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.

Advertisements

The Necessity of Struggling

For so long before this storm, things were going so well I had only petty complaints. That nagging doubt at the back of my mind, that it shouldn’t be this way, that calm waters are stagnant waters? Easily ignored.

That comfortable, easy place I’d been living in for so long?  A trap. It’s not the Peace of Christ, but the anesthetized-entertained comfort of sitting in front of the television set with a big bowl of ice cream.

It doesn’t make me profoundly grateful. It makes me weak.

The struggle of exercise – walking, lifting weights, swimming, climbing, running, wrestling itself – makes us stronger. So does the struggle of our spirit – studying things that challenge our preconceived notions and existing interpretations, practicing empathy to understand why others differ, letting our hearts break with those who are suffering profoundly, getting our lives dirty, looking ridiculous, walking as Jesus did, among those who are “other” and beyond the pale of respectable society.

We were meant to struggle. We were never meant to coast. There is no cruise control in the Christian life.

But that’s what we do so often.

  • We know what we believe – or at least what our denominations believe – and we never question it.
  • We accept our interpretation of the Bible as being as infallible as the Bible itself.
  • We accept our respectable social circle as right, superior, almost sacred.
  • We let our socially acceptable sins slide. It’s not really gossip, I mean, not if you spread it out out love…
  • We accept our privileged American lifestyle as our birthright.
  • We accept our nation’s sins and crimes, no matter how many suffer and die for our “security” or to produce the consumer goods we crave.
  • We unconsciously assume that a “Just War” and an “American War” are one and the same.
  • Or perhaps we blindly take the political left’s side. There’s no reason to pick on conservatives. Spiritual laziness is apolitical.

I’ve been guilty of all of these in the past. And my spirit, like my physical health, has paid the price.

I’m making a commitment here to struggle every day. It won’t be hard to find things to push back against.

  • my distractedness
  • my physical laziness
  • my tendency to let Katherine do too much of the housework
  • my uncharitable thoughts, especially about those in authority
  • my tendency to eat too much of the wrong foods
  • my tendency to make everything about me and what I want/feel/think/believe
  • my privilege as a white, male, middle-class, heterosexual cisgender American
  • and so on

Ultimately, this struggle isn’t about the little details or the individual sins. It fundamentally affects what kind of person I am.

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB) says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

If we don’t struggle, if we just coast in our well-fed first-world lives, what use are we?

First Sin: Worshiping Rome (Repenting in Sackcloth and Ashes Part 2)

Roman logo: SPQR

Lord, I come before you now to repent of the sins I have participated in, specifically the corporate sins of American Evangelicalism. Forgive us, for we have desecrated your name in the eyes of the world. Forgive us, for we have made a mockery of your salvation.

Those outside our faith say we are immoral, and, Lord forgive us, they are often right.

Today, I repent of worshiping Rome. Not the Rome of the Catholic Church, but the new, democratic Rome of America.

I repent of tying myself so closely to today’s political parties that I put my hope in Washington D.C.

I repent of  ignoring terrible injustices, even atrocities (torture, willful killing of civilians) and voting for “God’s chosen party” anyway.  That I let myself by infiltrated by the world’s “the ends justifies the means” mentality, and became little more than a lapdog for opportunistic, pandering power-mongers.

I repent of internalizing corporate-sponsored attitudes toward the poor. I hear Christians talk contemptuously about “welfare queens” and people who are “too lazy to work,” and I know this is an insult to You, oh God. Yet I have to admit that I have said the same words.

I repent of letting pro-life lip-service suffice. The nations with the lowest abortion rates in the world are those in Western Europe, where a social safety net shelters pregnant women from the fear of not being able to raise the child. Is it really pro-life to say “outlaw abortion,” in one breath and “cut welfare” in the next?

I repent of all past militarism. I gave my support to the Iraq war, despite being advised to caution and discernment by a very wise WWII veteran. I know first hand from my own past cowardly stupidity that it’s very easy to be gung-ho for war when you know you’re not going to have to go and fight. I repent of being generous with the blood of my countrymen, and stingy with my own.

