Monday, May 30, 2011

A Memorial Day Salute to Saluting

I am, unabashedly and vocally, a pacifist in as broad a terms as I can imagine that word being applied. I would like to set that aside for the purposes of this thought, however, and assume for the sake of argument a stance that I believe that it is possible for a war to be justified morally, legally, or even pragmatically. It is Memorial Day, a holiday which in true American fashion was begun to honor the armed services but for all intents and purposes now only honors American decadence in all its wasteful, gluttonous, self-indulgent glory. Nevertheless, a variety of forces still conspire to provide the American public with a nagging reminder that they should be mindful of the military. Beer commercials, talk show hosts, and billboards all remind us to save a moment between our third and fourth helping of potato salad for gratitude for those courageous members of the military who have served and continue to serve protecting our American freedoms.

That is not, I suppose, such an offensive notion in itself. My grandfather served in World War II with distinction, earning a purple heart, and I was raised to feel a certain sense of awe at the thought of that greatest generation. I grasp that in the terms of prevailing moral sentiment that Hitler was a bad man who the world had an ethical imperative to stop. I understand that at Pearl Harbor the sovereign borders of the United States were violated by the army of a foreign state. I can understand the reverence paid to the veterans of World War II.

But I struggle with the idea that the very fact of military service somehow requires deference. There is a popular idea that stretches across the political spectrum that it is somehow beyond debate that men and women who have volunteered for service in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq deserve praise. Why is that? I am not sure that violence ever deserves praise, but when it is violence which neither protects American liberty nor rights an egregious wrong it seems insufficient to me to appeal to a vague sense of obligation and expect everyone to genuflect before veterans of unjust wars.

I am reading through Ron Paul’s Liberty Defined right now, and he points out that the wars the United States is currently engaged in do not stand up to any reasonable criteria of justification. They are not legal, moral, or pragmatic. He explains:

We have spent a couple trillion dollars, and most importantly, sacrificed a lot more Americans than died on 9/11. Nearly 6,000 have been killed, and hundreds of thousands of physical and mental casualties have been sustained, in addition to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani citizens, only to see the Taliban and al Qaeda moving into Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia…Every time there’s a military confrontation, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen, even Somalia, “victory” is reported since so many “insurgents” were killed, and when examined closely there is an admission that many civilian casualties resulted as well, referred to as collateral damage. If it was always reported that we killed “freedom fighters” defending their homeland, which is closer to the truth, the American people would be outraged.

Even if I do not share the view, I can understand the mindset which believes that many traits of the soldier are noble. Apparent courage and self-sacrifice are easily lauded, but I would suggest that, regardless of your positions on war in general, there is nothing laudable about having the courage to attack an enemy who has not attacked you or to sacrifice yourself for an unjust cause. Paul writes elsewhere,

The endless praise offered to those who serve in the military--“thank you for your service” in defending the empire--is a required politically correct salutation to our “universal” soldiers. No, they never say thank you for “defending the empire”; it’s much more decent--it’s thank you for defending our freedoms, our Constitution, and for fighting “them” over there so we don’t’ have to fight them here at home. Though the wars we fight are now unconstitutional, the military is endlessly praised for defending our liberties and Constitution.

I am not proposing any kind of antagonism towards America’s armed forces. The idea of more Vietnam era behavior where returning soldiers are reviled, shamed, and abused by the public is really no less distasteful than the kind of intolerant violence that ought to be opposed overseas. I am only hoping that people will be critical of what seems to be a largely uncritical attitude of quasi-religious reverence toward servicemen and women. What is it that deserves praise? What warrants our respect? At the very least, I would hope that it is not the mere willingness to enlist whatever the aim, whatever the orders, whatever the cost (measured in human lives rather than American citizens). There is no virtue in that.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Church in Egypt (Update)

A story from the Assyrian International News Agency yesterday (to be taken with a grain of salt) reports that three Christians were just sentenced to five years in prison by a military court for carrying weapons:

