The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

"This is a Story of the Triumph of Good Over Evil. It is, of Course, A Fantasy."

As Filmstruck is shutting down, I am watching some of its buried treasures. Tonight, The Madwoman of Challot.

The Madwoman of Challot is a peculiar play, a poetic fantasia I first encountered in a 1984 adaptation by Dave Davis at Fordham Lincoln Center.

The play, first performed after the death of author Jean Giraudoux, is heavily stylized, taking place mostly in a Parisian tabac, with the denizens of the tabac as participants in the action, and, sometimes, as a Greek chorus. The play depicts the dream-and-romance addled Countess Aurelia, who, upon discovering that greed and selfishness are eliminating spontaneity, happiness, freedom. The Countess, once awakened, knowing the weaknesses that greed brings with it, takes radical action to protect her City, her friends, and her belief in Romance (definitely, the R is capitalized). Before she does, she and her friends have a trial for these malefactors of great wealth (Hmmm..."male factors"? Most of Aurelia's friends are women; all of the conspirators are men). The defendants are represented by the Ragpicker of Challot, Aurelia prosecutes, her friend Constance sits as Judge, and her friends Gabrielle and Josephine--watch. As do our Greek chorus.

The play was filmed in 1969, with Katharine Hepburn as Aurelia, Danny Kaye as the Ragpicker, Richard Chamberlain and Nanette Newman as the young lovers, and, stellar among a variety of great baddies, Yul Brynner and Donald Pleasance.

The film manages to maintain much of the atmosphere of the play, and, 24 years after the production, the joins to the contemporary world of 1969 are less seamless than in the original (though time has smoothed those joins a little). Hepburn is superb--at moments tragic, frail, and at other times slashingly contemptuous of the evil she has been forced to see. At one point, her smile and bearing were pure Jo March. It's a marvelous performance.

But so too is that of Danny Kaye. After charming the jury, wooing them, he shouts a brutally honest answer when Aurelia asks him what he'll do if given access to unlimited oil under lying Paris in this fable. Here's just a short clip, his furious finale as representative of the forces of heedless capital answering the question:

I've seen Kaye in a lot of films, but never this angry, never this powerful. It's a side of him that is astonishingly watchable.

The film abandons (probably wisely) the play's Greek Chorus ending, and instead ends as it begins, with another morning walk wit Aurelia. This time she discards her 1919 newspaper, signaling her readiness (after Chamberlain briefly assumes the role of her lost lover from her youth). It's a strange movie, and an extraordinary one. But it was a pleasure to watch this rendition of a parable, a story of the victory of good over evil. As the film's first title card reminds us, "It is, of course, a fantasy."

Thursday, November 22, 2018

"Love Changes Everything": A Meditation on a Forum

I won't try to expand on Buddy Stallings's recent sermon at St. Barts, or on the great exchange between Buddy and Dean Wolfe, our Rector, who graciously invited Buddy to return, and engaged him in a thought-provoking dialogue.

These are both great resources, and I will not pretend to add to them.

I will, however, touch on a few thoughts that being present for both raised in my own mind. So, if you've a mind to, tarry with the Anglocat for a bit. But don't miss Dean and Buddy.


Both in the sermon and in the forum, loving those with whom we disagree with, those who hurt us, was held up as the only cure for our divisive times. Neither Dean nor Buddy trivialized the sacrificial nature of such love, or denied the difficulty of loving those who hate us, torward whom we may feel a visceral anger--partially rooted, no doubt, in fear, fear that they will take away what we cherish. What is that "it" we fear losing? Safety, for many, simple physical safety, such as I, a middle class straight white male get to take for granted, almost all of the time (until I don't, that is. We all die, after all, and that includes me). Economic security, certainly. Others live lives that are far more menaced, far more in peril than do I, to the great shame of our society.

But to look at those across the divide, while they fear many of the the same things we do, the single greatest conservative concern seems to me to be a fear of the loss of Culture and Tradition--seeing these building blocks are seen by many as under siege, and that creates a different kind of fear. If you look at Rod Dreher's blog today, almost every post visible on the page relates to a fear of the loss of cultural hegemony, and a resulting extirpation at the hands of the militant left they so dread. I know, I know; the Right has the Presidency, the Judiciary, and, until January, both houses of Congress. But the fear is very real, nonetheless. Just read the posts.

