Thursday, September 26, 2013

Values, Faith, and Political Engagement

Earlier this week, the two hopefuls in the Virginia Lieutenant Governor's race went at it in a debate and in the media, an exchange that has surfaced a peculiarity.

On the one hand, there was an Iraq veteran and pediatric surgeon.  On the other,  a firebrand activist and the pastor of a small unaffiliated congregation.  As someone interested in the tension between faith and politics, what was peculiar in the debate and in the public exchanges between the two candidates was their completely different take on the relationship between what we believe and our political positions.

The activist pastor recently and regularly preaches that he most evangelicals do...that Christianity is the only legitimate faith, the only way one can stand in right relationship to God.  That's a fairly standard interpretation of Christian faith, but it's one that was called into question at the debate and in public conversations.

The veteran/surgeon suggested that having a faith that automatically assumes that 1) all other faiths are inherently and completely false and 2) that anyone who does not hold that position within your own faith is not a real member of your faith...well, that might have some impact on how you approach the people you've been elected to govern.

In response to that concern came the response: well, this is just my private belief.   What right do you have to challenge what I believe if it has no impact on how I deal with people?  One defender of the activist candidate suggested that there's no connection between what one says in a "Biblical sermon" and political speech.  The candidate himself quoted from the Virginia constitution, which explicitly protects religious speech.

On the one hand, I concur with aspects of that response.  Overtly political discourse has no place in the pulpit.  The task of a pastor is to teach the Gospel, not to whup folks upside the head with their political agenda.  When we allow partisanship to become our priority, churches become little more than extensions of a party.  That stifles both the Spirit and our capacity to stand in prophetic resistance to the idolatries of ideologies.  Including our own, as that pesky, pesky Jesus tends to do.

It is also true, and must necessarily be true, that individuals should be free to both express their faith and fully participate in the civic life of the state.

But on the other hand, to imagine that faith has no political implications is to misunderstand faith.

What we believe does impact who we are.  Faith, rightly understood, is the thing that most radically defines us.  It is our purpose, the thing which governs and directs all other aspects of our existence.  If it is real, faith has a direct impact on both our personal life and our civic engagement.

As such, what you profess to believe does have a direct impact on how you should be viewed as both a human being and a citizen.  It is the content of your character.  It is the expression of your values.

It strikes me as a peculiar dissonance to argue otherwise.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Blood and Candy

It was the strangest little fragment of information, lost in the thicket of coverage of the horrific shootings at the Kenya Mall.

The al-Shabaab attackers had herded a group of women and children into a room at gunpoint.  They were held there for a while, and then released.  When they were let go, the gunmen made a gesture:  they handed candy to the children.  Look!  We are your friends!  We're not so bad!  We're giving you candy!  Yum, delicious candy from your friends who really are very nice and are not going to kill you right now the way you thought they might!

All of those children had just watched as an outing had turned into a horrific, traumatic bloodbath.  They may have seen adults, adults they knew, shot and killed.  They'd been forced into a room by the gun wielding men who were responsible for instigating that terror.

And candy makes that better?  In the minds of the assailants, clearly it did.  "We are good and noble, the defenders of a great and terrible truth.  Yes, we must inflict pain, but that is only because we must.  We will hand out candy so that all will know that we are really the good guys."

That level of disconnect from what is real, from the actuality of what is being done, it can only be described as madness.  Human beings are horribly gifted at that, at becoming so lost in the thickets of their own patterns of thinking that they can no longer stand in meaningful encounter with the real.

From that place, steeped in the idolatry of our thoughts and imaginings, we most easily inflict harm on other beings.

It is not only Somali terrorists who do this.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The NRA and a Shooting Close to Home

My earliest memories are of Nairobi.   From the age of two until my family returned stateside right before I went into first grade, Kenya was my home.  My younger brother was born there.

So when I hear of a mass slaughter in Nairobi, as members of al-Shabaab gunned down nearly seventy souls in a downtown mall, it doesn't feel like one of those easily forgettable things in a far-off nowhere.  It's the place where I was a little child, the stuff of memory, part of myself.  It was home.

As I read through the stories of this event, in all of its horror in a place that was at the heart of my childhood, my mind plays out to a related thing.

For the past decade, the United Nations has been trying to stop the flow of weapons into places like Somalia and Afghanistan.  The guns and explosives that have poured into the hands of folks like Al-Shabaab and the Taliban have taken a tremendous toll, allowing them to terrorize civilians, attack peacekeeping forces, the case of the Taliban and al-Qaeda...kill American soldiers.

Terrorist organizations will happily steal and extort to get the money they need to pay arms dealers for those weapons.  And so long as they get paid, those international dealers don't care who gets the weapons.  It's a nasty, bloody trade.

But international efforts to stop the flow of arms to groups like the Taliban and al-Shabaab have run up against a consistent opponent: The National Rifle Association.