But most of all, I repent of confusing America (a country I love) with Christianity. America is a great country. I still believe that. I think I will always believe that. But it is not God’s Chosen Nation. Americans are not God’s Chosen People. America is not The City on the Hill. And I repent of ever letting that creep into my subconscious.

I repent of all these things in myself, and for those things done in my name by religious organizations I have been affiliated with. I bear blame for both, directly and by association.

Repenting in Sackcloth and Ashes, Part 1

confession booth

A large part of my world came crashing down last night. On the drive home from work, I realized that my church was a fraud. I realized that all my non-Christian friends were right when they talk about Evangelicals as immoral.

They don’t say that we’re stuffy. They don’t say we’re superstitious. They say we’re immoral.

Let that sink in, just in case you hadn’t heard it before. My non-Christian friends, for the most part, believe the Christianity is immoral, or at least that American Evangelical Christians are. And they’re not alone. Barna found that most young Americans feel the same.

They don’t think we’re stuck in the mud, old fashioned, or goodie-two shoes. They think we’re immoral. They think we hate. They think we don’t care about the poor. They think we don’t care about the violence done in our name.

And they’re right. God help me, they’re right.

It all became terribly, brutally clear last night.

And I got angry, so angry I could barely even go to church last night. But we were putting together fruit baskets for our church’s homebound (mostly elderly) and nursing-homebound, so I felt like I really needed to go.

That was definitely the right thing to do. It forced me to be civil and communicative for an hour or so, and it helped me rise above my anger.

But there is no rising above the sorrow. We – and that we includes me – I – owe a terrible apology to the world and to Jesus Himself.

This repentance will take a while. Today I begin, simply by offering an apology. In following days, I will confess what I see as the sins I am and have been a part of, the corporate sins of my denomination (Southern Baptist) and general affiliation (American Evangelical).

My goal isn’t to convince you that I’m right. And I certainly don’t feel any need to defend myself.

Ultimately, I owe this apology to God first. But for those of you who are reading this who have been hurt by various branches of American Evangelicalism, this apology is to you, too. Even if I’ve never met you, I owe you this.

Even as I now

Turn from these wrongs, I realize

My hands helped build them

My tithes funded them

My silence affirmed them

My words proclaimed them

And I am sorry. Terribly, terribly sorry.

Are Pacifists Cowards?

White Flag. Photo by Jan Jacobsen, Creative Commons

White Flag. Photo by Jan Jacobsen, Creative Commons

One argument I’ve heard against pacifism (or total nonviolence) is that it is a disguise for cowardice. And maybe there was a time when this was true.

Maybe, in World War I or World War II, there were people who claimed conscientious objector status on the basis of pacifism who really weren’t opposed to war, but didn’t want to fight. After all, those wars involved widespread conscription, and people tried a lot of things to avoid the draft.

I’ve got two responses to that argument. The first is that you can’t rightly judge actual pacifists by those who claim pacifism just because they’re scared. This should be obvious.

More importantly, we aren’t in World War II anymore.  Nobody is being drafted into the U.S. Military to go and fight the Taliban. In fact, we’re in process of transitioning from our all-volunteer, professional military fighting a war to unmanned drones targeting “militants” via a Presidential kill list.  Nobody’s claiming pacifism to avoid going to war.

I would argue that right now, in America, it takes more courage to be a pacifist than to not be.  Patriotism is a cardinal virtue here in America, and it seems that patriotism almost always gets wrapped up in militarism.

To support America is to support our troops. To support our troops is to support whatever war congress and the President have sent them to. And to support whatever multibillion dollar weapons system congress is trying to fund this week.  If you don’t support the “$154 million dollar per plane” F-35 jet fighter program, you don’t really love America.

Lockheed Martin F-35 Jet Fighter - for $154 million, it should turn into a robot

Never mind whether it’s true or not. Never mind whether our troops might be better supported and loved by being judicious and critical about sending them off to die. Never mind that the Joint Chiefs don’t even want all the weapons systems congress is throwing at them (or rather, at their friends in the defense industry).

