Monday, December 31, 2012

The Toys We Don't Need

As our seasonal festival of consumerist gorging comes to an end, that big pulse of buybuybuy that pushes the retail industry into the black for the year seems to have worked again.  Our houses are once again overloaded with material possessions that, by and large, we don't actually need but have been convinced we require for our happiness.  There's been a peculiar aspect of the surge of purchasing this year, though, one that is beyond me.

It's the great rush of gun purchases following the Sandy Hook shootings.  You remember that, right?  Yeah, I know, so-five-minutes-ago, but it's still having an effect, eh?  And the most immediate effect has been that assault-style rifles...meaning semi-auto, large magazine firearms that evoke actual combat weaponry...have been roaring off of the racks of gun stores this holiday season.  It's so intense that the profiteers are out in force, as folks pick up semi-auto AR-15s and Kalashnikovs and resell them for a healthy margin.   

That's not unusual for interesting new firearms, like the speculative rush on Keltec's KSG home defense bullpup shotgun over the last year, but this is another thing altogether.  This is actually a familiar trend, as the threat of gun regulation following mass shootings tends to lead to hoarding and panic buying.  It's always seemed a bit odd, but we're an odd people.

What has struck me in this current feeding frenzy is how peculiarly it meshes with another truth known to responsible gun owners.   The appearance of a gun is meaningless.  Oh, calibre matters, as do a range of other factors, particularly magazine capacity.  But in terms of lethality, a rifle is a rifle.  Urban leftists who are oblivious to the nuances between weapons look at all the pseudo-mil-spec farkling and tactical doodaddery, and assume that somehow makes a rifle more lethal.

It does not.  

Case in point: the most lethal soldier in the whole of the blood-soaked horror that was the twentieth century was a Finnish sniper by the name of Simo Hayha.  He used a Finnish version of the Mosin-Nagant hunting rifle...bolt action, five round magazine, iron kill over five hundred Soviets.   It's a sturdy, reliable, low-rate-of-fire weapon.  That rifle was the most lethal individual firearm in the history of modern warfare.  Lord have mercy.  It is also the kind of weapon that would be utterly unaffected by even the most stringent firearm regulations.

Of course, that's a hunting rifle, and not so handy in close quarters.  But for close quarters combat...the type of staving-off-the-serial-killing-burglar-rapist-Democrat fantasy scenario that sells so many American firearms...there's pretty much nothing better than a scattergun.  In the typical home on a typical quarter acre lot, you'd need nothing more.  And there's no better way to put shot on target than something like the humble but utterly reliable Remington 870, which happens to be...if those who I know who know guns are to be believed...a fine hunting shotgun as well.  Again, unaffected by gun regulation.

So here's what I don't get. folks who know guns better than I will invariably tell you whenever a mass shooting happens...there is no functional difference in lethality, why the rush on the tactical semi-auto farkle-guns?   These aren't real military-grade assault rifles.  They just pretend to be.  Why the panic buying of guns that are all about ego and threat-display, but are functionally no better at hunting/defending against invading armies/home-defense than far less showy firearms?

Why? Because they are the toys that we want.  They are toys that appeal powerfully to our egos, and to our fears.  They happen to be lethal toys, sure, but they are more about what they whisper in the ear of their owner.  

"Look at how fearsome I am," they say.  "You're strong and powerful," they say.   "You are a warrior," they lie.  "You could kill anyone who messed with you," they say, mixing a dark truth with the fantasy.  Because like all toys, they are mostly about fantasy.  They are all about the fantasy of war, of violence, and of power.  

And as my dear friend Wayne LaPierre put it recently, "Isn't fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography?"

Perhaps that's what makes these toys so dangerous.  

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Words and Paper

This morning, I came bucketing up the long gravel driveway of my in-law's house in Western Maryland.  The five inches of snow already on the ground had been augmented by an overnight snow, and the flakes were still falling heavily.

Between the new tires on the minivan and a healthy dose of objects-in-motion-tend-to-stay-in-motion, it was only just enough muss and fuss to make it entertaining.

I was on my way back from the morning jaunt that has defined almost every morning since I started coming out here decades ago: The newspaper run.

The paper has always been a necessary part of any lazy flannel-jammie morning.  That newspaper run used to be earlier, years ago.  Back in the 1990s, I had to get out by no later than seven, and even then, there was always the risk that every single newspaper would be gone.

Now?  There are always papers, no matter how late I sleep in.  That form of media is fading.  We've moved away from physical media for our news, and now are increasingly moving away from it for our reading.  Books have also been a major part of any time off, and this year, for the first time, I find myself sitting at the Western Maryland house and reading an eBook.

I've read books online before.  I've read an entire book in a game on my PS3.  I've even published to Kindle.  But I've not made a regular habit of reading books that weren't paper and ink.  With the arrival of the lowest-end no-ad Kindle in my life, that's going to become a much more regular event.   It's lowest-end by design.  I don't want a tablet computer.  I don't want apps, or videos, or games.  I want none of those distracting, pointless bits of popcorn-brain electronic frippery.

I just want to read, to lose myself in a world spun of words.

The first of the books I downloaded was the latest in Ian M. Banks Culture books, a series of thoroughly enjoyable hoo-hah hard-sci-fi space operas.  Others will follow...more hard sci-fi, and likely some Teilhard de Chardin.

It's a different tactile feeling, having that light sliver of plastic in my hand.   But the reading experience is exactly the same.  I'm still immersed in that world, engaged deeply with the reality woven into being by that language.

That's the important thing, eh?

Friday, December 21, 2012

Gaming and Violence

Today, I'm standing down from gaming in all forms that in any way simulate violence.   There will be no shooting, first person or otherwise.  I will not jump on the heads of any Koopas.  I will not upgrade my archers in Kingdom Rush.  There will be no in-game violence, whatsoever, period.  In this, I'll be joining with thousands of other gamers who are choosing not to play any games that evoke combat, as a way of marking the impact of actual violence.

Which is fine by me, particularly the shooting part.  I've found that after Sandy Hook, my tolerance levels for media that involves firearms has diminished significantly.  It's a visceral, naturally occurring emotive response.  I just can't find any fun in it, not over the last week.  I'm not in the mood, any more than I was after 9/11.  One evening in October of 2001, I found just couldn't even watch this scene, encountered at random on cable, without thinking of all of those first responders.  I had to turn it off.  It just didn't seem fun any more.

That, more than anything, is why I'm standing down today.

Much has been made of the linkage between violence in media...particularly gaming...and the relentless dirge of gun violence in our culture.  The last two decades have seen the rise of increasingly involving and realistic virtual worlds, in which war and combat are a significant factor.  Battlefield 3 isn't Combat or Outlaw.

The depth, realism and immersive quality of modern gaming seems of a different character than any form of media that has preceded it.  The capacity to interact and participate in a virtual world is a new thing for humankind, and it's a little unsettling.   For many adults, it is also an alien thing, not a part of their experience of life.  As the United States flounders about grasping for some explanation for Sandy Hook that doesn't involve us having to regulate firearms, gaming has arisen as one possible cause.

We know, for example, that Adam Lanza gamed.   But what does that mean?  What does it mean that he was really into Starcraft?  It means that in that part of his life, he shared something with the vast majority of American kids. Objective research shows that 89% of American boys own game consoles...and 70% of girls.   Gaming is so pervasive that establishing a causal link between gaming generically and violence in our culture is not possible.

The linkage...based on data, objectively assessed...between gaming and societal violence seems tenuous, too.  That's not just because the rise of gaming as a cultural phenomenon tracks with a twenty-year decline in US crime rates.  When the United States Supreme Court took up the issue of banning violent video games last year, they found no evidence of a linkage.  You can read Antonin Scalia's opinion here.   When Antonin Scalia and Sandra Sotomayor exhaustively look at the evidence on an issue and come to the same conclusion, that says something.

That observation...that there is not enough evidence to come to find a causal or even a correlational link between gaming and actual violence...has been reinforced by the Journal of Pediatrics.

What we also know is that gaming is not a uniquely American phenomenon.  It is cross-cultural, totally pervasive throughout the developed world.  I know this on because I game, and I'll find myself occasionally on a server gaming with Aussies, or Brits, or Quebecois, or Germans.  None of those cultures come close to matching our rate of gun violence.  But I also know it statistically.  Presumably, a link between gaming and murder rates would manifest itself cross culturally, and it has not.  Gun violence is, in the developed world, a particularly American phenomenon.  We are the outlier.