The NRA has consistently used its considerable influence to pressure American lawmakers into opposing and stalling international efforts to disarm terrorists.   They've drummed up panic among their members, pitching out visions of blue-helmeted Koreans taking away the firearms of law abiding Americans, and then forcing us all into reeducation camps to listen to Ban Ki Moon talk about climate change.

The horror...

That UN efforts to stem the flow of arms would in no way effect our sovereignty and Second Amendment rights doesn't mean a thing.  That it has everything to do with protecting a profit center for the firearms industry just slides on by.  Fear does funny things to the minds of otherwise rational beings.

What amazes me, just hornswoggles my cortex, is that helping keep weapons in the hands of the Taliban and monsters like al-Shabaab is a priority for NRA rank and file membership.  Most of the NRA members I've known personally are good eggs, and many have been veterans.

And yet they are members of an organization that's proudly facilitating the flow of small arms that have been used against American soldiers serving our country overseas, rifles and grenades that have been used to kill and maim our men and women in uniform.  Providing guns to our enemies so they can kill us is the price we have to pay for freedom?  How does that even work?

As insane as that seems to me, it does have the peculiar logic of madness.  If NRA leadership is comfortable with compulsively sabotaging practical gun safety measures here at home, why not take that same ethic into the international arena?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Dusty Hymns and Songs We've Forgotten

There's a new hymnal recently out for we Prez-bee-teer-yans, one I've heard the rumblings of for a couple of years now.  Within my own teeny tiny church, folks have been asking when and whether we might be making that shift.

Honestly, I don't know.  The whole idea of hymnals in this era continues to strike me as a tiny bit strange and a tich archaic.  I mean, shoot, I love so many of the old hymns, but the hymn as a modern musical form?  Hum.

More new hymns?  I just, shoot, I don't know.  In the now obsolete "blue" hymnal, I almost invariably steer away from the hymns that draw their provenance from the early 1980s.   While I'm typically down with their theology, the lyrics feel like First Church of Portlandia earnest progressivism, and the "new tunes" tend towards lnoodly, indistinct abstraction.

I'll reserve judgment about the new new stuff until a copy lands in my hands, though.

I was musing about our pursuit of new music and the place of the old during the last week, when I had a conversation with my thirteen year old about forgotten songs.  Because even as the old hymns fall away in a wash of Christian Contemporary Music, other music is also fading.

As we drove to his drum class, he connected his iPod to our car radio, then scanned through the artists.  He'd been comparing playlists with his friends at school, particularly one he'd just put together of some of his favorite artists.  He's the fruit of my loins, and that means he's a bit of a mutant, so the playlist in question was entitled "'Nam,"

'Nam?  Shoot.  I was five years old when Saigon fell.  Such an old soul, he can be.  But list was appropriately named, a compilation of his favorite artists from the 1960s and 1970s.

None of my friends knew any of these musicians, he said, a bit put out.  They'd never even heard of them.  He panned down the list of names that bear no meaning for his peers.

Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Janis Joplin.  Jimi Hendrix. Meaningless.  You could be making those names up, and his friends wouldn't know the difference.

Not even Hendrix, I asked?  Nope.  And then, as if to drive the dagger deeper, he said, and none of them had ever even heard of Pink Floyd.  It's music that is receding, an increasingly distant ship's smoke on the horizon.

That may change as they grow older, and their base of knowledge expands.  I mean, shoot, I'm not sure I'd ever heard any CCR when I was 13 beyond ads for KTEL compilations.  But then again, it may not.  Those tunes may fade into obscurity.

As human beings have learned to store and keep music, and recordings have become part of our collective memory, the volume of our musical memory just keeps expanding.  Even if you've got complex tastes and an appreciation for the sounds of other generations, there's only so much we can know.

And so we move on, and we forget.  Sometimes, that's for the best.  But sometimes, it means we lose track of our context, and drift away from stories and songs better not forgotten.

Dust in the wind, I suppose.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Headlines, Violence, and Cynicism

The headlines this morning were hard.  Another mass shooting, this one close to home, close enough that I found myself doing a mental inventory of everyone I know who works for the Navy.   I remember touring the museum there a few years back, and wandering the decks of the decommissioned destroyer Barry with an excitable herd of cub scouts.  

What's hardest about these deaths is the depth of our resignation towards these spasms of violence as a culture.  There's just nothing, nothing that can be done, we say.  And sometimes I feel this, and feel it strongly.  This is simply the way things are.   When violent angry men misuse their freedom, people...children, soldiers, teachers, first responders...will die.  Period.  We just have to do what we do, and accept this as the pattern of existence.  If it seems overwhelming, well, there are plenty of other places we can look to distract us.

Assuming those distractions aren't somehow echoes of the horror outside.

Like, say, the headlines in the gaming world, which today trumpet the latest installment of Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto franchise as it goes to market.   Though I regularly read gaming news, as a gamer, I've been slacking a bit lately.  Part of it is income-related, as I have trouble justifying dropping fifty bucks on something we don't really need.

