higher than they’d prefer – for something they desperately want. Unless and until key factors within the market fundamentally change, we can’t realistically expect the girls to change their behavior. Whether it’s Tickle-Me Elmo, Nintendo Wii, membership in an exclusive club, or a first kiss, it’s difficult to convince someone something precious to her is not worth fighting for.

No Wedding. No Womb.

This post was written for the No Wedding No Womb 2011 Campaign, organized by So Cal’s own Christelyn Russell-Karazin. The purpose of this mega-blog event is to spread awareness about out-of-wedlock births within the African American community and inspire black girls and women to initiate change. Head over to the NWNW site to catch other bloggers’ perspectives on this issue.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sic semper amatoribus, or The Romance of the Breakup, Part 1

Caroline County, in northeastern Virginia, certainly has an exciting past. Like most of Virginia, there’s all the Colonial, Revolutionary, and Civil War history. William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was born there. General “Stonewall” Jackson died there. Richard and Mildred Loving decided to challenge its anti-miscegenation laws by living there. And, most importantly, John Wilkes Booth (or his doppelgänger) was apprehended there. I have to single out that last one because, back in mid-August, I chose my title because the stars were Virginians. It wasn’t until I read up on the local history this afternoon that I made the connection with the Garrett farm near Port Royal. Now the title seems even more appropriate.

Are lovers tyrants? Emma J. Arnall and her short-term pen pal E.L.R. Dunn were certainly playing a control game with each other. It appears that the two Chilesburg lovers disagreed on the best way to handle a secret love affair and an embarrassing scandal in a small community. They relied on secondhand information from local gossips, which tore apart what little they had in a relationship. The girl appears to have been a spoiled brat, bored with her would-be lover. The guy seems to have been the possessive and jealous type, too oblivious to realize that the reason why she ignored his requests was because she genuinely disliked being his girlfriend. But I’ll get to the letters’ content later. The big question for today is who were these people.

I hope that an Arnall family member will stumble across this and set everything straight. The sketchy records that I’ve found so far suggest the following story: Emma (b. Sept. 7, 1855) was the eldest child of Richard D. Arnall (1829-1916) and Sarah E. Arnall née Mitchell (b. 1833). Emma’s paternal grandfather, farmer Richard Arnall, was born in Hanover County in the 1790s and lived there with his growing family until after the 1830s. He might have served as a private in the Virginia Militia during the War of 1812.

Around 1853, Richard D., probably Richard’s oldest son, married Sarah Mitchell, and both sides of the family were residing in Caroline County. In 1860, Richard D. worked as a wheelwright, supporting a wife and three little girls. He must have done well enough financially. His daughters learned how to read and write, and like his parents, he could afford to own a mulatto slave girl, presumably to care for the house. It’s possible that he followed his father’s military footsteps by joining up with one of the area’s many Virginia Militia units fighting for the Confederate Army, but there’s also indication that certain names, like “Richard,” run at triple time in the extended Arnall family. By 1900, Richard D. was working as a carpenter in Henrico County, widowed and lying about his age. Living with him were his daughters Emma J. and Delia (or Delila) C., both their forties and still single. As Emma the spinster worked as a dressmaker, I wonder if she ever thought about the man she’d scared away as an inexperienced girl of seventeen.

E.L.R. Dunn, affectionately called “Dolie,” is a mystery man. The letters seem to suggest that he moved around a lot, but I have reason to believe that, like Emma, he had roots in Caroline County and spent most of his life in that area. Given that only initials were used in the letters, my investigation of Dunn’s background was extremely difficult. However, by utilizing every possible clue in the lone letter from him to his daughter, I was able to unravel a story from the censuses. (I hope members of the Dunn-Melcalf family can fill in the holes.)

In 1850, Dolie’s father Edmond J. Dunn (b. c. 1820) boarded in Hanover County with the widow Maria Anderson and her children. (Her son Robert, a farmer, is probably the “Mr. Anderson” mentioned in one of Emma’s letters.) By 1860, Edmond J. had his own farm in Caroline County, two slaves, a wife Isabella L. (or S.), and a five-year-old son. Dolie must have inherited something from his mother: self-consciousness. Between the 1860 and 1870 censuses, Isabella (b. c. 1827) only aged seven years. E.L.R., however, eventually grew accustomed to his secret name: Eldorus (or Eldoris, depending on which enumerator you choose to believe).

Dolie (b. c. 1854/1855) was 17 or 18 when he started writing to Emma in 1873. Maybe she thought he wouldn’t amount to anything as a farmer. He must have taken the break up well since, by 1880, he was married to a Mary (b. c. 1857) from New Jersey and had an eight-month-old baby girl, “Hester.” Esther would have to wait until the 1910 census for an enumerator to get her name right. In 1900, her five-year-old brother Leroy must have answered the door and informed the government man that his 18-year-old sister’s name was “Essie.” (Yes, I made that up. If that’s true, he eventually got his in return, the later censuses butchering his name into “La Roy.”)

In 1900, Dolie was a postmaster in Bowling Green, perhaps drawn to that position by Emma’s earlier complaints about the mail service. Esther was a postal clerk. It’s possible that, not too long after, she attended the historic Virginia Commonwealth University. She had been staying in Richmond in an apartment near the campus for a while when her father wrote his “Essie” in 1906. Judging from the letter’s contents, he was an attentive and generous father. It’s not likely that he lived long enough to see her married to someone named Melcalf. By 1910, he left surviving a widow, son (who was possibly drafted for World War I), and married daughter. Leroy would eventually marry a Maude S. and have three daughters of his own…keeping up the family’s presence in Caroline County, Virginia.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Thoughts on Matthew

Even though I read the Bible in a haphazard manner, skipping around and such, I’ve noticed that, of the Gospel accounts, I always end up beginning with Matthew (c. AD 40-65). This time was no different. My journal notes contain thoughts on a number of passages, but today I wanted to discuss the infamous passage on judging others:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” – Matthew 7:1-5 (ESV)

There’s a hint at a difference in the quality of the two sins by Jesus Christ’s choice of words (e.g., “speck” and “log” in the English Standard Version; “tiny particle” and “beam of timber” in the Amplified Bible; “mote” and “beam” in the King James Version/Authorized Version). As many a children’s Sunday School teachers has pointed out, we should be aware of our hypocrisy and self-righteousness when we’re tempted to criticize other sinners while still wallowing in our own sin. However, as 7:5 says, our sin doesn’t preclude us from judging others at all, but only that God requires our own self-reflection and repentance before correcting others. In addition, I’d argue that the verse says that those who have healed from “worse” sins have a right – an obligation – to correct those with “minor” ones.

On the surface, that might not bother many people. However, in practice, things don’t always work out that way. Most Christians seem unprepared to accept godly criticism from each other. Maybe there’s one acceptation. We expect the woman who used to sleep around and had six kids out of wedlock to tell the junior highers to save sex for marriage, but that’s about it. If the same woman pulled you aside because you were being rude, prideful, or something of that kind, would you listen? Or would you be thinking, She used to be the town slut. I think most would fall in the latter category.

Ignoring the fact that we Christians are quite willing to take instruction from Christ-denying Peter and Christian-persecuting Paul, we’re quite insistent that the rest of humanity should feel their guilt and do perpetual penance for their mistakes, looking to those who haven’t committed comparable sins as spiritual superiors. However, Matthew tells us that these former sinners have something to teach current sinners, regardless of how their faults are compared. It would take a special kind of maturity to bite one’s lip, show humility, and acknowledge a judgment from another Christian. Their success in overcoming grave sins deserves our respect and a willingness to reexamine ourselves in light of their accusations.