Archive for October, 2007

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

When I have gone over this with Sunday School students in the past, it is initially pretty clear.  Kids get this.  They know what killing is and they could never imagine themselves in a situation where they would commit such an act.  When we talk about it in the context of the new testament, however, it takes on greater meaning. It means that we cherish others.  We not only cherish their life, but their happiness and well being.  So we agree not to kill their joy, or their trust, or their reputation, or their friendship. 

There isn’t a lot of wiggle room in this sort of discussion and I suspect that all of us at one point or another have been guilty of treating others in an unkind way. The real question is what you do about it.   

My sense is that when it is a private matter, you seek forgiveness.  When it is a public matter, you express your opinion and try to change those policies which put our government at odds with our values. 

I had posted something earlier about the confirmation hearings of Judge Mukasey suggesting that perhaps we were going to see a change regarding this administrations use of torture.  Turns out that I spoke too soon. Mr. Mukasey seems to have fallen victim to the same semantic manipulations that we’ve seen from everyone else in the Bush administration from the President on down. 

This particular case, though, has Mr. Mukasey being unwilling to admit that waterboarding is torture because, he claims, that he hasn’t had sufficient time to study the technique. So I figured I would take a moment to help out Mr. Mukasey based on data in wikipedia. 

Waterboarding is a technique of simulated drowning where the victim is forced to inhale water while attempting to breathe.  This elicits a gag response which is very frightening and very painful. Those who have undergone the technique have said that it only takes a few seconds of breathing water for the victim to stop resisting and cooperate.  After that, just the threat of repeating that experience is usually sufficient to again return the victim to a “cooperative” state. The reason that waterboarding breaks a person’s will to resist interrogation is because people are afraid that they are going to die by suffocation.   What they say in order to avoid a repeat of that experience, however, is widely believed to be unreliable. 

On July 20, 2007 the President signed an executive order banning torture and including in the definition techniques which result in “the threat of imminent death”. The US is also a signatory in 1994 with virtually every other country in the world to the UN Convention Against Torture which specifically states, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” 

Here’s a little history of this technique. 

It was originally invented during the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) when torture was raised to an art form. The Dutch East India company used the technique in the 1600’s during a conflict with the British over the spice trade in Indonesia.  The public outcry that followed caused a four year war between the Dutch and British. The Japanese and Germans used the technique during WWII.   The US used it during the Viet Nam war. The Khmer Rouge used the techique in Cambodia during their reign of terror from 1975-1979. 

It is embarrassing and disappointing for our country, which claims to be based on moral principles. to be included in this list.  But Vietnam was a dark period for our collective soul.  Unfortunately, we began using this technique again as a result of a 2002 authorization coming from the executive branch, specifically VP Cheney’s office according to ABC News and PBS reports.  

In a 2006 interview with Scott Hennen of WDAY, VP Cheney appeared to endorse this technique when he agreed with the Hennen statement that it made sense to “dunk” a terrorist if it saved lives. 

That is really the bottom line. 

It is something that every thoughtful person in general and Christians in particular have to sort out based on their own understanding of the scriptures, thou shalt not kill, love your enemy, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

As soon as you start to second guess God and accept circumstances where these instructions don’t apply, you are also saying that God somehow didn’t understand this particular situation and as a result these rules don’t apply.  You are saying that I am so fearful of the outcome, that I’m going to make an exception because I don’t trust that God will protect those who put their trust in Him.  You are saying, as it appears this administration has said, that we are above the law, are not bound by past agreememts, and can justify any action based on our own view of the value of the outcome. 

Fortunately all of us will be held accountable for our actions by our Creator. 

Those who support the practice of torture either directly or indirectly will have an opportunity to explain to someone who knows, why God’s laws didn’t apply to them.

Harvest Time

Friday, October 26th, 2007

So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
Matt 12:27-30

Jesus used this wonderful parable to help the Jews understand that though it may appear sometimes that people may have gained an advantage by behaving unethically, God is all knowing. So those who attempt to deceive will ultimately get their just reward. We don’t have to see God’s judgment to know that it is at work. We simply have to trust that Truth is always more powerful than error.

So I am grateful that in these waning days of the Bush presidency, more and more of the tares that were planted by this administration are starting to appear.

One of them involves our phone companies and the National Security Administration.

Shortly after President Bush took office and before 9/11, the NSA went to the phone companies and asked for their records. The NSA wanted to use those records to identify patterns of communication that could potentially reveal terrorist activity. That is all fine and good, except that it is illegal.

Qwest refused because they knew it was illegal. In return for upholding the law, Qwest claims that the government punished them by awarding a hundred million dollar contract for which they were the front runner to other companies. The interesting irony is that all of this information came out during Quest CEO Joe Nacchio’s appeal of a conviction for insider trading.

