All Things Right and Good

You’re going to reach a point (We all do)

Where you must decide whether you will be right or good.

I know, Jesus never found Himself in such a spot

But he was God made flesh. You and I are not.

And when I reach that point, I want to say:

“I don’t know if this is right.

I don’t know how it fits in with systematic theology

With moral law, with moral codes

But I know how to be good.”

I’ve learned the hard way that right, like rights,

Can be abused, can be abusive:

  • Right and wrong (who decides?)
  • Legal and illegal (who makes the laws?)
  • Winning the argument
  • Contempt for the loser
  • Insiders and outsiders
  • orthodox and heretics
  • Moral panics
  • “They deserve it.”
  • “They would do the same to us.”

These are tools of domination. These are acts of violence

They’re labels and weapons the powerful use to maintain their supremacy

Be it white or male or hetero/cis.

It’s all the same. Power. Money. Control.

The rich men who wield it

The rough men who enforce it

The abuse and domination of women

And the blood of dark-skinned people

And anyone different in religion, sexuality, or creed

The enslavement of millions in for-profit prisons

And the torture of the few with neither trial nor hope

We can be right.

We can be in control.

We can hold the moral high ground

Or we can be good.

Or we can love as Jesus loved.

But we cannot serve both God and mammon.

Syria

This seems to be the week America talks about the tragedy in Syria. And today is the day Pope Francis II called for prayer and fasting for the people of Syria.

Lately, I’ve been focusing on some bad news in my own life (news I’m not sure I want to talk about here), so I haven’t written about Syria yet.

Most likely, President Obama is going to “solve” this by bombing the bad guys, just like he’s doing in Yemen and Pakistan. He’s proven he is perfectly happy to send in the drones, missiles and bombers, with or without a declaration of war.

He can do that with or without Congress ‘s approval. What is this gridlocked Congress gonna do if they don’t like it, impeach him? Not going to happen, especially not over a bunch of dead non-white, non-Americans.

It’s not as if there is any uniform sentiment in Congress. There are good arguments for and against intervention, after all. Right now, neither side in this civil war has any capacity to hurt us. Could that change? I don’t know.

What’s going on over there is an atrocity, and I know the rest of the world has to do something. But I’m not at all convinced that dropping bombs on an atrocity will make it less atrocious.

I don’t have a perfect solution. At this point no one does. But maybe this world would be a little better off if America was a little less ready to fight. We’ve been at war since 2001, continuously.

Most elementary school students and a large number of elementary school students have literally never been alive in a time of peace. Most high school students and some college students are too young to remember 9/11, or a time when we weren’t at war.

And back then, most of the Christians I knew were strongly pro-war. And I was, too. But I wonder if that was be right idea. I wonder if we might have served our country and our God more faithfully by being a voice of peace.

Maybe we should be that voice of peace now.  And maybe we should have a clear picture as to how American bombs are going to help the Syrians…before we drop them.

Means and Ends (Neither Kant nor Machiavelli)

Kant in black & white, Machiavelli in shades of gray

Kant in black & white, Machiavelli in shades of gray

Niccolo Machiavelli famously said, “In judging policies we should consider the results that have been achieved through them rather than the means by which they have been executed.” The ends justify the means.

Immanuel Kant argued in favor of the old Latin maxim, “Do what is right, though the world should perish.” The means justify the ends.

But I don’t believe we can, in good conscience, stand by either maxim. As moral beings, especially as people of faith, we have a responsibility for both our means and our ends. We must balance the rightness of our methods with the most likely outcomes.

It’s easy to brush off Machiavelli. “The ends justifies the means” sounds like something a movie villain would say.

Until national security is on the line.

Until George W. Bush is talking about “enhanced interrogation” and “indefinite detention” (without a trial, of course)

Until Barrack Obama is talking about (or rather, trying very hard not to talk about) using Predator drones to blow up civilians in nations we aren’t even at war with.

But as Christians, we can at least try to avoid that one. We can set our feet down and join Kant in defending the old saying, “Do what is right, though the world should perish.”

But what does that mean? Does that mean being so focused on “biblical” roles in marriage that you treat spousal abuse like it’s a matter of the wife’s submission, as John Piper does below (from his entire demeanor, he either has no concept of what an abusive relationship is really like, or he has no empathy. I think both may be true, given his view of God).

When we focus on what is “right” according to scripture, and then use that to justify hurting “sinners” (such as denying them their [secular] civil rights, advocating discredited and medically dangerous therapies, or advocating for harsh criminal penalties against them in African countries),  we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

When we let our idea of “biblical” gender roles blind us to abuse in marriages, in families, and in churches, we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

Even if we are not blinded, if we ignore or minimize suffering (as John Piper is doing above), we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

When we use our interpretation of scripture (without the humility to question whether we might be wrong, reading the Bible in translation, 2000+ years later, in a totally different cultural context) as a weapon, or an anesthetic that prevents us from feeling the pain of others, we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

But we’re not doing what’s right. Not really. And our means, no matter how righteous we may thing they are, are utterly and totally tainted by the pain we cause.