Take, as a particularly potent example, South Korea, where gaming borders on being a national obsession.  Koreans are arguably the gamingest people on the planet.  What impact does that have on gun violence in South Korea?   None.   South Koreans have been known play video games until they die of starvation, to the point where time limits were put into place by law.   And yet gun violence is functionally nonexistent in that free and democratic society.  Their murder rate is just about half of ours.  Lord knows it's not because the broader Korean culture is calm and measured.   Sweet Mary and Joseph, is that not the case.  There's not a more fiery, passionate people on the face of God's creation.  Although nearly every Korean male must serve in the military, and is trained in firearm use, they don't kill each other with guns because they just don't have guns.  No guns? No gun deaths. That's why their gun-death rate is a tiny fraction of ours.  Period.

Still and all, that doesn't mean that gaming itself is without ethical challenges.  The potential impacts of gaming on an undeveloped or unstable child has never been a risk that I've been willing to take.  So over the years, I've monitored my boys and their gaming, something that I as a gamer am particularly able to do.  I know the dynamics of games, and which ones are less compatible with healthy spiritual and ethical development.

I've listened and watched their mental states, and seen as they've developed the capacity for empathy and rational thought.  I've talked with them about the difference between the real and the virtual, and listened to them as they've talked.   What types of games I've permitted them to play...and what movies I've allowed them to see...has been contingent on their development and their ethical awareness.

And while I'm comfortable having my intelligent, creative, inherently impulsive and inescapably hormonal pre-teen and teen sons around my PS3, I could not say the same for a gun.  One could, in a moment of foolishness, kill them.  The other could not.

For me, that seems Occam's-Razor-simple enough.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Connections, Probability, and God's Judgment

Yesterday, as I threw a leg over my bike to ride through warmish mid-December weather, I reached down to plug my heated gear into the side of my bike.  Snap, it went, as the SAE to BMW dongle failed.  The connection was broken.

There would be no connection between my heated insert and the bike's electrical system.  There would be no toasty warm glow about my torso, making it one of those rare days I was a little bit thankful for global warming.

And why?  Why did this happen?  Well, many reasons.  The part wasn't particularly well machined, and this is the second time one has failed.  The plug is right by my left leg, meaning I bump it on occasion, which torques the internals.   And I use it a whole bunch, not being one of those leather-bound "bikers" who only take their garage candy out twice a year.  Wear and tear is a factor.

Taken in combination, those factors establish a probability of failure.  When precisely they'll combine to cause that failure, however, is simply dependent on too many things to cleanly predict.

But the part did not fail because I had two craft beers the night before, or because I'm reading a book on quantum physics, or because I prayed the Lord's Prayer twice this morning instead of my usual once.   It did not fail because I'm raising my kids Jewish, or because I chose to go for a long walk yesterday.  Oh, sure, maybe in some sense they did have an impact, in that those things contributed to that moment...but they were not significant in establishing the likelihood of that event.  The flapping of a wing of a butterfly two meters away doesn't significantly increase the probability of you being blown off your feet.

I have some sense of the connections that created that disconnection, and why things failed.

As inevitably happens after horrible events, those among us who are Jesus folk and who have a sense of connection to our Creator are struggling for a sense of why things went wrong in Sandy Hook.  How can God permit a room full of innocent children to be slaughtered?  How can it be?  How can God do that to those parents, and to the first responders...moms and dads themselves...who must gather up those broken little bodies?

It's not an easy question, and the answers are not straightforward, lying deep in the shadowy admixture of our mortality and the way we free beings betray the freedom God has given us.

There is a strong tendency among some souls to see in the impossible horror of such tragedies evidence of God's displeasure with us.  If all was well, and the heart of our nation was righteous, or so the argument goes, then this horror would not have been inflicted on us.  But because it is not, the Lord has smoted us with a big smitey smiting.

And so, inescapably, we have the linking of the murders of those innocent children and teachers and the mother of that troubled young man to something wrong in the national character.  There is a connection there.  God is punishing us, or so some feel compelled to say.

But what is the nature of God's judgment?  What do we know about it, those of us who haven't entirely abandoned the concept?  Here, I think it's vital not just to deconstruct and critique and attack.  That's easy, but it's also lazy.   Yeah, it might feel pretty dang awesome to our angry monkey-selves.  But on some fundamental spiritual level, attacking and tearing apart seems less like a gift of the Spirit, and more like a gift from the Accuser.

Instead, it seems we should provide a clearer picture of the truth we know about our Maker.   What do we affirm?  To what can we say "yes?"

What we know, those of us who follow Jesus and attend to his teachings, is that suffering and death are not a sign of sin in the one who is suffering.   Suffering is not to be automatically equated with God's judgment.  The cross disabuses us of that, as do the deaths of those Christian witnesses who, guided by the Spirit, refused to take up the sword even in the face of violence.  They proclaimed peace and forgiveness, even as the world broke them.

We also know from the witness of scripture that the wicked do prosper, and that the oppressor does live in comfort.  That ain't right with God, but there are times when it does happen.  Rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike, as they say.

But what we also know is that where we violate the law of love, there are consequences, just as there are consequences if we think we're immune to the law of gravity.  That law of liberty is etched into the nature of all creation, as fundamental to sentient beings as the laws of physics are to inanimate objects.  It is the metric against which we are judged, both individually and collectively.

That judgement bears consequences.  Systems based on violence and injustice always fail.  Systems where power is concentrated in the hands of a few, be the power of the sword or socioeconomic power, those systems are radically out of balance.  They will tear themselves apart, and fall.  Scripture's pretty clear on that, as clear as it is on the ramification of our individual sin.

And what we also know is that just as love is its own reward, so too sin's reward rises from the nature of the sin itself.  The cup we pour is the cup we drink, as both the Beatles and a dear friend of mine once said.  Though the precise nature of God's justice is beyond us, it is ultimately not something that exists in the realm of magical thinking.  The events that create the probability of tragedy and horror, complex as they are, are not radically abstracted from their fruit.

Meaning, rather simply, that when a nation arms itself to the teeth, creates a climate of social isolation and fear, and stigmatizes the broken of mind, that is the cup we have poured for ourself.  It is the furrow we have dug into the surface of being.  When the storm comes, and the torrent flows down the path we've made for it, we shouldn't act surprised.

We may not know the fullness of the "why" of anything.  Creation is simply too complex.  But we can know enough to act, through the blessings of reason and the whisperings of the Spirit in our hearts.  And we can certainly know enough to act in ways that meaningfully reduce the likelihood of future horror.

Whether we make the way straight for God or prepare a path for sorrow is entirely our own responsibility.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sunday Morning Mathematics

When I walked into the first service on Sunday, robe and stole more or less neatly on and sermon in hand, folks were relieved to see me.  I wasn't late, not technically.  I mean, seriously, the service wasn't supposed to start for another two minutes.  No sweat.

Well, there had been sweat, of the mental kind.  It wasn't just that I had to recraft my sermon following the horrific events at Sandy Hook.  It was that on Saturday, I rewrote it, and then set it aside, prayed and let it leave my mind, and then returned to it late Saturday.  It felt stale and dead and formal, so I anguished it into what could have passed for completion.   And then I got up early on Sunday morning, and again, it did not feel graceful or real or comforting.   So I wrote and rewrote paragraphs, deleting some, recreating others, until it felt close enough the sermon I needed to hear myself.

As I wrote, I was also doing some simple math in my mind, a little subroutine that clacked away in the background of my consciousness.  "If a pastor gets on his motorcycle and leaves his house in Annandale at 8:15 am, and his church is 37 miles away in Poolesville, what is the average speed that pastor will have to travel in order to arrive at his office five minutes before the church service begins at 9:30 am?  What if he leaves at 8:20 am?  How about 8:30?"   That equation kept shifting,  the numbers rising like the needle on my tach.   I finally left at 8:47 am, my prayers for green lights and open roads mingling with the eager snarl of a willing 650 twin that almost never gets to play, my eyes on the digital clock on the instrument panel.

I arrived at my office at 9:25 on the dot, no muss, no fuss, and no riding done that would seem alarming to my mother.  Or, rather, nothing more alarming than the mere fact of riding.  Who says pastors don't need math?