Defense lawyer Abraham Edward said "This is a very unjust, severe and cruel verdict." He said that as lawyers they are unable to fathom what is going on. "Today's case is very strange, a case where there is not one shred of evidence to indict them. If this case went in front of the International Court of Justice they would all be set free." He criticized the five-year prison sentence handed down to Ayad Emad Ayad for carrying a pocket knife. According to the law this is punishable by a six months suspended sentence.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cow News

Frankly, news like this gets my Irish up. Seven people in Texas are facing animal cruelty charges for using hammers and pickaxes to kill cattle. To be honest, I don't like to think too much about the fact that at one time my hamburger looked like this:

(If I'm being entirely candid, it's usually a week or so before I can eat beef after seeing an image like that.) I certainly am not okay with the knowledge that somewhere along the line the people in charge of handling that future quarter-pounder decided that expediency or, worse still, cruel amusement were of greater importance than humane compassion.

I realize that it is in some sense natural to become cavalier when you have such total power over something whose purpose is reduced in large part to death at the service of our needs. Nevertheless, we have a Creator who is a constant example to us of the perfect marriage of total power and simultaneous love such that I find it inexcusable that we should be deliberately cruel in executing our rights over animals.

At least some people have a more constructive view of and respect for animals, no matter how nutty.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Nice Thought Inspired by National City

The National City Christian Church, the headquarters of the Disciples of Christ, just observed its fifth annual blessing of the dogs. The idea is a refreshing one and not simply because it is a clever tool for both evangelism and community involvement (though it certainly is). It is nice to see a church--particularly a church so near to the Churches of Christ--making an effort to recognize the broad scope of God's blessings for His diverse and magnificent creation. Granted, the description in the linked article makes the affair seem more like a themed publicity stunt than a theologically motivated stand, but I nevertheless enjoy the thought that we are somewhere implicitly acknowledging that God's blessings are not merely for mankind. It is important to remember that redemption is ultimately cosmological rather than anthropological just as the Fall had ramifications beyond simply human nature. Even as we admit that humanity has a certain pride of place as the focal point of that redemptive plan and a mediator of God's grace to creation, we cannot help but see that God's love is not limited by or for humanity.

If you have one, you might make time to thank God for your dog and ask His abundant blessings on man's best friend, for a change, and not merely on man.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Merry Judgment Day!

Well, it is May 21st, the day believed by a very vocal minority to be Judgment Day. And there is no reason why it shouldn't be Judgment Day, though I suppose if you're sitting at your computer today reading this it is probably either not Judgment Day or it is too late for you anyhow. While so many reasonable people have laughed off, if somewhat uneasily, these predictions of final judgment today, there is no reason why judgment is any less likely to come at 6 p.m. EST than at any other time. If we appeal to the bibilical promise that no one will know the day or the hour then we forestall judgment forever because inevitably there is someone somewhere convinced that today will be the day (whatever the day may be). In truth, no matter how fervently these predictions are put forward as fact and even if Harold Camping is correct, he didn't know. He just happened to guess right the loudest.

More interesting to me than whether or not judgment is actually reigning down on us (as you read this, of course) is precisely the way people have reacted to the "knowledge" that the end is near. There has been a frantic setting of their moral lives in order and, more publicly, a surge of evangelical effort. But why? The end has been near for thousands of years, at least as far as the apostles were concerned. "The end of all things is at hand" (1 Pet 4:7). People in the earliest Christian decades lived with the constant expectation of an immediate return of Christ, as rightly they should have--even knowing now that the return would not come. After all, Jesus exhorts his disciples to this kind of attitude in Matthew 24:

Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

Imagine if the money, time, and effort that went into this propoganda campaign about the looming end of the world had been expended in a less controversial (and, from a secular atheistic point of view, laughable) evangelistic enterprise. Or for that matter, distributed to the poor in an effort to be morally upright whether the Lord was coming today or in another two thousand years. I suppose my point is that times like these show clearly the lamentable state of Christian life. We ought to live always as if we are an eschatological people standing right at the brink of eternity. When predictions like this one gain popular currency we see that those who change were not living eschatologically to begin with and those who don't, more likely than not, are simply not convinced that there is any urgency to change.

