Archive for January, 2007

My Peace

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

“Acquaint now thyself with him, and be at peace: thereby good shall come unto thee.” Job 22:21

I’ve been thinking a lot about peace lately. There seems to be so little of it in the world, and it seems so easy to try to blame that on any number of obvious suspects.

Peace is something I think we all strive for, but it is something many of us (me included) struggle with.

My sense is that it is because of where we look. So often we’re inclined to look to those things that we have control over. Perhaps it’s something material. If I just owned this, or lived there, or had a better job – I would have peace. Perhaps it’s our relationships with others. Loneliness and longing to be in a relationship or perhaps loneliness and longing because our existing relationships aren’t living up to our expectations may affect our sense of peace.

I know that I also indulge in feelings of frustration when I allow things that I don’t feel I have control over to affect my sense of peace. World peace seems threatened by an unnecessary war begun under false pretenses and perpetuated through fear of the consequences of failure. Religious fundamentalism both at home and abroad is upsetting. The senseless hysterical fear of both Christians and Muslims used to justify brutality and murder in the name of God is shocking. Self-importance, self-righteousness, bias, close mindedness, cynicism, deception, and manipulation are all deeply disturbing to me.

The problem is that all of our attempts to discuss and resolve these issues fail. We all seem to want peace, but we all want it under our own terms.

So what CAN we do?

I think that we have to start by recognizing that our feeble efforts fail because they all come down to human attempts to pattern the divine. Peace is an attribute of God. Any human attempt to replace that quality with something of our own making (however noble) is doomed sooner or later to fall short and be unsatisfying.

Peace is found, as Job said, in seeking greater understanding of our Maker. It is a surrender of all of our merely material concerns and our need to control and pass judgment on the outcome. Jesus was trying to tell us the same thing when he said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27) His peace derived from His oneness with the Father. He encourages us to follow His example and seek Peace from the same source rather than the crude illusion the world offers. When we look to God, we find peace reflected in all of His creation. We get to replace hate with love, trouble with blessing, and fear with trust. Then we become the peacemakers of the Beatitudes and our reward is that we see peace everywhere.

Clearly we’ve got a lot of work to do, but that’s as it should be since it is the work of a lifetime.

Hardening of the Heart

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

“For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.” Matt 13:15

Last week I had a fairly frustrating and disturbing correspondence with someone regarding real threat posed by radical Islamists today. What was disturbing about the correspondence is that this person was so invested in their view that they refused to even consider that perhaps the facts about the potential loss of life don’t support the current level of anxiety or spending.

Just to give you a little context, the conservative view espoused by this person is that our viability as a nation is at risk as a result of the jihad let by al-Qaeda. As a result, we should physically seal our borders with soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder if necessary, refuse entry to any Middle Eastern Muslim, and imprison those already in this country who oppose our government’s policies. He feels strongly that these policies are necessary to keep his family safe and those (like me) who think this is both impractical and excessive are traitors who are putting themselves and the rest of the country in mortal danger.

You can write someone like this off as a part of the lunatic fringe, and he very well may be, but what was disturbing about the whole episode is his absolute refusal to engage in any sort of fact-based dialog. I’m willing to consider just about any point of view if you can bring the facts to back it up. If you can prove, for example, that the Laffer theory of cutting taxes to spur economic growth works, I’ll have to reconsider my current view that it is just an excuse for the Republican party to pay off their rich patrons. On the other hand if I’m able to bring up facts that call your theories into question, like the fact that one of the longest most profitable economic expansions in our history occurred right after a period when taxes on the wealthy were increased, I expect you to offer me the same courtesy.

It’s this active dialog that preserves the balance which drives our democratic process forward. It also forces people to form opinions based on research and discussion rather than rhetoric and ideology.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a distressing lack of constructive dialog in the country starting at the very top of our government and reaching through the media right down to individual citizens. It’s the sense that people are unwilling to let facts stand in the way of a good opinion. That can only lead to more confrontation, frustration, and recrimination.

This isn’t anything new. Even Jesus faced similar challenges in His healing ministry. His message of love and understanding healed every disease and overcame death. He could walk through the streets and people only had to briefly touch Him to be healed. But there were those whom even He couldn’t reach. The pool at Bethesda was surrounded by hundreds who believed the moving water would heal them. Only one was open to the thought that Jesus might be a better choice. Those in His home town were going to kill Him rather than admit that this boy they knew growing up could be the Christ. I suppose the lesson for us is even after all of that He still loved them.

Winning the War on Terror

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

“He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;” Ps 91:4-5

It may seem like stating the obvious, but perhaps the easiest and most effective way to win the war on terrorism is to stop being afraid.

I’ll share some government facts and figures with you to give you an idea of why I say that.

Over the past five years 2,752 have died in the United States as a result of terrorist acts.