But part of it is that nothing particularly appeals to me.  And this I say as one who plays a wide range of games, from Real Time Strategy to casual to puzzlers to platformers to multiplayer combat sims.

What I don't like playing, though, are games that immerse me in a world or ethos that I find unpleasant. And Rockstar is particularly talented at unpleasantness.  Their notable genius as game designers is almost entirely turned to that purpose.   Even Red Dead Redemption, their brilliantly designed and realized Western-themed sandbox game, was too infused with a dark and cynical spirit for my tastes.  

Reading through the glowing reviews of the latest Grand Theft Auto...a solid nine of ten on Gamespot, and a full fledged perfect 10 on IGN...I found myself reading a dark harmony between the reviews and what I've been reading in the headlines that tell the story of our world.

Grand Theft Auto V, or so the IGN reviewer tells us, is a satire of American culture.  It paints a singular picture of our world, shining a fierce and unforgiving light on the ways in which our society is broken and hateful.   Kids are lazy, useless slackers, or empty-headed consumers.  Spouses are all unfaithful.   Leaders are corrupt and manipulative, and corporations are even more so.  Everyone is just out to make a buck.  To quote from that review:
There is nothing in San Andreas, though, that doesn't serve Rockstar's purpose in creating an exaggerated projection of America that's suffused with crime, violence, and sleaze.  There are no good guys in GTA V.  Everyone you meet is a sociopath, narcissist, lunatic, sadist, cheat, liar, layabout, or some combination of those.
The reviewer for Gamespot struggles with that a bit more, perhaps because she's a woman, and the view of women in GTA is...well...let's just say there's not a single female character worth knowing.   They're all two-dimensional objects, "b*tches and hoes", and while this is nominally part of the "satire," that's not enough.  As she puts it: 
With nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is, all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism.
But let me suggest that this worldview is not just misogyny.  If men are invariably violent, brutal, and monstrous, the story GTA V tells about them is just as "insane and wrong."

And that, I think, starts to get at the essential challenge of satire, parody, and cynicism.  I love good satire as much as anyone.  It can be a fierce and prophetic tool for tearing a hole in our darkness.  But if it is not counterbalanced, not leavened with hope and grace, then it becomes something rather different.

The story that Rockstar tells, the world they have so brilliantly created?  In that world, there's no reason not to destroy and inflict horror. Human beings are inherently monstrous, so deeply flawed that there is no possibility of good.  Why not just do whatever you want?  Why not steal and kill and torture?  What does it matter?  Cynicism may seem like a justified response to horror, but it is a response that ultimately feeds the darkness rather than defying it.

It's why I prefer not to spend time in Rockstar's worlds, but it's also a good reminder of the dangers of giving up in this one.

Beans and Compassion

All summer long, I've been tending them.

They weren't much to look at, those little bushes, filling a three by ten foot plot to the right of our driveway.  In those first days of summer, they'd had a hard start of it, as life often does.  Some never made it much past being shoots, and then withered and died.  Others looked promising at first, but then marauding bunnies nibbled off their tender first leaves, and starved of life-giving light, they hardened into dead twigs.

Every morning, I tended them.  A little weeding, and a little water as needed.  Where one died or was devoured, I replanted.  Some struggled to stay upright as they grew, so I'd lay in a little stake next to them and give them a boost towards the sun.

By late summer they still weren't much to look at.  Just a dozen or so nondescript plants, the tallest barely reaching my knees.  But under their leaves could be found, every other day, a festival of green beans.  They'd spring into being, leaping forth from the tiny white flowers.

I still tended them, and watered them as needed.   And every other day, I'd spend ten minutes harvesting.  For a couple of months, we had beans enough to fill our four plates twice a week.  More than enough, in fact.  Ziplock bags full of freshly picked beans made their way into the hands of family and neighbors.

As the growing season drew to a close, though, the time was going to come when those humble little bushes would stop yielding.   And having spent the summer with them, I felt their identity as living things rather more intensely than I would had I bought a bag of flash-frozen beans from Trader Joes.

They're pretty basic beings, greenbeans.  They pour all their energy into growth, as a single bean contains the data and energy needed to turn the sun's light and the nutrients in soil into shoots and leaves.  If they have a purpose, and all living things need to have purpose, it is to make more beans.  The beans are, after all, their past and their future.  Their children.  The next generation.  That is pretty much the entirety of what they do, and in so far as such a simple, sub-sentient living creature has an identity, that's who they are.

So as summer waned to fall, I marked certain beans with tape, particularly on my largest and most vigorous plants.  Those beans I allowed to grow and grow, and then to yellow and wither.  When they dried out, I popped them from the plants.  Each of those dried beans yielded three or four perfect seeds, utterly indistinguishable from those that tumbled out of the packet I bought from Burpee back in the late spring.

