17 December 2003

Christian Orthodoxy is not a Dental Procedure

A short guide for the perplexed
contributed by Peter Wright

A Christian Research report has revealed that a third of clergy doubt the resurrection and a half don't believe in the virgin birth. I'm guessing that we are meant to bury our faces in our hands with indignant horror at this information and shake our orthodox locks in despair. I don't want to give the impression that I think that orthodoxy [right belief - Scooper] is unimportant, (it yields 23 points in Scrabble, utilising those hard to lose "x" and "y's" and that's before you factor in any bonuses like triple word scores!). It's just that Christianity is so much more than a set of facts to which we are invited to give intellectual assent. The secular press loves to pick up on these chinks in the Church's armour, as if to say see even those nutty religious types don t believe in what they are supposed to be selling . Sadly we often play right into their hands. When was the last time you saw the papers pick up on an survey which revealed that 97% of clergy believed it was very important to love your neighbour as yourself, 89% believed that Christianity should champion the needs of the poor and dispossessed and a full 100% said they sometimes had doubts about their own faith but that it was central to their lives.

What is a Christian? I have been greatly helped in considering this question by reading Alan W. Jones's Soul Making:The Desert Way of Spirituality . He recounts a meeting with a desert monk who told him with a smile, "I am not yet a Christian but I have seen them." This speaks to us all about humility, awareness of our own weakness and a continued desire to seek God. As Jones also comments, seeing such Christians helps me to believe.

From time to time, the believer has to ask: "Am I who I say I am?" In my case, the question has a particular focus. Am I a Christian? I have my answer ready: "Yes, I am."

Even though I have already given my answer at one level, there are two reasons to pose the question here. One is that a pattern of questioning is part of the way I believe. Questioning of this sort deepens and strengthens me in my belief. Probing doubt is the handmaid of faith. It is my way of entering the Interior Castle. Two, the questioning process (by which I don t mean mere intellectual puzzle solving) itself is a revelation to me of God's gracious way of dealing with us. That is why believers, from time to time, need a break with their old ways of believing. Believers as well as unbelievers are in need of conversion. But it is easy to see why this approach doesn't go down too well in our culture. Few would want to be free of either their idolatrous imaginings or their fixed opinions.

Is a Christian someone who can place a confident tick against every one of the 39 articles of faith on every day of the year without thinking or someone who is prepared to wrestle with their doubts and insecurities and try daily to discover a love which is revealed in the pursuit of the reality of Jesus? Frederick Buechner (quoted in Philip Yancey's book Soul Survivor ) says that Christians should get up every morning and ask themselves, "Can I believe it all again today?" and that about half the time the answer should be," No," because the "No's" prove you are human and when the answer is "Yes," it really will be "Yes!" - choked with confession and tears.....and laughter.

What worries me most about a "tick the box" style of Christianity is that we are so quick to judge one another, to categorise each other as "in" or "out", "saved" or "unsaved." Am I so sure of my own rightness, my own complete understanding of the width and depth of God's love and grace? If so, I make a very lofty claim with a long way to fall.

I was inspired by the story (possibly apocryphal) recounted in Mike Yaconelli's book Messy Spirituality about the minister of a church who got up one Sunday and confessed he had lost his faith but to his surprise the church elders met and then reassured him that they still believed in God and in His love for their minister. They would like him to stay on and talk about his doubts in the Sundays to come. In time he came back to faith but it was the love of his congregation which saved him — not attempts to ram orthodoxy down his throat.

It will not be the quality of our argument but the depth of our love which brings someone to God. In the end God is not a concept to be understood but a person to be loved. Real relationships are always hard, sometimes painful, full of misunderstandings and disappointments as well as joy and love.
Going deeper into God is often more mysterious than we imagined, more exhilarating than we believed. God continues to surprise me with the depth of His love and being, putting into sharp contrast my own shallowness.

Is it unimportant what the church presents to the world as "The Christian Faith?" The church in all its forms has kept Christ in the minds of humans for two millennia and this witness has been unimaginably important but it has also been one of the primary causes of it's own downfall when it has put orthodoxy before love and conformity before charity. When considering orthodoxy I am always reassured by the fact that Jesus was not a legalist and was often criticised for his own lack of orthodoxy by the religious people of his day. Faith is a most thrilling journey — put on your seat belt and clench your buttocks! If we remember our own weaknesses then orthodoxy becomes a signpost for the path and less like pulling teeth!

16 June 2003

The Root Causes of War

Once again, I heard a radio commentator speak of "the root causes of war: poverty and oppression." I beg to differ. It makes more sense to say that the root causes of war are wealth and freedom.

Consider that there was only one culture on earth that had no word for, and indeed no concept of, war. That was the Aleut (Eskimo) culture prior to first contact with the outside world. The reason for this was economic. In that culture, if a group of guys got together, they immediately organized a hunting party or starved to death. There was never enough surplus to support large-scale group violence.