That day is coming like a theif. It may not have come today; it probably didn't. But when it comes is oddly less important than the fact that it comes. It is real regardless of its precise timing, and we, as Christians, are called to live in the light of that reality.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Wisdom of Bill Maher?

I feel immediately compelled to qualify this post by stating explicitly that I am not only not a devotee of Bill Maher's but that I am, as always, quite thoroughly opposed to Christian involvement in politics in the tradition of David Lipscomb, among others. This clip which I am posting I happened upon while channel surfing in a hotel room the other night. Maher's tirade involves the stance of Chrisitanity toward torture, something which obviously interests me very much. While his style is obviously comedic and irreverant (and the video I managed to find on YouTube is odd in itself), the basic point seems to me to be so plain in its accuracy that it boggles my mind how many Chrisitans can blatantly ignore it. The gift for human rationalization is astounding. A few days before seeing this segment while listening to the news, my wife turned to me in the car and said, "I feel like that's just the most basic thing: Christians should be against torture." In the video, Maher expresses the same sentiment more colorfully:

And not to put too fine a point on it, but nonviolence was kind of Jesus’ trademark, kind of his big thing. To not follow that part of it is like joining Green Peace and hating whales. There’s interpreting and then there’s just ignoring. It’s just ignoring if you’re for torture, as are more evangelical Christians than any other religion.

It is startling to me how readily Christians can reconcile in their mind the command to love our enemies and a secular, political imperative for security through force.

With all that out of the way, let me add this final disclaimer. Though it should go without saying, Bill Maher is not a Christian. What he has to say and the way he says it will undoubtedly be offensive to many of you (as it was at times to me). If, however, it is the very suggestion that to be a Christian is to eschew violence in favor of love that offends you, I propose that the problem is not with Maher at all.

The video can be found here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Church in Egypt (Update)

In case you weren't aware, things could be going better for Christians in Egypt. Back when the turmoil began in Egypt I expressed concerns that not only would the long standing persecution of the church in Egypt intensify under the new government (or lack thereof) but that Christians, when given a global stage on which to respond, would do so inappropriately. The trials of the Egyptian church have intensified; its response has been a mixed bag.

I hope that even though the American media has largely moved on to bigger and more sensational stories that American Christians will not forget their brothers and sisters who suffer and who struggle to endure suffering in the manner which Christ has taught us.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Thin Man

I am quite the avid fan of Myrna Loy’s, and I am almost equally fanatical in my love of William Powell, so I naturally have had a strong affinity for the Thin Man series of films which started and epitomized their on screen charisma. Recently, however, I have had the opportunity for the first time to read Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, on which the characters for the film series are based. I must say, I enjoyed the book even more than the films. Hammett’s story is much darker, racier, and grislier than the book, a product no doubt of the different expectations of the two media. Still it gives the story in the novel a fuller body, the weight of which Hammett throws at you with astonishing force. The characters outside of Nick and Nora are two-dimensional as seen through Nick’s eyes but at the same time, perhaps because of their antic qualities, startlingly lifelike. Nick and Nora, at the same time, for all their character depth seem strangely surreal by comparison.

The real delight in the book that cannot be gleaned from the films, however, is Hammett’s peculiar narrative style. On the one hand, the story is carried along almost entirely on the back of episodic dialogues between Nick and the myriad suspects in a way that is oddly reminiscent (at least to me with my training) of the philosophical dialogues of Plato or Hume. With Nick at the helm and a bungling horde of interlocutors not up to the task of sparring with him, however, the dialogues are less philosophical than they are comical, an ironic look at the way conclusions are truly reached. On the other hand, Hammett does not seem at all bothered to simply stop recording the dialogue. He frequently shifts from the actual content of speech to a third person summarization of what is being said in a way that is at once jarring and deeply revealing of Nick’s character as narrator.

