Monthly Archives: October 2009

Fire! Ready! Aim!

“Then the LORD called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side and said to him, ‘Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put an X on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.’” –Ezekiel 9:3,4

I think most Christians who have actually read the Bible would agree that compassion and mercy are foundational elements in our faith. In their teachings both Jesus and the apostles command us to identify with and minister to those who are hungry, homeless, imprisoned, and mistreated (e.g., Mt 25; Heb 13:3). How then is it possible to be a Christian and not be against invading other countries, bombing civilian populations, imprisoning and torturing individuals and holding them indefinitely without trial? It’s not. It’s not simply a matter of liberal versus conservative either. Ultimately, we have to choose between being a willing and comfortable participant in an imperial war machine or walking the stony and thorny path of the gospel.

A recent Washington Post poll shows 42% of Americans favor bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. 33% approve of using U.S. troops to invade Iran and forcibly topple its government. That just goes to show how thorough a job the corporate media has done on the minds of our fellow Americans. It’s not clear what percentage of those who so responded consider themselves to be Christian. It is clear, however, that if there are Christians among them, the media seems to be doing a more effective job at influencing their opinions than the Scriptures (as in the case of an earlier poll that found the majority of regular churchgoers believed torture was often or always justified).

But those who follow Christ should have a different way of thinking. Christ, after all, calls us not to form a “parallel culture,” that is, one that separates itself from but also mirrors the prevailing culture; he calls us to be a “counter culture,” one that swims against the current of popular culture, not out of sheer bloody-mindedness, but from a clear call of the gospel—following the Master. Unfortunately, American Christian culture often reflects more of the prevailing secular mind than a truly New Testament one. We have, after all, our Christian cruises, theme parks, diets, and divorce attorneys. Anything you can steal from the pleasure-loving secular culture and slap a fishy on so believers won’t feel guilty. Ancient Israel struggled with the same problem: they wanted to be a chosen people but also be like other nations. By contrast the apostle Paul writes, “Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:2).

Let’s try a little compassion and see how it works. Let us put ourselves in the skin of the average Afghan or Pakistani whose country has been invaded, or whose village has been bombed by drones, whose only livelihood (poppy crops) has been burned, whose family member or neighbor has been captured, detained and tortured who knows where. What is he or she to think of America?

Actually, for those who bristle at such an imaginative exercise and prefer cold, hard facts, we can quote from a report commissioned back in 2004 by none other than Donald Rumsfeld himself. The former Defense Secretary asked his own Science Board Task Force to study the impact of Bush administration policies (specifically the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) on terrorism and Islamic radicalism. The report found exactly what any logical person would expect: that “…Negative attitudes and the conditions that create them are the underlying sources of threats to America’s national security and reduced ability to leverage diplomatic opportunities.”

What are these conditions that aggravate these threats? According to the report,

“America’s direct intervention in the Muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single digits in some Arab societies. Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights and the long-standing and even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States…. Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be…deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination.”

You see, there are sane voices in our government. It’s just a shame no one listens to them.

Regarding detainees and torturees some one might balk, “But these are terrorists; they deserve what they get.” Not so. For like a massive industrial fishing net that catches and kills undesirable species as well as targeted ones, so the US’s security net has hauled in and ruined the lives of many innocent people along with the “evildoers.”

“America is just defending herself,” someone else might object. Really? Then we’ve picked a very counterproductive way of going about it. Our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone attacks, and detention policies are meant to make us safe, we’re told, but they have had the effect of radicalizing more and more Muslims and making the US more and more hated, if that were possible, in the Islamic world. The policies of the previous administration and those that have continued into the present one are probably the best PR tool al-Qaeda ever had.

It is well documented that Osama bin-Laden had planned for the US to be drawn into an unwinnable ground war in Afghanistan, so that our great military machine, like that of other empires before us, would founder upon that country’s unforgiving terrain and resilient population, and we would prove ourselves to be the cruel imperial power we are painted. It’s been a case of Fire, Ready, Aim! Our leaders have led us astray, costing the American taxpayer a trillion dollars, thousands of American lives, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of civilians casualties, and the only ones who have benefited are the defense contractors who have such a hold on policy making, we’ll probably still be at war into the next century.

