23 March 2008

Sunday of the Resurrection

I confess that my eyes tear each Easter Sunday when we sing "Jesus Christ is Risen Today." It isn't so much the words of the song as it is the triumphant melody and the exuberant singing of the congregation. It reminds me of what we as church should be, but are not. Called to testify of His Glorious Resurrection, to show its effect in us by becoming His ministering hands to his world, we fall short. We become dysfunctional social groups, combinations of feel-gooders, self-haters, do-gooders. And having fallen so short of the mark, we sometimes turn on each other and debate about theology. If church is the "body of Christ," we are a work unfinished.

And I am a work unfinished. Oh, I'm a good enough person compared to most, despite my working on "force multipliers" for the US military. Besides, not only has no one ever died (as far as I know) because of anything I've done (and on one or two projects not for my lack of effort), my particular history once put me in a position to help prevent a conflict that would have killed thousands. Yes, unlike the demonstrators in front of my lab on Good Friday, I have actually helped to make peace.

It's just that I want to be so much better than I am. And when I am in church, I want us all to be so much better than we are. Indeed, if we were as good as we are called to be, we would be almost unrecognizable. We would all radiate so much goodness, that you would have to spend some time in our presence to be able to tell that we were still really us.

Maybe that's why the followers of Jesus took so long to recognize him that first Easter morning, and in the days after. Maybe that's what Resurrection does to us. As our perfected, transformed, good unalloyed with bad, resurrected selves, maybe we are barely recognizable as having once been the masses of contradiction and compromise between good and evil (in other words ordinary human beings) that we once were.

Maybe that's what I yearn for — for myself and for all of us together. Resurrection. To follow our Lord, who on this day more than two thousand years ago by His Resurrection began the Resurrection of us all.

Surrexit Christus hodie! Alleluia!

22 March 2008

The Vigil of Easter

We Christians celebrate the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday as the "Vigil of Easter." In truth, there was no vigil for the first Christians, the frightened and depressed band of Jesus' followers. They spent this day hunkered down, wondering whether they would be caught in an oncoming wave of persecution, of whether this was all going to just blow over, now that their leader had been so brutally humiliated and executed. Some didn't wait to find out, and left Jerusalem on foot for Emmaus.

They were probably in a mixture of grief-stages: the horror of the past days must have seemed at once to be an unreal nightmare, and an all too real trauma. They didn't know whether to hide, flee, or fight and lose a hopeless last battle. Or just sit and wait, in mourning.

No doubt some prayed, even as Jesus had taught them. And the answer was a dead silence.

Yet life went on. The men cared for their wives, the women for their children. Meals had to be made, the little ones fed, the sick tended.

So, on this day, I took my elderly dogs (one of whom will likely die within weeks to months) for a walk, including a little off-lead time by a creek. I helped my elderly mother with her finances. I wished my sister a happy birthday.

Take care of those whom God has placed in your care, this Easter Vigil. And wait. Tomorrow is quite another day.

21 March 2008

Good Friday: The Sin of Indifference

When one contemplates the Crucifixion, one would be remiss not to contemplate the opportunities to have prevented it.

At his trial before Caiaphas and some part of the Sanhedrin, nobody spoke in defense of Jesus. Nobody said, "If he is a heretic, then so am I. You will have to take me with him." When given the cruel choice of which of the condemned should be freed, the supporters of Barabbas shouted, but the New Testament records no shouts for Jesus. And it probably took at most three Roman soldiers to nail Jesus to the cross and raise it up. Supposedly a crowd watched this, yet nobody is recorded to have raised a hand against this small force.

It didn't take much force at all to crucify Jesus, or any of the thousands that the Romans crucified during their history. That's because it was enabled by the cowardice of the few and the indifference of the many who might have acted, or at least spoken up.

We've seen it again. The Nazis slaughtered six million Jews and millions of others, including Roma (Gypsies), Poles, Jehovah' Witnesses, and homosexuals. It took relatively few Nazis to do the actual killing, or to run the extermination camps. That's because it was enabled by what was effectively the cowardice or indifference of everyone who might have done something about it, but did not.

But many times, the alternative to cowardice and indifference amounts to suicide. We become hostage to our natural desire to live just one more day, to see if we can live until the horror passes. Can any of us who are thus normal honestly claim that we are good?

Ah, but sin is an insidious thing, and if we free ourselves from one sin, we often substitute another in its place. Those who free themselves from their natural desire to live — they become suicide bombers, prey to the Islamofacist Industrial Complex that makes the explosives, the vests, the triggers, that gives the instructions, that points to the targets, most of whom are non-combatants.

Yes, there are occasional saints, moved by the Spirit, who desire to live, who desire not to kill, and yet have the courage to speak and act. But odds are, dear reader, that you and I are not among them.