In 2005 (most recent available government figures) no one died in this country and 56 US citizens were killed in other countries as a result of terrorism. To put that in context, twice as many people died in the United States during the same period from wasp and bee stings. Your risk of being killed by a terrorist is about at the same as your risk of being hit by a meteor. More people drown in bathtubs in the United States every year than are killed worldwide by terrorists. The Homeland Security budget for this year, however, is $50B.

In comparison, since 9/11, traffic accidents have claimed the lives of over 200,000 people and the National Highway and Traffic Safety Budget is $815M.

2005 was one of the worst hurricane seasons on record with four storms causing $160B in damage and approx 2000 deaths. The budget for Hurricane relief and defense this year is $29B.

We don’t seem to have any problem living in areas where hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods are virtually predictable.

We don’t seem to have any problem dealing with the current risks associated with driving. Government standards are making cars and roads safer and the fatality rate is declining gradually as a result. If we were as frightened about automobile safety as we seem to be about terrorists, though, we could make our cars much safer. We could mandate ignition interlock devices that would virtually eliminate drunk driving. We could eliminate speeding by deploying the sort of automated monitoring equipment already used in Europe. We choose not to because we like the freedom associated with driving our cars.

But somehow when it comes to terrorism, we flinch, open our wallet, and give up our rights.

The only explanation I can come up with is that neither political party really wants the war on terror to end because both continue to perpetuate the myth that there is a significant risk. That reason may be reflected in the budget numbers and the obvious promise that money can buy security.

Money can’t buy security any more that it can buy love. Fortunately, security like love is freely available to whoever sincerely seeks it from the only real source.

“Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32

Understanding our Enemy

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

“Understanding is a wellspring of life unto him that hath it: but the instruction of fools is folly.” Prov. 16:22

Ever wonder why al-Qaeda is so upset with us and why they resort to suicide tactics to get our attention. President Bush has said it is because they hate our freedom. That has always seemed stupid to me. So what if we are free. Why would that bother them? And why pick on us? If you are so upset about people who live in democracies, why not pick some smaller and easier to beat country like maybe Italy or the Pacific island of Niue?

As with a lot of things, if you just dig a little bit past the spin, it isn’t very difficult to find out. Just before the presidential election of 2004, bin Laden himself said that he wasn’t mad at the US people, he was fighting against our government’s policies. He just wanted US forces out of Muslim countries.

He has at other times said that he wants to overthrow the autocratic dynasties of the Persian Gulf region, along with other secular and pro-Western regimes of the Middle East. Finally he has also been identified with the grand radical Islamic vision of re-establishing Muslim world dominance which certainly implies some sort of confrontation with the west.

That isn’t to say that they don’t understand the west. They understand us better than you may think. The reason they use terrorism is because they respect democracy. They trust that our government ultimately responds to the will of our people. I think that it is naive to assume that bin Laden would be satisfied if we left Iraq, or even the Middle East; but I’ll leave a discussion of how to deal with bin Laden to another post. This post is more about understanding.

The reason some Muslim’s blow themselves up is because they believe in martyrdom as a pious way to oppose an oppressive regime. Similar traditions of self sacrifice exist in many religions, though this admittedly includes blowing up other people too. Self-sacrifice as a concept is something that our culture celebrates when we agree with the cause. When we don’t, we just don’t get it. I’m sure the Romans were similarly perplexed when the early Christians refused to defend themselves as they were about to become kitty chow.

What fundamentalist Muslims are most disturbed about is a bit of cognitive dissonance that may be difficult for us to completely understand. Much like Biblical Jews and some fundamentalist Christians, they believe that God will bless the devout with economic and political success. When they look around, they don’t see that success. In fact, they see very much the opposite. All of the success is in the west. Wealth and power appear to be concentrated in decadent countries where there are very few Muslims. Rather than evaluate how they may have limited themselves by excluding women, resisting modernization, and opposing education; they have blamed the west. They see a vast conspiracy to erode basic Muslim practices, corrupt Muslim values, and further weaken what otherwise should be the dominant religious and political movement in the world.

This might seem a wacky set of beliefs to some. But so is creationism, the claim that our founding fathers were all evangelical Christians, and the belief that ignorance and abstinence are effective forms of birth control.

There is also the claim that the suicide bombers are poor, uneducated, or mentally incompetent. There have been some of those, but the majority are young idealistic well educated men from middle class families. They want to make a difference in the world. They are encouraged by radical clerics to strike back in the only way that they feel can accurately convey both their anger and frustration. They blow themselves up in acts of political terrorism in the sincere hope that western democracies will wake up and take notice. What they fail to understand about western democracy is that we don’t care about them. Rather than ask why, we are content to accept that they are crazy, so we had better shoot them before they multiply.