I let them dry further, and then all went into a little jar, which I'll soon seal up with some moisture-absorbing material.  Seed enough for fifty or more plants now inhabit that jar.  On the one hand, that's the practical thing to do, and will save me a couple of bucks come next summer.  Why pay for seed, when your plants will give it to you for free?  My Scots blood burbles happily in my veins at such a delightful opportunity for thrift.

But thrift wasn't really the motivation for saving seed.  I felt a peculiar but inescapable gratitude to these simple living things. I've tended them, nurtured them, and cared for them.  I know that their entire purpose is for more beans, their offspring, to grow next year.  In exchange, all summer long, they've fed me and my loved ones.  I know that more beans are the simple purpose of those simple things.

Having gotten to know them, it seemed the least I could do to help make that happen.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Shabbos Goy and the Torah

It's Yom Kippur today, the Day of Atonement, the day that ends the High Holy Days in Judaism.  It's a day of fasting and reflection, and this year, it's also on a Sabbath.

On most Yom Kippurs, I tend to serve as the shabbos goy, the non-fasting, adequately-caffeinated gentile who helps get things done while the Chosen People wrestle with both God and their low blood sugar.  That certainly happened today, as I trundled into town seeking bagels and whitefish salad for the break-the-fast that comes at sundown.  And did dishes.  And cleaned.

But this year, my wife is on the board of the synagogue, and that meant that she was to sit up on the bima at the front of the synagogue.  It was her responsibility to carry the Torah scrolls into the congregation, as the Torah is honored before the reading.

And as her spouse, I was expected to be up there with her.  And so I was.  A shabbos goy?  On the bima?  Huh.

At the appointed time, another board member opened up the Ark.  And then it was my job, as the partner of the board member, to take the Torah from the Ark.   So I did, but not without awareness of my actions.  Here I am, on Yom Kippur, in front of the whole congregation.  A Gentile.  But not just any Gentile.

I'm a Presbyterian Teaching Elder, a pastor of a congregation, and a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.  On the bima.  In a synagogue.  On Yom Kippur.  Taking the Torah from the Ark.

For a moment, that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark fluttered into my head.  But I am comfortable and at ease with the faith, with my Jewish wife, and both boys mitzvahed, my older adding his fine baritone to the synagogue choir, my younger helping lead the later family service.  I'm reasonably sure that the Creator of the Universe is copacetic with this.

So into my arms I took the scrolls, the tall ones, the ones that were hidden away in Poland and survived the Holocaust.  I the Gentile handed them to my Jewish wife.  Then it's back into the Ark I went, where the crowns...silver and covered in tiny bells...awaited.  I put them on the Torah, gently, and then watched Rache as she walked it through the synagogue.

When she returns, I take the bells off, and then she places that old Torah into my arms.  It is surprisingly light, and I hold it like a sleeping child, and return it to the Ark.  If objects had memory, what a strange thing that would seem.  A relief of sorts, perhaps.

As we sat afterwards, the congregation coming forward for the first reading, Rache slipped her hand in mine.  "That was special," she whispered in my ear.

It was.  How many shabbos goyim can claim such an honor?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Mister Jefferson's Indecent Proposal

I am, I will freely admit, not the most impressive alumnus of Mr. Jefferson's University.   My undergraduate career was singularly undistinguished, as I struggled and floundered about trying to figure out exactly what it was I intended to do with my life.

Perhaps it has something to do with my sharing a birthday with another notoriously unsuccessful UVA student.  Edgar Allen Poe and I both managed not to quite stand out academically, for many of the same reasons.  I didn't gamble nearly as much, though I...cough...made up for it in other areas.

There were false starts and misses and at least one semester of academic probation, but when I did finally settle on Religious Studies as my major, things settled in.  And it was, without question, an astounding and transforming experience.

The department and the professors were excellent across the board, as demanding and enlightening as any I've had in my masters and doctoral studies, and what I learned there continues to inform my vocation as a Presbyterian pastor.

I've also been a tick remiss at giving to my alma mater, perhaps because while I value that education, I'm reasonably sure that their five point three billion dollar endowment is adequate.

It was an excellent, world-class education, and, notably, also one that managed to be affordable.  That commitment to a first tier education at a sane cost is what made the University of Virginia a truly great institution, and it is a commitment that is in danger.

A recent task force convened to make recommendations about the future direction of the University has proposed making changes designed to make it less of a public school.  There need to be fewer connections to the state, and more focus on making UVA like a Harvard or a Princeton.

On the one hand, given what often comes out of Richmond, I can see that.  Virginia has some remarkably shortsighted folks in power, and a significant element within Virginia leadership is actively opposed to academic liberty.  Attorney General Cuccinelli's grandstanding suppression of scientific research and his efforts to intimidate scholars haven't exactly deepened the love between the state and its historic flagship university.

On the other, well, that first hand isn't why this is being done.  The rationale behind the report, which you can read right here, is deeply grounded in something else.

