Monthly Archives: October 2010

Support Our Children Not Our Troops

Over the past few months we have listened to numerous stories of violence in our military.  “Isn’t the military supposed to be violent?” you ask.  No, it is not.  Not when soldiers are killing each other. Not when a corporate system of violence and a disrespect for human life take hold of the minds of youth in the military, and killing civilians like aliens in a video game becomes common.  Not when a cult of death causes young men to collect fingers and bones of their kills.  Not when we sacrifice our humanity on the altar of technology.  Yes, such things have always happened and will probably continue to happen in war, but must they?

The other day I was driving and I stopped at a light behind a car with the bumper sticker, “Support Our Troops.”  Such reminders are common, especially in a post-Vietnam era when we (ironically) do not want to repeat the mistakes of that war. 

“Are they really our troops?” I asked myself.  In a war which has never been declared by Congress, a conflict which has from the beginning involved such egregious deceit, cover-ups and lies, with a military that every day becomes increasingly democratically unaccountable, are they really our troops?  Are they not in reality simply the tools of executive power run amok?  The pawns of a conjoined military and corporate power that effectively control our foreign policy? Are these brutal and macabre acts not the signs of a military that has lost sight of its goal, of a government that has become untethered from the popular will, and of a nation that has lost its way?

Our children.  Yes, oh God, these young men and women are our children.  Let us acknowledge them.  Let us love them.  Let us pray for them.  Let us help them in any way we can to heal. We owe it to them for our staying silent for so long. But they are not our troops, any more than this is our war.

If I could print a bumper sticker of my own, it might read:  “God help our children caught up in the Machiavellian machinery of the military-industrial complex.”  Okay, nice alliteration, but it’s a bit long and would not fit on most bumpers, unless you drive a ’59 Cadillac.   So instead of “Support Our Troops,” how about just “God help our children caught in the war machine.”

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Let All the Poisons That Lurk in the Mud Hatch Out? 

The other day I was reminded of the old BBC mini-series “I Claudius,” based on Robert Graves’ popular novel about the Roman imperial dynasty.  As a young man, the stammering and halting Claudius favored a return to the old Republic.  Later in life, however, having been forced by the military into the role of emperor, he tries to make the best of a bad situation by governing with justice and clemency.  Yet as his death approaches, he begins to realize that by governing too wisely and too well he may have actually done Rome a disservice.  By putting a more smiling face on a brutal empire, he has made his fellow Romans comfortable with tyranny and dictatorship.  Finally, when an assassination plot led by his wife Agrippina begins to coil around him, he welcomes it. For he knows that his stepson and successor Nero will govern so cruelly that the people will not bear it and will surely revolt in favor of a return to the Republic. “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out,” he stammers at the end, meaning that things need to get much worse before people become willing to rise up.  Rome needs to see the true face of dictatorship in all its hideous brutality.

The novel is of course a fictionalized account of the history surrounding Claudius’ reign.  In having the emperor embrace death, the author, like many historians, tries to account for Claudius’ thought process in naming so unprepossessing a youth as Nero as heir.  In reality, Nero would prove such a tyrant that both the imperial government and the military did eventually rise up against him, forcing him to commit suicide.  The immediate result was an aborted attempt to reinstate a republic and a year of bloody civil war as several military generals struggled for succession. With peace came, not a return to the Republic, but at least a series of relatively “good” emperors, save one (as good as emperors go, I guess).     

“Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.”  It’s a ghastly thought, for in allowing events to take such a course, Claudius knows he is about to unleash unheard of mayhem on his own people, let alone the peoples of the empire. The Roman Senate was but a rubber stamp, a pale mockery of its former self.  The Praetorian Guard, originally the emperor’s life guard, had taken on a life of its own and become the real power behind the throne. The military had become so powerful that he, the emperor, has to resort to bribery to get it to do what he wants.  So as Claudius sees it, such suffering is the only way to break the stranglehold of this military-imperial complex.

Recently, I’ve been wondering what it will take to turn my own country around.  With the recent removal of all restraint on corporate money in U.S. politics, the brainwashing of America by corporate media, corporate control of all three branches of government, the looting of our national treasure and the dissolution of the middle class, the alarming pandemic of intolerance and bigotry, the growing tyranny of the Security State, executive power, endless war, militarism, and the gutting of our Constitution, my country seems to be careening down a steep slope toward chaos and ruin.  Poised on a precipice, we need to ask ourselves how bad things have to get before we wake up, stand up, speak out and join hands to work for real change.  Perhaps they have to get worse, substantially worse.