My favorite aspect of the book was undoubtedly the way Hammett reversed my expectation of the relationship between the characters and the author. Typically, the author uses the narration to comment on the characters, but in The Thin Man it seems at times that the characters are using the narration to comment on the author. The book ends abruptly with Nora declaring, ostensibly to Nick, that “it’s all pretty unsatisfactory.” I cannot help but read in this a touch of self-referential derision as Hammett simply abandons the characters he has worked so hard to introduce to you. With that line, my sense of awe at his craft overpowered my frustration with being left wanting. That, in my opinion, is a powerful recommendation in itself.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Wisdom of Blaise Pascal

This is already a long quote, but I would have quoted more if I thought anyone would read it. This is from Blaise Pascal's Pensées, secion eight:

Men blaspheme what they do not know. The Christian religion consists in two points. It is of equal concern to men to know them, and it is equally dangerous to be ignorant of them. And it is equally of God's mercy that He has given indications of both.

And yet they take occasion to conclude that one of these points does not exist, from that which should have caused them to infer the other. The sages who have said there is only one God have been persecuted, the Jews were hated, and still more the Christians. They have seen by the light of nature that if there be a true religion on earth, the course of all things must tend to it as to a centre.

The whole course of things must have for its object the establishment and the greatness of religion. Men must have within them feelings suited to what religion teaches us. And, finally, religion must so be the object and the centre to which all things tend that whoever knows the principles of religion can give an explanation both of the whole nature of man in particular and of the whole course of the world in general.

And on this ground they take occasion to revile the Christian religion, because they misunderstand it. They imagine that it consists simply in the worship of a God considered as great, powerful, and eternal; which is strictly deism, almost as far removed from the Christian religion as atheism, which is its exact opposite. And thence they conclude that this religion is not true, because they do not see that all things concur to the establishment of this point, that God does not manifest Himself to men with all the evidence which He could show.

But let them conclude what they will against deism, they will conclude nothing against the Christian religion, which properly consists in the mystery of the Redeemer, who, uniting in Himself the two natures, human and divine, has redeemed men from the corruption of sin in order to reconcile them in His divine person to God.

The Christian religion, then, teaches men these two truths; that there is a God whom men can know, and that there is a corruption in their nature which renders them unworthy of Him. It is equally important to men to know both these points; and it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know his own wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can free him from it. The knowledge of only one of these points gives rise either to the pride of philosophers, who have known God, and not their own wretchedness, or to the despair of atheists, who know their own wretchedness, but not the Redeemer.

And, as it is alike necessary to man to know these two points, so is it alike merciful of God to have made us know them. The Christian religion does this; it is in this that it consists.

Let us herein examine the order of the world and see if all things do not tend to establish these two chief points of this religion: Jesus Christ is end of all, and the centre to which all tends. Whoever knows Him knows the reason of everything.

Those who fall into error err only through failure to see one of these two things. We can, then, have an excellent knowledge of God without that of our own wretchedness and of our own wretchedness without that of God. But we cannot know Jesus Christ without knowing at the same time both God and our own wretchedness.

Therefore I shall not undertake here to prove by natural reasons either the existence of God, or the Trinity, or the immortality of the soul, or anything of that nature; not only because I should not feel myself sufficiently able to find in nature arguments to convince hardened atheists, but also because such knowledge without Jesus Christ is useless and barren. Though a man should be convinced that numerical proportions are immaterial truths, eternal and dependent on a first truth, in which they subsist and which is called God, I should not think him far advanced towards his own salvation.

The God of Christians is not a God who is simply the author of mathematical truths, or of the order of the elements; that is the view of heathens and Epicureans. He is not merely a God who exercises His providence over the life and fortunes of men, to bestow on those who worship Him a long and happy life. That was the portion of the Jews. But the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Christians, is a God of love and of comfort, a God who fills the soul and heart of those whom He possesses, a God who makes them conscious of their inward wretchedness, and His infinite mercy, who unites Himself to their inmost soul, who fills it with humility and joy, with confidence and love, who renders them incapable of any other end than Himself.