A premier education yields high ROI, we hear.   The idea that higher education is a public good is waning, the report notes, and instead, institutions should focus on education as a competitive endeavor.  The goal of an educational institution in such a context is to compete for the best students, and to use "innovative, market-based solutions" to increase financial viability.

Although if you're already charging four times what you were when I attended, and you're sitting on five point three billion dollars, it would seem that you should be doing fine on the financial viability side.  But maybe I'm missing something.

Moving away from being a traditionally public and state-affiliated school would allow UVA to position itself as a premiere national semi-private institution, which would have two collateral results.  One, it would have a much larger pool of top-tier students if it was free to increase out of state attendance.  Two, and related, those top-tier out-of-staters would bring in a whole bunch more money, as out of state tuition is considerably higher.  As a semi-private school, that could be set higher still.

As a University of Virginia trained teacher of practical ethics...well, that's part of being a pastor, anyway...what strikes me about the implications of that is rooted in a section of the opening statement.
The University as an economic engine yields a high return on investment, making long term support a moral and economic imperative.
Our morality is our teleological framework, or to say that rather less densely, it's the framework through which we understand our relation to one another and the world around us.  Morality establishes value.  It gives us a way to define and understand the good.  I know this, because it's what I do.

What is clear from this planning statement, in both its language and its underlying assumptions, is that this views education through the moral framework of profit-seeking enterprise.  The University is an "economic engine."  That is what gives it value.

With that as a governing ethic, students become profit centers and/or consumers.  Professors and teaching assistants and high-cost/low-profit small classes and intimate, well-run discussion sections become financial liabilities, to be minimized through cost-cutting and finding efficiencies.

And administrators?  Well, we need to pay them well, so that we can attract the best talent.  Of course.  That goes without saying.

But when consumerism as a moral and ethical framework comes to define education, when a "Public Ivy" becomes a pricey boutique product for the elite?  That hardly serves the interests of the state of Virginia.

Just the interests of those with resources either inherited or borrowed, and those who get wealthy selling them the premiere education experience and market ROI of a recognizable brand.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Syria and the Strange Blessings of Chaos

I'll admit it.  I didn't watch the speech.  I rarely watch speeches, or speeches responding to speeches, which is a peculiar thing for someone who gets up and talks in front of folks on a weekly basis.  Perhaps it was all those years of dutifully watching State of the Union Addresses, which have soured me on political yammering.  Plus, I'm in the thicket of reading World War Z, and I'm not about to put down a page turner to listen to someone telling me something I already know.

In reading this morning's summations, Obama said, well, what I'd thought he was going to say.  My Fellow Americans.  Horror.  Pursue all options.  The strike is on the table.  International control of chemical weapons might stay our hand. For now. Justice, responsibility, international community.  God Bless America.

Honestly, though, in the mess that Syria continues to be, what has caught my attention the last day or so has been the peculiar way in which a potential resolution has manifested itself.   As this crisis has unfolded, one consistent theme has been the frustratingly amorphous response from the United States.

Here inside the Beltway, there was about a week of talking head handwringing about the scattershot and vacillating "messaging" from the Administration.  Where do we stand?  What's going on?  We seem to be going to war, and yet there seem to be a dozen different perspectives coming out of the White House.  It was maddeningly chaotic, disorganized, and seemingly at odds with itself.

This was perhaps most frustrating to Republicans, who found themselves without a clear thing to stand in opposition to.  How can you reflexively disagree with someone if they won't clearly tell you what it is that you don't believe?

And yet it had struck me as a frustrating but peculiarly appropriate response.  In times where the response is obvious and the path was evident, clarity and decisiveness is vital.  But this was not one of those times.  Faced with a situation with no clear outcome and no apparent "good" path, bold certitude is the response of a fool.  "I really have no idea of the implications of what I'm doing, but I'm going to commit to it completely" may appeal to folks who view the universe in binary terms, but nine hundred and ninety two point three seven five times out of a thousand that just takes you deeper into the [excrement].  On the side of that path lie the ruins of countless relationships, businesses, and nations.

So things moved slowly and circuitously, and direction seemed hard to discern.  The threat of a strike was clearly there, but the path towards it seemed unclear.  When?  How?  Huh?

Then, out of a vacillating thicket of seemingly contradictory policy statements, there came one that opened up a possible out for Assad.  Turn over your chemical weapons to international authorities, and this could be averted.   Suddenly, a brokered deal seems possible.  America's military engagement may yet be averted, and the core goal...preventing the use of chemical weapons...may be preserved.

"May."  It's not a sure thing.  Not by a long shot.  Syria is still a mess, and will be even if their sarin is secured by the UN.

But this week, there is suddenly an opening that was not there last week.   From a cloud of terrible options, a better path seems to have appeared.