Author and professor of journalism Mark Danner notes that the U.S. is experiencing an “Athenian problem”: how does a democracy become an empire without betraying its fundamental principles? To maintain an empire a nation must be oppressive, cruel, and ruthless; yet these qualities run counter to the basic foundations of democracy, don’t they? Well, Dr. Danner, I would say yes, but that would be assuming that the United States is a democracy. Actually, it’s a republic, but evidence even for that appellation is sadly lacking these days. A democracy cannot be an empire; something must change on either end. An oligarchy, by contrast– that is, a government run by a few corporations—is ideally suited to empire and can continue so until it destroys itself or is destroyed. (I was thinking today how our Founding Fathers would have felt. “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” was their rallying cry. It’s true we have representatives, but whom do they represent?)

Will you join me in repenting on behalf of this nation and praying for repentance to move the hearts of every American? That the gospel of peace and compassion, rather than our selfish materialism and greed, would rule our hearts and our heads.

(Thanks to Glenn Greenwald for some of the facts used in this blog.)

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In Our Name

“Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of ’empire’; they make a desert and call it ‘peace.’” – The British chieftain Calgacus, speaking of the Romans as he rallied his army, quoted in Tacitus, De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, xxx

Even while campaigning, the late Robert F. Kennedy was not afraid of being candid with his audiences, nor of lecturing his own supporters. Once during a speech at the University of Oklahoma, during the height of the Vietnam War, he informed his hearers that he was against draft deferments for college students, since he could afford to send his boys to college, while poor people could not. The audience booed and hissed.

“Let me ask you something,” he said, undeterred. “How many of you are for deferments?” A cheer went up. “And how many of you were for the escalation of the war?” Another cheer. “Now how many of you who voted for the war also voted for the student deferments?” A loud gasp, followed by grim silence, then thunderous applause. “The poor are carrying the burden of the struggle,” he concluded, and so long as that continued, the middle class did not mind a further escalation of the war. It was only in late 1967, when college deferments became scarce and their own sons were drafted, that mainstream America began to sour on the war. (From Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy & His Times.)

Let me ask you something. Would you be for the escalation of the war if you knew your son or daughter would be fighting there?

In one speech in the U.S. Senate, RFK lectured his colleagues:

“Few of us are directly involved while the rest of us continue our lives and pursue our ambitions undisturbed by the sounds and fears of battle. To the Vietnamese, however, it must often seem the fulfillment of the prophecy of St. John the Divine: “And I looked and beheld a pale horse, and his name that sat on it was Death, and hell followed him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with the sword, and with hunger and with death.” All we say and all we do must be informed by our awareness that this horror is partly our responsibility; not just a nation’s responsibility, but yours and mine. It is we who live in abundance and send our young men out to die. It is our chemicals that scorch the children and our bombs that level the villages. We are all participants.”

We are all participants.

As Thomas Maier records in his biography The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings, “Invoking this apocalyptic vision, Kennedy portrayed an America so absorbed in its materialism, so caught up in its own political hubris, that the consequences of its actions were ignored, its collective conscience inured to the suffering it caused.”

“Are we like the God of the Old Testament,” he asked, “that we can decide in Washington, D.C. what cities, what towns, what hamlets in Vietnam are going to be destroyed?”

Forty years later, we still have not learned our lesson; our overweening pride remains yet unchecked, our ignorance and antiseptic cruelty proverbial throughout the world. As a nation we are overfed, overmedicated and over-entertained, watching our flat screen TVs to see, now in hi-def, the bombing of civilians in lands so far away, we don’t even know how to spell them correctly. Women and children plucked limp from the rubble of their villages. “Made in the USA” emblazoned over their staring eyes.

America, see what is done in your name.