How do we love across the divide?

Steven Moffat struggled with these very concerns in parable form in the last phase of his tenure on Doctor Who. As he wrote the Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, the character underwent a character arc from a point where he described his companion Clara as his carer, adding "She cares so I don't have to," to his almost last words being "Hate is always foolish, and love is always wise." So I'm not ashamed to quote him. He offers the example of the show's definitive villain, trying to find a way back to her onetime friend:
DOCTOR: Nobody can have that power.
MISSY: You will, because you don't have a choice. There's only way you can stop these clouds from opening up and killing all your little pets down here. Conquer the universe, Mister President. Show a bad girl how it's done.
(Missy drops a deep curtsy. The Doctor rips the bracelet off.)
DOCTOR: Why are you doing this?
MISSY: I need you to know we're not so different. I need my friend back. Every battle, every war, every invasion. From now on, you decide the outcome. What's the matter, Mister President? Don't you trust yourself?


DOCTOR: Thank you. Thank you so much.
(He kisses Missy gently.)
DOCTOR: I really didn't know. I wasn't sure. You lose sight sometimes. Thank you! I am not a good man! I am not a bad man. I am not a hero. And I'm definitely not a president. And no, I'm not an officer. Do you know what I am? I am an idiot, with a box and a screwdriver. Just passing through, helping out, learning. I don't need an army. I never have, because I've got them. Always them. Because love, it's not an emotion. Love is a promise.
Two seasons later, Missy, without hope, without witness, without reward, will die trying to honor that promise.

Now, why did I inflict that sic-fi parable on you? Because we live in an age in which the culture of hatred in which we live has infected much of Christianity itself. If I simply refer you to the Gospels--with which this secular parable is absolutely consistent--if you are not an a Christian, or, worse, if you have encountered toxic Christianity, it may well be meaningless to you. And we need the non-Christians, not just the members of other faiths, either, because we aren't enough if we keep to our churchy enclaves.

Love is not an emotion; it's a promise. We aren't asked to not have feelings, but we are asked to not let those feelings corrupt us. We are asked--no, required, both by the Gospel, and by the torn and tearing fabric of the nation in which we live to forego the luxury of indulging the dubious (but very real) pleasures of self-righteous anger. And once again, I refer you to a non-religious source. Bernard Shaw, in his Nobel Prize-winning St. Joan, when the self-righteous Chaplain sees the burning of Joan, which he has egged on:
The Chaplain staggers in from the courtyard like a demented creature, his face streaming with tears, making the piteous sounds that Warwick has heard. He stumbles to the prisoner's stool, and throws himself upon it with heartrending sobs.

WARWICK [going to him and patting him on the shoulder] What is it, Master John? What is the matter?

THE CHAPLAIN [clutching at his hand] My lord, my lord: for Christ's sake pray for my wretched guilty soul.

WARWICK [soothing him] Yes, yes: of course I will. Calmly, gently--

THE CHAPLAIN [blubbering miserably] I am not a bad man, my lord.

WARWICK. No, no: not at all.

THE CHAPLAIN. I meant no harm. I did not know what it would be like.

WARWICK [hardening] Oh! You saw it, then?

THE CHAPLAIN. I did not know what I was doing. I am a hotheaded fool; and I shall be damned to all eternity for it.

WARWICK. Nonsense! Very distressing, no doubt; but it was not your doing.

THE CHAPLAIN [lamentably] I let them do it. If I had known, I would have torn her from their hands. You don't know: you havnt seen: it is so easy to talk when you dont know. You madden yourself with words: you damn yourself because it feels grand to throw oil on the flaming hell of your own temper. But when it is brought home to you; when you see the thing you have done; when it is blinding your eyes, stifling your nostrils, tearing your heart, then--then--
Then, of course it is too late.

So, concretely, what do we do? Not give in to anger and hate, yes. But try to meet people in circumstances that promote relationships, not degrade them. I'm a member of The Anthony Powell Society, and many fellow enthusiasts are not of my political or other beliefs, but we laugh at the same jokes in Powell's books, enjoy the same eccentricities in society. We become friends, and differences matter less. Same in Anglicanism. My devotions have been greatly enriched by The Anglican Breviary.

Know thy enemy. S/he might someday cease to be one.