In every other culture, there have been enough resources for groups of guys to fight each other, without having to spend all their time trying to feed themselves. Hence, war is a phenomenon of wealth, or at least of something other than crushing poverty.

By the same token, war can be said to be caused by freedom. When Marshal Tito (backed by the Soviet Union) ruled Yugoslavia, his police state apparatus kept its boot on the necks of the Serbs and Croats so that they couldn't fight each other. Only after Tito died and the Soviet Union collapsed, did people have enough freedom to rabble-rouse, obtain weapons, and begin the recent civil war. (Sort of like India's present Bal Thackeray whose party orchestrates anti-Muslim violence in India to gain power at the ballot box.)

It is, of course, wicked to advocate forcing all humanity to endure starvation under a world-wide police state in order to eliminate war. Such a situation might be characterized by an absence of war, but it would not be peace.

Nevertheless, we can still salvage a useful idea here. The individual states comprising the United States do not fight each other, because the monopoly of violence is given to a higher power — the Federal Government. The individual states have given up their freedom to attack each other as well as their sovereign right to defend themselves. And this sacrifice is not just a paper committment: they have also given up the ability: states have no standing armies of their own. The National Guard may take orders from a state Governor, but not if the President of the United States commands otherwise.

In other words, world peace requires world government. Now, given that most of the world thinks the way to wealth is to take it from the United States rather than to generate their own, how soon do you think that will come to pass?

Moreover, peace requires a committment to deter, detain, and in some cases simply kill those would be warlords who bring disorder into failed and failing societies (because they want power and/or wealth, and see warlordism as the quickest way to get them). World government would not have the discernment to know when to act or against whom. Consider that Libya is on the UN Human Rights Commission, and that the United States may soon be removed. Consider that the UN took no action against Pol Pot in Kampuchea, or against the murderers in Rwanda. If the measure of effectiveness at securing world peace is body count, then it really is fair to call the UN an incompetent debating society.

So where does this leave us? Are we, after 2400 years of philosophical debate, back at "might makes right?" After all, what we call "Shock and Awe," the Germans once called "Blitzkrieg." With the US response to the 9/11 attacks in Afganistan, Iraq, some "law enforcement assistance" in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, and who knows what sort of action in regard to North Korea, we are witnessing what future historians may call, "The American Rampage."

On the other hand, the United States went along with the European powers who set up autocratic and semi-autocratic states throughout the world as the most convenient way to protect their economic interests in the colonial and post-colonial periods.
These states are now either transitioning to some form of democracy (perhaps not based on the New England township as de Toqueville described American democracy, but some form nevertheless) or they are becoming the so-called "failed" states that get taken over by warlords who can become international terrorists. Perhaps the United States is correct in (at least partially) abandoning its policy of assenting to what some writers call "autocracy lite" in Europe's former colonies, which assent was implicitly racist, historically unjust and ultimately counterproductive.

Perhaps, in order for the world to regain anything like a "moral compass" in international relations the world should look to the stated principles on which the United States was founded. To quote from the US Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Herein we find grounds for the United States' effective redefinition of sovereignty — those governments are sovereign which derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Those which don't are not entitled to have their claims to sovereignty respected. Those governments which cannot be regularly and nonviolently changed by the people they govern, are subject to violent overthrow from without, if they do not respect the most basic rights of their people and the peace of their neighbors.

In 1787, America was the only constitutional Republic in the world. By 1990, according to Francis Fukuyama's count there were 61. With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, there are even more now. After 216 years, the American Revolution is starting to catch on. Maybe it's time to give it a little help. Because the root causes of war are all traceable to governments that do not respond to, respect, and value people — their own or any other.

22 March 2003

A Litmus Test for Judicial Nominees

It's back. Around and about the 30th anniversary of Roe v Wade, presidential candidates are trumpeting their stands on abortion, and Congress is preparing to go to war against itself over appointments to the federal judiciary. Both sides of the Congressional aisle assume that there is a natural "litmus test" for judges: "How might you rule on matters of Reproductive Choice versus the Right to Life?"