Some might say that it is soft-headed to try to understand people who are trying to kill us. I think that if you are going to call yourself a Christian, you can’t do any less. Jesus didn’t ever say this was going to be easy, but He did promise a reward for those who were willing to try.

I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven:” Matt 5:43-44

Casting out Fear

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” I John 4:18

One of my guilty pleasures is reading Jack Kelly’s weekly column in the Blade. My wife Terry won’t read it any more because it just upsets her. Jack is a conservative Republican and a military veteran still fighting the Viet Nam war. He seems to feel that there is a military solution to every problem. He also clearly has issues with anyone else who doesn’t share his view.

The reason I raise Jack is because he is a spokesperson for the “win at all costs” Iraq strategy. Since we’re seeing a lot of that sort of fear mongering in the public discourse defending the war in Iraq, I thought that I would look at some of these ideas in a little more detail and see where they lead.

The first fear is that if we lose in Iraq, those that we are fighting will get nuclear weapons and use them on us. It is probably not a coincidence that this is the same argument that was used to justify the invasion. I guess if it worked once, why not try it again? Hopefully we can all agree that there are no nuclear weapons in Iraq, nor are there even the basic pieces to make a nuclear weapon. The only country that we know has a nuclear weapon that is also unhappy with us is North Korea. We also suspect that Iran has a nuclear program, but they don’t have a bomb yet. I’m assuming that the native Iraqi’s really don’t have any interest in using nuclear weapons to blow us up, they can do it now with IED’s, and when we leave they will probably be too occupied blowing each other up to follow us. So it must be al-Qaeda that Jack is worried about. Somehow they would take over Iraq if we left and then use oil revenue to buy a bomb from North Korea. Even if they could take-over, the reality is they don’t need oil revenue to buy a bomb. They could probably raise the money today if a nuclear bomb were for sale. Fortunately, these bombs aren’t for sale and for good reason. If I sold you a bomb or any other WMD, what would prevent you from turning right around and threatening to use it on me to get your money back? In other words, this is a silly argument.

The second fear is connected to the first. If we “lose” in Iraq, al-Qaeda will quickly subdue the warring factions and gain control of Iraq’s oil reserves. The whole reason that there are warring factions in Iraq is because of the oil money. It is highly unlikely that native Iraqi’s armed to the teeth are going to suddenly roll over and let al-Qaeda take control when we leave. Iraq at its core is a tribal country and the al-Qaeda leaders are not part of the family. They could certainly gain more influence, but it is much more likely that Iran, Syria, and the Saudi’s will have the greatest say in who has influence and power in Iraq when we leave. Each of them already has a dog in this fight and none of them are al-Qaeda.

We are left with an administration attempting to create support for a particular policy through baseless fear. This policy has killed over three thousand Americans, maimed another 23,000, and killed perhaps as many as 600,000 Iraqis. I don’t know about you, but it looks a lot like terrorism tactics to me.

Charitable Deduction

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” I Cor. 13:1

I have to apologize to you readers because every time I hear George Bush speak on the television, I feel like I’m being lied to and it bothers me. On the other hand, I love to hear Bill Clinton speak. I know that he has lied to the American people too, but for some reason it just didn’t bother me as much as it does when George does it.

So I’m going to try to do my best to demonstrate a little charity but unfortunately, it is going to be laced with a health dose of conspiracy theory.

As I sit here trying to figure out why we are sending more troops to Iraq, the best that I can come up with is that Mr. Bush is delusional. Honestly, though, I can’t bring myself to that conclusion. All that I’m left with is the conclusion that this is a deeply cynical political gambit to keep the Republicans in power. Perhaps from a solipsistic point of view, Republicans losing the white house might the worst thing for the country that Mr. Bush can imagine and it justifies the lives that he is putting at risk. That’s really the best charitable explanation that I can come up with. The less charitable theory is that the Republicans like the power that a war president has and would be happy to have an extended sort of conflict as long as the casualty count is manageable.

So here’s how that theory goes.

If the US pulls out of Iraq now, we’ll save US lives but there is likely to be a very bloody civil war including the sort of ethic cleansing we’ve seen in other parts of the world when new political boundaries are being drawn. We could help mitigate some of that violence by helping to partition the country in a more peaceful way, but even that may not help. Any admission by the white house that our original goals are no longer attainable in Iraq will surely cost the Republicans the white house in 2008.

The only choice to preserve the white house for the Republicans is to make front-runner John McCain right. He has been an advocate of overwhelming force from the very beginning. If we are able to pour enough American troops into a small enough area like Baghdad, we may be able to change the nature of the fighting from open warfare to the sort of low boil conflict we see in Israel. With that sort of “progress”, John McCain could squeak out a victory. We’ll still be Iraq with no clear exit strategy, but the Republicans will have retained executive control and all the war powers that entails.