And the strange irony is that in this instance, a seemingly chaotic response to a chaotic situation seems to have created the potential for order.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

War and Space

It was around 1:30 am, and the traffic leading away from Wallops Island was finally letting up.   We'd watched, along with thousands of others, as a Minotaur V had heaved a lunar probe from our world.

At point-blank range, it was awesome.  The fire of the launch was a stark white, not like a sunrise, but like we were on the set of some Spielberg flick and he'd just kicked in a couple thousand kilowatts worth of klieg lights.

As the sky lit, being Americans and all, we hooted and hollered with visceral glee.  I think I may actually have said the word "Dang,"  in that stretched out way that marks me as at least part Southerner.

The launch vehicle itself was invisible to the naked eye, but the long comet-tail of white fire danced upward and away, refreshing with each stage, until it was a vague orangeish dot at the very edge of the atmosphere, on its way to being just another star in the heavens.

It was well worth the trip.  And now, a full day behind us, the boys were asleep in the car.  The big guy was snoring and twitching, the little guy finally shut down after tiring of Minecraft.

Alone with my thoughts and the road, I found myself in a reverie about war and space.  The rocket that went up was, after all, a repurposed ICBM, so that tended to shape my thinking.

So much of what we think about in our human storytelling about space revolves around war and conflict.  Since we began to have a sense of the depth of it, we have cast space in terms of conflict.  H.G. Wells began it, as implacable minds coveted this world.  Now, there's the endless Star Wars franchise, which Disney will sustain for a thousand generations.  There's also Star Trek, which seems to have evolved from boldly going where no man has gone before to boldly blowing things up at a pace no-one has seen before.  We have visualized the vastness of the universe as being filled with monsters, who will one day arrive with their tripods and their death rays and their vast battle fleets, bent on the annihilation of humankind. 

Watching that rocket recede to nothing, though, I found myself pondering the absurdity of that thinking as I drove through the darkness.  War?  In space?  It feels like a projection, an assumption that has no grounds in the actuality of space itself.

Why do we war?  What is the point of it?  It's power, of course, and our desire to control resources and territory.  It's an old thing, a deep part of our organic animal nature.  We want our progeny to flourish, so we need to control the resources that will insure their survival.  We want to expand the circle of our influence, and so we sweep across the world, dominating and destroying anything that might threaten our power.  It's what primates do.  It's what so many animals do.

Looking out into the Deep, the idea that war has much of a place in it seems absurd.  It seems so for several reasons.  

War is about resources.  In the universe, there are resources potentially beyond measure, an abundance so great that it boggles the mind.  

In that vast cornucopia of material resource, we also see that life is a rare thing.  Creatures that need to take resources are not plentiful.  And so as we listen and peer into the deep, we do not see or hear our story of violence being played out anywhere in our wing of the spiral arm.  Space may be filled with energies, but the sound of war drums is so far notably absent.

And life that has reached the stage that it can venture out of the kiddie pool would by necessity need to adapt itself to space.  We are not there yet as a species, being tiny little bipeds that need to cart along a prohibitively large amount of stuff to sustain our existence.  We are, as H.G. Wells observed, creatures of this world.  When we finally move among the stars, we will need to be different.

One of those differences, I would hope, will be that our old hunger for war will fall behind us.  

On a cosmic scale, it just feels so...irrelevant.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Sameness of Violence

Maybe it's because I'm getting older.  It's hard to say.  But three times this summer, I've had the same reaction to a movie, and it's wearing on me.  I've generally enjoyed all things sci fi, and so I'd been looking forward to taking a swing at three of this summer's blockbusters in particular.

The first: Star Trek.  I'd really enjoyed J.J. Abrams reboot of the franchise.  The casting was pitch perfect, the feeling both respectful of Roddenberry's world and taking it in new and productive directions.  

The second: Elysium.  Neill Blomkamp's District Nine was a breath of fresh air when it hit theaters a few years back.  Hard-edged and vigorously rooted in South African political culture, it was a fascinating variant on usual alien-invasion fare.  That, and it had a clear social conscience, mirroring the dark echoes of apartheid.  Elysium promised to be more of the same, casting light on the tremendous chasm between the wealthy few and the struggling masses on our planet.

The third: The World's End.  I've enjoyed Simon Pegg in just about everything he's been in.  Shaun of the Dead was a mischievous treat, and a far richer movie than the entertaining but more shallow Zombieland.  So Simon Pegg plus alien/robot invasion seemed to equal entertainment gold.

None of them really worked as I'd hoped.  

Star Trek was dialed up way too high, and what was meant to be an homage to Wrath of Khan ended up feeling cheap, manipulative, and predictable.  If we know you're not actually going to kill of that franchise-central character, and we can tell exactly how you're going to bring that character back because you've telegraphed it to us?  That death scene just ain't gonna mean anything, JJ, no matter how many Vulcans sloppily and incongruously weep.  Elysium started strong...Blomkamp is brilliant at establishing a sense of place...but descended into emotionally manipulative and shallow bathos.   The World's End was absurd and illogical, but it was a comedy, so I cut it a little slack.  The character dynamics were interesting, and complex psychological themes bubbled around under the surface.  Must be a British thing.