AT&T and Verizon gave the NSA what it wanted (and charged them for it). They knew it was illegal too.

Once the news was leaked, AT&T and Verizon started getting sued by some of their subscribers for violating their privacy. What did AT&T and Verizon do? Did they apologize, admit their wrongdoing, and seek some monetary settlement with those they wronged?

NO!

Instead they took that huge amount of money and gave it to the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, John Rockefeller. He promptly introduced a bill which gave these companies and their executives immunity from prosecution all way back to just before they started providing this information to the NSA. That bill hasn’t gone anywhere yet, but it would be good to keep an eye out for a late night maneuver to get it buried in some other innocuous bill and quietly signed by the President.

There is certainly some delicious self-righteousness in seeing the powerful held accountable for their deceptions.

There is also a fair bit of anticipation about what else might be out there. It is Harvest time after all.

Ultimately, though, there is no joy in seeing the tares burned. It would have been much better if they had never been planted.

The Perfect Man

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

“But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:”
Eph 4:7, 11-13

The most perfect man to ever have walked the earth was Jesus. The rest of us are all just pale imitations doing our best to figure out how to measure up to his example.

This post was inspired by a recent column by my friend Tom Treece. Tom is so wonderfully open, honest, and humble in his efforts to work through the challenges he sees around him. In this case, he was openly wondering why we treat those who disagree with us so badly.

That bothers me too. It’s one of the reasons why I write. I hope that if I can express my particular view in a well reasoned way, it will encourage others to do the same.

Here’s my thought for Tom and others that are trying to figure out how to deal with this situation. I think the Bible in general, and this quote from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in particular, gives us some insight.

None of us are perfect. Those that claim to be are false prophets and should be ignored.

None of us have all the answers. Those that claim to have all of the answers usurp God’s position and so their advice should also be ignored.

All of us are blessed with talents and insights. Those that suggest otherwise are saying that God somehow made a mistake. Who are you going to believe?

Our talents and insights are given us by God to accomplish His purpose. That means that there is a reason for every person on this planet to be here at this time and place. It’s your job and no one else’s to find out what your part in that plan is. You can’t do it for anyone else, and no one can do it for you.  You have to work out your own salvation.

Each of us reflects some portion of God’s perfection because we were all made in His image and likeness. If we could look at everyone all at once, we would glimpse the face of God. If you leave anyone out because of politics, belief, gender, race, or sexual orientation, you are missing some part of God.

If we want to follow Paul’s advice and aspire to at least a measure of perfection, we have to first seek out what we all have in common with Jesus – our humanity. Those of us who are Christians also have the responsibility of coming together in the unity of our faith. Paul is saying we have so much more in common than we have in difference that we are wasting precious time and energy arguing when we should be doing.

It’s very easy to get caught up today in pointing out another’s weaknesses and failures. Whether it is Pete Stark calling out President Bush, Rush Limbaugh calling out war-protesting soldiers and 12 year old kids, or just about everyone attacking Hillary Clinton; none of them are perfect. None are devils. All have the potential to be angels. All of them are made in God’s image and likeness.

If you want to see change, a good place to start is by rejecting the public spectacle of character assassination as entertainment. This is our modern day equivalent of the Roman Coliseum. Instead of watching Christians being eviscerated by wild beasts, millions tune into their favorite media outlet to cheer the dismemberment of a person’s reputation.

If, like my friend Tom, you end up being the one being chewed on while others cheer, there some solice if it is for Jesus sake, He said in the Sermon on the Mount that He feels your pain because He and other prophets were treated the same way and worse.  As a result, there is special place in heaven for your reward. 

If you are one of those who have been cheering the public persecution of your favorite victim, cut it out!  Suppress that blood lust and think about how angry you were when it was your guy getting the same treatment.  Once you’ve got that out of your system, pray to see the world as God sees it. Focus on our shared divine sonship and the world will change. We will all gain a measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.  We can certainly use it.

Perfection

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.Matt 5:48 

When you look at the Bible commentaries, there is very little disagreement about this passage.

Jesus is telling us that His expectations are that we become perfect – whole, entire, wanting nothing. The standard of “perfect” that we are to aspire to is the perfection of our Creator with whom is “no shadow, neither variableness of turning.”

So I submit for your thought a question in the context of this command – do the ends ever justify the means?

If perfect is our goal, can we ever justify a lie in order to increase the “greater good”?

Can we ever justify hate based on righting some past wrong?

Can we ever justify harming someone in order to help someone else?

Can we ever justify killing in order to preserve life?