It was, I hope, worth it...but it was worth it when it came to my duty to my calling.  Great care and caution needs to be taken when you are endeavoring to articulate the Gospel into a tragedy.  It must challenge, but it must also be good news.  It must demand repentance, but offer grace.  It must speak from your heart, but be guided by that which transcends you.  It must call us towards that Kingdom that is Not Yet, but it must also be grounded in the reality of what is broken.

That, more than anything, is the burden so many pastors bore on Sunday.  It's why so many of the pastors I'm connected to through social media were struggling so mightily late into the evening.  If your heart is busted up and your mind is a mess, it's easy to fall back on old tropes and generic answers.

And those do damage.  More on that later.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Learning To Play A New Game

So the other day, I was arriving at my son's middle school, because... um... well... I sort of forget.  I think he'd left something at home.  Given the number of times I have to pick something up or drop something off that has been forgotten, it all gets blurry.

When I arrived, there was a circle of tweeners out front of the school.  They weren't absorbed in their iPods, or milling about aimlessly.  They were playing a game together, actual human beings, facing one another and interacting.   They would strike out comically at each other, either making contact or not...and if not, they'd freeze in whatever exaggerated pose they'd ended up in.

It was not supervised, organized, or parent run.  There were no release forms.  They were just playing, in a self-organized game.

Huh, I thought, as I brought whatever-it-was-I was-bringing to my son.  I wonder what that is.  I don't remember that game.  I really had never seen it, not through my entire childhood, on in any of my years of time around children.

On Friday night, I drove what seemed to be halfway across the planet to my older son's varsity swim meet, at a rec center pool deep in the heart of what had been countryside back when I was in high school.  I was going to be a timer, which is actually a great way to get up and close and personal with the action.  I've done it enough to know that I needed not to wear shoes.

As I waited for the meet to begin, I noticed that while some teens were sitting cliche-oblivious to one another, absorbed in their pocket mind suckers, my older son was standing in a circle playing exactly the same game with a group of other kids.   Girls, mostly.  Smart lad, thought I.  Then, they played what was seemed a similar game, but with different motions and rhythm.  There was laughter and silliness.  It was good to see kids playing together, particularly on that night.

On the way home, I asked my older son what the game was called.  Two games, he said.  The one I'd seen at both schools they called "Ninja."  The other was called "Wa," and it was a motion and rhythm game.  They may have been out there somewhere back when I was a kid.   But they were not part of the life of middle schoolers and high schoolers in Northern Virginia back in the day.  Now, kids are teaching them to kids.  It's part of their culture.

Kids have always had their own folklore, their own stories, passed from child to child as a part of the child-world.  The fables and myths and games of childhood exist in a place apart from the dull and clumsy world of adults.  I fear, sometimes, that our kids are losing that, that we're cramming them so full of prepackaged entertainment product that their minds are becoming consumerist foie gras.

But the games continue...and they change.  That was a hopeful thing, important to see and feel this week in which all has sometimes seemed so trapped and hopeless.  What makes the world so alive when you are a child is the newness of it.  So much of what you encounter is new, and as you encounter it, the process of growing and living requires that you engage with it and figure out how or how not to integrate it into yourself.

And because everything is new to us, a totally new thing...a game, for instance, or a new way of doing something...can be taken in and lived out.

It's a skill we need to better develop, because it would serve us well as a people.  And perhaps that's part of what my Teacher meant when he said we can only enter the Kingdom as little children.

How can we be transformed, if we can never learn to play any new games?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Tragic and the Evil

Yesterday, my boys came home, as they always do, slouching down the street from the bus stop.

It is always good to see them, but it was particularly good to see them yesterday.  Here are my children that I love.  They are alive.  In the scurry of life, that miracle can be obscured by a fog of undone homework and shuttle-child activities.  It takes a strong wind to blow that fog away.

Neither had heard of the shooting, so I told them.  Both had more or less the same reaction.  "Again?"

I offered up the opportunity for more conversation, because I needed to hear them talking and be with them.  We talked for a little.   And in that talking, my fourteen year old responded to one word, when, echoing the governor of the state of Connecticut, I described the events as evil.

"I don't know if it's evil, Dad.  The guy had to be insane.  And if he was insane, was it really evil?"

It was a good question.

I have my own "bad things" continuum, a theological framework that has always made sense to me.  There are tragic things, and there are evil things.  The tragic are those inevitable moments of human breaking and suffering that arise from our smallness.  We are fragile and complex and easily broken, a marvelous miniscule speck of organic bits and bones and mush that comes apart when the universe brushes against us even just a little bit.  We are mortal.  We always have been.  Accepting that is a necessary part of our existence.  

And then there is evil.  Evil, as I have understood it, comes when a self-aware being...a free being...uses that freedom to oppress, dominate, and destroy another self-aware being.  Evil exists within the realm of sentience, as the polar opposite of the One Law that is the best purpose of all sentient life.  For there to be evil, there must be freedom.  And for there to be freedom, the potential for evil must exist.  It is the terrible gift of our Maker, and the one warning of Eden.  We are free to sink our teeth into that fruit, and to know evil and shame and selfishness.  

But what was this?  A young man murders his mother, and then murders twenty six others, including enough little ones to fill a big-church-pastor's time with children.  He had to be insane, we tell ourselves.  Had to be, because sanity does not do that.  It can't.  Was this just a human storm, a human earthquake, an act of nature playing out through the soulless body of a broken being?

And yet.  And yet he left the assault rifle in the car, knowing that it would let him get deeper into the building, preventing the potential for a lockdown.   And yet he left the assault rifle in the car in the full knowledge that you can do all manner of harm with pistols in an enclosed space.  You can butcher teachers and small children quite effectively with pistols.  There was hate, and there was intentionality.

I do not doubt that there was mental illness involved.  Some form of autism, they are saying now, although it is early and things are unclear and that is an amorphous diagnosis that can mean any one of ten thousand things.

But I have worked with the mentally ill, and they are human.  They are persons, as surely as I am a person.  I have known them, and cared for them, and they have been my friends.  While recognizing the clinical reality of mental illness, something deep in me recoils at the idea of declaring that some human beings are simply objects, as devoid of awareness as a rock or a cloud.  That way of thinking about humankind has sparked and flickered in our minds in this scientific age, and where it has taken hold, it has turned us into monsters.

And so I am left unsatisfied, in a place of shadow and fog.  As my mind seeks answers across the framework that seems to make sense of suffering, I cannot alight on that one definitive answer that reason seeks.  My seeking mind is as restless and weary as Noah's raven, riding the skies over a world-sea of churning chaos.

So many things are simply beyond us.  Lord, have mercy.

Friday, December 14, 2012

No Words

It's hard not to write about the events of today, particularly if you are the sort of soul that makes sense of things through writing.   But it's perhaps harder to write about that mass shooting, part of a seemingly endless cascade of gun violence in our culture.

What is there to say that has not been said?  Since Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and Aurora, since that classroom full of little Amish children, since...but there are too many, and lists bore us.    And those are just the outlier events, not the deaths by the ones and twos that are just part of the ubiquitous background hum of every day.  You only notice on the mornings your street is cordoned off, and you walk by a man scrubbing the blood of your child's classmate from the ground.

What remains to be spoken?  Words feel empty and inadequate, hollow things, just scribbling.

It feels so familiar, so unsurprising.  Yes, they were children, including apparently an entire class of kindergarteners, bright little lights extinguished so terribly soon.  My heart moves my memory to my own children's classes, filled with tiny faces.  It bends the imagination past any familiar place.  All gone.  How could they all be gone?  What an impossible thing.

But for all of our claiming that our hearts are broken today, I'm reasonably certain that the heart of this nation is not broken by this tragedy.  We will, as individuals and particularly as parents, weep and feel a sense of horror.  The anguish in the faces of parents is too real for us to miss.  Individually, we are not monsters.

But together?   There will be funerals, and there will be a week or maybe two of handwringing and debate.  And then it will again become clear.  We as a people do not care.  It does not matter to us, not really.  We will do nothing, and then we will forget.   We the people will be unmoved.

The calculus of our body politic has already settled on these recurring events as a necessary part of our life together.  We know what we'd need to do to change it.  It is before us.   It is not complicated.

But it is our preference not to act.  Now is not the time, we will say.  It's too complicated, we will say.

We are comfortable with this.  We are at ease.  We will weep in the now, shedding the tears of the moment.   But like the soul who weeps at that praise song on Sunday, and goes right back to their life unchanged on Monday, our tears will bring nothing new.