It doesn’t matter if it’s true. This is our narrative. Our politicians may squabble over the details, but precious few want to change the basic storyline. It’s not just embraced by the secular culture, but by the majority of Christians. I’ve even heard it preached from the pulpit.

Pacifism flies in the face of this narrative.

Pacifism says “America is not Jerusalem, and it’s certainly not the City of God.”

Pacifists call us to awareness of the dangers of America, how it can easily become Rome, crushing all those who get in its path, abusing its own people, even while proclaiming the great rights granted to it “citizens”.

Pacifists say things the wider culture, including American Christians, don’t want to hear.

That’s not cowardly. Far from it.

Cultural Analysis: Horror as Ethical Violence

Dragon and Woman, painted by William Blake, circa 1805

Dragon and Woman by William Blake, circa 1805

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the violent imagination and ethical ways to approach violence in fiction.  Too much of American culture glorifies violence.  The way that good overcomes evil in TV, movies, many books, and even toy lines, is by kicking its butt.  Good beats evil because good shoots straighter, hits harder, has better toys, and keeps on fighting.  And in small doses, violence can teach the virtue of courage.  But we don’t get small doses.  We are, to quote the Palmolive commercial, “soaking in it.”

So that leads me to wonder, is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  I’ll look at some other possibilities later, but here I’ll consider horror.  On the one hand, horror seems ethical because it explicitly presents the violence as horrific.  We are supposed to be repulsed by the violence we see.  There is no celebration of violence as glorious or righteous.  And even though much of the time the survivors use violence to overcome the killer or monster that is stalking them, they always pay a great cost.

This cost comes both in blood (horror stories typically have a high body count) and in the characters’ peace of mind. They will never again be as innocent, as naive, as carefree as they were.  They have met a great evil, passed through the darkness, and are no longer the same.  Often, they have killed for the first time, and it does not leave them untouched.

At its best, horror echoes the ancient legends: Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue his wife; a red-cloaked girl facing a great wolf who’d devoured her grandmother; Dante’s passage through inferno, purgatory, and paradise.  Horror, at its best, is the primal fairy tale: the innocent encountering the unnatural, and emerging changed.  Hidden amidst its armies and castles, The Lord of the Rings includes a fairy tale (or perhaps a horror novel), the story of four young friends who brave the lair of hell itself to destroy a profound and threatening evil.

But at its worst, horror mutilates young, usually sexually attractive, bodies for our thrills and titillation.  At its worst, slasher horror slut-shames women quite literally to death.  First, the young woman has sex (showing the gratuitous T&A shot), and then, she is slaughtered in gory Technicolor.  Meanwhile, the virgin survives to the end, to escape or kill the slasher.

When I speak of horror’s ethical approach to violence, I speak of Stephen King’s Desperation, not Friday the Thirteenth Part 27.   I speak of normal people caught up in a desperate situation, one that involves a terrible encounter with evil, one that tests their wills, their faith, their wits, their endurance.  The evil is overcome, often at great sacrifice, in a cathartic climax.  The universal story of good overcoming evil is retold, with the important reminder that such victories are never won without cost.  Without blood, there is no remission of sins.

So what do you think?  Is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  If so, is horror one of those ways?

Things I Don’t Understand – When America Was Righteous (Part 2 of 3)

Howdy Doody display.  Photo by Volkan Yuksel, Creative Commons

Howdy Doody display. Photo by Volkan Yuksel, Creative Commons

In Part 1 I deconstructed American history, briefly giving reasons why no decade could really be considered a time when America was “righteous.”  Today, I want to know why the “recapturing our more righteous past” and “moral decline” memes persist.  Why are they so powerful?  Do we really think there was a time of real goodness and Christlikeness in our nation’s past?

I think I can answer that.  When I was a child, when the Internet was just a tool for scientists and military techs, the world really was simpler.  I was a white, upper-middle class, heterosexual, boy from the dominant religion (Protestant).