Our righteousness is like filthy rags to God. That’s not just a redundant restating of Romans 3:23. It isn’t a declaration of Calvin’s “total depravity.” It means that our rightness, our self-justifications, our focus on “doing the right thing” no matter what the cost to others … is just filthy.

And the world sees this. It’s not the gospel that’s offending them. It’s our warped Kantian-Calvinistic logic, our weaponized righteousness. And it should offend them.

The Audacity of Losing Hope in Politics

I know it’s easy, in this political season, to look at both candidates and lose hope.

One promises hope and change, but wages a drone warfare against Pakistani villages, killing hundreds of civilians. The other speaks the language of conservativism and the Christian Right, but spent his career dismantling businesses and shipping jobs overseas.

Both seem utterly in the grip of corporate interests.  Neither seems apt to bring an end to warrantless surveillance, extrajudicial execution, and indefinite detention.

Yes, they’re different, but they’re different like Nero and Julius Caesar were different.  One may be worse, one may be better, but neither one will be truly good.  God warned Israel against wanting a king, but Israel persisted.  It looks like we’re still reaping that harvest now [1 Samuel 8:10-18]

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, I’m not going to be able to vote for either President Obama or Governor Romney, because of their use of (and acceptance of continued use of, respectively) Predator drones to strike Pakistani villages.

Killing men, women, and children, burning houses, and terrorizing  entire towns semi-permanently?  Cruel and pointless.  Defining as “militants” any male of fighting age who happens to be found in these areas?  Deceptive and arrogant.  Hiding these actions from public scrutiny?  Disreputable and disgusting.

Nobody seems to be taking this seriously.  Most of my ‘progressive’ friends and most of the Emergent Evangelical voices on the blogosphere are still singing the President’s praises, as if they’d never even heard of this.  My more conservative friends wholeheartedly get behind Mitt Romney, taking an “anybody but Obama” stance.

Even the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson hasn’t ruled out continuing the drone-slaughter, even as he promises to bring the troops home.  Apparently, Pakistani lives are cheap these days.

And both candidates who actually have a chance of winning are so beholden to corporate interests that we commoners hardly even matter.  Would I have voted for one or the other, if not for this slaughter?  Maybe, but it doesn’t matter now.  I won’t support this with my vote.

I’ve heard people say that President Obama isn’t a real Christian, but never because his hunter-killer drones kill Pakistani children.  No, it’s because he’s pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.  I’ve heard people make similar arguments about Governor Romney, because his economic policies will hurt the poor.

And everybody’s so gung-ho for their candidates that they seem to think the world will end if their man loses.

The world won’t end.  Too many rich people have too much invested in this crony-capitalist, “too big to fail” model.  The world will only end when God ends it.

And that’s the thing to remember.  God is not up for re-election.  God is the king of the universe, regardless of the popular vote or the electoral college.  As Christians, we have to remember that, and remember where our true loyalty lies.

I’ve heard people question whether any true Christian can vote for President Obama.  And I’ve heard the same thing about whether any true Christian can vote for Governor Romney (not because he’s Mormon, but because of his regressive economic policies and his pseudo-Randian VP).  Frankly, both positions are ridiculous.

Christians have a lot of reasons for voting for candidates, and questioning somebody’s commitment to Christ because they don’t share your political preferences is borderline blasphemous.  Election 2012 isn’t the Messiah versus the Antichrist.  It’s two rich, connected power-players competing for the most powerful prize on the planet.  If your conscience leads you to vote for one or the other, fine.  But shut up about God’s candidate.

As Christians, we need to maintain unity, with each other and with our neighbors of other faiths.  Whoever wins will be our President, but not our true ruler.  You don’t like Romney?  You don’t like Obama?  Try living under Nero or Caligula.  Try being a Russian or Ukrainian or Lithuanian Christian during the Stalin years.  Though many were martyred, God preserved his church, and it flourished, even underground.

To quote Longfellow, God is not dead, nor does he sleep.  No matter who wins or loses, we have to stick together, to pray together, to pray for whichever man makes it to the White House, to pray for our nation.  God is our Hope, not any man.

For God or Country (Wrestling the Angel of Patriotism)

Eagle and American Flag Photo by Pam "Bubbels" Roth, Creative Commons

Photo by Pam “Bubbels” Roth, Creative Commons

Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to be a good patriotic American and a genuine Christian at once.  This isn’t an idle thought, or some kind of “blame America first” catchphrase.  It’s a genuine worry I have.

I’ve always believed that America is essentially good (though far from perfect) and that patriotism was a good thing.  I still do, for the most part.  But now I wonder if these two things – America and the Kingdom of Heaven – are not competing goods.

Part of me wants to say “no.”  Jesus said that no man can serve two masters. [Matthew 6:24]  And I’ve already talked about how America is not, and never has been righteous (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).  I can’t vote for Romney or Obama, not so long as they both support drone strikes against civilians.  For all the religious political posturing, America seems more like Rome than Jerusalem.