It is easy to feel helpless.  It is hard enough to know that no words can be said that will bring those children back.  But it is harder still to feel that no words can be said that will prevent this from occurring again.

Another thing best left to God, because all that I am is not enough for it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mortality, Mourning, and Social Media

Yesterday, my social media inputs were thrumming with the collective mourning of many of my Presbyterian colleagues.  Through Facebook and Twitter and blogging, we were remembering and celebrating the life of Cindy Bolbach, the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly.

Though I was not as close to her as many, I'd known Cindy, for, well, a while.   I remember her first from my home congregation, where she was a grown-up and I was still a scrawny little Presbypup.   Then, I mostly remember her being impossibly tall and imposing, and clearly a Person of Consequence, which remained true even when I'd grown up a bit.  When I was preparing to serve my first congregation as a pastor, Cindy called me on behalf of Presbytery to make sure I knew what exactly I was getting in for.   I didn't, of course, as much as I thought I did.  That you understand you're about to run a class five rapid in an open canoe with a paddle made of jello does not mean you know yet what it's like to actually have that experience.   But I did know that I was called to be there despite its hardness, and Cindy had the spirit to receive that.  So we had a pleasant conversation or two, and a laugh or three, and the brightness of her mind and laugh still linger.  She was, as Willy Wonka might put it, a good egg.  She'll be missed.

Musing over her passing over and how it has echoed and sounded across the virtual reality I inhabit, I also found myself marking the reality of death and suffering as it expresses itself through this peculiar new form of human communication.   Because as we share our lives through this substrate, that goes further than puppies and memes and pictures of dinner.  Life includes illness, and loss, and tragedy.  Inevitably, for we are all mortal, it will include death.

As the social media generation ages, this reality will only deepen.

For some, the loss and brokenness and tragedies of life will manifest themselves as withdrawal.  Feeds will go silent.  Statuses will go un-updated, silenced by death or sorrow or shame.   For others, this media will allow for openness and sharing of suffering.  It will...and does...permit us to cry out into our communities of care, and to know we are heard.

Already, this is so.  It's why pastors now must have a presence in social media.  It's a vital way of hearing our communities, both those that are physical and those that are virtual.  Already, I attend carefully, because those wrenching moments surface often on Facebook.  A father, suddenly in a coma and then just as suddenly passed.  A silence, as depression claims the vibrancy of a soul.

What will be interesting...odd, perhaps, for human when the wave of us who are fifty and fortyish become sixty and seventyish.   In that place of life, passing grows more commonplace.  But for this generation, social media is assumed, an integral part of how we interact.

"So many of my friends are passing," say those I know who are older.  Will that feel different, I wonder, when it is not just a circle of intimates?  Will it feel different when it is the echoes of five hundred acquaintances, as the electronically mediated network of souls that are the fabric of all of your relational knowing wanes into nonbeing, letting the breath return to the God that made it?

We'll just have to see.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Prayer and Helplessness

He arrived on my doorstep yesterday, back from his journeying, haggard and with eyes overbright with his illness.

I kept the dog back, and stepped outside to speak with him.  He's a neighbor, and a neighbor in need, but his challenges are beyond me.  Where I can, I help him, driving him to the store or doing odd tasks around the house.  If I don't have the time or I am too depleted to focus on his need, I tell him.  Boundaries are there for a reason.

But mostly I just listen whenever I have time to listen, because he needs someone to listen.  We all do.

In his hand was a paper, a hastily drafted legal document that reflected his pursuit of a lawyer he is convinced is responsible for all of his woes.  I reviewed it.  It was neat, and tidy, and completely insane, a systematic recounting of the demons that have come to inhabit his mind.  

Are you sure you can file this, I asked?  He was sure he could.  But I gently demurred when asked for a ride to the courthouse, and then suggested, again gently, that perhaps the law was not a fruitful place for him to find succor.  I'm not sure he heard me.  In fact, I know he did not.

But he did hear my sympathy at his dental woes, and seemed genuinely surprised at the sympathy.  As we talked, I offered a reminder that perhaps there were folks who could help him in ways that might get more deeply at what actually ails him.

I sent him on his way, and promised to look for help that he might be willing to accept.  A tricky wicket, mental illness is.  So beyond us.   It is easy to feel helpless in the face of it.

And so I pray for him, for calmness for his agitated mind.  Why?  In praying, I remind myself to act as the agent of my Lord's grace.  What use is prayer, if it does not change and guide us in those places where we know we are out of our depth?

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Salvation Army, Discrimination, and Reality

Last week, while shopping in Harris Teeter, I was wandering down the cereal aisle when I came across a small pile of cash lying on the floor.  It was a ten-spot and four ones, not exactly a found fortune but still real money.  I looked around.  There was no-one nearby.  It had probably just fallen out of a pocket, Lord knows how long ago.

So I picked it up, and set it aside from the rest of my cash.  Yeah, things have turned a little harder for my family financially over the last week, but I wasn't going to spend that found money.

A day later, while in another shopping center, I heard the bright ding-a-dinging.   I walked over to the elderly Korean gentleman ringing his bell by the red kettle, and put the fourteen bucks in.

I have a significant soft spot for the Salvation Army.

Years ago, I'd found myself in something of a hard place.  I was just out of college with a freshly minted bachelor's degree.  I was living in Williamsburg, VA with my fiance, and I was completely unable to find work.   We were deep in the thickets of the Reagan recession, as the crash following the debt-driven sugar high of 1980s greed and voodoo economics came back to unfairly haunt George Bush Senior.

For months, I diligently applied for every last thing I could find.  I even stopped mentioning that I had a degree, as the gas stations and convenience stores for which I was trying to night-clerk viewed that as a liability.   Nothing, for months and months.  My meager savings were running perilously low.

And then the Salvation Army hired me.  It was forty hours a week, driving a van to distribute bell-ringers throughout the Williamsburg area.  I was also the errand boy, running to and from the bank with money collected and doing odd jobs as needed.  It was minimum wage with no benefits, but it was honest work, and it paid my share of the three-hundred-and-forty bucks rent for the tiny townhouse we inhabited.  

As I worked with the Salvationists, I really came to appreciate the ethos of that evangelical community. The local Major was a cheery soul, always nattily dressed and always very busy, but he lived an astoundingly humble life on a wage not much different from what I was being paid.  In later years, as I worked in the field of nonprofit research, I'd discover that the payscales in the Salvation Army are amazingly low.  With the executives in other large nonprofit organizations being paid in the high hundreds of thousands of dollars, the head of the Salvation Army...a three billion dollar a year organization...makes only a little more than a cashier at Costco.  For all of its organization and diligence, its ethos is far more like a monastic order than a business.

I was so taken with the depth and authenticity of the Salvationist commitment to service that I briefly looked into joining it...and soon realized I couldn't.  I was a liberal, progressive young Christian-ish person, and I was engaged to marry a Jew.   That wasn't going to fly.  I just couldn't be part of that movement and be in an interfaith marriage.  Ah well.  So it goes.

Among leftist folk, there's recently been a thread of activist-driven resistance to giving to the Salvation Army.  They don't accept gays among their number, and that makes them hateful discriminatory bigots who shouldn't be supported.   I don't share that theological perspective, which is why I'm not a part of the Salvation Army.  But I also know that it in no way informs how the Salvationists treat anyone.  Those who imply that giving to the Salvation Army somehow is encouraging injustice are not meaningfully representing reality.  Reality is considerably more nuanced than the binary thinking of radicals.

Salvationist theology and their practice of it requires relentless commitment to the direct care of those in need.  Period.

I've seen, first hand, the good that the Salvation Army does in the world.  Here was the kind of conservative evangelical church that..while I worked for them.. would regularly send me to pick up a gay man living with both AIDS and poverty.  They'd pay for me to drive him to the clinic for treatment, and were helping pick up the tab for that treatment.  They couldn't have cared less about his orientation.  They knew he was sick, and poor, and that he needed care.  So they provided it.

Sure, I couldn't be part of the Army.  But neither could I be Amish, my beard notwithstanding.  That does not mean I can't appreciate the real Gospel good they do in the world.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Hell Hath No Fury

It's been coming for a while.