You and I are more likely to be among the indifferent crowd, who just want to pursue their lives as best they can. Can anyone say, "Darfur," or "Lhasa" (to name the two the media mentions of God knows how many current conflicts there are)? You and I are more likely to be among those watching while the nails are driven in, while the sky darkens, while the last breath is gasped.

And that is why, when Jesus gasped, "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do," he was pleading for us as well.

It is now sundown. The Vigil of Easter has begun. Peace and mercy be upon you.

20 March 2008

Good Friday: The Bomb vs The Sopranos

Probably the most ridiculous thing I can say about myself is that I work at a US defense research lab, but I can't stand to watch the Sopranos, because the show is just too violent for me. It's ridiculous because the US military, with its nuclear arsenal, can dish out way more violence than the mob.

The work I do — designing some of the tools of the military trade, be they material or just software — is done to create so-called "force multipliers" which amplify the ability of our uniformed men and women to break things and kill people. It is one of those activities that His Holiness John Paul II would have classified as intrinsece malum — intrinsically evil. And indeed, tomorrow morning protesters will stage a demonstration at my lab, as they do each Good Friday.

It is as if they are trying to communicate that by pursuing my line of work I crucify Christ. But in large ways and small, we all do that. Their fantasy is that if the US just lays down its arms there will be peace on earth. The reality is that war is all too normal a part of the human condition, and that if you get rid of your own military, you will have to get comfortable with some other country's military.

In other words, if nobody did what I do, if nobody stepped into the moral gray zone of keeping our military well-armed, liberal democracy might have already have perished from the earth. Huge portions of humanity would be less free and less prosperous, if they would be alive at all. The effect of what I do is good, even if the intrinsic intent is bad.

Conversely, even though the intrinsic intent of the protesters is good, the effect of their policy, if put into effect, would be bad. This is because they are not actually making peace by what they do. They are merely making war on war itself. If their cause were chastity, they would be fornicating for it.

I can't really blame them. Fighting against war is almost infinitely easier than making peace. But fighting against war will not reduce or eliminate the need for a large, well-armed military. Only making peace can do that.

What I take from the protesters is that they don't like the way I crucify Christ. They want me to crucify Christ the way they do. That's the message of Good Friday. We all stand together on the same side of the cross. The side into which we hammer the nails.

So, in light of the Crucifixion, I have no problems with "right livelihood." But in light of the Resurrection, I have no answer except to say that the Spirit has not led or kicked me elsewhere. At least, not yet.

But I've said all this before, and another guy has said it at greater length. I guess as long as the protesters keep repeating their message, I may as well keep repeating mine.

17 March 2008

The Words of Jeremiah

Read now the words of Jeremiah:

Listen, destruction has come upon you! Foreign fighters have come from a distant land, and raised their hands and bodies against your towers... Your conduct and your acts have brought this upon you. This is your bitter punishment.

The words of Jeremiah Wright? They could be. But they are actually my paraphrase of Jeremiah 4:15-18, of the Holy Bible, Jewish Publication Society translation.

Yes, Jeremiah Wright was and is full of himself, more than he is of the Holy Spirit. Yes, he is the Man of Words, out of ancient African tradition, that gives the church in Africa as well as the African-American church its voice and its power. And yet, he is also speaking out of the ancient tradition of the Hebrew prophets, who reviled their societies for their shortcomings. Indeed, the original Jeremiah blamed the destruction of Solomon's temple and the expulsion of the Israel into captivity in Babylon on the conduct of Israel itself. And as you would expect, he was "repeatedly imprisoned and castigated as a traitor for his views," according to the Introduction to Jeremiah in the Jewish Study Bible.

It is thus misleading to judge Jeremiah Wright (and Barack Obama for his association with Wright) without the contexts of the historical development of politically black Christian rhetoric, the development of Black Liberation Theology, and their roots in the Old Testament and African oral stylistic tradition.

Still, blaming America for 9/11 is blaming the victim. It is on the same moral level as white people blaming black people for white people's prejudices and stereotypes. It is as ugly for a black man to say it as for a white man to say it. And it is just as wrong. And blaming the US government for AIDS, particularly claiming that it introduced AIDS into African-Americans is a vicious lie (i.e, it is morally and factually wrong), and Wright is morally culpable for believing it and promulgating it from the pulpit.

One has to ask what Barack Obama, as a sitting senator — a man already holding a national office , a position of trust with respect to all Americans — was thinking when he continued to associate with Wright. The most likely answer, given what I've been trying to explain in this and the previous post, is that Obama was simply desensitized to this style of rhetoric. In other words, Obama was probably not thinking at all.

So I doubt that Barak Obama's association with Wright serves as evidence that Obama is anti-American, anti-military, anti-white, or anti-Semitic. But I have to wonder how far to the left Obama might actually be, given that this style of rhetoric didn't faze him enough to get him to go find another church.