But what made all of them less watchable than I'd hoped was the violence.   All had the now omnipresent hyperkinetic, visually jarring style to conveying bone-crunching conflict.  It's ALL-CAPS exciting, visceral, and kinesthetically ferocious, or so it's supposed to be.

It's such a relentless part of moviegoing these days.  Running! Punching! Exploding! Action!  It's meant to stir our monkey-brain, kicking in deep fight-or-flight excitement.

But there's a dank sameness to it.  The uniform palette of cinematically rendered violence makes every movie into every other movie.  As the World's End dove into one action sequence after another, for example, the psychological complexity of the characters was washed out, and the narrative was obscured.  Too many moments were just, well, every other film.  Zachary Quinto could be going all half-Vulcan-loco on cybernetic Matt Damon, who could be firing an accelerator rifle at a Blank.  None of it matters.

And the feeling I was feeling during those moments was not excitement.  It was boredom.  It was tedious, because there is no pleasure to be found sitting through the same scene over and over and over again in every film we see.

It's a bit like the news, I suppose.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Missiles, Swords, and Plowshares

Years ago, when the boys were small, we took an impromptu road trip.  The journey was Eastward, towards Chincoteague, land of wild ponies, but this trip had another goal.  We piled into our minivan and went to the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport at Wallops Island, in what proved ultimately to be an unsuccessful effort to watch a rocket launch a satellite into orbit.

It scrubbed, lamentably, launching later in the week.  While the trip made for a beautiful viewing of a sunrise, that weren't whut we was there fer.  Fiddle.

I've still never, ever, ever seen a rocket launch, not once in my forty-plus years of existence.

My elementary school age kids are now both teenagers, and this afternoon, with a major launch scheduled for tonight, we're taking another swing at it.  We'll drive the almost four hours there, and then wait, and cross fingers, and drive the four hours back.  Road trip!

As of right now, the launch of the LADEE (that's pronounced like a Scotsman addressing a child) probe is still a go.  It's a car-sized probe, designed to measure the rarified but nonetheless present atmospheric conditions on the lunar surface.

So it's a rocket, and it's going to the moon.  This, I want to see.

Having researched the LADEE effort and the science behind it, I found myself wondering about the launch vehicle.  We 'Murkans have stumbled badly in our recent support for our space program.  In the absence of a Soviet Union to compete with, we've gotten fat and lazy, content to sit around and polish our gun collection while renting launch space from the Rooskies to get our stuff into orbit while we noodle around dreaming about past glories.

In the well-reported absence of a significant heavy lift vehicle, I found myself wondering just what we'd be using to heave the equivalent of a Chevy Spark out of the earth's gravity well and into lunar orbit.  An Atlas? A Delta?  I was reasonably certain those vehicles were no longer in use.

It's a Minotaur Five, as it turns out.  Standing a tick over ten stories high, the blunt-nosed and purposeful profile of the Minotaur is a familiar one.

Back when I was fourteen, splitting the difference between my son's ages, the Minotaur went by a different name.

Back in the 1980s, it was called the Peacekeeper.  Or the MX.

Its initial design purpose was to hurl a Multiple Impact Reentry Vehicle at the Soviet Union, meaning it was the rocketry equivalent of a thermonuclear scattergun.  Why hit a city with one nuclear weapon, when you can hit it with up to ten warheads at once, each one over ten times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, for a total yield of three megatons of explosive power?

The Cold War was such a delightful time.

During the massive and arguably insane weapons buildup during the Reagan years, we built just over a hundred Peacekeepers.  They were capable of delivering the destructive equivalent of ten thousand Hiroshimas, at a cost of $400 million.

That's four hundred million dollars per rocket.

And in 2005, we decommissioned all of them.  Fifty billion dollars worth of rockets.  Never used.  Thank God.

So rather than leave them just lying around, a few are being repurposed for the space program, the gleanings of what could have been a great harvest of destruction.

It's good they're being used, and for a different and far better purpose.  Those swords make far better plowshares.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Castro and Justice

The apparent suicide of Ariel Castro late last night brought an end to a particularly blighted and malignant life.   For over a decade, Castro tortured and sexually assaulted three young women he'd abducted and imprisoned in his Cleveland home.  As crimes go, it was notably monstrous in duration, which is why he ended up being convicted and sentenced to life in prison plus a thousand years or so.

But now he's dead, most likely by his own hand.  Facing a seemingly endless captivity, he apparently could not cope with the very thing he had inflicted on his victims.  None will mourn his passing.

In his death, though, one wonders where justice might lie.  Justice...that restoration of balance and a difficult thing in such a case, even with his sentence.  Here he inflicted sustained physical and psychological harm on three other human beings, who will carry echoes of that dark time for their whole lives long.  