We do not care for the poor like we should.  The gap between the rich and poor grows.  And the mortgage crisis shows how easily the average person can be taken advantage of by unscrupulous creditors (I was a Realtor a few years back, and let me tell you, that can be an ugly field.  Finding an ethical Realtor and mortgage broker is vital, and not always easy.  I mean, really?  Approving someone for a mortgage that costs half their monthly income?  What ethical planet are you from?)

Politicians preach about Sodom, but forget what the Sin of Sodom was: Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.”  That’s right: Sodom’s sin was lack of hospitality, not caring for the poor, living too richly while those around them suffered [Ezekiel 16:49].  Forget homosexuality: that’s America to the core.

On the Other Hand…

Part of me wants to say “yes.”  Part of me says that Granddaddy was both.  He fought in World War II.  He started and sustained two small businesses, on of which still employs several people in our hometown, fifty years later (thanks in large part to my Dad, who’s managed it for about 25 years).

Granddaddy was always patriotic.  He put flags on the graves on Memorial Day.  He was a proud veteran, and he modeled quiet, civic patriotism.  He was also far and away a better Christian than I am.

He spent a lot of time in prayer (time I either waste online or spend writing about my feelings *smirk*).  He was a Gideon, and active in prison ministry.  Was he perfect?  Of course not.  But he was fundamentally good, and he gave God the glory.

Was Granddaddy’s America better than the one I live in now?  Nostalgia tempts me to say “yes.”  Certainly, much of his life was lived in simpler times.  The amount of information, the access to information, was less, and even entertainment came in such limited streams that you could stand around drinking coffee and talk about TV shows and actually have people know what you mean, without having to Google it (Honey Boo-Boo?  That sounds like a bee with a scraped knee, but apparently it’s a reality TV show).

But better?  We’ve been through this (Part 1Part 2, and Part 3).  World War II was a just war if there ever was one, but America still bombed Dresden, killing 25,000 civilians, America firebombed Tokyo, killing at least 100,000 and leaving 1 million homeless, roughly as many as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and more than the bombing of Nagasaki.

These massive bombing campaigns may or may not have been necessary to win the war, but they led to massive civilian deaths.  Our ongoing drone strikes are less destructive by a couple of orders of magnitude, but they’re also unnecessary and unjustifiable.

On the home front, racial segregation was an ongoing struggle.  I have a relatively objective account that Granddaddy was about as non-racist as a white man could be at the time and still live in Mississippi (told by a friend who left Mississippi in the 1950’s in protest of the racist atmosphere).  But the atmosphere affected everyone who stayed.

So, if my grandfather was able to balance love for a deeply flawed nation with faithful service to God, why can’t I?

Maybe the times really have changed.  Maybe there is no political party I can get behind (drone strikes on civilians are a deal-breaker, as is torture).  Granddaddy voted Republican as long as I can remember, but the party was very different back then.  When he was alive, I voted Republican, and did it with a clear conscience.  This year?  I don’t know who I’ll vote for, but it will be in protest.

Maybe I’m just not trying hard enough.  Maybe loving America has nothing to do with being able to vote for a Presidential candidate in good conscience.  Maybe part of loving America is calling it as it is, not worshiping it as it claims to be.

Maybe I can only love America correctly if I first love God correctly.  If I turn my loyalties away from my own self (whether self-preservation, self-interest, or just self-introspection) and turn them to God’s Kingdom, maybe I’ll be able to love America like God does – fully aware of its flaws, with no blind jingoism, with no excuses, just grace.

Libyan Embassy (Wrestling the Angel of Hate)

Note to the people of Libya

One of the hardest things to do is to forgive those who’ve wronged us.

The only thing harder might be to remember who’s wronged us and who, like us, has been wronged.

For eleven years we’ve been at war with radical Islamists.

For eleven years we’ve struggled to remember that we’re not at war with Islam, with all Muslims, with the Arab world, with the Middle East…

For eleven years we’ve all too often failed.

For eleven years I’ve heard anger in our churches, vengeance in our sanctuaries.

For eleven years way too much of it has come from my mouth.

And when Ambassador Stevens was killed in Libya, it was all to easy to think, even say, things that lumped all Libyans together.  Guilty by association.  Ungrateful for the help in overthrowing Khadafi, infuriated by a b-movie, blah blah blah.

Then I saw this:

15 photos of Benghazi citizens apologizing to Americans

So now I owe them an apology.  For thinking too quickly, for blaming to broadly, for being quick to anger.

And I owe them a debt of gratitude.  Several Libyans died helping to protect and evacuate the embassy.  Their lives were as valuable as any American’s.  Their lives were as valuable as my own.

So, to start on the right track, I’m posting this.  And I’m posting that picture, a handwritten note thanking the Libyan people, and wishing them peace and freedom.  I’ll be Facebooking it and Tweeting it, and I ask you to do the same.

Show your support for all those who love peace.  Write your own note.  Let the killers, the idolaters who worship blood and power, that they don’t get the last word.  Show those who would divide us, who would plunge us into hate, that they will not succeed.  Show the world that Americans and Libyans want peace and freedom.