Following a recent leadership transition at the tippy-top of my wife's organization, things started shifting in ways that augured poorly.   Despite an amazing work ethic, a deep knowledge of her field, and a track record of turning around a struggling area of her organization, the missus found herself today on the wrong side of a restructuring.

A new CEO brought in a bevy of highly paid restructuring consultants, with the idea of totally changing the entire business model of the organization.  Everything about the organization, or so this new CEO overtly told everyone on staff, has sucked.  I'm going to save it by being the powerful transformative leader you poor pathetic sods have needed all along.

Lord knows that's not ever a good sign.  In congregational leadership literature, that's an almost guaranteed mark of a pastor who's going to leave wreck and ruin in their wake, but the corporate world hasn't clued in to that reality yet.  Nor have many churches, not to mention the board of one particular nonprofit membership organization.

So my wife's reward for years of dedication, long work hours and demonstrated excellence in delivering the core competency of the organization?  A pre-holiday pink slip, one of dozens done today in a typically corporate style, with the CEO hiding away while their flunkies do the firing.  

That, of course, leaves our household with a nontrivial 75% drop in income.  Not being fools, we've prepared for this possibility, and have a healthy war chest stashed away.   And my wife is a remarkably competent and capable human being, who will find an organization that appreciates that.  Still, it stings, and the anxiety of not knowing where things will head is deep, despite the kind whisper of my Master's voice in my ear.

It also leaves me pondering the spiritual challenge of the day: forgiveness.  Having a heart of forgiveness towards those who have harmed you is absolutely central to the Christian life, and it's something I find I can practice without too much strain.   If you strike me, turning the other cheek is easy.  It is an act that defies both your anger and my own, and that refuses to let brokenness define being.

What I have found considerably harder is finding that heart of Gospel forgiveness for those who have harmed others, particularly those I love.   When someone harms my wife, or my child, I find forgiveness...harder.  Having watched the tears and the dismay of the last few months, my reaction is more primal, more feral.  Mess with my family?  I want your bloody head on the end of a pike.   I want the sky above your driveway to fill with eagles, which descend upon you in a shrieking cloud with razor sharp talons extended.  I want there to be a thunderclap, and a smoking pair of shoes where once you stood.  I don't feel merciful.  I feel as forgiving as a slighted Roma matriarch.  Even the fires of hell seem somehow inadequately hot.

Which is why it is good I am not God.

I remind myself, of course, to think systemically, and to understand the complex underlying dynamics that go into every human action.  I remind myself of the importance of looking towards the future in hope, and letting go of the things that cannot be changed.

And I remind myself that, not being God, I am not the one who is the measure of justice.  It is not for me to understand the balance.  That is best left to the Maker of things, whose capacity for both grace and justice...thankfully...exceed my own.

My Own Private Highway

Last night, following a most excellent presentation of her new book by the former pastor of my church, I prepared to motor homeward.  As I geared up for the long ride from Poolesville to Annandale, it was cold but manageable.  The sky was clear, the air bright and tart with the cold of a December night.

It was nothing my gear couldn't handle.  My little yellow VStrom is all farkled up for winter riding, and pumps sweet warm lightning through the handgrips, sending more coursing up a cable to feed my heated suit.  Warm torso and warm hands make for a warm and happy me.   And so, the bike murmuring contentedly to itself, I motored deer-cautious over the dark country roads of Western Upper Montgomery.   It was after nine-ish, and most of the first part of my night-commute is all high-beam riding, that sweet little blue "yer-in-the-country" light glowing in the instrument cluster, the twin-beam blaze banishing the night before me.  There were few souls on the road.

But the latter part of my commute has changed in the last year.   That part that is Beltway suddenly includes the option of using the High Occupancy Toll lanes, four lanes of pay road that have been added on to the asphalt circlet that crowns and bounds our national capital.

These are the dreaded Lexus lanes, so named because their cost varies depending on traffic conditions.  Want to drive them during rush hour?  It'll cost you a Decaf Grande Mocha Caramel Latte and a banana nut muffin, or the cash equivalent thereof.  That adds up, in ways that are likely to dissuade the hoi polloi from regularly using all that new asphalt.

At night, though, the lanes are utterly empty, because they're still charging a nominal fee.  Why pay eighty-five cents for a toll lane, when the regular lanes are clear and flowing smoothly?

There's no reason.  Paying for what you can get for free?  Who wants to do that?  So the lanes sit empty, as uselessly devoid of traffic as a Louis Vuitton boutique in the slums of Bangalore.

I, however, was riding a motorcycle.  And motorcycles use the HOT express lanes for free, 24/7, with no Smartpass transponder required.

So for the last stretch of my commute, across one of the busiest sections of road in the United States of America, I was the only person using an entire highway.

There was traffic on the other side of the divider, sure.  But the HOT lanes were mine alone.  For miles and miles, there no-one else using them.   They were emptier than the country roads on the front end of my commute.

Such a peculiarly profligate culture we live in.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Previous Tenants

The old church "manse" where my office can be found is a rickety, porous structure.  Unlike the carefully custom-designed bewindowed ministerial study at my last congregation, my nicely redone current office is the most well-maintained room in a very,"historic" structure.

In the winter, the building feels every one of its one hundred and eighty five years, with white siding and a metal roof that has seen better days and rooms that get real cold real quick if those baseboard heaters aren't clacking and humming away.  That's history, real history.

Back during the Civil War, or rather, what in these here parts would have been called the War of Northern Aggression, the manse was used as an emergency hospital for troops wounded during the nearby Battle of Ball's Bluff.

Those old floorboards really were once stained with the blood of the dying, which is one of the many reasons some church folk are reluctant to come into the manse after dark.  There are some odd creaks and thumps here on occasion, or so the stories go.

But the suffering of those who likely died in this house was not the only difficult memory that may hang around here.   At the back of the house, there's a kitchen, now used as a storage room.  In the kitchen, there are stairs that lead up to a small room with two small windows.  Though next to the house, the room can only be accessed from the kitchen.  It feels like a secret room, and it's typically kept locked up to keep kids in the church from...well...doing what kids do.

As church lore would have it, that room was the living quarters for the slaves owned by the family that lived in the manse.  Poolesville was a strongly Southern-sympathizing town back then, one of the reasons why there were 11,000 troops stationed here during the War.  It would make sense that there might have been slaves in this house, and it adds a peculiar resonance to the building.

The room itself?  It's a little space, maybe twelve by twelve, with sloping ceilings, and I have on occasion gone up into that room to pray and meditate.  What would it have been like to live there, I've wondered.  In my mind's eye, I visualized a woman living alone in that room, separated from the family for whom she would have been property.  What might she have thought or prayed in the dark of that small room?  I've sat in silence, and shared the space with the possibility of that soul's existence.

After a recent conversation with one of the elders of my church about that possible history, that elder showed up having done a bit of research.  The name of the owner had been found, and cross-referencing that with other historical records, it appeared that yes, that family did own slaves.  In 1840, the Census revealed one slave woman in the household, aged between 24 and 35.

But she wasn't alone.  As of the 1840 Census, also in the household were three slave children, two girls and a boy, all under the age of ten.  All of them would have been crammed into that one twelve by twelve room, which now suddenly seems a whole bunch smaller.

Were they a mother and her children?  It seems likely.  What was the fate of the father?  What were their names?   It's not clear.

But it is worth remembering that they were here, sharing this very same space.   They weren't just abstractions.  They were people, no matter what the misbegotten laws of the time may have assumed.  It's important not to forget that they lived, and that they were human beings as worthy of the love of the Creator as any of us.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Occupy Memories

Yesterday morning, we got up bright and early, put on some warmish clothes, and drove into downtown DC.   We found ourselves a parking spot, and wandered down to Freedom Plaza, where hundreds of others were starting to gather.

Just like last year, we were going to participate in a Thanksgiving morning 5K fundraiser for So Others Might Eat.   My wife and the big guy were going to run it, or rather, she was going to run it, and he was going to run as long as he felt able.  The little guy and I would amble along behind, keeping pace with the strollers and the dog walkers and folks like the two soldiers who'd decided this year to do the 5K in their EOD suits.

Let's just say I was glad to discover they were there for pleasure, and not on business.

As we approached Freedom Plaza, we chatted about the cinnamon and sugar bagels that awaited, courtesy of Panera.

And both of my guys asked me the same question:  "Remember last year, when the Occupy folks were here?  Whatever happened with that?"