A "Local Crime" Across Multiple State lines: The Peculiar Preference for FGM

In a decision that is causing shock waves in the media, a federal District Court has found unconstitutional on federalism grounds a statute banning female genital mutilation ("FGM"). (I am uncomfortably reminded of the Supreme Court’s prior blithe dismissal of of an admittedly meritorious death penalty appeal with the blithely bloodless opening line, “This is a case about federalism”)

The District Court decision and Ilya Somin’s defense of it do not, to my mind, bear close scrutiny.

The federal government put forward two arguments for the constitutionality of the statute: first, that the statute fell within the scope of Congress's power under the Commerce Clause, and, second, that the statute was enacted in fulfillment of the ratified treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Tellingly, the District Court admits "that it may invalidate a federal statute “only upon a plain showing that Congress has exceeded its constitutional bounds, and that the lack of constitutional authority to pass the act in question must be clearly demonstrated.” (Decision at 3, citations and Court's quotation and editing marks omitted).

The Somin post, like the decision, is based on the assumption that FGM is, as the District Court held, a purely local, intrastate crime, a factual assumption belied by the very facts of the case before the court, in which several of the the victims were brought across state lines to undergo the procedure.

Somin acknowledges that the court “potentially misses a key point. To the extent that FGM targets almost exclusively girls rather than boys, and the practice is the result of ingrained sexism in the societies that engage in it, it seems likely that banning really does help ensure that girls get the "measures of protection" needed by minors on par with boys [under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]. The connection between FGM and gender-based discrimination against girls is much stronger than Judge Friedman suggests.” But he falls back on the District Court's false description of FGM as a “purely local crime” to find the treaty doesn’t apply, again due to federalism. Critically, the opinion itself notes that “The government alleges that four of the victims are residents of Michigan, three are residents of Illinois, and two are residents of Minnesota,” so one can hardly see how the "purely local crime" rationale applies to the facts of this case.

Moreover, the court makes no findings as to whether the clinic or doctors accepted a fee for performing the FGM, which is kind of critical in an interstate commerce determination where the interstate nature of the transaction is clear as to 5 of the 9 victims.

It is true that the Rehnquist Court did radically rewrite federalism limitations, and, as Roberts is a Rehnquist protege, he could push to do so even more. But my position is pretty simple: even if the statute’s constitutionality doesn’t extend to “purely local crimes,” (that is, violations purely within the geographical boundaries of one state) the interstate dimension of the case at bar would render that argument inapt as to this case.

Under the Court's and Somin's logic, the long-standing, Supreme Court-affirmed Mann Act would be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court held to the contrary in 1914, and that decision remains good law today.

One can hope that this decision is reversed, as it should be, under long-standing Supreme Court precedent, but if we've learned one thing about the Roberts Court, it's that consistency and stability in the law are not afforded a high value in its stochastic holdings.

Monday, November 12, 2018

"Widow’s Houses and The Widow’s Mite” A Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

[In lieu of the usual invocation of the Trinity, the Deacon, with the help of the Director of Music, leads the congregation in the hymn Dona Nobis Pacem]

On Friday evening, at the Diocesan Convention, I participated in a Liturgy for Listening and Lamentation in which our bishops played an unusual part for them. They were supplicants, confessing “sinful complicity with the evil actions of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse within our Church.” Imagine, all our bishops—Andy Dietsche, Mary Glasspool, and Allen Shin—confessing to the laity and the clergy gathered in Convention.

We heard stories of the victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation, and all three orders of the Church—bishops, clergy and the people of God—lamented and confessed our “arrogance in insisting that our claims to being right outweigh” our duty to build honest relationships, and to acknowledge that we contribute to the injustices within our diocese, the larger church, and—let me add one more category—the world.

And at the end of the Liturgy, we sang, as we just have tonight, Dona Nobis Pacem.

Give us Peace.

Just before that, we had watched a drama with music and movement, and dance, in which the complicity of our diocese, the Diocese of New York, in slavery was laid bare. Using stories of the enslaved, those who enslaved them, the defenses of slavery written by Samuel Seabury, the grandson and namesake of the first Episcopal Bishop in America, and the story of William Jay, the abolitionist son of the first Chief Justice of the United States, we confronted again the shadow side of our beloved Episcopal Church.