“The American people want this…The American people don’t want that….” Politicians use our name like a 15-year-old her father’s credit card. War, after all is big business, meaning hundreds of thousands of jobs, and, more importantly, hundreds of billions of almighty dollars for an almighty few. Why don’t we stand up and tell them what we really want? Because– sadly, tragically, even grotesquely —it seems our silence implies all we really want is lower taxes and nothing to impinge on our selfish lifestyles. Go on, fight your wars, we say. Just don’t ask us to change or to sacrifice. And while you’re up, bring some dip.

Our enemies warn us in reasonable words, but we do not listen. We’re America and if we do it, it must be right. Our leaders flatter us and mislead us with myths of our greatness, when in truth through our actions, or inactions, we are no different from any other cruel empire or tyrant which has gone before us, whose bloated corpses, in poet Edmund Spenser’s image, are now heaped high in ditches behind the House of Pride. In every way we resemble the Roman populace, whose emperors kept them drunk and busy with bread and circuses, while their armies roamed the world, in Calgacus’ words, plundering and lusting for dominion. The Celtic chieftain knew of what he spoke, for his own land had become the unwilling recipient of this Roman idea of “peace.”

But there is a God who both sees and hears the cries of the destitute, the groans of the oppressed. And he asks us, Is this the nation you want to be? Selfish, blind, ever at war? “For this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned. They did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). Already the hour is late, but not too late for you to turn. Rise up and shake off your complacent slumber. Strengthen the weak, lift up the downtrodden, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and you will know what it means to be a land the Lord has blessed. Make peace, and you will know peace.

For eight years we have waged war in revenge for 9-11, to make America safe, they tell us. A futile effort, which, if it is ever over, will be the longest war in our history, and what kind of desert will we leave behind? Futile because the real war we’re fighting is one against poverty and fear, oppression and ignorance, corruption and greed. And we’re fighting such a war with bombs and drones, Humvees and night vision goggles, instead of planting crops, building schools, cleansing our own government, and searching our own hearts.

Would that we had true night vision goggles to see through this darkness of war and know that “In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isa 30:15).

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When You Dance with the Devil…

Senator Max Baucus is fuming. Here we are, coming down to the wire on health care reform, and the insurance industry decides to lob a stink bomb into the proceedings, claiming that rates will skyrocket if this bill passes. The dire warning is not just a prediction, of course; it’s a threat.

What are they complaining about? Haven’t insurance companies received just about everything they wanted in this bill and more? “Don’t worry,” lawmakers promised them, “by our mandating coverage, you’ll get tens of millions of new customers.” (Note: and they’re calling this “reform”?) But that’s not enough for the industry. They want everybody, and the bill’s penalties for remaining uncovered just aren’t harsh enough to compel every cow into the feedlot. Instead, insurance execs foresee being swamped with millions of uninsured, old, decrepit sick cows, not the young, healthy, leaping calves they were hoping for. And so they’ve pitched a hissy fit.

Now Baucus is scratching his head, wondering what went wrong. Like a bewildered parent of a spoiled child, he exclaims, “But I gave them everything they ever wanted!” That’s right, Senator; you did. You scuttled the public option, even though the majority of Americans desire it, and even common sense told you it’s the only way to keep costs down and create a truly competitive market. But Greed is never satisfied with just most of the pie. Didn’t you know that? That’s why it’s called Greed. When you dance with the devil, guess who always leads?

But these threats may be just what proponents of a public option have been waiting for. In holding the Senate and the American people hostage, the industry may have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Their mask has slipped, showing even their most loyal myrmidons in the Senate that they can’t be trusted. Like the hijacker with a box-cutter who threatens to slit his own throat if he’s not allowed to fly the plane, the insurance industry may have made a fatal error in judgment. The ancient Greeks called it hubris, pride that leads to a downfall. “Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad.”

Countries like Germany, France, and Switzerland had the right idea. They made for-profit insurance companies illegal, at least on the primary care level. Who ever heard of making a profit off of other people’s misery anyway?

Thank you, insurance industry. We’ve been trying to make this point for years.