I have my own litmus test. If I were the President, I would ask each prospective nominee to the Supreme Court one single question: "What is Justice? You have two hours. Talk."
I would reject candidates for the following reasons:
  • Giving a definitive answer. None exists. For every definition you can give, someone can come up with a situation in which your definition is unworkable. If you have a definitive answer and are not God, yours is wrong.
  • Finishing on time. Any nominee to the Supreme Court who can't talk about Justice for more than two hours, doesn't know enough about it, doesn't care enough about it, or both.
  • Implying that Governments (or Courts) define Justice. Justice is prior to any government, because governments are instituted to secure Justice for the governed. In particular, Justice is prior to Democracy. Democracy is simply the best way known thus far to secure Justice for the governed, because it is the governed who choose their government, and do so at regular intervals.
  • Discussing Justice without talking about the relationship of Justice to Law and legal precedent. In other words, without discussing his or her prospective job.
  • Discussing Justice without giving insights into Human Nature. To do Justice with respect to Humans, one must know who they are, what they are like, and what is Good for them. Since knowledge of the Good cannot be obtained by uaided reason, this discussion must include Religion as well as Science, and lead to a side discussion of the meaning of the Separation of Church and State.
  • Downplaying the centrality of conflict in the question of Justice. All questions of Justice involve deciding between the competing interests of two or more parties, whether the case is of a civil or a criminal nature.
  • Discussing Justice without discussing economics. This is called distributive Justice, which concerns the distribution of wealth, and with it power and opportunity in society. This distribution tends to concentrate by race, religion, or other groupings in all societies. I would therefore require a prospective nominee to speak knowledgably on these subjects as well.
  • Omitting a discussion of United States Justice toward US and non-US persons in war and peace. Or did you forget about the 3000 internees at Guantanamo?
  • Failing to discuss the human use of human and non-human beings. This should open up a wide ranging exploration of our relationships with each other, our zygotes and our cloned cells, as well as our pets, and domestic and wild animals.
I would also expect the candidates to discuss retributive justice and how to deal justly with criminals, including repeat offenders, covering both psychological and sociological aspects of criminality. In fact, I would expect the candidates for nomination to the Federal Judiciary to be able to speak at length about the history and development of the idea of Justice in our own culture, those that preceeded it, and those with whom we share the world.

I think you get the idea. Justice is a vast, complicated subject, as inexhaustible as theology, and in some sense related to it. "For what does the Lord require of thee, but to love kindness, to do Justice, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

Those who would reduce it to one's stand on abortion demean the memories of all who have suffered injustice, and all those who sacrificed to further Justice. Reducing the question of Justice to the question of abortion demeans the public discourse necessary to maintain a democracy.

I would like to thank Professor Kenneth Sharpe from whom I learned the importance and impossibility of fully answering of this one question: "What is Justice?" during the academic year 1974-5 at Swarthmore College. May you make answering it part of your life's quest.

11 March 2003

Making a Killing

"This briefing is unclassified, but it does contain graphic violence," warned the speaker. Lights dimmed, and the screen showed what looked like an SUV driving down a country road, viewed from above. A fireball exploded in front of the SUV, blowing its front tires. The six men who bolted from it sprinted at world-record pace back down the road they had just driven, not stopping until they reached a vehicle that had been following them at a discreet distance. From their arm movements, they seemed to be warning the occupants of the second vehicle that there were landmines in the road ahead. But there were no landmines. Another cluster of fireballs engulfed the men and the second vehicle.

The audience snickered, encouraged by the briefer's enthusiasm for his subject. I felt myself smile, too. The dead men had been "illegal combatants" fighting in Afganistan for al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. They had been killed by an AC-130 gunship, flying at night so they couldn't see it, so high they couldn't hear it. The violence of their demise seemed cartoon-like through AC-130's black-and-white, night vision enhanced telescopic gun camera, but there was no doubt that the little dark lines flying out of the bright fireball were their body parts. There was also no doubt who they were — the conversation between the pilot, the gunner, and ground control indicated that they had been carefully identified and specifically targeted for what they had done, and were about to do again. It should also give you an idea of what will happen if the US and its allies go to war in Iraq — there will be no "carpet bombing," but Saddam's army won't be able to move.

Still, someone's brothers, husbands, and sons had just been blown to bits. The smile left my face. I had been tempted into enjoying the deaths of men. Again.

What we had watched was a "hit" carried out by a joint operation of the US Air Force and (most likely) US Special Forces operating on the ground in enemy-controlled territory. The idea was to inflict maximum damage with minimal loss of US personnel in a situation where the US personnel were outnumbered, and our allies out-gunned. Attempting to capture rather than kill the enemy would only have gotten our people and our allies killed.

Of course, there is the option of non-pursuit. We could have just let them continue down the road. So that they could kill more of us. Of anyone who seriously advocates that notion I have a request — pick someone like me who thinks you are personally enabling terrorism and become a human shield for him or her 24/7 until all the terrorists go away.

Or maybe we could negotiate with their leaders — Usama bin Laden and company. Here is their opening position. They want you dead. Period. Now, you bargain with them, if you can find them.