Now, this morning just at the 11:00 service, as I sat in the marble seat reserved for me just to the right of the altar—very nice, really, one of the best seats in the house, if you don’t mind my using the theatrical jargon—I was dressed in this nice long white alb, the richly embroidered green deacon’s stole I’m wearing now, and the heavy but handsome dalmatic—that’s green and gold, with two bands across the front, in case you’re wondering what a dalmatic is—I was mentally rehearsing the Gospel, and—well, actually, I was beginning to wonder just how much trouble I was in. I was, quite frankly, a bit nervous.
Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.

You see, the shadow side of the Church stretches all the way back to before there was a Church. To when the Temple had to be cleansed, to when the scribes leading the synagogues, the priests, the Pharisees and the Saducees all had to be rebuked.

But today it's the scribes' turn. Ah, the scribes. Actually, they’re also referred to as the lawyers. And since deacons are non-stipendiary, did I mention my day job is--you guessed it--a lawyer. My tribe doesn’t get rave reviews in the Gospels. So here I am, wondering why I agreed to preach tonight, anyway.

Bt since we're here: Today, Jesus focuses his righteous indignation on the scribes. He’s in Jerusalem, at the Temple, but he’s not indicting the priests. No, he’s condemning those who made copies by hand of the scriptures, and who taught the law, and interpreted it. Outside of Jerusalem, they often kept the lights on at the synagogues, keeping alive the tradition of prayer and reading of the scriptures for those too far away to go to the Temple.

So, maybe they got a little puffed up, a little arrogant. They liked the distinctive apparel, the prominent seats. Understandable, isn’t it?

Maybe they were showboating with increasingly ornate prayers, and were losing themselves in the part. Is that really so bad?

Yes. Yes it is, Jesus tells us. Because that arrogance brings complacency with the way things are, and institutional thinking, and that in turn leads to entitlement—the kind of entitlement that leads to exploitation and covers up abuses.

The very entitlement to which our bishops, clergy, and laity confessed, and the effects of which we lamented just this past Friday night.

And Jesus levels a charge of just such abuse against the scribes—they “devour widow’s houses,” he says. But what does he mean by that?

As it happens, the question answers itself. Jesus is sitting opposite the Treasury, in front of the trumpet shaped chests into which the members of the congregation throw their offerings to support the Temple. And a widow, comes up, and throws in two copper coins, amounting to the equivalent of a penny. Jesus says to his disciples “this poor widow has put in more than all who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in all she had, all she had to live on.”

Heartwarming, isn’t it? Emphasizing the widow’s devotion to her faith, and to God? On one level, yes, but there’s a deep irony here. The widow is in fact a victim of the scribes’ exploitation of her faith, of their betrayal of her love of God, which they have manipulated through their teaching to the point where her gift is more akin to an act of self-immolation.

Remember the status of widows in Biblical times. Robin Gallagher Branch, in the Biblical Archaeology Review reminds us that a widow is “lacking the protective care of a husband” in the patriarchal society in which that care is often critical for survival.[1] That’s why widows are, as Branch notes, “grouped together with the fatherless, poor, and resident alien,” and “come under God’s protective care,” with God “command[ing] that they not be oppressed.”[2]

Branch evokes the precarious status of widowhood in the Bible by quoting the Book of Lamentations, which uses the word “widow” to describe Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar razed the City. “Gone is her resemblance to a queen,” Branch writes, “vanished are her protectors, lovers, friends. Slavery, affliction and harsh labor await her in exile.” [3]

The widow who gives, as Jesus put it, “all she had, all she had to live on,” is not an exemplar of stewardship, but rather a vulnerable woman who is being preyed upon by the scribes, who are literally consuming her household, and her ability to support herself. Jesus acknowledges the sincerity of that love, and the magnitude of her generosity—but as the very next verses, the start of the next chapter, indicate, her self-sacrifice is in vain; every stone of the Temple will be thrown down.[4]

The predation is not sexual in nature, it’s financial, but as Robertson Davies has an investigator say in The Cunning Man, “financial fraud is awfully dull," but it’s awfully cruel. I can tell you this myself from any one of a number of cases my wife has handled in her practice of defending homeowners in foreclosure cases.

And, as we are gathered in a Byzantine style national landmark of extraordinary beauty, well—this passage can’t help but make us ask—ok, make me ask—have we got it wrong? Are we as far from the teachings of Jesus as the false prophets of the Prosperity Gospel—you know the ones, they tell you that if you just give enough and believe enough you’ll be rich yourself. And not just in heavenly wealth that you can’t touch until you die. Oh, no, good solid coin of the realm.