Here’s a popular thought exercise that I’ve heard used to justify torture. Let’s suppose that someone has planted a very destructive device in a location where it could do maximum damage and you have that person in custody. Can you justify torturing them to get the information that might save lives?

I would turn that scenario around. Is there ever any situation where God is not present? And the corollary, is there any situation where God is powerless?

If not, then here is the tough question regarding perfection.  If God is all-present, all-knowing, and all-powerful; how does man working to be perfect, respond to the “terrorist” situation I just described?

How would you respond?

What is torture?

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

“For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Matt 7:2 

This is another restatement by Jesus, albeit in a more ominous tone, of the Golden Rule.  In this case, He warns us that if we want peace, we have to stop waging war.  If we want understanding, we have to stop demagoguery.  If we want justice, we have to stop torture and renditions. 

 One of the enduring embarrassments of Bill Clinton’s presidency was his attempt to parse “is” in his Grand Jury testimony. 

I submit that there is a far worse stain on the Bush presidency over his parsing of the word “torture”.  It is far worse because it isn’t just one man’s weakness, it is the policy of our country.

You probably know most of the facts.   

The legal opinions rendered by Alberto Gonzales staff which redefined what “torture” means from an international standard to something akin to major organ failure.   

The signing statement president Bush added to the law Congress passed prohibiting torture, which claimed that Congress can’t tell the President what to do in times of war and so the Executive Branch is exempt from this law.   

The Congressional witnesses to conditions in Guantanamo comparing it to Nazi concentration camps.   

The admitted practice of “renditions” where prisoners are taken by force without legal review to other countries to be “interrogated”.  The fact that at least two foreign citizens subjected to this practice later turned out to be cases of mistaken identity. 

Here are some facts that you may not know. 

There is no credible research that torture actually works in the gathering of “actionable” intelligence.   

Those that survive the methods that we employ (yes we have killed people), not only suffer physical but also psychological damage.  The Christian Science Monitor ran a series of articles using data gathered during the recent trial of Jose Padilla which suggest that he had a mental breakdown as a result of his interrogations and may not recover. 

 If you don’t recall, Jose Padilla is a US citizen who was held for more than three years without charges and without access to a lawyer (rights both guaranteed under the Constitution).  He was recently convicted of the charges against him, but he also, because of his mental state, he was not able to fully participate in his defense. 

Thankfully, the new nominee for Attorney General has said in his confirmation hearings that he does not support the new definition of “torture” that the administration created.  He did equate past practices with those of Nazi Germany. And he will support the independence of the Justice department from the White House.   

Yet as recently as yesterday, our President told the American people that he is not a torturer.  I guess it depends on your understanding of the definition of “is”.

Resisting Demotion

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

Politics and religion don’t generally mix well.  You can pick just about any time in history right up to the present and find examples where people were getting killed in the name of one god or another.  Our founding fathers had seen a lot of that in their time too and were determined to try something new – a government where politics and religion were separate.  After more than 200 years, that appears to be breaking down, and just when we need an agnostic humanist government the most, we have a fundamentalist Christian one.   

This isn’t a new idea.  You can read about it in the Bible.  That Pharisees under the Romans exerted both religious and political control in Israel.  They killed the messiah they claimed to be waiting for because his religious philosophy threatened their political position.   

One of the clear messages of Jesus theology is the rebuke of the whole Old Testament concept of judging.  The Pharisees had spent centuries arguing about what was allowed and not allowed under Jewish law.  They tied that to an understanding that God rewarded the pious and punished the sinner in this life.  It was easy for them to point to their own material success as proof of their piety while at the same time condemning those who were poor, sick, or disabled as sinners.  They gained political power by becoming the de-facto moral arbiters of all human activity. 

Jesus turned that whole concept on its head.  He proved through healing that the Pharisees definition of “sinner” didn’t work.  He healed by seeing all as God saw them, in His image and likeness.  He also told all the would listen that even though he was the Son of God, the Christ, the most perfect man to every walk the earth, that even he was not qualified to judge others.  God did the judging.  He did the saving.  Then he told all of us that if we wanted to be saved, we needed to do the same thing – leave the judging to God and focus our attention on our own salvation. 

The problem is that it is just a whole lot easier for us all to spend our time pointing the finger at others than it is for us to focus on our own shortcomings.  In the last ten years that’s become a whole lot more dangerous as religious fundamentalism and political conservatism joined forces to take over the Republican Party.   

This coalition is breeding a new generation of Pharisees intent on imposing a particular view of reality on everyone else.  For this group, just like the Pharisees, there is no difference between sinful and criminal behavior.  The most frightening aspect of this myopia is that they honestly believe that this mission to “save” humanity from itself by legislating morality is doing God’s will. 