Note added on 3/18: Here is the text of Obama's speech on this subject. And you can watch the video here.

16 March 2008

Is Barack Obama "Wright" for America?

Palm Sunday, or the Sunday of the Passion, and I should be blogging about Christianity. And sinner though I am, I just might get to it by way of writing about Barack Obama's pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

To many white people, unused to the more passionate rhetoric of many African-American preachers, Wright's words after 9/11, such as, "Some of America's chickens are coming home to roost," and his passionate condemnation of America's racism at home and in its foreign policy, such as "not God bless America, but God damn America," sound crudely, rabidly anti-American. To black audiences, it just isn't radical. It's part of the discourse by which one shows that one is reliably left-wing enough to be black. Or rather, politically black. Failing to assent to such rhetoric is why Shelby Steele, for example, who is darker than Barak Obama, is not really — meaning not politically — black.

So, looking to burnish his Christian credentials to mitigate his Islamic middle name, and to make the challenge of black Americans his own — Barack came of age well after America's racial racial struggles of the 1960s and 1970s — it was natural for Barack to gravitate to a predominately black church that practiced a social gospel, sponsoring and doing service to the community in which it was set. As to the preaching of his pastor, the consensus of the community was and is that his preaching is not particularly radical. It is not that African Americans are anti-American. It's just that African-Americans experience America differently than Americans whose ancestors came to this country voluntarily.

In my lifetime, this perspective was most famously and succinctly given voice by a Muslim lay person, Malcom X.

Sitting at the table doesn't make you a diner, unless you eat some of what's on that plate. Being here in America doesn't make you an American. Being born here in America doesn't make you an American. — Malcom X, 1965

What was on that plate was freedom and opportunity, but to America's white heartland, this sort of rhetoric sounds ambivalent about America at best, and anti-American at worst. And they can't be expected to turn out to vote for someone whom they suspect might be reluctant to do what it takes to further the American agenda when the chips are down. That's what the heartland will wonder as they contemplate that Barack Obama was a member of Jeremiah Wright's church for 20 years, that he gave it over US $20,000, and that Jeremiah Wright was part of an advisory committee for Obama's campaign until last week.

Indeed, even to me, Barack Obama has some explaining to do. But all this should be old news. Who dug this up, and why is it coming out now? Let's see... it can't be the McCain campaign, because the timing is all wrong. The McCain campaign would want to save this for the general election, after the Democrats had already committed themselves to Obama. On the other hand, the timing is perfect for an act of desperation by the Clinton campaign, because Hillary is running a little behind Barak, and with just enough uncommitted delegates left to swing the Democratic presidential nomination to her, now would be the time to use this story to raise Democratic voters' concern that, if nominated, Barack may not be able to win the general election.

Many African-American voters will think, as I do, that this is a manipulation by the Hillary and Bill Clinton machine, to whom they gave crucial support for many years, and many will feel betrayed. In other words, it's hard to tell just who will be hurt more by this, Hillary or Barack. But I'll bet that the Clintons have counted up the number of black vs white Democratic voters in the remaining primaries.

But what spooks me about the timing is that this is the day we Christians remember Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, with a crowd cheering him and throwing palm fronds under the donkey's feet — making the equivalent of the modern-day "red carpet." Only a few days later they were shouting, "Give us Barabbas!" and leaving Jesus to the Romans.

I doubt that Barack Obama is un-American, even if he has become desensitized to rhetoric that is. Whether polls of likely Democratic primary voters will show them abandoning Obama this week, and whether his campaign can resurrect itself, remains to be seen.

Note Added: See also A Black Theology of Liberation, by James H. Cone. It will give you a better idea of where Wright has been coming from.

15 March 2008

The Point of Eliot Spitzer

If you go to the office of the Governor of New York website, you find this charming quotation:

Eliot Spitzer was inaugurated as New York’s 54th Governor on January 1, 2007. In his inaugural address, Governor Spitzer said: "Every policy, every action and every decision we make in this administration will further two overarching objectives: We must transform our government so that it is as ethical and wise as all of New York, and we must rebuild our economy so that it is ready to compete on the global stage in the next century".

Now we know that Eliot Spitzer, once New York's Attorney General, was not what he presented himself to be — a knight in shining armor riding to avenge the downtrodden little guy. In case you have been in a cave the last couple of weeks, Eliot was caught laundering money to pay for his visits to $5000/night prostitutes. It's the very same kind of corruption Eliot fought against when he was a prosecutor. One could say that Eliot was a hypocrite, but that doesn't tell us much. The point is that all the while Eliot was fighting corruption, he was actually fighting his own inner demons — by attacking them as he found them in other people.