Of course, if it doesn’t work out that way, you’ve only yourself to blame. You just didn’t have enough faith to move that mountain.

That’s how exploitation works: The abuser takes what he wants, and uses his authority to convince the victim that it’s her own fault, that she brought it on herself, or, at a minimum, that the consequences to her fro reporting the abuse will be devastating, and she won’t be believed anyway.

Recent events have shown that those dire promises can come true. Just this past Thursday, NPR reported that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is still receiving death threats. She had to move four times, has had to pay for a private security detail, and hasn’t been able to return to work.

Dona Nobis Pacem.

Give us Peace.

But how can there be peace without justice?

That’s the question the Diocese is wrestling with, both as to our complicity in slavery and as to the exploitation by clergy of vulnerable lay and clergy members of our church.

What would justice even look like?

Question: What was the crime the scribes committed?

Proposition: to use the language of Friday’s Litany, it was that they failed to honor the indwelling God-given dignity of those entrusted to their care.

More bluntly, they viewed the widow who gave all she had as a means to their end—preservation and glorification of the Temple—and not as an end, a person in her own right. They treated her as a thing, and taught themselves to believe that their treatment of her was justified because it served the Temple.

You can be sure, as Jesus indicated, that she was not alone.

So, in addition to dehumanizing the widow, and those like her, they made an idol of the Temple. It became more important to beautify and honor the thing than to care for the people for whom it was built.

No wonder the thing was torn down.

If we—all of us, clergy and laity—fail to honor the indwelling God-given dignity of those who come to us trusting us to care for them, we too will fall.

And we’ll deserve it.

But we don't have to. We can choose the alternative. We can use this building, our combined treasure and talent, to honor the indwelling, God-given dignity of all who come to us. And when I say we, I mean we--clergy, laity, all of us. We can welcome the stranger, comfort the grieving, be with each there, for each other.

We can meet each other in the love of Christ.

Then we won't fall. And we won't fail, even if, one day, we do fall.

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.


[1] Robin Gallagher Branch, “Biblical Views: Biblical Widows—Groveling Grannies or Teaching Tools,” Biblical Archaeology Review 39:1 (Jan/Feb. 2013).
[2] Id., citing Deut. 24:17, Ezek 22:7, James 1:27, Zech 7:10.
[3] Id., paraphrasing Lamentations, 1:1-3.
[4] Mark 13: 1-2.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Wither the Doctor?

None of this is about the casting of Jodie Whittaker. She’s great, and the best thing season 11 has going for it is her performance, and her rapport with her supporting cast, who are all quite engaging. The casting is great.

So I like Jodie fine, but it seems to me that she’s propping up an increasingly rickety season.

Edited to Add: The Tsuranga Conundrum is slightly better than Arachnids in the UK, though it has enough plot holes and unused Chekov's Guns for a shootout at the OK Corral. I did like the way the Doctor worked out a way to save the ship and send the Pting off happy. It was a cute-comic end for a monster that didn't quite cut it.

The cast seem to be working well, as an ensemble and individually. It’s just the writing is....blah. Some good ideas, some good sequences—a very watchable first episode, and Rosa had some great comedic moments mixed in with the history (Ryan awe-struck addressing Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King by their full names was well handled). Bradley Walsh's agony at having to make a seat unavailable to force the conflict between Rosa Parks and the bus driver grounded the moment quite well, but Vinette Robinson brought enough gravitas to the part that the scene would have worked without him.

But the villains have been dreadful. Krasko was a bore, and Robertson actually started out as a great takeoff of Trump, only to blow out of the storyline when he got bored. "Tim Shaw" isn't exactly making anyone's "best of" list, either, I suspect.

At least we are being spared (thus far) the misanthropy that made Torchwood so dreary, leaching all the fun out of Captain Jack.

The new visual aesthetic is excellent, I should add, richer color palettes and new sights that up the spectacle quality of the program. The music. . . not so much. Even the theme--if you're going to stretch it out, can I have the middle 8, please--is slightly off.

We are in rough waters, right now, and if this incarnation of Doctor Who does find its way, Jodie Whittaker will have been its savior for keeping it moving and afloat.