Don’t be surprised to see Ms. Rice also moving closer to Mr. McCain in the near future. Why else would heavy-weight John Negroponte take a demotion to a deputy position at the state department? This is preparing the way for Rice to gracefully exit and hit the campaign trail.

I believe that if the Democratic ticket starts looking like Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, you’ll see the Republicans respond with a ticket of John McCain and Condoleeza Rice. I wish I could claim credit for this idea, but I read it first in a John Hughes column in the Christian Science Monitor.

Whatever happens, I do pray for the protection of everyone in that region. An all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God is speaking to us all including George. That message remains one of harmony, peace, and love. If we listen with humility and obedience, we might just learn something.

Unfaithful Steward

Saturday, January 6th, 2007

Those of you reading this that don’t live in Michigan may not appreciate what a weird winter we are having.

Many of us who live here do so because we like all four seasons. Winter in particular is a favorite of mine. The cold is cleansing. The snow transforms the landscape into a beautiful sparking white canvas. Sunny days are crisp and clear with a special blue sky. Winter is leveling. It doesn’t matter who you are, it is the same temperature for everyone.

The problem is that we haven’t had any winter so far. I continue to play golf on the weekends even though the course closed a month ago. The ski resorts from here through southern Canada have no snow. Cherry trees in New York think it is spring and are starting to bloom. A 41 square mile ice sheet that jutted into the Arctic Ocean off Canada for the last 3000 years has broken loose. Weather forecasters are predicting that within the next decade there may be an open water passage through the Arctic Ocean from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The sea ice there has already shrunk two million square kilometers. That’s about the size of Alaska.

The vast majority of the world’s credible scientists agree that the earth is warming. Whether or not you are willing to agree that human activity is the cause, from a policy point of view, we can’t continue to ignore the topic. At this point, whether or not cyclical warming is involved, we are adding gases to the atmosphere that at least acerbate the problem if not actually cause it. Those gas emissions come from fossil fuels burned in power plants, automobiles, and factories. Those emissions are the only thing that we can control, and virtually every other nation emitting such gases has been willing to do so.

Unfortunately we have an administration in power that has rejected all attempts to curb emissions even though we are one of the primary sources. It certainly seems short sighted to suggest that we can’t afford it when you look at the costs from rising sea levels alone. But this is the same administration that has run up record deficits through profligate spending and seems perfectly content to pass those along to our children. It is also the same administration which illegally weakened EPA rules through executive order. So simply stonewalling the global community on this issue for six years shouldn’t seem so shocking.

As Christians, we should expect and demand more of our leaders. In addition to learning more about our Maker, we all have the responsibility while we are here to leave this place in better shape than when we found it. That commitment is a perfect demonstration of loving your neighbor as yourself. It is also being the faithful and wise steward that Jesus spoke of.

“And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Of a truth I say unto you, that he will make him ruler over all that he hath.” Luke 12:42

Pride of Man

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” Prov 16:18

The beginning of a New Year is a natural time for reflection, planning, and perhaps new direction if things didn’t work out so well last year. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to see much of that going on in the White House.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq has now lasted longer the WWII and will quickly cost more American lives than were lost in the 9/11 attacks. The level of violence in Iraq is at an all time high and the economy and infrastructure there remains in a shambles.

Mr. Bush’s answer to these problems is more of the same. The strategy that he appears to be considering is adding more troops. Here’s the theory behind that strategy. If there are sufficient troops on the ground to quell the warring factions in any particular geography and then hold that area by leaving troops there, we can expand the parts of the country that are able to live in relative peace. The hope then is that those Iraqis who support moderation will be able to act on their beliefs without fear of reprisal. If the fighting factions can be squeezed down into smaller and smaller enclaves, the rest of the country can return to some state of normalcy and the Iraqi police can take over.

The problem is that it won’t work.

The reason that it won’t work is because the Iraqi government forces are unreliable. The tribal bonds that motivate the current fighting are much stronger than loyalty to the central government. Finally, if the US switches from “search and destroy” tactics to “secure and hold” tactics, the opposing fighters will also adapt their tactics to much smaller sniper and assassination engagements. The door to door fighting that will result will drive up US and civilian casualties and further weaken our position with the Iraqi population as well as here at home.

Perhaps Mr. Bush is motivated by pride, or maybe a genuine fear of the consequences of our failure. The reality, however, is that we have put ourselves in a position where this is not winnable under the current definition of victory. We have to change our expectations of what is possible and recognize that until the Iraqis sort out their own internal differences, there is precious little we can do to bring peace to that region.

The best that we can do is prevent Iraq’s neighbors from taking advantage of the instability in Iraq and perhaps foster a transition so some federated state where the sectarian fighting can be contained and those areas that are currently peaceful can make some progress toward self-government.