And it wasn't just those women who were harmed.  Their families and friends mourned them as lost, in some instances dying certain that they had been murdered.  There is also a child, a daughter born to one of the women.  One wonders, as she grows, how she will come to terms with having Castro as her father.

Now he is no longer with us.   Is justice served by his short imprisonment?  Was justice served by his self-destruction?

It's hard to see how it is.  Imprisoning sociopaths does serve the purpose of eliminating their capacity to harm others.  That is a worthwhile goal.

But it does not itself restore, or reestablish a balance.  Finding a way to that balance is something that our systems of coercive power and retribution have found next to impossible.  Those crude systems, based and rooted in violence, have always fumbled helplessly towards justice.  They are as clumsy as a claw hammer in the hands of an amateur dentist.

And so we wonder, if we are prone to such things, where justice lies in such an instance.

For those who believe that this is all that there is, justice is an challenging concept to begin with.  His death is good riddance, sure, but the idea that there is any balance to be found is an absurdity.  In destroying himself, Castro has simply ceased to be, of his own volition.  Nothing further.

For those who embrace the idea of eternal damnation, Castro has simply expedited his entry into Hell.  Burn forever, you bastard, they'll say.   God condemns folks like Castro to an eternity of torture, punishment without end, or so that view tends to go.  And with monsters like him, it is a tempting perspective.

The challenge with that worldview, of course, is that it doesn't stop with monsters.  

A painfully large fraction of my co-religionists would affirm the same punishment for Castro had he been a gentle, kind-hearted Buddhist who staffed the hotline at a Cleveland rape crisis center.  Sin is sin, they say, no matter how self-evidently preposterous such a statement might be.  We all deserve damnation, they say, oblivious to how cruel and horrid it makes the Good News seem.

With the mystics of my faith, I tend towards another view.

Death is not negation or annihilation.  Neither does it lead to a crudely binary system of punishment and reward.  It is an opening up.  What we receive, when our mortal coil is ended, is nothing more and nothing less than the fullness of who we have been.  That means we know our whole story, the entirety of it, as our Maker knows it.  Everything we have done, everything we have chosen, that's our place in being.   If we have turned our whole selves to the love of others, that becomes the foundation of our eternity, the harvest of our actions.

If we have lived as Castro chose to live, then our encounter with our Maker is both the same and terribly, terribly different.

For the measure we give is the measure we get back, as a dear friend once said.

And in that, there is justice.

Jesus and Qumran

Sermon preparation can be a messy thing, as thoughts and ideas and sudden inspirations crowd in.  All might be interesting, but trying to shoehorn them all in to a sermon makes for a painful and overlong experience.  Rule number one for sermonizing: Stay On Target.

One of this week's more interesting historical critical distracto-fragments came from the Qumran Scrolls.  Bible scholars frequently come out with wild, bold, and exciting new ideas about the Secret Identity of the True Jesus, which is a great way to sell books. 

For example, author and comparative religions scholar Resa Aslan recently attempted to claim that Jesus was a proto-zealot, one of those radical Judean warriors who rose up in violent resistance against the Roman oppressors.  Jesus, the political insurrectionist?  That's a fascinating claim, one which stands up really well if one starts with the assumption that nothing written about his life and teachings...not even the apocryphal and noncanonical texts...was actually true or in any way representative of Jesus' life.  Lord Have Mercy, did Aslan sell a bunch of books.

Another example of Jesus-projection, one that's been kicking around for the last sixty years or so, is that Jesus was somehow connected to the community at Qumran.   Qumran was the home base of the Essenes, a fiercely ascetic group who removed themselves from what they viewed as the essentially corrupt culture of first century Judaism.  Was Jesus "the Teacher of Righteousness," a legendary leader of that community?  Hmmm. 

This last Sunday, I preached on Luke 14, in which Jesus manages to completely ruin a perfectly good dinner-party-networking-event-schmooze-fest with his pesky talking about God's Kingdom.  One of the key features of this chapter is how Jesus inverts the power dynamics of culture.  He repeatedly declares that the "feast" of God is open to those that were devalued by his culture, "...the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind."

In contrast, one of my commentaries surfaced this narsty little bit of meanness from the Qumran community, laying out who was allowed to be an Essene:
And let no person smitten with any human impurity whatever enter the Assembly of God.  And every person smitten with these impurities, unfit to occupy a place in the midst of the Congregation, and every man smitten in his flesh, paralyzed in his feet or hands, lame or blind or deaf, or dumb or smitten in his flesh with a blemish visible to the eye, or any aged person that totters and is unable to stand firm in the midst of the Congregation: let these persons not enter.
Beyond being a reminder that having "purity" as a defining feature of community often has some unpleasant repercussions, it reinforces just how deeply revolutionary Jesus actually was.  So revolutionary, in point of fact, that neither Zealot nor Essene would have known what to make of him.