I had the great outdoors, my toys, my friends, a lot of books, and three TV channels (ABC, PBS, and a  UHF station that later picked up the FOX programming, but mostly showed Star Trek, The Three Stooges, and black and white westerns).  If the weather was perfect, we might get CBS or even NBC, but generally not long enough to watch an entire show.  And on those five channels, the rules were strict.  MASH was about as risqué as it got.  I hardly even knew any swear words until elementary school.

I never thought of it as that idyllic – I was an only child with a high IQ and mediocre social skills.  On the first day of first grade I asked the teacher why Great Britain was apologizing to the Falkland Islands when they’d started the whole thing.  Not a question she was expecting, and not one that endeared me to my classmates.

I remember childhood as fighting bullies (almost constantly) and worrying about inflation, terrorism, and the waning Soviet Union.  I knew far too early that Mommy and Daddy couldn’t stop the bad guys.

But I was the exception.  Most of my friends and acquaintances weren’t only children.  They had brothers and nearby cousins to socialize them early.  Likewise, they didn’t notice world events, didn’t feel the Sword of Damocles that was the Cold War.  They were sheltered.

My parents’ generation?  While they were playing with their dolls in 1955, Emmett Till, a black child not much older than they were, was being lynched for talking to a white woman.  But they were sheltered.  They were children.  Their world was innocent, and they didn’t know.

And today?  Today the Internet brings massive amounts of information, both good and bad.  I still remember a man telling me that his grandson had been looking at Internet porn, and how shocked he was at the content (he found out because his computer got a bad virus, and the computer repairman told him.  I guess computers get STDs, too).

He said that boys of a certain age will want to know about the opposite sex, to find out what they don’t know, so to speak.  But that in his day they might find a Playboy with some nudity, but not full video of graphic (and sometimes really rough, demeaning) sex acts.  So in the past, even in adolescent transgressing, we were sheltered.

That shelter is gone.  And the danger, especially from pornography, has multiplied tenfold.  I won’t argue against that at all.  Kids can easily find ways to get into much more damaging trouble that they could even twenty years ago.

Information overload has made it hard for us to believe in the things that are going well.  Sure, here in America we have our lowest violent crime rate in 40 years and our lowest abortion rate in 20 years.  But we hear about everything, every crime that’s flashy enough to be newsworthy is played and replayed endlessly.  And it feeds our fear, creates a moral crisis.  Something has to be done!  But crime rates have been falling for 20 years, why don’t we keep doing what we’re doing, and watch them keep falling?

Another thing the flood of information has done has made it much harder to pretend that just because things are going well for you, that they’re going well for everyone.  Now we know, thanks to the Internet and media, about all the suffering in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East.  We know about eleven year old girls facing execution for “blasphemy,” and nine year old brides.  We know about brutal crackdowns on peaceful demonstrations in Syria and Iran.  We know about “vanishings” and torture and terrible things even our own government has done.

We know, if we bother to look, that the factories preparing our food torture the animals mercilessly, confining pigs in cages they can’t even turn around in, and leaving them there all their lives, cramming chickens in, stacked on top of each other, fed a constant diet of antibiotics to keep them alive.

A half dozen huge corporations get over 80% of all farm subsidies, and they treat their livestock horribly.  The proof is not for the faint of heart.   This includes a video that is definitely not for the faint of heart.

And we know that children whose parents live on $2,500 a year (less than I make in a month – not our household income, just my paycheck) struggle to find fresh water, die of malaria or dengue fever because of mosquitoes that merely annoy us here, and, if they live, end up as child brides, prostitutes, or slaves working to gather the cocoa that feeds our sweet tooth.

Meanwhile, we live in unearned wealth, granted by the good fortune of being born in the industrialized world instead of the developing world.

So, yeah, the fallen-ness of our world hits us like a jackhammer now.  We can’t sit, shielded by our white, wealthy, American privilege, immune to the pain of a suffering world.  Well, we can, but we have to actively tune it out, harden our hearts like Pharaoh, and lash out in anger at anyone who breaks the illusion.  It’s a defense mechanism, true, but it’s not one that our faith allows us.  Matthew 25 tells the story.  Are we Christ’s lambs, or the world’s goats?

On the other hand, it could just be that people are angry at cussing on TV and the gays.