Last Thanksgiving, there'd been an encampment at the Plaza, right there in visual range of the White House at the heart of the nation's capital.  It wasn't huge, but it was there, and it had...ever so briefly...the attention of a nation.

But now?  Now the square was filled with human beings.  It would, by the start of the race, be teeming with over ten thousand souls, exponentially more than ever camped out as part of that movement.   None of them were Occupy folks.   Why?

There were a range of reasons, which I talked about with my boys.   None of those reasons revolved around a lack of sympathy for what could have been Occupy's goals.  When the local radio DJ who'd been brought in from a sponsoring radio station cracked a joke about Occupy not being there and how much better the square smelled this year, the crowd responded with crickets.  It was awkward, and he knew it, and he didn't go there again.

Occupy failed...and it did fail...first and foremost because it did not speak the language of the people.  The energy was there, the discontent with power and the critical imbalances woven into our culture.  The potential was there.  But if all you can speak is the awkward language of leftism, you're simply not going to connect.

There were other reasons, of course.  The narrowing of the movement into the tedious joyless formality of committee collectivism didn't help.  That devoured the energy of the movement and severed the connection to a generally sympathetic population.  The swirling aimlessness didn't help, either.  This was a community that struggled to respond effectively even to the offer of a free Thanksgiving meal.

And so this year, the 5K was 30% larger, and Occupy was just an echo.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Uh Oh

This last Sunday, it was time for a baptism.

One never knows exactly how any baptism is going to go, particularly if you're not dealing with adults. Little ones aren't aware of exactly what it is they're committing to when they come forward and are embraced by the sacrament...but then again, I'm not sure any of us grownup human beings quite fully grasp it, either.

The wee one in question Sunday was not an infant, but a happily squiggly toddler, for whom the entire world is still something to animatedly explore.   Which, of course, she did, noodling her way around her parents and attempting to sneak up into the pulpit on at least three occasions.  A fine place for a little girl to learn to feel comfortable, think I.

When the time came for me to place the water on her, she was momentarily still, comfortably ensconced in her father's arms.  I showed her the water in the silver chalice, and plashed my hand in it, so she could see just what it was.  She looked at it intently.

And then, with the first words of institution, I took a cupped handful of water and poured it gently over her head.

To which she said, matter-of-factly, "Uh oh."

I took another cupped hand filled with water, and did it again, speaking the next words.  "Uh oh," she said again.

And I thought, "Yup, that's about right."

If even half the adults who get baptized had any idea of what that action implied, I think we'd hear those words a whole bunch more often.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Your Neighbor's Flag

On late Tuesday afternoon after the outskirts of Sandy dealt a glancing blow to the Washington area, the power was still out.   We'd get it back soon, and the damage to our little corner of the DC 'burbs was modest compared to the hardship further north, but there was still damage.

That evening, as night was still falling, I walked to the bottom of our street.  I knew that a small army of contractors and Dominion power folks had gathered there, ready to work the night through if necessary to clear a huge fallen tree from the road and to rebuild several hundred yards of power line.   I wanted to check it out, and to see what progress was being made, and to kibbitz with neighbors.

Moving through the burgeoning dusk, I surveyed what the superstorm had done.

Here and there, large branches sat in yards.  A small tree lay wanly on its side.   The drone of generators still hung in the air, growing louder around every tenth house.

As I reached the end of our street, I saw a snapped flagpole in the front yard of a split-level.  The wind had torn and tugged and pulled at the flag all night, and that pole had failed.   Old Glory itself had fallen into the rose bushes by the side of the house, where it lay a twisted mess.

Also in front of the house, which sat quiet and dark, was a sign for a political candidate.  It was slightly askew from the storm's battering.  It was also not for the same candidate as the ones that had been in my front yard up until I moved them in anticipation of the storm.

I contemplated the scene for a moment, and then, overcoming my "don't mess with other people's stuff" programming, moved onto my neighbor's lawn.   There was clearly no-one home, as many folks without generators or functioning fireplaces had grown weary of the cold and gone to warmer and more illuminated places.

The pole had failed structurally, the light-grade aluminum still holding in one spot, but crumpled in on itself.   It was irreparable.  I fiddled with it a bit, seeing if perhaps I could get it to stand, but it was done.   The flag itself was tangled up mightily in one of the rose bushes, held fast and pierced through with thorns in a dozen places, as securely trapped as if it had been tacked to a cork board.

I took a few minutes to gently extricate it, carefully removing it from each of the thorns so as not to damage the faded fabric.  Then I propped the pole carefully and securely against the side of the house, making sure the flag was not touching the ground.

Seemed like the right thing to do.  There's no political exemption clause in the Law of Liberty, after all.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

First World Problems

This morning, I woke to the chirping of my phone alarm at 5:40 am.

The house was cold and dark, illuminated only by a single 3 watt bulb slowly draining a large 12 volt battery.   I popped out of bed, put on shoes and a vest, and shuffled through the house, working my way around the extension cords.  I kicked on the compact florescent lamp connected to the battery, and the center of the house filled with warm light.

Then, into the kitchen.  Checking the interior temperature, I saw that it was 55 degrees in the house, and thirty nine degrees outside.  Not bad.

Then it was out the side door and around to the front of the house.  There, I fired up our little Honda generator.  Choke out.  Throttle control off.  Ignition on.  It started quickly and then settled into an easy thrumming idle.  Light poured out of the kitchen bay window beside me.

I went back into the house, and plugged an electric spaceheater into the high-capacity cord.  Warm air began filling my older son's room.  Time to get up, I said, turning on the battery-powered lamp by his bedside.

Then it was back to the kitchen.  I loaded wood into the fireplace, and got a nice little fire going.

The big guy slouched sleepily into the fire-warmed kitchen, and got himself some breakfast.  With him out of his room, I went and powered down the spaceheater.   This freed up enough wattage to run our insanely power-gluttonous coffeemaker for the few minutes it took to make the morning's go-juice.   Once done, I poured the steaming hot coffee into a thermos, turned off the coffeemaker, and got the heater going again so son number one could dress.

Then it was out back to grab more wood from the woodpile.   The big guy, dressed like Dr. Horrible and ready for school, loped out of the house at around six thirty.   I moved the spaceheater to the little guy's room, brought him the lantern, and coaxed him to wakefulness.  He stirred with his usual piteous moans.

"Still no power?" he queried.  "Nope," said I, and then I went back to the kitchen to tend the fire and nurse my coffee.

Then there was a fluttering, a clicking, and a humming, and the power grid for our neighborhood came back online after thirty-six hours.  The house filled with light.  The furnace kicked in.  The Wifi poured data invisibly into the ether.

Had it been rough?  Hardly.

For those thirty six hours, we'd lived as if we were rich in the third world.

We had power as we needed.  We had refrigeration, and lights, and heat.  We had television, transportation, and phones, and clean running water.  Relative to most of humanity, we were still living like kings.

It's best not to forget that.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Theology of Drones

So a friend posed a question on FB recently.

The question had to do with the relationship between American drone strikes and Just War theory.   As a means of projecting national power, drone war-machines are going to increasingly become our weapon of choice.   From their genesis, the use of drones seems to track along the same tech-development tree as aircraft.  Initially, both technologies were used only for reconnaissance, as a way to put eyes-in-the-sky risk free.  There was little functional difference between those first slow-moving prop-driven drones and the slow moving recon planes of the first days of the first World War.

But just as aircraft quickly evolved, so too have our drones.  They can now take out folks--usually in the form of a Hellfire missile or other precision ordnance--without putting the controller in harms way.  Drone tech will likely go even further, moving towards both semi-autonomous craft and becoming much more lethal, with the potential for that lethality to be projected into combat with other military forces.  A drone airframe, for instance, could be built without the need to worry about the limitations of the human body.  The tech for impossibly maneuverable airframes is there, and has been there for decades.  A drone-variant X-29 could easily pull gees that would kill a human pilot.   We're going to head that way.  It is inevitable.

As we leap forward technologically, Christian ethics struggle to keep up.  Where do drones fit in the whole WWJD thing?   Clearly, it's an area in which both our current Christian POTUS and the Mormon GOP challenger find concurrence.   They're fine with the use of drones.  They permit targeted strikes, relatively little collateral damage, and no risk to personnel.   It is a technology that allows for radically asymmetric conflict, in which one side can project power and another cannot.   In that sense, it is like iron in the bronze age, or the chariot, or the longbow at Agincourt.  If your task as Head of State is to project power, well, drones are just power.   Plain and simple.