So we have legislation based on the concept that homosexuals are sinners that restricts the rights of homosexual couples to enjoy the civil benefits (tax breaks, inheritance rights, shared insurance, pooled credit, adoption preferences, legal protection, etc.) that our society offers married couples. 

We have public policy that associates federal funding with the encouraging the teaching of abstinence as an effective birth control technique and discouraging teaching about contraception and disease prevention because pre-marital sexual activity is sinful. 

We have international policy which ties AIDS prevention funding to promoting abstinence and removes funding from clinics that distribute condoms and perform abortions.  This policy sacrifices foreign populations to the scourge of AIDS and the poverty of overpopulation in the name of promoting “Christian” values. 

We have a broken political system where public citizens with sexual identity problems suffer far more public abuse and ridicule than those who betray the publics trust for their own gain. 

We have educational systems that teach the Bible as a science, but we have public outcry when other religious traditions seek much less dangerous accommodations (installing Muslim wash basins). 

We seek to put up fences to control immigration because we fear being overwhelmed by those who don’t share our “Christian” values when the vast majority of these immigrants ARE Christian. 

I don’t seek to judge those that aspire to speak for God.  They will discover soon enough whether or not they got it right.  What I do hope is that I can encourage all of you to read the Bible yourselves.  Don’t let others (including me) tell you what it means.  All you need is there, and that combined with humble prayer will lead you to decide whether that mote in my eye is really irresistible. 

Blinded by the Right

Monday, October 8th, 2007

In the New Testament, Chapter 9 in John’s Gospel describes a man blind from his birth whom Jesus healed. When they heard of the man, the disciples, reflecting Jewish understanding that God punished sinners with these sorts of misfortunes, asked Jesus who sinned, the man or his parents? Jesus both rejected that idea and demonstrated that his message was about healing, not judgment. Then the story gets really interesting. Some Pharisees saw the whole thing. They were upset that Jesus questioned their view of reality AND had the audacity to heal on the Sabbath. So they went to talk to the previously blind man about his experience. They encouraged him to attribute his healing to God rather than Jesus, since Jesus was clearly a sinner (having healed on the Sabbath day), and (based on their understanding) a sinner can’t cure blindness. The newly seeing man held his ground. He understood what it felt like to be unjustly labeled a sinner. He said, “Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see” The Pharisees eventually grew frustrated and threw the man out of the temple. Jesus sought the man out and helped him better understand the new theology by which he was healed. Once he heard it, the man saw the world in a new light.

What this whole story reminded me of is the most recent “deal” in Michigan to balance the budget.

Stick with me for minute and you’ll see what I mean.

Both the Republicans and the Democrats were facing an intractable problem. State revenues were declining and a tax which represented a significant portion of those revenues was repealed by the Republicans with nothing to take its place. The Republicans claimed that the state should be able to make up the difference cutting government spending. The Democrats said that there had to be tax increases too.

The government shut down for a day or so and a patchwork solution was crafted, but the process was seriously flawed.

Both sides were so invested in their positions and the political advantage they might gain from the process that they lost sight of the whole reason they were elected – to govern responsibly. This was never for a moment about what was best for the people of Michigan. It was only about what was best for each political party.

The Republicans felt that they could sit on the sidelines, block any attempts at compromise, blame the Governor for the problem, and then savage the solution that inevitably was going to include a mix of cuts and taxes. The Republican never detailed the extent of the cuts they said needed to be made. Those who did attempt to analyze that claim found that among other things they included deep cuts to funding for higher education – this at a time when our state desperately needs more college graduates rather than fewer.

Though I doubt the Republicans were serious.  If they did have their way, Michigan would have become a poor southern state – no industry, no tax base, no education, no future.

The Democrats were no better. State government has to get smaller, but the Democrats appeared more interested in protecting special interests and fixing the blame on the Republicans. Both parties left intact a life-time health care plan for current and past legislators that clearly is an expensive perk that the state can no longer afford.

To the Democrats credit though, they did at least get a deal done even though they knew they were going to take a beating for it from the Republicans.

Jack Lessenberry has written extensively on this matter if you’d like to learn more.

The problem is that there is no Jesus walking the halls of Lansing able to heal this problem – at least not physically. Instead the problem has to be healed by praying to know that the stubborn self-righteous behavior of both sides does not reflect God. Our God is Love and all His creation reflects that Love in truly seeking their own in another’s good. We also have to pray to free ourselves of the temptation to be caught up in all of the blaming and judging that both parties would like to see us engage in. Both parties have to be healed of their willful blindness and adopt a new politics of compromise or else we are going to have to throw them out.