I feel sickened by the thought that, despite all that we now see and suffer, the bulk of my fellow evangelicals continue to embrace an agenda of ever increasing militarism, nationalism, racism, corporatism, economic selfishness, ignorance, arrogance and empire– as though Jesus had preached, “Blessed are the rich, blessed are the powerful, blessed are the proud, blessed are those who persecute and oppress”– and of course, “blessed are the white.” (Having actually read the Bible, I can safely say this is not what Jesus envisioned for his church. )

I am jealous for us that we would wake up and take up the mantle of our true calling:  that we would be a prophetic voice, not a pathetic one trying to establish our own kingdom at the point of a gun.  I fear, however, that like the Germans of the 1930s, we will not be convinced of our errors until we see our country in rubble around our feet (if, that is, we are among those still standing).  Madness has a way of leading to inevitable disaster once it picks up enough speed.  I don’t know yet whether we have reached that critical velocity.  The next few years will tell.

It is ironic that our real enemy is not Islam.  Christian fundamentalism and its consort, fundamentalist Capitalism, have sown more seeds of destruction, are responsible for more mayhem and carnage than Islamic fundamentalism.  Incredible, isn’t it?  The church, the very thing that God created to be the answer, has become part of the problem.  In its pushing a nationalistic agenda and militaristic solutions, in its blind support for an Israeli empire and its intolerance and selfish indifference toward other people groups, in its love affair with unbridled, so-called “free markets” and lack of concern for a suffering humanity, the church in this country, at least the loudest portion of it, has actually pushed the world closer to Armageddon.  But no doubt they wanted that in the first place.  “Blessed are the war-mongers for they shall see the kingdom of God, and quickly.” 

The Lord intended, and still intends, the church to be a voice of peace and reason in this bellicose world.  We are created in Christ Jesus to comfort and care for, not to make, widows and orphans.  Odd that in pursuing a kingdom of righteousness, love, mercy, peace and justice, we should ignore all five.  Hmm, sounds familiar, does it not?

Lord, we ask your forgiveness on behalf of an apostate church, for seeking to establish your kingdom through violence and bloodshed, instead of humility and love; for having allied ourselves with the forces of greed and selfishness, for seeking worldly power, instead of that which comes from your hand alone; for pushing this nation further from, instead of closer to you; for making this world a more dangerous and painful place and increasing the suffering of an already suffering humanity.  In your mercy grant us the humility to see our sin and the wisdom to seek the truth, to change our course before it is too late, and to show the true face of Christ to a world groping in darkness.

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“But They Were Nazis”

This week the world has been shocked and outraged by the uncovering of a decades-old human experiment which took place in Guatemala in the 1940s. There the U.S. Public Health Service carried out a Tuskegee-type study using human guinea pigs.  Only in this case the subjects were actually given syphilis by inoculation (in Tuskegee, the men who were denied treatment had already contracted the disease).  The purpose of the Guatemalan study was to establish whether penicillin could be used prophylactically to prevent syphilis.  Again, as in Tuskegee, the subjects (who were soldiers, prisoners, prostitutes and mental patients) had no idea they were being used in this way.

Ironically, while these experiments were being conducted, thousands of miles away in Nuremberg, Germany, another trial was taking place.  There American prosecutors accused Nazi doctors of unheard of human experiments.  One of the outcomes of the Second Nuremberg trial was the development of an international code of ethics called the Nuremberg Code, which declared that subjects of medical experiments must be apprised of all risks and must give their informed consent: The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential,” it says.

Asked in an interview back in the 70s if the Nuremberg trials had had any impact on his work, Dr. John Heller, Public Health Service director at Tuskegee in the 40s, responded, “No.”  Then looking rather wounded at the implication of his statement, he added plaintively, “But they were Nazis!” 

Of course.  We’re men of science and reason.  It’s the other guys who are monsters– monsters with German accents and Teutonic names.  Such things could never happen here.  We’re a civilized country.

Unfortunately, the charge of “crimes against humanity” is not limited by one’s political affiliation or country of origin.  Those German doctors also saw themselves as men of science conducting research that would benefit mankind.   Besides, many were just following orders.

The Inquisition was conducted by often devout and well-meaning men who thought they were acting in the best interest of their victims, the church, the state, and God.  Convinced of this, they were able to make the most appalling, aseptic decisions involving cruel methods of interrogation and torture. How ironic and tragic that human beings can be led to such inhumanity by a fanatical devotion to the Truth.  Their misstep was not in pursuing Truth (whatever they thought that to be) but in pursuing it without compassion, mercy, tolerance or any acknowledgment of a common humanity. 

At the time, U.S. doctors considered their Nazi counterparts to be aberrations, “lunatics,” or losers– until the Tuskegee experiment came to light in the 1970s (it was still going on).  Since then the establishing of institutional review, monitoring boards to oversee safety and data collection, and ongoing ethics education have helped reduce the possibility that such crimes will be repeated.  Or have they?

Today, we continue to point the finger at other governments for their use of torture, for war crimes and violations of human rights, while we either cover up our own transgressions or excuse them under the title of “national security.”  We chide other countries for their failure to allow a full public investigation of past atrocities, but when we fail to do so, it’s simply called progress, “looking forward, not backward.”  You see, it’s always those other guys who are monsters.

Unfortunately, monster is as monster does.  It is our ethical choices and our actions which determine our true character, not what we call ourselves. If this frightens us, it should.

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