From a Just War perspective, drones in combat...well...they're just a particularly effective weapon.  Like, say, Joint Direct Attack Munitions or cruise missiles.   The asymmetric use of drones in conflict would not, in and of itself, represent a violation of Just War theory.

Problem is, Just War theory cannot apply to our current use of drone strikes, because we are not at war in any traditional sense.  There is no declared war, no struggle for territory, and no nation-state to serve as a direct adversary.

The pursuit of peace as a primary aim of Just War also does not apply.  The "enemy combatants" do not represent any state or jurisdiction with whom negotiations would be possible.  This means the goal of current drone strikes is not to force an opponent to parley for peace...because there is no authority that could speak on their behalf.

The focus of Just War on limiting warfare to combatants is also meaningless.  The blurring of the lines between civilians and combatants is so complete as to make the distinction irrelevant.

Does this mesh with the teachings of Jesus?  No, not really, not if we're honest with ourselves.  Christ has always stood in difficult tension with the power of the state.

But this also exists outside of Christian efforts historically to theologically justify combat and military operations.  What we are doing with our drones is not war.  It is simply the crudest form of law enforcement, the coercive suppression of a restive population.

Good thing that will never happen in America.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Reading the Quran: Fundamentalism

I am no fan of fundamentalism, in any of its shapes, forms, or iterations.   Within Christian faith, fundamentalism represents a fundamental and irredeemable betrayal of the intent of the Reformation.  Bible-worship is the Protestant idol, just as ecclesiastical authority became the Catholic idol.

So as I encounter the Quran, I've been struck by how equally damaging Islamic fundamentalism has been to the spiritual lives of Muslims.   The Quran contains much to commend it both ethically and spiritually, but I can't read it without realizing how deeply it was shaped by a very specific context.   It is a fiercely and resolutely Arab expression of engagement with the divine, drawing on the forms and expectations of a single cultural context.   It has one voice, and one theological perspective.

In that way, the Quran is radically different than the Bible.  The many books that comprise the Bible speak from an array of different perspectives, spanning thousands of years and speaking from a range of different cultural contexts.  There is harmony, but there is also tension and dissonance.  Reading the Bible requires discernment, because taken in and of itself and without the guidance of the Spirit, it does not always cohere.  

Fundamentalism within Christianity has always involved awkward and extrabiblical interpretive gyrations to reconcile those perspectives.  It is a clumsy, inherently bankrupt theological exercise.

But the Quran speaks with one voice, in one language, from one culture, at one time.   Absolutizing that perspective...not the higher order values, but the cultural framework into which those values were expressed...would be easier, because of the cultural univocality of the Quran.  It requires very little effort. 

That poses a challenge on several fronts for resisting Quranic fundamentalism.  If the Quran is understood to require a "good" culture to share the same expectations about gender and jurisprudence as existed in sixth century Arabia, it cannot be reconciled with modernity.   To do this requires some portions of Quran to be understood as either metaphoric or leavened by context.

If, for example, we read the Quranic requirement to cut off the hands of thieves as no longer literal, but as representing the need to prevent the thief from stealing again, we're good.   If it's literal?  Then the resultant culture is not compatible with the ethos of the Western world...or of most democratic republics.

This requires a faith to say not just that a practice is no longer acceptable, but that it was not acceptable at the time, and to be able to find grounds for resisting an explicit statement in an ancient text.  Christians and Jews, for instance, would not consider taking a captive woman from a defeated nation as a concubine.  There may be rules to that effect in Torah, but our understanding of God has evolved past that point.  We no longer feel obliged to even defend that practice.  Similarly, though there are rules and regs for slavery in the Bible, it is not compatible with the essence of our faith.

Then there's the "inerrancy" issue.  Where there are inaccuracies in, for instance, the misrepresentation of the Christian Trinity, or the repeated assertion that Jews consider Ezra (a scribe influential in the rebuilding of the temple after the return from diaspora) the son of God in the same way Christians consider Jesus the son of God...the challenge for Islam is how to approach those Quranic variances from reality.

Context helps, of course.  Pointing out that the Prophet may have been responding to the worship of Mary and not actual Christian orthodoxy might help.  The Ezra thing, though, seems so out of connection with the reality of every historically recorded form of Jewish practice that it requires some pretty intense parsing.  Jews are monotheists, radically and completely, and at no point ever in recorded history outside of the Quran has Ezra been considered the progeny of the divine.   The only valid interpretation is to say, well, no, this isn't an accurate portrayal of Judaism.  Or perhaps to say, well, honestly, we have no idea what this means.  Which is fine, because it would be true.  Like the close-but-not-quite timelines in the Gospel of Luke's historical background information, there's some ancient-world-fudge-factor in the Quran.

Fundamentalism deals poorly with this sort of thing.   But for progressive, open-minded Muslims, saying: "Yeah, we're not sure quite what was being gotten at here" or "You know, that's just from context" is entirely feasible.    The higher order virtues in Quran govern their lives, and they are happy to live within the bounds of the surrounding culture and a more progressive interpretation of Islam.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reading the Quran: Nonviolence

Given the popular view of Islam among many Americans, the idea of nonviolence as a Muslim virtue might seem something of a stretch.  Shaped by media inputs, our collective consciousness is filled with images of enraged mobs, Kalashnikovs, and smouldering ruins.

Read in snippets here and there, the underlying ethical paradigm of the Quran can also seem..err...a little on the truculent side.  There is much talk of war, and the repetition of metings-out of both physical and theological punishment for infractions can get a little overbearing.

A fair reading of the Quran, however, will discover that those bloodier/more vengeful bits are leavened by calls for hospitality, justice, and charity.  For those who embrace the principles of nonviolence, however, there's more to it than simply finding a balance between interests.

Nonviolence is not equitable.  It does not focus on finding the perfect balance between competing interests.  It is also not passive.  Passivity in the face of hatred, injustice, and oppression is not nonviolence.

It is vigorously, firmly, and directly restorative.  It is the pressing out of grace into the world.   Morally, it is rooted in the Golden Rule, but it goes further.   It does not fold up in the face of abuse, but positively affirms our radical connectedness to one another, and defies brokenness with active steps towards healing.

And in reading the Quran itself, the Golden Rule is never directly articulated.   It can be inferred from certain commands to be forgiving, and to be equitable, but an explicit statement of compassion as the highest governing principle of sentient beings is just not there.

That is not true for Islam as a whole.  The Hadiths...the semi-canonical stories of the Prophet Muhammed's life...have direct and explicit reference to that highest ethic.  But again, up until my reading of the Quran, I have not been able to find anything  in the most authoritative text of Islam.

This has been a source of some spiritual challenge for me as I've explored Islam.  The ethos of radical, transforming love of both neighbor and enemy is absolutely central to Christian understandings of what is Good with a capital Gee, and that in my prior explorations I've found only tangential reference has been...well...difficult.

Because if it is not there, the Ruh is not there.  That Love is the evidence of God's presence.

But in this reading, I encountered a little story about violence that seemed...for a bright moment or capture the essence of nonviolence.   The Prophet Muhammed was fond of retelling the ancient stories of Torah.   It's a regular staple of the suras.

And in Al Mai'dah 27-32, there is a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, that most primal act of human violence.  It's not exactly the version of the story that we hear in Torah...but the Quranic retellings almost never are.

What was most interesting about this retelling was that it included the response of Abel to Cain's raging, murderous intent.  Abel knows his life is in jeopardy, but affirmatively refuses to respond violently to Cain.  He tells Cain that he will not meet violence with violence, instead affirming that real justice lies with God, whose law and power makes them as one.   In harming me, you harm yourself and your connection to your Creator, says the Quranic Abel.  He stands firm in this, even to the point of death.

Honestly, I wish it had left off there, because in that story lies the essence of nonviolence.

But the Quran goes on, and as it does so, it subverts the story with an explication of how to deal with those who war against the faith (Al Mai'dah 33).  This involves killing, crucifying, and maiming...or if you're lucky, being driven from the land.   It's not the best transition.

This illuminates the primal and essential challenge for approaching and interpreting Quran:  the issue of fundamentalism.   And it is to this that I will turn in my next post.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ads, Jihads, and Savages

So over the last week or two, controversial ads have gone up in DC area metro stations.   They are relatively simple, and with a simple message.   Produced by a small collection of right-wing organizations, they it yourself.