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Nobel-Minded

Like most people around the world today, I was shocked when the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced its decision to award its Peace Prize to our own Barack Obama. (The Peace Prize is the only Nobel prize not awarded in Sweden.) The announcement was immediately greeted with gasps of dismay and hoots of disapprobation which, starting in Oslo, rippled across the globe in a matter of minutes. When a friend in Europe informed me early this morning, I at first thought he was joking, or that some internet hoax had gone viral. But the news proved all too true.

It is not the first time the Committee has raised a few eyebrows. The Prize has had a sometimes checkered history. Some of its past laureates include Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat, names that are seldom synonymous with peace. Even Adolph Hitler was nominated in 1939 (after he had annexed Austria and invaded Czechoslovakia); Stalin and Mussolini were also nominees (that does not mean of course that they had any chance of winning). Sometimes the prize has gone to selfless individuals who have devoted their entire lives to peace, such as Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, and Martin Luther King, Jr. At other times the Committee has seemed merely to reward the positive steps of previously recalcitrant enemies of peace.

In his will Alfred Nobel stated that the prize should go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Sometimes it seems the Committee has been willing to reward anything that even slightly resembles any of the above. In its statement this morning the Committee cited Mr. Obama’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” and referenced his steps toward global nuclear disarmament. But still one can’t help shaking one’s head and asking if this isn’t all just a big misunderstanding, perhaps some translator’s gaffe. A strange dream after eating too much lutevisk.

Mr. Obama has genuine star quality, most on both sides of the aisle will admit, but he hasn’t really done anything. He is certainly a gifted rhetorician; his speeches have inspired hope across the globe. But concrete action he sadly lacks. In fact, looking at what he has said and what he has actually done, one sees a deep and at times shocking disparity.

Of course, he has reached out to the Islamic world with an irenic speech that raised the hopes of millions of Muslims worldwide, and raised them still further by holding Israel’s feet to the fire over settlements, only to dash them to earth with his helping to scuttle the Goldstone Report. In his campaign he spoke of “rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus,” but has instead chosen to continue and even attempt to legalize the worst of the Bush era policies, including the institution of “preventive detention.” He promised to close Guantanamo and has moved the problem thousands of miles to Bagram, away from prying eyes. He promised more “transparent government,” but when it comes to evidence of torture, his administration has plead executive privilege and national security.

In addition, our troops are still in Iraq; he has escalated the war in Afghanistan, sending in more troops; he has increased drone attacks inside Pakistan, killing hundreds of women and children; and he is now threatening Iran with violence if they do not bend to our will. In short he promised “change,” but his policies in practice have differed so little from his predecessor’s, the only change we have seen in reality is the nameplate on the Oval Office door. These are hardly the actions of a man of peace.

I’ve been racking my brain all day and I think I finally understand the reason for this conundrum. Perhaps in bestowing this award the Nobel Committee really means to praise Mr. Obama for something that may indeed be his most significant and only achievement so far. In reestablishing a more collegial relationship among our allies, in not ignoring the United Nations entirely and at least “talking peace,” he has shown he possesses one highly important quality: he is not George W. Bush. And for that, Mr. President, the Norwegian Nobel Committee, on behalf of a war-weary humanity, wishes to extend a hearty takk (thanks).

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Climate Change & the Poor: Why Global Warming Is Also an Issue of Justice

Industrialized nations produce as much as two thirds of the greenhouse gases responsible for warming temperatures worldwide, but developing countries are suffering most. So says a recent report by the World Bank.

Poorer nations are already paying the price for our addiction to fossil fuels by being forced to use funds traditionally slated for development and infrastructure to combat the effects of climate change: drought, floods and other natural disasters. These costs should be covered by wealthier nations, the report states.

If global temperatures continue to rise, exceeding 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) over pre-industrial levels, the effects on developing nations, especially in Africa and Southern Asia, would be catastrophic– resulting in millions of displaced peoples.

China and the U.S. are the world’s biggest polluters. That’s why our government needs to be pressured to do the right thing, both in developing an effective energy policy to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to join other industrial nations in assisting developing countries to deal with the effects of our own bad choices.

Each one of us, also, is part of the problem, so consider what measures you can take to shrink your own carbon footprint. Every change you make will be one step closer to a more just world.

“Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.” – Isaiah 56:1

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