His fall is well-deserved, considering the suffering he brought via his overzealous prosecutions of people, not all of whom had committed crimes. But it is also pathetic, considering that he fell prey to the most common of temptations — not the sex — the urge to fight one's demons in other people, rather than face them in himself. To illustrate how common it is, that particular urge plays a big part in making war, policing our communities, preaching, prejudice, etc. It is a bad thing that can be harnessed to get us to do good things, but only when it is channeled and checked.

So, I view Eliot as a kind of Everyman. I do not rejoice at his fall. But I am relieved that one can still so fall, even if one is a Democrat. Indeed, contrary to the example set by Bill Clinton, Spitzer has come clean, and resigned his office. I hope he seeks psychotherapy to root out those inner demons and become a free man.

Certainly we, a free people, must insist on having free leaders. Not leaders who are slaves to their own desires or other temptations.

12 March 2008

Fade to Black

I come home from picking up prescription food at vet, and there sits Pongo, a long bloody booger hanging from his nose. Why is this dog bleeding? Drop the food, pick up the dog, go back to the vet and ask her. After another visit and some diagnostic work, bad news. The two most likely possibilities are nasal cancer, and fungal disease. Both are treatable, but we must make a definitive diagnosis first, which involves anesthesia, scopes, biopsies, at least 48 hours at the vet, and several more days of bleeding.

And then what? Treatment. If it's cancer we could board Pongo for 3 or 4 weeks at a specialist vet in another city for radiation treatments. Most dogs have a 50% chance of living a year after that. If it's fungal disease, its one or more 24 hour vet stays during which Pongo gets anesthesia and has his nose filled with Lotrimin, with a 60% to 80% chance of cure, but with a chance of recurrence.

On the other hand, Pongo is 14, and he has kidney disease, too. Even without nasal disease, he is on his way out. It isn't clear that further diagnosis and treatment would significantly prolong his life, or even add to its quality.

You see, Pongo has lost 1/5 of his body weight over the past year. He hasn't been eating much, not even what were once his favorite foods. And now we know why. He has been losing his sense of smell. To a dog, if it doesn't smell like food, it isn't food. He has been starving, and wondering why we keep offering him this inedible cardboard stuff that just looks like food.

So, we have a temporary fix: stinkier food. Pongo is eating well again. His nosebleed and snuffling/snorting symptoms appear to be in remission for now. He is happier than he has been in a long time.

It is not clear that treatment of any kind would restore his sense of smell. Whether it's cancer or fungus, the damage may already have been done. What's more, cancer treatment may cause nerve damage that could make the sense of smell worse, as well as cause blindness. Not a recipe for a happy dog. Especially for a dog who just wants to be with us.

Pongo has stopped sleeping in his chair downstairs (a long story - if you're able to keep your pets off the furniture, you probably don't own a German Shorthaired Pointer) and moved upstairs to sleep next to us. He can no longer smell us from downstairs, and if he can't smell us, we're not there. So he's moved upstairs to be less lonely and insecure.

As his sense of smell fades, we will fade. He will be living in a house of people who look and sound like us, but we will have vanished. He will stop eating. And then, for him, everything will fade. Fade to black.

05 March 2008

A Chancre on the Face of Islam

In "Worshippers of Death," WSJ 3 March 2008, Alan M. Dershowitz discusses the case of Zahra Maladan, an educated and accomplished Lebanese Muslim woman who edits a magazine, and who was quoted in the New York Times as telling her son, "If you're not going to follow in the steps of the if the Islamic resistance martyrs, then I don't want you." By "Islamic resistance martyrs, she is taken to mean suicide bombers. Dershowitz characterizes her attitude as worshipping death.

I think it's worse than that. Let's go back more than 2000 years to the ancient Middle East. A cult existed throughout the region involving the sacrifice of children to a god called Moloch (also known as Molech). The Hebrew prophets (all of whom are also accepted by Muslims as Muslim prophets) struggled to abolish this idolatrous practice from the time of Moses - "You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Moloch, and so profane the name of your God." - Leviticus 18:21 - to the time of Jeremiah and beyond.

Indeed, it seems that not even the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) could finally put a stop to this practice. Instead of abandoning child sacrifice, some Muslims have simply grafted the idolatrous worship of Moloch onto the worship of Allah. That is to say, they associate an attribute of Moloch with Allah, even though the association of anything with Allah is expressly forbidden in Islam. By raising their children for sacrifice they have contaminated their Islam with a custom from the Time of Ignorance before the coming of the Prophet.

Now such people are a minority of Muslims, so this contamination is only superficial. Since idolatry was often compared to harlotry in the Hebrew Bible, it is thus fair to call this modern version of child sacrifice a chancre on the face that Islam presents to the world.

04 March 2008

Sniffing the Competition

We are currently experimenting with hosting this blog at Wordpress and at Superb.net (our web host for our main site). We'll let you know if we decide to move.