It's one of those peculiar but necessary things in our culture, this ability to speak things that might offend.  In this case, what is being said... clumsily... is that in the tension between Israel and the Muslim world, Israel is civilized and Islam is savage.

My own preference, quite frankly, lies with Israel.  I disagree with many of Israel's policies, and think that Likud's tendency towards nationalistic belligerence coupled with the repressive influence of the growing ultraorthodox population are problematic.   On the other hand, I could live there and say that.  I could write this without fearing that I might be imprisoned.  Israel is still free, for the time being, and that's worth something.

I could not say the same if I lived in Egypt now, or in Iran, or in Saudi Arabia.  In those places, practicing my faith would be problematic, and the safety of my children and my family would be in question.

But that this is true does not mean that I embrace either the intent or the spirit of this campaign.  It's not just unnecessarily truculent and unconstructive.  It''s kind of stupid.   And I mean that in the "not very intelligent" sense of the word.

The basic underlying assumption about civilizations and savages is off, for one thing.   Savages exist in a primal state, disordered and tribal and local.   Even at its worst, that does not describe jihad.  When jihad is presented as theological casus belli, it isn't just random acts of terror conducted by free-ranging feral madmen.  The Taliban's benighted and degraded form of Islam isn't the primary threat to Israel.

Relative to the state of Israel, jihad at worst describes a worldview forwarded by nation states who are using ultraconservative Islam as justification for their own power.  These are civilizations.  Iran, for instance, cannot be described as "savage," not in any meaningful sense.  Oppressive?  Sure.  Unpleasant?  Without question.   But that is not because it lacks for civil order and structure.  Savages generally don't have centrifuges.  I listen to Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, and I do not hear a savage.  I hear an intelligent, thoughtful, and remarkably dangerous man.

The ad is also stupid because it oversimplifies jihad, ceding the term to those who have turned it to the purposes of oppression and violence.  This foolishly broadens the terms of the conflict, which is not between Israel and Islam.   As a faith, Islam can coexist with Judaism.  Having spent much of the last month immersed in the Quran, I find myself convinced of this.

But is most stupid because the quote is an Ayn Rand quote, and she was not someone who had anything good to say about civilization.

The ad itself includes a link to Atlas Shrugged Dot Com, which leads me to think that perhaps it's part of a viral metacampaign to get people to see the honkingly horrible sequel to that wretchedly awful first movie.   When you're running a perfect zero on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, you have to pull out all the stops, I guess.

The Ayn Rand connection here is perhaps the most astoundingly ironic thing about this ad.  Why?  Civilization is a social phenomenon.  "Civilized men" are human beings who exist in society with one another, who share a set of values that bind them together as a people.  They freely cede some of their power to one another, so that all might live together.  That is the essence of civilization.

Ayn Rand's philosophy is radically antisocial, a cheap and easy nihilism in which the connections between human beings are functionally nonexistent.   The "heroes" in her novels are bright and feral creatures, apex predators that live by the ferocity of their will to power.  Randian Objectivism is relentlessly Darwinist, red in tooth and claw, with the strong ruling by their strength, and the weak...well... they don't matter.

Savage, in other words.

Reading the Quran: War, Violence, and Jihad

Talking about an encounter with the Quran without talking about violence and jihad would be an act of intellectual and spiritual cowardice.  Tempting, mind you, as the easy way out is always tempting.  Just don't talk about it, whispers the voice of weakness.

But that wouldn't describe the encounter, and mincing words does no-one any favors.

Reading through the Quran, it is impossible to miss the explicit martial language used to describe both the defense of the faith and the spread of the faith.   It was created in the context of conflict, and by conflict I do not mean the dynamic tension between ideas and concepts.   War is a part of its ethic and worldview, and the call to warfare...again, not spiritual or metaphorical, but as clear as the moon in the sky on a bright cold morning.

Like the Judges in pre-Davidic Judaism, the Prophet actually took forces into battle.  The Quran describes several clashes, including the Battle of Badr (Al-i-Imran 123-125) and the Battle of Uhud (Al-i-Imran 152).  These were not large scale conflicts by the standards of the ancient world, but involved Muslim forces that the case of Badr...fewer in number than the average Presbyterian congregation.   We're not talking a megachurch battle here.

But it is war nonetheless, albeit on a tribal scale.

An entire sura is dedicated to providing instruction for the spoils of war (Al-Anfal).  Again, this was not  initially intended as metaphor.  It assumes conflict with actual physical opponents who no longer need their stuff, because you've killed them.

From this foundation of expansion and conflict, the Quran is considerably more expressive of non-spiritual, non-symbolic violence than the Gospels.   Conflict with unbelievers is repeatedly and consistently articulated in terms that seem to encourage some pretty unpleasant stuff.

It goes beyond Al-Baraqah 191 and 217, which suggest...depending on the translation...that it is better to kill someone who opposes Islam than to permit discord.   Violence in defense of the faith seems presented consistently as a virtue, particularly in opposing unbelievers/backsliders (An Nisa 89).  Although killing other believers intentionally is forbidden, that's an easy one to get around.  (An Nisa 92) It's not a huge conceptual leap from disagreeing with someone to deciding that the source of that disagreement lies in their obvious departure from the One True Faith, in which case, well, there you go.   As a theme, it's consistent and sustained.

And yet this is hardly missing from the narratives of the Bible, either.  The stories of the Exodus and the tales of conflict in the Deuteronomic History are pretty legendarily splattery, filled with plenty of the old ultraviolence.  Much of that is given divine sanction or support by the authors of the narratives.  The Gospels have references to violence as well, although it tends to be clearly metaphoric.   The embrace of war or force of arms is explicitly and consistently rejected, and replaced with a clear and radical ethic of nonviolence.  The Epistles are that way as well, with even the legendarily unpleasant martial imagery of John of Patmos clearly extant in the heavenly/eschatological realms.

From that foundation, early Christianity was almost entirely pacifistic even in the face of violence, to the immense frustration of Roman critics like Marcus Aurelius, who viewed it as weak and devoid of manly warrior virtue.   When St. Augustine wrote the City of God, which lays out the distinction between the Kingdom of God and human governments, it was at least in part intended as a response to those Roman traditionalists who blamed Christian faith for weakening the martial spirit of the Roman people.

Christianity did catch up in the violence department, of course, pretty much the moment Constantine misinterpreted his vision and drove Maximus and his army into the bloody Tiber.   Now THAT was a battle.  Whenever faith mingles with coercive social or economic power, bad things happen.  Empires are not so good at turning the other cheek.

So the question is: Is Islam inherently a violent faith?

If Islam is not just a faith but also a philosophy for governing a nation-state, then the answer must be yes.  Coercion is an inherent part of maintaining collective order.  Wherever there are laws that establish the parameters of what is and is not acceptable in a culture, the threat of coercion exists to insure compliance.  I say this not about Islam alone, because that is true for every faith, in every place and time.  

Christianity is the farthest thing from a violent faith, and it is also not a system of governance.  Understood correctly, there can never be a Christian nation.  But we're great at misunderstanding, so whenever the sword has stood behind my faith to enforce conversion and compliance, plenty of blood has been spilled in the name of Jesus.  When jihad is understood as the war to insure not internal spiritual integrity but external material control over land, property, and the behavior of others, then bad [stuff] will happen.

For Islamic fundamentalism, the answer is also yes.  Reading the Quran through the lenses of a rigid, ultraconservative literalism would provide plenty of grounds for violence, oppression, and coercion, just as it has in Christianity.  If there are no texts in the Quran whose authority is mediated by/interpreted through higher order values, then violence will be the result.

But for Islam inherently?  The answer is no, from both my readings of the Quran and my experience of Muslims more broadly.   If a Muslim is guided in their reading of Quran by the Spirit, and not by the desire for material power or control over others, I am convinced that they will be guided to interpret it in a way that is conducive to both peaceful coexistence and nonviolence.  Understood in historical context and interpreted through the lenses of every human being's inner struggle,  jihad can be a positive thing.

That is not, of course, what we see in much of the Arab world, which is why that word is now almost indelibly and perhaps irredeemably connected with violence in the minds of the West.  But that violence is a result of the use of the standards of the world as the framework from which a violent jihadi understands Quran.

From all of this, the question arises:  Is there any ground for nonviolence in the Quran?  And for that, another post.