But there is another aspect to the aerial gunship attack that I must mention before I close. If it were to have occurred over the US instead of Afganistan, we ourselves would have been as terrorized by the air-strike as we are by the terrorists. Which means that it sets about the right tone. The terrorists use "asymmetric means" to bypass our defenses — so we use our own form of "asymmetric means" to bypass theirs. They slaughter indiscriminately, yet they wind up being killed by precisely, personally targeted bolts from the sky, with each shot planned to get them to react the way their killers want them to, in order to minimize the expenditure of ordnance in achieving the objective. This is precisely why we use war as a paradigm for US (and when it stands with us, the world's) actions against terrorists. If we restricted ourselves only to the law enforcement paradigm, the means described above would be unavailable to us, because it would be illegal, which would give the terrorists the advantage. They know how to beat the law enforcement paradigm.

In sum, I'm afraid the evil action I saw on the film was the best we could do. I am not proud of my initial reaction to it, but neither am I ashamed. Rather, I think that our enemies should realize that they can stimulate even nice, introspective, anti-capital punishment types like me to say "yes" to graphic violence against them.

Maybe our enemies should consider negotiating with us. Once they stop fighting us, we can be quite reasonable. Just ask the Germans, or the Japanese, or even (if you count the Cold War) the Russians.

Still, if anyone can offer a more Godly suggestion, something realistic that would so amaze the hearts and minds of the terrorists and their supporters that they would forgive us our trespasses against them (both real and imagined) and let us live in peace, I would love to hear about it. The whole world is waiting.

02 February 2003

Farewell, Columbia

The Second Space Shuttle Tragedy

Spontaneous Columbia memorial, courtesy of NASA
Yesterday morning, I was making pancakes while my wife went into the "Dog Room" to do a little yoga. She caught a bit of broadcasting as she put her DVD into the player. "I think you'll want to see this," she said.

On the television screen was an image of clear blue sky with a cluster of white streaks. It was the Space Shuttle. "Oh, shit," I said. "It broke up. They're dead." I had seen something like it seventeen years ago, when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during its ascent.

Once the investigation was over, I put the blame for Challenger where the facts pointed, on managerial arrogance at Morton Thiokol and NASA. This time, it appears to be a different form of managerial incompetence, one more deeply ingrained in the human condition, expressed in the bromide, "When you're up to your ass in alligators, it's hard to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp." Under the pressure of dealing with day-to-day difficulties, things that are not critical to be solved this very day — things that can wait because they've waited until now — wait indefinitely. All of us who manage must let things slide in order to keep up with the stuff we know is critical. In this case, the list of safety upgrades to Shuttle technology may have slid too long. Time and investigation will tell.

I say these things, not to start a hunt for scapegoats — there are likely to be none this time — but to direct the attention of my fellow believers in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) to look to the Human Condition, rather than to Divine Judgement. In particular, I think of the Iraqi official who claimed that the accident was God's Judgement against Israel and the United States. By that same logic, one could attribute the decline of the Arab Islamic world with respect to the West since 1400 (as described by Bernard Lewis in his book What Went Wrong) to God's Judgement against Muslims. As I assume the official in question would hesitate to do that, I consider that he should hesitate to declare God's Judgement concerning the Columbia.

But now we must turn to the human cost paid by the Columbia's crew — Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, and Ilan Roman — and their families and friends. Their loss is the incalculable loss of seven worlds that might have been. Worlds that they all very much wanted. May God comfort the survivors according to their needs, and bring them in time to experience healing of their grief.

This human cost is also felt by the whole People of the United States, and by the peoples of India and Israel. The media will ask, is manned space flight worth the risk? Is it worth the money? Let me start with the second to answer the first.

Manned space flight has not been economically worthwhile since it began, and will not be economically worthwhile for the foreseeable future. We are not in it for the money.

Manned space flight has never yielded any scientific knowledge that could not have been gained by unmanned flight (other than the response of the human body to long-term weightlessness), nor is it likely to do so for a very long time. We are not in it for the science.

What manned space flight has yielded, is astonishing advances in engineering and engineering management — the twin arts/sciences/diciplines/practices of making and using things that work. But we are not in it for the engineering. We aren't in it even for the prestige — its no longer new enough to astonish the world with each marginal advance.

We are in manned space flight for just one thing — the adventure. If we turn away from that adventure, we turn away from a future as grand as the Universe to a smaller destiny sandwiched between the top of the atmosphere and the bottom of the sea. Never mind that we will tie the fate of humanity to the fate of one small, vulnerable planet — I'm thinking much shorter term than that.
If we turn away from manned space flight we will diminish our culture here and now. We will slip from a culture of boundless optimism to a culture of limits. We will achieve less, because we will attempt less. We will begin to stagnate. What the astronauts bought for us with their courage was Hope in this world.

Manned space flight is not worth doing in itself. It is worth doing because it helps make all the other things worth doing. Let us honor the courage, the drive, the spirit, and the sacrifice of Columbia's crew by doing what they would have us do — let us continue.

And some day, we will find a way up from earth's gravity well, and a way to fly through space, that will take us to the stars.

Editor's Note: The discipline required to do complex and dangerous things safely is practiced by High Reliability Organizations. NASA appears not to be one of them.